During my career as a professional banjo player back in the '70's and '80's I was lucky to meet and play with a lot of great players and bluegrass artists from both Canada and the US. I've taught, recorded albums and jingles, was a studio session player, performed live shows, guested on a couple of TV shows, and jammed with everybody I could. I've enjoyed every minute.
But playing banjo doesn't come without a lot of work, dedication and ups and downs.
Here's how it happened for me.
My first exposure to the banjo was when I would catch the Glen Campbell Good Time Hour on TV. Some of you who are old enough may recall that the late John Hartford had a segment on the show where he would team up with Campbell and play 5-string banjo tunes. I was amazed. What a sound! I loved it and right then knew that the banjo was the instrument I wanted to play. I watched every week just for that short segment. I was addicted.
I had been playing guitar and the ukelele for a couple of years (yup ....that's right...the uke) before getting my first banjo when I was 16. I was already finger picking the guitar and found that picking on the banjo came pretty easily to me. I guess it was because I never really got the hang of Travis picking and was in fact doing more or less Scruggs style picking on the guitar without knowing it. In fact, I recall that on the first day that I got my banjo, I was playing along with my father (who is an accomplished button accordian player) and some of the friends who used to show up at the house to play country songs and a lot of old time French Canadian fiddle tunes. This arrangement continued for years and was the basis of my love for old time music, playing in a group and the realization of the importance of rhythm and timing in music. It was a great experience.
When I started, there wasn't a lot of 5-string banjo instruction available where we lived and I ended up playing in C tuning for almost two years while I was trying to figure out why my playing didn't sound very bluegrassy. I drifted into other music styles and in fact the first tune I taught myself on the banjo was Classical Gas....the Mason Williams version. I have since forgotten that tune but remember that it actually sounded pretty good. Finally, I found the Earl Scruggs instruction book that had been put together with the help of banjo great Bill Keith and I finally felt like I was hitting my stride. I raised the fourth string from C to D. I realized that a lot of the left hand techniques and right hand rolls I was using were correct. Others needed to be adjused (but not abandoned). Most importantly I finally understood how great players like Scruggs created the synchopation that makes bluegrass what it is. I felt like I was on my way.
During the next few years I bought every bluegrass album I could afford. Scruggs and J.D. Crowe where my favourite players. I tried everything I could to copy their precision and drive. I spent hours everyday playing and replaying their recordings. I spent hours practicing and trying to copy their sounds. Some days I had the banjo in my hands for 14 to 16 hours. I was literally getting up eating, playing and then going to bed. It really was an obsession.
But then the botom fell out.
It seemed like the more I tried, the harder it got to copy THE sound.I wasn't progressing anymore. I just couldn't get my sound to sound like either Scruggs or Crowe. I got discouraged. I continued to play a little but quit practicing. I kept listening to bluegrass and loved it but was disappointed that I would never be able to play it right.
Then on one trip pack home to play with my dad and his friends, I realized that what I was playing actually sounded pretty good with the group. The banjo seemed to add a lot to the sound and the other players really liked the addition of the banjo. I realized that maybe it was ok to not be exactly like Scruggs or Crowe but rather to take what I could ....what was possible for me to play.... and build on that. I stopped beating myself up for not being able to play some of the licks that seemed to come so easily to those other players. I realized that it was ok to play like me. And the more I played like me the more bluegrassy I got. I became more confident. My synchopation got better. Suddenly I was playing licks that I had struggled with previously. It was coming together for me.
I still play like this today. I can't play like anybody else. I don't even want to anymore. I like to hear and play with other pickers and like to learn from them. I respect their playing. But I am happy to be doing what I do with the banjo.
I play my best when I play like me. You should do the same and play what is comfortable for you.
I got my first banjo in 1966. My parents bought it for me as a Christmas present. It was an inexpensive import and sounded pretty terrible but I didn't know that at the time. I was ecstatic. I was able to learn a lot of stuff on that banjo and it was also a great tool to understand the mechanics of the instrument. I used to disassemble and reassemble the thing on a regular basis in an attempt to get a better sound out of it. I adjusted the neck, cleaned up the tone ring added foil as well as doing all the standard stuff like tying out different strings and bridges. I even attached a small margarine container under the bridge to try to get a throatier sound. None of this really worked very well of course.
I did get interested in what made banjos sound so different though and studied it carefully. I learned a lot about the history of the instrument and even took the time to build a fretless banjo with an ironwood neck and a laminated maple pot. It was pretty rough but was playable and I have kept it to this day.
Eventually I saved enough money to buy another banjo. It was another import and was better than the first but still not good enough. About a year later I bough a Fender banjo and played that for about a year but then traded it for an Ode. I used the Ode for about a year and half and although it had good sound range I was just not comfortable with it.
Finally, I traded the Ode for a 1972 Gibson RB-800 Mastertone. I had the inlays changed, made a few adjustments and have been playing that banjo ever since.
In the early 70's I was attending the University of Western Ontario in London and was doing a little performing at the local coffee houses. I played the odd gig with some of the local musicians and got more and more involved with the vibrant music scene that was happening in that city at that time.
Then one day I met a guitar player who, over the next few years had a huge influence on how I played and how to put a bluegrass sound together. Bert Baumbach had been playing bluegrass for some years in the London area and was looking to put together a new band. It was in 1974 that Ken Palmer (mandolin), Brian Abbey (Bass) and myself on banjo joined Bert to form the Dixie Flyers. We were soon joined by Gord Stobbe on fiddle and Willie P. Bennett, the late, great songwriter on harmonica. Bert was an avid Jimmy Martin fan and copied many of his songs and in true Jimmy Martin fashion, Bert's mantra was "drive". As the Flyers developed and progressed, the band became known for it's high energy brand of bluegrass...lot's of synchopation, lots of beat, tight endings, and drive.
During those first few years we played a lot of clubs and festivals and had the fortunate opportunity to hone our skills by playing a steady weekly gig at the York Hotel. I recorded 3 albums with the group as well as 2 banjo albmus during that time.
The band continued to perform and stay in the bluegrass scene after I decided to leave to move to Toronto with my wife in the early eighties. Eventually, the group took on touring full time and were invited to perform at Bean Blossom. The have recorded several albums over the years and you can check out their site at www.dixieflyers.ca or read about the Flyers story in the Canadian Encyclopedia.
...to be continued....
This is a list of significant recordings I have made over the years and some comments concerning each of them. I have made some of the recordings available on the CD/MP3 page.
Light, Medium, Heavy - Dixie Flyers, Boot Records, circa 1976. This was the first feature album for the Dixie Flyers. It was recorded at Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton Ontario owned by Bob and Danny Lanois. The album features Baumbach, Palmer, myself, Bennett, Stobbe and Al Widmeyer.
Larger Than Life - Denis LePage, Boot Records 1976 - My first banjo album featured all of the Dixie Flyers as well as some of the musician friends I had met in Toronto. The album was named because my wife had found a small doll that looked exactly like me at an arts and crafts festival....we propped up the doll with a banjo and used the photo on the cover. This album has a lot of original tunes on it that I had been playing for a few years at that time as well as some standards.
- ... to be continued.....