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<i>Featured Artist:</i><i>John Balch</i>
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Featured Artist:John Balch

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One of the greatest joys associated with putting together this "progressive clawhammer" project is that I have the pleasure of revisiting the music of each of the featured artists. As I listened to John’s CDs, I was struck by the simple beauty of his compositions. Add some tasteful and inventive arranging to the mix and you have a collection of clawhammer banjo recordings that can be listened to over and over again.

As is the case with all of the progressive artists that I’m showcasing, you can hear John employing a wide variety of banjo techniques to create his characteristic sound. In the following excerpt, notice the clever use of non-traditional chords to flesh out and change the character of the melody of this tune:

Walter Hill

Once again, John's arranging skills are readily apparent; he could have chosen to bring in a number of players but instead went with just a couple of string players. Here's John playing the same song solo:

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Another technique that John utilizes is “snapping” (not breaking!) a string to accent a note. This is done by rolling the thumb a bit as it is released causing the string to snap against the fretboard. Often this technique is preceded by a “skip”. If you listen closely to John's playing on Hot Biscuit Jam, you can clearly hear him execute this very effective technique.

Hot Biscuit Jam

I know I keep mentioning the skillful arranging on John’s CDs, but I’d like to point out one more example of just how important this is to his music. Notice in the tune 'Swampgas' that John's banjo lays down a repetitive melody that the other musicians can add layer upon layer of improvisation against; a textbook example of great arranging.

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The recordings of John Balch are perfect examples of just how effective clawhammer banjo can be when used as the lead voice in an all instrumental ensemble. In my humble opinion, John's CDs should be in the collection of every banjo player who has even a passing interest in exploring the potential of their instrument.

- Mike Iverson

For more information about John Balch, visit his website. You can find it (and many others) on my Links Page.

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.

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