Mark subsequently send me a couple of his CDs and it was my turn to be struck by the similarities in our playing. I immediately noticed that Mark used a more controlled approached to "skips" (syncopation) than most clawhammer banjoists. I also noticed he often followed a skip with a “popped” note that is made by rolling the thumb; forcing the string to snap back against the fingerboard. This creates a syncopated effect similar to what an electric bass player achieves when playing “slap” bass.
Excerpt from 'Cold Frosty Morning' - Acoustic Rising CD
Excerpt from 'Ashfields & Brine' - Acoustic Rising CD
Let's take a look at a YouTube video featuring Marks playing. From a technique standpoint, there’s a lot to like about this clip.
I’m a great advocate of economy of motion and Mark’s left hand is a textbook example of this concept. Watch as he moves effortlessly between chord positions which, by the way, is one reason this piece sounds as smooth as it does.
I’m also very impressed with Mark’s right hand. Clawhammer banjo players tend to argue endlessly over thumb technique. Some set their thumb against a string every time a fingernail of the right hand strikes a string, others let their thumb “float” above the strings on each strike of the nail. Mark utilizes both of these techniques in his playing, which is exactly what I like to see in a clawhammer banjoist. Why limit yourself to a single right hand approach when you can take advantage of the benefits of both? Mark’s playing demonstrates his understanding, and mastery, of multiple techniques.
Finally, watch how relaxed both of Mark’s hands remain while he plays. I’m a firm believer in avoiding tension at all costs, and judging from this clip of 'Mosby's Rangers', so is Mark!
As I watched this (and other YouTube videos featuring Johnson’s playing), I was delighted to find yet another similarity in our techniques; we both use the index AND middle fingernails when striking the strings. Most clawhammer players use one or the other, but as I mentioned earlier, “why limit yourself to a single right hand approach when you can take advantage of the benefits of two?”
I'd like to conclude with an exclusive! Mark sent me an unreleased recording of an original tune he recorded with three-finger banjo phenom Allison Brown. Mark told me that this "was written for Steve Martin’s Birthday on August 14, 2011 (Sunday) and it is about his Yellow Labrador Retriever named “Wally” who joins Steve and the Steep Canyon Rangers on stage during their shows."
Alison Brown - Alison Brown Style Banjo
Jim Hurst - Rhythm Guitar
Todd Phillips - Bass
Recorded at Compass Records May 26, 2011
“Wally Dog” written by Mark Johnson (BMI) Bangtown Banjo Publishing
If you play banjo and are looking for some advise on how to improve your technique, I suggest you closely watch, listen, and emulate the playing of Mark Johnson.
- Mike Iverson
P.S. My favorite feature in this "Progressive Clawhammer" section, and the one that I feel is the most important, is a survey that I had each of the featured artists fill out. It contains all sorts of information about banjo styles, technique, instrument setup, and anything else I could think of that might be of interest to banjoists. Here's a link to the questionnaire:
Clawhammer Illuminations: insightful answers to banjo related questions provided by Perlman, Johnson, Balch, Miles, and Iverson.