The following appeared in the July 1979 issue of Banjo Newsletter.
Neither the subject of this interview nor the questioner need any introduction to the readers of BNL. Peter Wernick and Tony Trischka have been in the forefront of banjo playing and also banjo instruction for some time now and are both known for their serious approaches to the instrument. It is a pleasure to have these two fine musicians sit down together and talk about one of their favorite subjects. You might say that this discussion is a continuation of the interview that Peter Wernick conducted with Tony Trischka in the November 78 BNL. Here we have Tony doing the same.
Peter Wernick brings many years of banjo playing experience to his career as a performing musician and as an author of his highly successful book for Oak, “Bluegrass Banjo”. Check the interview and see the amazing number of copies of the book that have been sold!
TT: What are the origins of “Niwot Music”?
PW: I was telling people, long before I ever got to do it, that I wanted to do banjo with a phase shifter, plus mandolin, plus electric bass. I just knew that the sound was going to sound good with me. I really felt that it was a great form of music and that somebody ought to do it, also knew that Andy’s (Statman) kind of rhythm just makes the mandolin sound great. Like on Tequila Mockingbird (Country Cooking Barrel of Fun album) in that place where there are the twin banjos, I kept telling Andy to play more, hotter rhythm, and he got into this nifty rhythm thing. It totally turns me on when I hear that part of the tune, just total bananas with only three instruments. It’s “zoo grass”.
Anyway, so I wanted to do that, and with the bass in there for punctuation. Actually, the first time I did that was when I was in California in 1969 and was playing with High Country most of the time. Butch Waller was the mandolin player there and he had an excellent sounding mandolin, He could play really good solid rhythm and we used to play at a restaurant, playing anything we knew, got fed and got tips and stuff and it sounded good enough so that when I entered a banjo contest that summer instead of having the whole band back me up, I just had Butch back me up. I played Sweet Dixie in a snappy tempo with just Butch and it really sounded nifty. That might be called the original performance of “Niwot Music”,
I also played with Bob Applebaum that way. When I moved out here (Colorado) I knew that I was going to have to find people like that to play with. And I found Tim O’Brien and Duane Webster who really did an excellent job at that kind of music. We worked it up in early 1977 at my house in Niwot. Tim, who has a good knack for this kind of thing, just said, “We’re the Niwot Power Trio”. So we started calling it “Niwot Music”. About half of my Dr. Banjo album is “Niwot Music”.
TT: How long have you been playing with the phase-shifter?
PW: In December, 1974, I went down to “Music Rose” in New York City, where they have all the little machines and tried out every gadget they had and bought two. One was the phase-shifter and the other was a Mutron III. I regret having bought the Mutron II because its sound really is more of a gimmick. It’s interesting and not bad but there’s no way I can tie a musical feeling to its sound.
But there’s something about the phase-shifted banjo which is a whole new thing. On one hand it sounds like a banjo, looks like a banjo, but what comes out is this weird thing. It’s a “spacy” kind of sound; it sort of sounds lonesome to me. Most people seem to think it really sounds good, although there are some that don’t think it sounds good at all. It’s new. It’s also kind of neat being controversial. I was asked a couple of years ago not to bring my phase-shifter to the Colorado Bluegrass Festival because it was considered untraditional. Yet I had played it at that same festival in previous years with Bill Monroe sitting there and listening. The first time he heard it he went right over to the sound booth to ask the sound man what that was. And later I heard that lie made some reference to it, but it wasn’t necessarily a negative reference. I’d be interested in learning exactly what he did say about it.
TT: What’s involved with using the phaser on stage?
PW: The main problem is it’s very hard to actually hear the sound you’re making through the phaser. The instrument, instead of just being a banjo, becomes the banjo, the microphone, the phase-shifter and the speaker. That is the new instrument. In order to hear that instrument and not hear the acoustic banjo sound you have to have a way of keeping yourself from hearing the acoustic banjo. The banjo is very loud and even if you’re playing to an audience that’s hearing it through the PA, you yourself can’t hear the PA as well as you can hear the banjo itself. So, what I had to do was practice with a tape recorder and a microphone and headphones out of the tape recorder. That would block out what I was doing acoustically and I would just hear the phased sound as I played.
There are some things that sound rotten through a phaser that would sound perfectly fine if you were doing them on a normal banjo and you have to learn not to do those things And there are certain things that sound particularly good when you do them through the phaser, so it took a while working it out to find out what I could get away with and what I couldn’t.
TT: Let’s back-pedal a bit and gather some biographical details about where you were born and things like that.
PW: Born in New York City, February 25, 1946. My parents lived in the Bronx at the time and I grew up there until I moved down to Manhattan where I was going to college at Columbia.
TT: How about some early musical influences?
PW: I got into listening to country and pop music on the radio at about age nine, Webb Pierce and Elvis Presley were two of my big favorites that I would hear on “Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom”, I was also nuts over a popular ragtime piano record called The Crazy Otto.
I always liked banjo music, mostly I guess tenor banjo. My introduction to bluegrass came when a friend of mine had a Flatt and Scruggs record, Foggy Mountain Jamboree, and he said if you like banjo music, listen to this. He put on Shucking The Corn and boy that sounded good. It was a bolt from the blue, Certainly not something I would hear Martin Block playing. I never forgot Scruggs’ name and later when my friends were getting involved with the “folk boom”, playing Pete Seeger kinds of things on the banjo and guitar, the Weavers, I said I might as well play a little of that stuff too. This same friend, Jake Koenig, showed me a little bit of stuff on the banjo.
My father had a banjo around the house because he was always trying to learn one kind of instrument or another. He happens to play the harmonica very well, I picked up a little on that banjo and I kept remembering how good Scruggs sounded.
Shortly thereafter, Flatt and Scruggs were playing in New York and I went to hear them. Actually I called them “Scruggs and Flatt” because I couldn’t have cared less about anyone but Earl. I just wanted to hear him. I could have cared less about anything but the banjo. To me then it was a total drag that he had to wait until the guys were finished singing before he got to play. Total New York consciousness!
My birthday was coming up and my sister went out (probably very sorry that she did afterwards), but she got me the only two Flatt & Scruggs records she could find. And I played them all the time. And I’m sure she didn’t like them that much. But, I still hated to listen to those guys singing and I hated to hear the Dobro break, I hated the fiddle. I loved Scruggs’ playing. But after a while I started to listen to other things besides the instrumental cuts and came to that it really did sound pretty good overall. I even got used to the fiddle breaks.
Then I bought a record by Bill Monroe, the “father” of this kind of music and I really couldn’t stand what I later found out was twin fiddles. I didn’t understand what that sound was, I didn’t like it. But it just took a while; I listened to it more and more. I also remember hating the Stanley Brothers’ singing when I first heard it. But 1 liked his banjo playing.
But with the help of some of my “orthodox” bluegrass friends who were telling me that it was the best stuff, I learned what was really happening. At this point today, I would much prefer Ralph Stanley’s band sing than just about any banjo player. And now love twin fiddles and love Bill Monroe’s singing. But at the age of 14 I really was not able to comprehend some of those things that I later got turned on to.
TT: When did you start playing the banjo, and did you have formal lessons?
PW: When I was twelve my parents knew that I liked banjo, so my father got this guy who was a student of his in school who played the banjo. He came up and gave me a few lessons. But it was lessons and he told me to learn this and that. It wasn’t Scruggs’ style. And I just didn’t get interested in what he had to show me.
I really don’t believe very much in “giving lessons” to a kid. It has to come from within. I think if you really want to learn something, you will learn it, no matter how. The idea of giving a kid lessons who doesn’t deeply want to learn causes more guilt and frustration, probably, than it does good. I often see kinds like that drop the instruments as soon as they’re allowed to, and then years later, when they’re ready for it, be afraid to pick it up because of their earlier experience.
When I was 14 my friends were into playing music and when I heard Scruggs I just wanted to do at. And that was what made me learn how to do it. All that two years after I stopped taking banjo lessons.
There was no written material on how to play bluegrass banjo, and I didn’t know anyone who played the style. There were just records. Correction: there was some written material Pete Seeger had one eight-note roll, which was a rather uncommon index-lead roll, in what was then the current edition of his book. And Scruggs had this thing when I went to hear him at the show, a booklet of Scruggs showing him playing his Vega banjo. It said, “a lot of people ask me how I play my style and what I do is I use the thumb and index and middle fingers and I do it again and I just keep working it like that.” Thanks a lot!
It did help to see what he was doing because I could see he was using a thumb lead. I started trying to do that. It took me awhile.
My friends would stop playing in the middle of a song to tell me I was losing the rhythm. So I would just play along with my records at home. I finally got my rhythm ironed out and started playing with other people as a regular thing. My last year of high school I was in a folk group and I got to play my roll on The M.T.A. I got a Mastertone at the time of my high school graduation in 1962, and I was very pleased about that.
When I went to college I started what has been a never-ending process; whenever I go some-where new I have to find all kinds of people who didn’t play bluegrass but who played the right instruments and I would show them what to do. It didn’t work too well, because they just weren’t into it. Then I started seeking out people around town who were already into bluegrass. I’d go jam at Washington Square in Greenwich Village every Sunday and I got to hear and eventually play with people like Jody Stecher and Dave Grisman, who were really good musicians even then. They were very orthodox about their bluegrass, listening to the early recordings, etc. What was good and what wasn’t. The Country Gentlemen were considered “lousy nouveau crap”. Grisman has since changed his mind about that, but at the time he was very down on people who weren’t playing like Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe. Dave and Jody and I played a few jobs under various names. There weren’t a lot of jobs available then, but you could always go and play at the hoots at Hunter College. The bluegrass band always got saved for last and always tore the house down.
My last couple of years of college I was in my first real bluegrass group, The Orange Mountain Boys, with Hank Miller and Bob Applebaum. They lived in New Jersey so I had to commute there by train to play end practice with them. The tune, Orange Mountain Special, originated in that band.
Basically what happened from then on, anytime I was anyplace I made a point of finding people who played bluegrass. I just tried to be a good basic bluegrass banjo player. Even in college most of the people I got friendly with were not academic people but musical people. It was an indication that I was heading in that direction, even though I was good as a Sociologist, that wasn’t the thing I really wanted to do most. My mother was always asking me if I was devoting enough time to my studies. They never dreamed that there was ever a chance I could he profiting by the time I was spending on he banjo. I was just doing it because I liked it.
One other thing that contributed to my musical education at the time was being the disc jockey for a bluegrass radio program on my college station, WKCR. I contacted a lot of record companies and got all the bluegrass records I could, and listened to them a lot. And I started going to concerts and festivals with my tape recorder and interviewing my bluegrass’ heroes. I just wanted to have some kind of contact with them and pick their brains a little bit, so being a DJ was a good excuse.
TT: You do a bluegrass program in Denver now, right?
PW: Yes, it’s called Bluegrass Breakdown on KCFR, the public radio station in Denver. I like keeping in touch with the field of bluegrass, checking out all the records and playing the best cuts.
TT: Tell us about how Country Cooking came about.
PW: That was another case of arriving in a new place and finding good people to play music with. In 1970 I moved to Ithaca, New York to pursue my academic career at Cornell and I found Russ (Barenberg) playing at a campus coffeehouse with a folk-blues trio; he was a math major at the time. And I met you and your cronies up in Syracuse. After a while we got a little band together and started playing a few places, Twietman’s Halfway House in Dryden, etc. Then one fateful day, in March 4971, I remember calling you from my office at Cornell and suggesting that the world needed a good twin banjo record. And we had these friends, Ken and Marian, who had this new record company, Rounder Records. That was a good coincidence, and they agreed, so we recorded it that May in the Student Union at Cornell. Little did we know what a “chart-riding smash” it would bet (laughs)
It really did help us take ourselves seriously as musicians. Until then we had just thought we were regular nobodies, but when the record started showing signs of being successful, we got into it a little more seriously. I started calling around and getting us work and it went from there. Altogether there were about 15 different people in the hand at one time or another over a five year period and four records. Finally. Nondi and I got tired of the climate in upstate New York and moved out here in 1976, and that was the end of Country Cooking. Rest in peace.
Now I think of Country Cooking as a large fraternity of ex-band members that I get to see when I’m back east. It’s nice the way the connections have continued and grown over all this time.
TT: How did you get to do your book, Bluegrass Banjo?
PW: John Miller, who was the bass player for Country Cooking, just suggested the idea one day. I got pretty enthused about it and took the idea to Oak Publications, but their original response was “We don’t need a book on bluegrass banjo”. That was in 1972. I guess they were unaware ot Scruggs book which had already sold 80,000 copies. I sent the proposal anyway and didn’t hear from them for a long time, during which time finished my doctoral thesis. When that was done I gave them a call and they had just decided to do the book after all. I was very psyched do it because I thought I could write a definitive work on the subject. I had been teaching banjo part time for almost 10 years and I knew what it takes to teach a complete beginner as well as a more advanced student. So I put in every effort I could to make it a good book, and Oak also did a very good job with it; good layout, etc. It really has helped that the book is not expensive; it’s a good value for the money.
TT: How many have sold so far?
PW: Over a hundred thousand.
PW: Whenever I think of it I’m amazed that there are that many people wanting to learn bluegrass ban jo.
TT: Tell me about your new band, Hot Rize.
PW: Hot Rize features some intelligent folks I met up with after I moved to Colorado, Tim O’Brien is the lead singer who also plays mandolin, fiddle and guitar. He’s a real comer. He’s also a great lead singer and the kind of mandolin player I like to play with because he lays down a real powerful beat, which tends to make me want to kick proverbial ass on the banjo. It makes a big difference to me.
We also have Charles Sawtelle on guitar. He does some singing too, and he also is an extremely strong rhythm player and puts out a lot of good tone.
Nick Forster is on bass. Nick was sort of converted to a bass player to be in the group because we knew he had a lot of good musical instincts. Without having made a study of bluegrass bass, per say, he has learned a lot of good playing to go with our style. The group goes for a sound with a strong compelling beat, with everything just ringing nice together. We’re not into a lot of extended melodic passages or jazz chords or flashy arrangements. We have our own instrumental feel. Somewhat unique and some-what modern, but it’s not the flashiest thing you’ll ever see. We try to rely more on the idea of playing together rather than everybody taking turns soloing. Of course we do take turns soloing, but hopefully there’s a real band feeling going on at all times and not just a question of everybody laying back on a standard kind of rhythmic pattern while one person plays all over the place. We try for more cohesion between the back-up and the lead parts.
TT: Your record features a lot of the three instrument “Niwot” style, yet in this band you only play one “Niwot” tune. Why is that?
PW: A three piece band didn’t seem viable for a working band. Playing clubs and whatnot it would be pretty hard not to be a bit boring, even for a single set. With a guitar there’s another instrument to take lead. You can get different textures going and so on. Playing as a three piece band is delicate in a concert situation. When you’re playing a live concert you don’t have perfect control over the balance of all the instruments. In Niwot Music you have to be careful about the music not being full enough. With a guitar you can “full out the sound”. Charles’ playing is economical while still being strong. It has the effect of reinforcing the beat and not getting in the way of the banjo tone, which is the main reason for keeping it out of the Niwot sound, If you can hear the guitar strumming you can’t hear the full sound of the tone of the banjo. It gets confused and overlaps the banjo and I like the pure banjo sound. But listening to tapes of us playing I’m still satisfied that what I’m trying to play does get across. Given our good sound system, especially.
TT: Have there been changes in your banjo playing? To my ears I’ve never heard you play so “hot”. You sound great to me.
PW: First of all, if you play more you get better. It’s as simple as that and I’ve now been playing three or four nights a week as well as practicing some. Not as much as I should, as everybody says. So that loosens your chops and gets you more confident in what you do know.
TT: Have you seen a change in your playing as a result? An expansion?
PW: I’m really not coming across very many new horizons in the types of licks or techniques I use but I’m very conscious of getting a toneful sound, and being rhythmically consistent. I really must attribute both of these to Tim’s mandolin playing. He sets down a thing that has energy and beat and in order to confront it or interact with it you have to use energy and beat. It’s a lot of fun to pick the strings hard and really dig in and produce banjo sound. I get off on things like Doing My Time and not worrying about a lot of strange licks. Sometimes I like to play the break just the way Scruggs played it, which is quite spare and spends most if its time on the 2nd and 3rd fret of the third string. You can get a lot of enjoyment out of hearing him do it. So that is really the focus of my playing right now.
I’ve also studied Scruggs more. I’ve put my collection on cassettes and play them in the car. As soon as I run across a point that interests me, which is pretty often, I listen to a little fragment 10 or 12 times until I can really understand it. I haven’t studied Scruggs in a long time. For one thing, Foggy Mountain Special. I’ve really prided myself lately on finding out exactly what sounds he is making. I can play that song, including the back-up, about as close as I can humanly do it to the way he sounds on it. That is something I have aspired to for a long time. I found I could suddenly do things that I hadn’t been able to execute and I found a couple of magical mystery notes that make his way of doing a common phrase better than the way most people do it because they are missing a little trick here or there.
TT: I’ve noticed that you are getting an amazingly accurate rendition of the Scruggs’ sound.
PW: I revere his banjo playing. His version of Shucking The Corn got to me so much; that is what inspired me to play banjo in the first place. I heard it when I was 12 and then I didn’t have a banjo to play for two years after that, but I remembered that there was this guy Scruggs that did this incredible thing on the banjo. I made it my business to find out where I could hear more of it. Even after I got into playing licks that were not very Scruggsy; when I would try to play Keith style or Reno style I would come back (usually by accident) to a Scruggs’ record and what would strike me about it was how good it sounded, just in terms of pure sound. Something that was pleasing to the ear.
Which has to do with how you hit your string and how the banjo sounds rather than just which notes you’re picking. There’s a lot more to it than that. When I teach people, I try to get them to play the easiest thing they can do. The easiest possible lick and sound as good as it possibly can, just by encouraging people to dig in harder on the strings and pull out whatever tone there is to pull out. Making sure there is kind of a clip. Kind of a percussive effect and you are pulling a clear musical tone out of it.
TT: It’s funny. Take you, me and Bela Fleck. The three of us are more well known for our experimental approaches to the banjo and for playing outside. It seems that all of us are playing more of a Scruggsy thing lately and trying to get back to those roots. Not that we exclude the more experimental things. In the context of a bluegrass band, which is what I’ve been playing with Pete Rowan and Tex Logan lately, and your band is fairly straight bluegrass as is Tasty Licks.
PW: That’s the thing to do; get in with a good Irish based bluegrass singer like Pete, Pat Enright (Tasty Licks) or Tim O’Brien and get a band that appreciates the basic flow of bluegrass and then you have not only the context for three finger style banjo playing, but you have one that has worked so well in the past you can re-experience on some level the joy and feeling of playing cooking bluegrass in that kind of band.
In my case, I never got to play with Monroe and I never got to go with some big bluegrass bossman, It’s occurred to me lately that Pat Enright and Pete Rowan and Tim, they set down the style and help you play the banjo not as just a flashy solo instrument but as part of a band.
TT: Yes. When I’m playing with Peter Rowan it’s a learning experience because I’d be playing along and when whisper in my ear. I cant remember exactly what he said but it would be, “Make it hotter”, or “Keep it cooking”. It’s sort of the Monroe ethic of keep the challenge in the music. Keep the power there. When you’re playing a hard-driving tune don’t let up for a second. Drive that nail right into that board. I was experiencing BLUEGRASS on a whole different level than I ever experienced before. It comes out playing Scruggs’ style, hard-driving and as forthright as possible.
PW: There are some things that we’re doing that aren’t exactly Scruggs’ style. Tim is a very good swing musician. In fact, he was in a swing band for a few years He was doing that when I met him. A lot of the songs that he chooses to do, like Doin’ My Time and ones that Charles sings like Big River, have a slower, swingier kind of rhythm to them. It’s not a very common rhythm in bluegrass.
Country Cooking sometimes had that kind of rhythm. Almost like what would he a rock and roll rhythm. It’s very challenging to be in a four piece band, with no drums and to lay down a powerful beat just using your fingers
It’s not quite the same thing as a drummer who has his whole body to follow the rhythm. You have to transfer to your fingers a cooking kind of rhythm that is not all that fast so you have to keep it slow enough and steady enough and you have to think of little patterns to play that style with, There are three finger patterns but they are not Scruggs’ exactly, On the other hand, I’m going by the Scruggs’ example of putting a lot of force into what you’re doing, Without necessarily making a racket. Again, thinking in terms of economy and tone, in addition to driving the band. It’s quite a challenge, It blows my mind that Scruggs is not only the greatest player of this particular style but he also invented the style. He did so much with it and put so much originality into it and then too he is such a great executor of those things he invented, It’s just amazing. Every time I think of it I’m amazed by it, I have a lot of respect for the guy.
TT: No matter how far out you get, and I feel I we have all drifted pretty far from the shore from time to time, you just keep getting drawn back to Scruggs; he’s always there.
PW: Yes. I think it’s pretty great that in Banjo Newsletter they have a Scruggs Corner, and now County and Rounder are putting some of those things back in print because at last, after almost a ten year absence, it’s relatively easy to feel Scruggs’ influence. About five years ago I really felt that everybody who was learning banjo thought it was invented by Jerry Garcia or the Eagles or Alan Munde or J.D. Crowe even. Not that I think any of those guys aren’t fine pickers, but it was just sort of sad that for a while the whole history of 5-string banjo playing was lost because of the unavailability of the records.
TT: Why don’t you share with us some of the projects you have in mind for the future.
PW: I’m interested in putting on some banjo workshops around the country. I feel that it’s nice to have contact with a lot of the people who use my book and to see what kinds of progress they have made using my book and what they need besides that. I’ve gotten some ideas together for things that’ would just supplement the banjo book with more recently evolved observations. I’m hoping to turn that into some sort of published work but I can’t think of that too considerably because the band is quite a time-consuming project. I’m just trying to give a good amount of my time to that, so all my publishing projects are on the back burner for now. The band is doing a record for Flying Fish that will be out this summer.
TT: Are you doing a lot of original tunes with Hot Rize?
PW: I’ve been putting out a banjo tune every so often. A certain proportion will show up in the band. I’ve had a hand in several of the original songs that are on the album. With songwriting I’m taking the attitude that a lot of my favorite and most classic bluegrass songs are just not that clever or difficult. A good melodic idea or a good lyrical idea is good to go ahead and go with. See what it becomes because it might be some thing that you can really get into. The thing about bluegrass is that it is so simple in some of the songs; Doing My Time, even Coming Round The Mountain. You have to hand it to the guy who thought of a song like that. To decide there is something appealing about it and then to take the trouble to show it to someone else so it becomes a song and is preserved. So, sometimes, all a song may be is a “glorified nebulous idea”, like Pike County Breakdown. Think of how simple that tune is, but if you just play it well you can do a lot with it. It’s the kind of thing that almost any fiddler could stumble across while out on his porch in the space of an afternoon, but someone decided to call it a tune and now it’s a classic.
TT: What about banjo set-up?
PW: I’ve found a few little things that aren’t really secrets bet I have found that by living by them people are complimenting me more on the sound of my banjo. Part of it is getting a little more fastidious about it overall, and caring about it, I have a guy named Monty Novotny who has a shop near my house and he really knows how to help me make my banjo sound good. Keeping the head of the banjo not just tight but tight all the way around by feeling it with your thumbs on the outside of the rim. A standard distance from the outside of the rim, that seems to help it.
Another thing is the bridge. I’ve experimented with a few different bridges and worked on them in different ways, whittling away, basically, until it sounded just right and then Monty made me duplicates of that same bridge.
Another thing is to pick the strings really hard and then be on the lookout for buzzes. If there is a little buzz on the 5th string or the 3rd string it is misplaced energy. You are then putting the energy into a buzz instead of into tone. If my banjo isn’t quite responding right I’ll troubleshoot on it and think of what might be causing it. I’ve made my banjo sound better and it is more fun to play it. I’m never going to be lax about it again. I used to be relaxed about it and content to think that I owned a good banjo and it must sound good because it was sold to me as a good banjo.
I use Liberty mediums I imagine it might be interesting to use heavier strings than I’m already using but they tight back pretty hard as it is and you have to hit them pretty hard When you hit light guage strings you have to hit them in a certain place to sort of bounce them. You don’t want to hit them so hard that they are going to completely freak out and bounce all over the place. With mediums you can hit them really hard and it won’t be too hard, so the extra energy you put in just becomes more sound. I learned that by watching J.D. Crowe play some very solid stuff one night and going up to him and asking him how he had his banjo set up. He had extremely high action and he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted it higher. It was really what most people would consider unreasonably high already. I figured, well, maybe it is worth the sacrifice of having less freedom to experiment up on the neck. When every note you play isn’t just touched down to the fret, but pushed down a quarter inch to the neck, you have to get there a little early to make sure you are going to get a real note when you try for it. So there’s less margin for error, and you can’t take too many chances up the neck.
But I found that having the action high gives you an inherently better opportunity for volume plus, and the ability to hit the strings as hard as you want to without having to worry about them bouncing off the neck. On a few tunes I play, like Shady Grove, I just physically play as hard as I can and it feels great. I love it.
In terms of originality there are a lot of places people can go to learn a lot of new ideas. There are a lot of great lick books where you can learn new licks or all of Alan Munde’s tablature, which is a lot of great banjo music. Also, learning lots of scales; these are all worthwhile approaches, but I am trying to direct my attention to making up things that are not based on theoretical ideas so much as on accidents as the result of experimentation. For instance, choosing to play a note because something inside of you wanted to hear that note. Say you hummed it naturally and then you found it on the banjo. that would be sort of parallel to using music theory to find a neat chord substitution or set of notes. Either way you get a new idea going but I prefer those that just emerge spontaneously. It is partly laziness on my part, I must admit, because I just don’t like going the route. I rebel against it.
TT: You’re rebelling against the technique route?
PW: Right. Against learning different possibilities and then choosing. I’d rather just let my hands wander around the neck and then find things that I like. Then I stop to learn them.
TT: That’s what I do.
PW: Well, you do both, because you sent me copies of things. You’re into learning scales and substitutions and things.
TT: Not very much of that. Really it plays a very small role
PW: When I interviewed you for BNL you said your most productive creativity discipline was getting together with one other person and playing breaks back and forth. I don’t often do that with another person but I do it on my own a lot.
TT: Speaking of that, what about your improvisations? You’ve gotten me into doing more of that.
PW: That’s nice. Well, I haven’t been able to play much in that context. The one place where I’ve been able to do a lot of that is the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca. It’s weird that there aren’t more places with a free atmosphere so you can arrive with your instrument and sit down and just start playing while people are eating and nobody makes any big deal about it or acts like you ar doing anything strange. It gives me just enough opportunity to focus so that I can sit down and concentrate and I can put the ideas together more purposefully than if I were at home. I like the idea of trying to fit in with whatever the vibe is. I can play whatever feelings are around.
I really miss being able to do that more, although I still experiment in my house,
TT: You’re the only person I know who does that. I’ve started doing it because of you doing it. I think it’s a major thing. I know that when I do and come up with really interesting things that would never ordinarily play because I find myself on an alien part of the neck or in an alien position. It’s a good exercise.
PW: If you can let your primary musical exercise be the thing that is happening that moment, In other words the thing you just finished playing is the thing that directs you to the next thing you play rather than something memorized.
TT: Or a habit.
PW: You’re going to get in touch with a new thing, perhaps. I like the idea of pure expression and I really like listening to players who incorporate these things into their playing. I like listening to them rather than someone who I know will play a break exactly as I have already heard him play it on a record. I still might be impressed by it, but I respond more to something of the moment. Although, when you are in the moment (and I’ve learned this when I’ve tape recorded myself in these situations) you’re usually not as tight or together as a composed thing that is sort of edited down and worked out. You don’t read a book that is just rambling thoughts. They write it down and they go over it several times and it is edited. But in a live situation there is still something neat about seeing what they are going to do next.
TT: That’s what Keith Jarret does when he talks about being influenced by the ambiance of the room. He does those solo piano improvisations just playing off the top of his head and he manages to pull it off.
PW: You have to have a lot of chops to pull it off like he can do it.
TT: Right. He gets whole things going which do sound as if they could have been worked out.
PW: It’s very hard to put that much density into your playing. I’m really content when I play that style to play some pretty simple ideas. Sometimes I might run into a complex strain, but if I can just find an effective melody of single notes with a drone note going in D in 3/4 time and playing a lot of 4th string, which is my favorite note on the banjo, the resonant low D note, and then play slow melodic passages which just sounds pretty to me. It’s not meant to be impressive music in terms of having banjo players’ minds blown, It is just something that I enjoy when I have a banjo in my hands. It is really pretty far divorced from the way you feel when you are out there with a song like Ninety Nine Years and One Dark Day, which is a flatout bluegrass type of song and I’m just trying to keep my heaviest “pulloffiest” chops together and pull out the rhythm and it is very far apart from the restaurant. Different aspects of your playing can show that the banjo is more than the happy go lucky obnoxious instrument that people like for about five or ten minutes at a time. It can be more of a fully expressive instrument.
TT: You agree there has been a “Banjo Backlash” recently?
PW: Yes, I really do. I think there are an incredible number of banjo players and a lot of them are inspired by excellent players lake Alan Munde and you, in particular. You guys are able to pull off things that really work at a very high technical level. What people do is that they like it so much they want to learn it so they are then put into the trap of aspiring to an extremely high technical level which most of them are unable to reach but they sort of semi-reach it. The result is a lot of people doing Alan Munde things, who are not quite as talented as he is, thus they do not sound as good. They need something more at their technical level and they wouldn’t have to struggle through and lose the rhythm and miss five notes in a row from time to time. I’d rather hear people accept whatever technical level they are on and then just go into things from there, going for the best sound they can get at what they play at that level.
That is what contributes to “Banjo Backlash”; the mis-use of the instrument. Playing things that don’t actually sound that good even though they are challenging.
TT: I think it is just the tone of the instrument. It has a very raucous tone and the fact that it has no sustain.
PW: That’s true. Those factors mean that you have to work harder to sound right. There are some kinds of material that a banjo is not likely to sound that good one. But, you still can. It can be done. If you can succeed in playing pretty music that pleases you when you are by yourself; say when you are in a sad mood and pick up your banjo and play sad music for yourself.
TT: You can express your feelings, which might be something besides vengeful or spiteful.
PW: It’s very easy for banjo players to get on a hierarchical ladder; to see themselves with certain banjo players not as good as them or certain banjo players better than they. They regard their whole banjo playing as an endeavor to increase their status on the “banjo ladder”, It’s a most natural thing to do because musicians compare themselves to each other and other people always compare musicians. It’s hard to remain away from that. But you don’t have to do it.
On a certain level you can acknowledge that it happens and then relate to it as little as possible. I find that I feel much better about my playing when I am comparing myself to how good I like myself to sound. Of being myself; not “I don’t sound enough like you”. I should be asking myself if I sound enough like me. I think the thing that has done this for me recently is hearing Bela Fleck. I had come to terms with the fact that he has only been playing banjo for six or seven years and he is already that much better than I technically. There is no chance that I am ever going to catch up with him and there must be bunches of other guys that are in that category that I haven’t happened to hear yet. It is not going to do me any good fretting about it or deciding I’ll take up the chase anyway. I have to go in what direction I am capable of going. I am satisfied that I have succeeded in finding a few somewhat unique directions to take.