Mike IversonMusic, clawhammer banjo, and more...

Music, clawhammer banjo, and more...

September 2011

Bela Fleck - Why you should be listening to his music...

This may sound like a crazy way to kick off a clawhammer banjo blog, but in a weird way it seems appropriate to start off with an entry about a three-finger banjo stylist.  I say this because I can't think of any musician (with the exception of Doc Watson) who has influenced my music more than Bela Fleck.

For those not familiar with Bela, he is a three-finger (bluegrass) banjo player who has effectively taken the instrument into realms that were previously deemed "off limits" to serious banjoists.  About 30 years ago, I remember David Grisman stating that he believed Bela Fleck would do more to popularize the banjo than anyone since Earl Scruggs.   I also remember thinking that this statement seemed pretty pretentious; turns out that I couldn't have been more wrong... Bela Fleck has now been nominated for more Grammy Awards in different catagories than any other musician in history. It’s clear to me that Bela has played a leading role in the changing way the world views the banjo as it is now considered a “serious” instrument by even the jazz and classical communities, which is something I never thought to see in my lifetime.

Bela Fleck’s energy seems unending.  Over the years I’ve heard him effectively using the banjo in musical settings ranging from bluegrass to jazz, rock to classical; if there are harder working musicians in this world, I have yet to encounter them.  Bela’s unwavering efforts to explore the banjo’s potential is truly inspirational, and it's this (inspiration) that makes him the perfect candidate for this blog; the whole idea behind progressive clawhammer banjo is to take the style into uncharted territory, and that's exactly what Bela's been doing with "bluegrass" banjo for the last thirty years!

Bela’s impressive improvisational skills may blind us to the fact that he may very well be one of America's best composers and I have no qualms about mentioning his name along with the likes of Copland, Ellington, Joplin, and Bernstein.  Listen carefully to the simple, almost achingly beautiful Fleck composition Sunset Road and you'll forget every stereotype you've had about bluegrass banjo.  I particularly like the section near the end where Fleck and Marsalis double up on the melody...

My daughter Heather and I recently had the pleasure of hearing the original lineup of the Flecktones and I believe it was the best concert I've attended in the last decade.  After the show, Bela came out to visit with some of his fans and I had a chance to explain what I was trying to accomplish with my progressive clawhammer project.  I asked if he would mind if I put up a clawhammer arrangement of one of his compositions and he was more than agreeable to the idea, and even more so when he heard which piece I had in mind to showcase...

Bela Fleck's example should inspire all banjoists (no matter what style we play) to push the limits of our abilities as we explore new territory on our instruments.

It's my wish that all players follow Bela's example by truly listening to those with whom we have the privilege of creating music.  I saw this idea executed to perfection when Fleck joined Bruce Hornsby on stage this summer for a rendition of Mandolin Rain.  Bela Fleck's minimalist approach to this song was amazing; the man knows how to listen. 

For more information about Bela Fleck, visit his official website. You can purchase his music almost anyplace that features a wide variety of musical genres.

Recommendations: Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Tales From The Acoustic Planet, and Perpetual Motion.

Mike Iverson


The New Blog...

Although I already have a personal blog (A Folk Singer’s Perspective), I felt the need to start another one specifically directed toward the banjo community.

Not only will I be addressing my thoughts on clawhammer technique, this blog will also help me get the word out about new content that appears in the other sections of my website. For instance...

I recently added new pages dedicated to banjoists John Balch and Ken Perlman. These are the first in a series designed to introduce my readers to the music of other progressive clawhammer players. Within each of these articles you will find commentary on the artist's music and technique, audio and video files, and links to their websites.

I have also included an extensive clawhammer questionnaire each of the artists have graciously completed. I am very excited about this as I don't believe any type of organized survey directed toward high profile clawhammer artists yet exists. Check out John and Ken's answers to all sorts of questions concerning instrument choices, banjo set up, personal playing style and technique. You can find a link to the survey on the right side of each artist page:

Ken Perlman

John Balch

Looking forward to any dialog that arises from this...

Mike Iverson