This article by Pete Wernick originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Banjo Newsletter.
Continued from Oct 2007, Nick Hornbuckle: Talking about having some sort of unique sound, I’m a huge fan of clawhammer, and old-time banjo. Some of my favorite banjo players are Dirk Powell, and John Herrmann, and Bob Carlin. I’d rather listen to those guys than just about any bluegrass stuff. And one of the things about that style is that they use a lot of different tunings. And so over the years I’ve been experimenting with other tunings. And I have to say that John has been extremely cool about that. He encourages me to do it. And it can be problematic, when you’re making a set list, if you have three tunes in the key of D, and I play each one in a different tuning. But John will construct sets that allow me to do that, and I’ve gotten pretty quick at changing tunings.
Pete Wernick: Any helpful hints about that?
NH: One thing that Craig Smith showed me years ago is, when you’re got a new set of strings, you stretch them until they won’t go out of tune. So first of all, you start with strings that don’t have much stretch. And I always put graphite in the nut and bridge. And I have a tuner on stage that if I need to I’ll quickly use
BNL: What tuner?
NH: It’s a Seiko, model SG909. It’s a great tuner. When you hit the note, the needle stays there, it doesn’t waver. I use a clip on the bridge that plugs into the tuner.
BNL: What tunings do you use on the current record?
NH: On Jaybird Song, which is in C, I use what I call G modal, where I raise the second string B up to a C [Ed: an E to an F, when capoed for C]. Because one of the things I have a hard time with, and maybe its just because I’m getting old and crotchety, is, that sweet-sounding major third. In certain kinds of material, it just doesn’t fit, to my ear. And so by tuning that major third up to a fourth, it totally eliminates that problem.
BNL: But what if you switch chords, and there’s a major third on that chord?
NH: Yeah, but when I hold a C chord, I don’t fret the 1st string. I leave that D string open, because I like that 9th sound. [An C chord with an added D note is a C9—Ed.]. It’s a cool sound.
BNL: Don Reno.
NH: Yeah. And Andy Summers of the Police.
BNL: Oh is that right? Well, Don was first!
NH: Yeah, by a bit. And on the tune I wrote, Cleo Bell, that’s in Double C tuning (gCGCD).
BNL: That’s a gorgeous tune.
NH: Thank you. And on Greg’s Bash Bish Falls, that’s A minor where I lower the third to a flatted third.
BNL: Anything in the “Nobody’s done it before” kind of tuning?
NH: Not really. Now there’s this guy named Lee Sexton. John had this Smithsonian collection of old-time music that we were listening to, and Lee comes on playing his version of Pretty Polly, which to me is neck and neck with the original Foggy Mountain Breakdown, in terms of sheer intensity. The timing is impeccable, and the singing freaks me out. But, in addition, one of the things about using different tunings is that Earl never played in G modal, or Double C. So what that does, when I play in other tunings, it forces me not to rely on Earl’s stuff; I have to come up with something different.
BNL: You mentioned before about having three different ways of playing in D.
NH: On the new album we do Dime In My Pocket, which is open G with the 5th string raised to A. Then there’s a tune called Crowberry, from the last album, “The Road West,” and that’s in Double C, capoed two. And then there’s a waltz we do that’s in the open D, Reuben tuning.
BNL: Why do you choose one of those tunings?
NH: You might think that playing the notes in a D chord would sound the same no matter how you tune the banjo. But that’s not the case. There is a huge different in the sound of a D chord in open G tuning, as opposed to the open D tuning. Just thrum them, they’re different. And I find when I play in different tunings, it just sounds different to me.
BNL: When you get a new tune in D, do you typically try out all those tunings?
NH: That’s a good question. How do I decide? I don’t think I have a method. I just decide by feel.
A few years ago I was sitting at home in Seattle, playing along with the Bluegrass Album Band, and I was trying to come up with some other rhythm stuff to play. And I came up with this sort of fake clawhammer stuff, which involves a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs. It’s just a rhythm pattern. [See tab examples on page 30.]
BNL: What kind of right hand is going with this?
NH: Well, since I only use two fingers, it’s just a couple of thumbs and an index. But that sort of thing lends itself an open tuning like Double C. It’s a steady stream of eighth notes, but it’s a different feel than what you get from playing a steady stream with a three-finger roll up the neck. It sort of fulfills the job of having the sound of the banjo present, but it’s a slightly different feel.
BNL: Maybe now you could explain why you play with two fingers. When did your problems with your middle finger surface?
NH: I actually started to notice a problem in 1998, when I was recording “Up In The Woods” with John. The best description I can give is, my middle finger just wasn’t one hundred per cent. It wasn’t doing exactly what I wanted it to do. It wasn’t curling up, or extending, or anything you’d associate with trigger finger or dystonia. It just didn’t feel right. So I just limped along with it. And we recorded albums, and it sort of came and went. And when it was bugging me, it was incredibly frustrating. It’s like if you’re on a walk and you aren’t sure if your right leg is going to hold you up. You’d be hesitant and tentative. And I did not like that feeling.
BNL: Did you go to doctors?
NH: Oh yeah. I had great insurance, so I went to see neurologists, and physical therapists, and had all the conductive test done on my nerves and arm and neck. And I got CAT scans and all sorts of other stuff. One report said that I had very mild Carpal Tunnel, and that’s not what was going on at all. It was frustrating; I felt like my problem wasn’t being taken seriously. My explanation to them was, it feels like it’s at about 88%. And I never really got a definitive answer from anyone.
BNL: You mentioned that some people thought it might be psychosomatic.
NH: Yes. And playing music means so much to me, and there I was, in this really great band, recording great records, doing great shows, and I was worried I might lose it all. And I thought several times that I might have to quit the band. I didn’t want to drag them down, with my lack of ability to perform at the level I think I needed to. So in the spring of 2006 I was trying everything: playing with no fingers on the head, and playing with my pinky, or my ring, straightening my picks out—all kinds of goofy stuff. And then I just tried to play with only two fingers. And immediately, literally, it just was so easy. Say, for instance, if I want to play a forward roll, which typically is TIM, I’ll go TTI.
BNL: The thing is, how fast can you play that?
NH: With my drum machine I’ve had it up to about 130 BPM.
BNL: Which is how fast you’d be moving your fingers if you were playing at 200 bpm with three fingers.
NH: Yeah. I mean, of course, after a certain speed, it just doesn’t work. So I found ways to get around that, using pull-offs and hammer-ons. Getting more notes out of my left hand, to create the illusion of the picked 16th note stream. Which has always seemed a bit funny to me, because when you listen to clawhammer players, they’re getting about half of their notes out of the left hand. And I wondered why bluegrass players don’t do that more often. Why does almost every note need to be a discretely picked note? And there’s a big difference between picking a note and getting that note by a pull-off or hammer-on. It’s the same pitch, but I think it can add interest to what is going on—the slight timbre or tonal differences.
BNL: That’s the key to John Hartford’s super-fast style of playing. Because he would set his metronome to over 200, and then play along with it. He found he could do it, if he did high definition pull-offs that sounded comparable to picked notes. And he perfected it, and it’s pretty miraculous that he was able to do it. And I don’t know anyone else that has even tried that, using those techniques.
NH: Well, for me, I had to figure out something.
BNL: John made it a point of using the heaviest gauge strings he felt he could get away with, at super-low action, so that when he did a pull-off, it would have comparable impact to the right hand. And he’s also doing it on a banjo that’s not the hot-rod, brass tone-ring banjo. With a less sharp, brassy attack, that helped to keep the impact even between the notes, whether it was a picked right hand note or a high definition pull-off.
NH: The banjo I’m playing now is a mid-30’s TB11, with the brass hoop, so I’m sure that contributes to being able to make that happen.
BNL: There are a couple of tunes on the record that are over 130 bpm: there’s the first tune, and then the fast fiddle tune. And there you are doing what?
NH: In The Jaybird Song, I’m just playing a rhythm thing, a stream of 16th notes or whatever, and I’m doing a lot of hammer-ons on the 5th or 3rd frets. So what that does, I pluck the note and hammer on, and so it gives me time to get to the next string. [See tab examples below] And then, in that same tune, I’m doing this sort of pull-off back-up stuff. And I don’t quite know how to describe it. It’s not clawhammer, and it’s not three-finger; it’s playing pull-offs in an interesting, phrasing way. It’s all pretty much 16th notes, but when the pull-offs are occurring, in terms of the downbeat and off-beat, they aren’t in the most predictable places. And I do those with my index finger—a series of pull-offs.
BNL: And meanwhile, your thumb is continually hitting the 5th string?
NH: Yes. [Note: See last month’s tab for Cleo Belle]
BNL: At what point did you start sharing this problem with anyone beside your wife?
NH: I’d been talking to John R all along. When we were recording our album “The Road West” I remember getting frustrated. I couldn’t get my finger to work the way I wanted. And Jim asked me what was wrong, and I said, “Why don’t you get Bill Evans to play this.” And Jim said, “Yeah, that that would like Bill, It wouldn’t sound like you.” So I kind of took that to mean, “It’s not a big deal. Figure it out.” And whenever I spoke to John about it, I’d approach the subject carefully, because I didn’t want to bum him out, because he’s got a lot on his mind. (I didn’t want to be the one to say, “Your star forward had got a hamstring pull.”) It was my issue to resolve. But whenever I’d talk to John, he’d say that he couldn’t really hear what I was talking about. So he was very supportive.
BNL: So you got some psychological comfort from that, but you still knew you had to do something. And you told me that at one point you put on “Foggy Mountain Banjo” and tried to play along, and that was some sort of turning point.
NH: Absolutely. I was concerned, because I could play in my style, with two fingers, but if you’re going to be a bluegrass banjo player, you should be able to at least play Fireball Mail so that it sounds pretty close to what Earl did. At that tempo, you know. So I put on the CD and started playing along, and man, as contradictory as this might sound, it was actually easier for me to play that tune with two fingers, than it had felt playing it with three.
BNL: You told me before, how being from pioneer stock, you didn’t want to mention your disability, because it might mean you’d get left behind the wagon train. And that’s understandable. So could you talk about how you’re allowed yourself to “come out,” so to speak, as a 2-finger player in a bluegrass band?
NH: That’s a really apt descriptive phrase, because after I realized that I could play with two fingers, we were playing a lot last summer, and I still wore a pick on my middle finger, but it just rested on the head. I wasn’t ready to give it up just yet. You never know, I could be hit by lightning, and I’d be back to where I was. And so we started recording this latest album, and at some point I just quit wearing the pick. And Trish was the first one to notice. I said, “There’s just no point in pretending anymore.”
BNL: Did you tell the band all at once?
NH: No. I try to not go on about my problems. If all you do is complain to your friends, pretty soon you’ve got no friends. So I just tried to play banjo as well as I could. And I would once in a while express my extreme frustrations, and everyone would say, “sounding great. Don’t worry about it.” In fact, we did this cruise to Alaska, and we played John’s tune The North Shore. And I played some really great stuff on there—and I don’t mean to brag. And John came up to me afterwards and said, “Hey man, if you can play that great with two fingers, don’t play with three fingers ever again!” So that was a pretty good endorsement. And John, he’s a great guy, and a great bandleader, but he’s also a very supportive fellow musician. And so, when I stopped wearing a pick, I did “come out.” And it was psychologically very liberating. And physiologically as well. Because I find that my right arm, hand and shoulder are so much more relaxed now, instead of being tight. And you just can’t play if you’re that tense.
BNL: What about the public? Are they aware of this?
NH: Well, my cat doesn’t know anything about it. But seriously, last summer we played at the ROMP (River of Music Party), for the Owensboro museum. And next to the stage they had this jumbo video screen. And after the show, back stage, this guy walks up and says, “Are you just playing with two fingers?” And I said “Yeah…” And he said, “Man! I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Because I’m looking at the screen, and I see these two worms moving around, and then I’m hearing this great music. I just had to come back and ask.” So once in a while people notice.
BNL: You should have said, “Little Roy Lewis was backstage playing my parts.” [laughter]
NH: And I’m just up there because I’m such a dreamboat…
BNL: But there is something commercial about all this, because now people have another reason to check you out. They’ll want to know how you’re doing with supposedly one hand tied behind your back. And we’ll see what they think. My vote is, I like the way you’re playing. And as I’m listening to the band, I don’t really think about how you’re doing that with only two fingers. It’s more fun to just listen to the music. And I’m sure that that’s exactly what you want.
NH: One time we were playing in Bakersfield, and I was standing at the record table, and this guy comes up, and he said he liked the band, and my banjo playing, and he asked me about my banjo. And I told him my TB11 doesn’t have a tone ring, and his face just about fell to the floor. And then I said, “And, I’m only playing with two fingers.” And he looked at me like I’d just walked off the face of Mars.
BNL: There’s two huge abnormalities right there.
NH: And which is totally not my goal, to be known for either of them.
BNL: You didn’t ask for this situation. But here you are in this special category of bluegrass banjo players. Tom Adams, going to two-finger playing due to focal dystonia in his index finder, and so many of us are rooting for Tom to continue his explorations, to show what a brilliant musician does in his situation. Most people are unaware that there’s another guy—you—facing a comparable problem. And then Barry Abernathy, with his left thumb being the only full finger on that hand. But he couldn’t be stopped, and there he is, doing a great job in a top band.
NH: I saw Barry at Grass Valley several years ago, and a musician I know kept going on about how great Barry was, with his disability. And I said, “He’s just really great. The rest doesn’t matter.”
BNL: Well, but it’s natural to react that way. We all know it’s what each person does that matters, and that’s supposed to be all we should think about, but people can’t help but focus on the differences. But luckily you have a wonderful distraction, which is John R. and the Jaybirds. And the same thing with Barry and Mountain Heart. At some point it comes up in discussions. Then the topic changes. And it comes up quickly in a discussion when someone complains to me that their fingers are too small, or something like that. And I just say, to get the conversation done with as soon as possible, “Barry Abernathy.” And you know, also, Earl has small fingers. But in the world of musicians, what really counts is what something sounds like, and how you present as a band.
NH: Well if the net effect of my two-finger playing is that it is an additional hook for the band, then that’s great.
BNL: If you got arrested for some heinous crime, then that would also be good for the band too, which is a weird thing about show business! But your situation is a small part of your entire story.
NH: It’s been a very circuitous route to where I am now. One of the things I realized years ago is that within 500 square miles of my home, there’s some 12-year-old kid sitting in his basement who can blow the doors off my playing. You know? So there’s really no point in having a huge ego about my playing. I’m just trying to do the best I can for my band.
BNL: Exactly. You’re fortunate to have such an excellent band to play in. It must be great to be part of that. That’s something to live for.
NH: And you, Pete, have been very supportive of me, and of the band, ever since I met you. Which really means a lot to me, because I’m come across so many musicians that just want to drive you down. And coming across a great player that’s also a great person, that’s remarkable.
BNL: It works out better that way in the long run.