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Mastered by the 5-String Banjo

Posted by Bohonkie on Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mastered by the 5-String Banjo

In My Own Words, Minus Music


Michael S. Jackson


Interviewed by:

Professeur Philosophe


Monsieur Musicien



Preface: With apologies to “Masters of the 5-String Banjo; In Their Own Words And Music” and especially to Pete Wernick and Tony Trischka, two individuals I admire and respect more than I could ever put into words, I decided their excellent book would not be complete without my interview.  While I highly recommend the real book, and since I can’t talk them into interviewing me for a subsequent edition, I have graciously accepted an interview from two of their colleagues: Professeur Philosophe and Monsieur Musicien, who could not wait to interview me (they pestered me incessantly).


Acknowledgements: Of course, the real book and everyone in it was my personal inspiration!  But especially to Pete and Tony for undertaking the project that turned into the 5-String Player’s Bible.  Also to Banjo Newsletter, my never-ending source of enlightenment, entertainment, and inspiration.  I can still recall my letters to Hub and Nancy about “A Bluegrass Dog” when I named my dog, “Flint Hill Flash.”  To Banjo Hangout where I’ve found many friends – about the only place where someone can post something this weird.  And, finally, to all my fellow banjo players; you mean a lot to me and I’ve met very few I would not want to play with as often as possible.


Tablature: You’ll see none in my interview.  I have composed and recorded, but I’m not enough of a techno-wizard to figure out how to enter it into this interview!


Philosophe (PP) & Musicien (MM) on Mike’s History: The son of a Kentucky coal miner and sharecropper, Mike (or Mickey as he was called by his mother) is 3/8 American Indian (Cherokee) with roots primarily in Kentucky, but also West Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, and Utah.  When his father, General Stonewall Jackson (really), was in the service, Mike was born at Hill Air Force Base hospital, Utah, Easter Sunday, 1953.  Michael currently resides in Utah.  This interview took place late April, 2008.




First the obligatory photo:  (See also, BHO home page photos for Bohonkie)



PP: You’re one handsome devil!  So, let’s get started with the usual questions: How old were you when you started playing the banjo and who were your early influences?


MJ: Oh…you embarrass me, but I am used to it.  I was 27 or 28.  While I always liked anything related to life “in the hollers,” I was not raised in what anyone would call a musical home.  The first musical instrument I was exposed to was an autoharp in second grade and I really liked it.  I don’t recall hearing much banjo, though I’m sure I did, until we moved back to Utah in the 60s and I heard the opening theme from the Beverly Hillbillies.  I liked the show, but I tuned in every week primarily to hear that banjo!  The evenness of the notes and the clear, energetic, ringing sound held me spellbound.  And that ending!  Can anyone deny what instrument was the showcase of the band playing that tune?  Talk about power, that ending pinch had it!  I didn’t know who played it – I thought his name was “Earl Scoggins” - but I wished I could do that.  I had recently picked up the guitar and was soon playing in local bands, but that banjo sound haunted me.  And it wasn’t because that was the first TV I had even seen.  Funny, they say folks can remember where and what they were doing when they heard the news of the JFK assassination.  I’m no different, but I can also tell you, in vivid detail where I was, what I was doing, even what I was wearing, when I first heard that sound.  Not wanting to be just another voice in the sea of Scruggs, I have to say that Earl was the first one to turn me onto the banjo.  It would be a dozen years or so before I would do anything about it, but “Jed Clampett” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” were indelibly etched into my heart and soul.


MM: What style do you play?


MJ: Mostly Scruggs style, three finger.  But I toss in a bit of melodic and even some weird backhand strums at times.  I pretty much throw in whatever works.  I also like classical a lot and renditions of old tunes.  Stuff like “Fleur de Lis,” some of John McEuen’s classical stuff like “Musette,” and a tune I learned last year, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” tabbed in BNL by Ian Perry, July ’06).  I’ve always wanted to learn frailing or clawhammer.  I corresponded with Ken Perlman for about a year and a good friend of mine, Mike Iverson, is about the finest player you’ll ever meet (MM note: see Iverson’s website at  Someday…..


But whatever I play, I try to play even and smooth.  I highlight the melody and watch my volume, using it to advantage, loud and soft when needed.  Timing is very important as are the spaces in between the notes.  Sometimes what you leave out, and for how long, is more important than what you put in.  We all have our likes and individual styles, and I like interesting syncopation.  Solid right hand rolls impress me.  Speed, for speed sake, makes me yawn.  Yeah, fast is cool, but clear and even tone is more important.  I try not to rely too heavily on licks, but there are times, especially when I’m in a jam session and don’t know the tunes, where you can play an entire tune with nothing but licks.


Also, each instrument I pick up just screams for me to find its hidden secrets.  Know what I mean?  Each one has an individual sound and you need to find out how to get the best out of it.  It determines what you play on that banjo – what style, which tunes, fast, slow, etc.  But each one has a “spot.”  Banjos are not conformists like most guitars.  An instrument with this much individual personality brings out my sense of freedom and we sort of enjoy the trip together.  My heritage has taught me to cherish freedom, which is why I don’t, shall we say, respect politicians!  And, though I’ve been playing the guitar longer, I feel like my soul soars higher and digs deeper with the banjo.


MM: I know what you mean.  Freedom of expression is what it is all about.  It’s great working in a medium where few try to tell you how to play.  You mentioned Earl as you earliest influence.  Who influences you now?


MJ: Oh man!  Lots of folks.  I mentioned Earl.  He’s the one who, more than anyone else, makes it look easy – until you try it.  To me, that is the mark of a Master of the 5-String.  John McEuen will tackle anything and I really enjoy his variety as well as his entertainment – probably the best overall entertainer out there.  Tony Trischka is another incredibly talented player who has evolved the banjo into other genres, yet can pick solid bluegrass.  And we all owe so much to Pete Wernick!  Dr. Banjo continues to teach us so much even after all these years.  As a matter of fact, I learned my first banjo tune from his book, “Bluegrass Banjo”… She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain – Kill the Ol’ Red Rooster, whatever you want to call it; and my second, Worried Man Blues; and third Will the Circle Be Unbroken, though they’ve morphed a lot since those days.


MM: You have a story about Pete, don’t you?


MJ: Yup.  I have this old banjo head that I’ve been carrying around to concerts and festivals with me for years.  About 1986 I went to an outdoor concert where Hot Rize was playing and I got there early, not only to get a good seat, but to see if I could get Pete to autograph my banjo head.  I was watching folks arrive and looking at the stage when, off to my right, I saw him.  He was setting up some equipment.  You know, he is much taller than I expected.  I walked up to him, introduced myself, and asked if he wouldn’t mind signing my banjo head.  He said he sure would, but he was busy at the moment – could I come back later?  Well sir, I felt a little embarrassed – not because of what he said, but because I was so selfish in asking a busy man to take time out to sign my banjo head.  I was mentally kicking myself for not asking if I could help set up when he said, “Wait!  Please forgive me.  I don’t know what I was thinking; I’m not that busy.  Of course I’d be honored to sign it!”  We talked for a minute and looked at the other names on the head and I have to say Pete Wernick exemplifies the absolute essence of a true gentleman.  He values his fans – not as underlings, but as human beings and reciprocates respect like few entertainers I’ve met.  And I personally believe he’s one of the best pickers out there.  Listen to his stuff; he’s one of the best!


MM: Whose signatures do you have on your banjo head?


MJ: Thanks for asking.  I’m kinda proud of that!  Besides Pete’s, I have Bill Monroe (the only non-banjo picker), Alan Munde, Blake Williams, John McEuen, Don Parmeley who played most of the Beverly Hillbillies shows, Sonny Osborne whose paying is probably the closest thing you’ll ever get to Earl, Alan Shelton, most recently I have Jens Kruger, and Earl Scruggs right up there on top.  You know, sort of the same thing happened with Earl as happened with Pete.  I went to see him in the summer of 2007 and he was back stage but you can’t mistake his son, Gary.  I really didn’t want to intrude, but I came to that concert 4 hours early and endured the very hot sun with no shade to get a good spot and hopefully get a chance at an autograph.  I asked Gary if his Dad would mind signing my banjo head.  He told me he would take it to him, but not to let others see because he didn’t want his Dad bothered.  Earl’s getting on, you know.  Well, I went back to my blanket – wow!  That’s not a good thing for someone of my heritage to say, is it?  I hid the banjo head inside a newspaper and… I got Earl’s autograph!  The rest of the day, into the evening, I jealously guarded that newspaper with its precious cargo!  Gary is also a true gentleman who obviously loves his father.  I don’t know if you’ve seen the videos he’s putting out from Earl’s old Martha White TV shows.


MM: Yes I have – hasn’t every banjo picker?


MJ: (Laughs) they should!  Hey, there is one signature I don’t have.  I heard… is it true… you are a close personal friend of Tony Trischka?  Maybe you could get him to autograph my banjo head?


MM: (Laughs) yeah… maybe.  I know he talks non-stop about the pinnacle of his career would be playing in Ogden, Utah!  Any other influences, past or present?


MJ: Oh goodness, yes.  Let’s see.  I mentioned Sonny and the others who signed my banjo head.  Butch Robins and recordings like, “40 Years Late” and, “The 5th Child” continue to be a big influence on me.  Butch is such an incredible picker.  I hear he’s pretty much a perfectionist and that is a rare combination with someone so creative!  I can listen to his stuff over and over again and never get tired of it.  As a matter of fact, his playing best exemplifies my own.  Ralph Stanley has the old, way down in the hollers, wild, mud-bug kind of sound that sort of floats in a dull grey winter sky over leafless trees – the real deal from the real deal.  Bill Keith and the way he takes the banjo to new levels.  Some of Don Reno’s stuff, but I’m not a fan of single string.  Doug Dillard has always inspired me – I’ve always meant to learn “Doug’s Tune,” maybe soon, huh?  And about the only new one I can think of right now is Tom Adams.  I’ve never heard him play in a band, but his BNL work and sound bits are incredible.  Steve Martin is also a very fine picker.  I know there are a lot of others I’ve unintentionally left out.


PP:  How do you set about composing?  I mean, do you have a tune in mind or lyrics?


MJ: Well, to be honest, sometimes I do have a tune in my head and I always have lyrics, but most compositions – tunes, that is - are purely accidental.  I might be noodling around on the banjo and come up with some new lick or phrase and, well, just go from there.  Another way, and I hate to admit this, is when I’m trying to figure out how to play something and it comes out way different and that becomes “my” composition.  Regardless, nothing I compose is really structured.  That is, I don’t sit down and work it out mathematically.  I definitely subscribe to the old adage: Rules are to be learned so you can toss them out.


PP: How did you learn?  Tab?  By ear?  What advice to you have for beginners?


MJ: Wow.  What a question.  Not only because it’s so difficult to answer, but coming from you – I mean you have done more to teach the banjo than anyone, so I’m talking to the master here.  I learned from tab at first and it has two draw-backs, at least to me.  First, if I’ve never heard the tune or are unfamiliar with it, tab sucks.  And I could never understand the timing notations.  I can understand sheet music, from my piano days, but I don’t know if it’s because no one seems to write timing the same way or if it is just inherent to tab, but I have a hard time getting the nuances, subtle syncopation, and general timing.  As for learning by ear, I rarely do that for the banjo but I learn by ear on the guitar almost exclusively.  Most of my learning is a tablature foundation with a lot of experimentation and new stuff thrown on top so the final product sounds little like the original tab.


Oh yeah… your banjo playing can also affect your guitar playing, if you do play guitar.  I have a pretty effective three-finger picking style for the 6-string that I can adapt to just about any music.  Also, I’ll sometime retune the guitar.  An example would be the old song “Bad to the Bone” where George Thorogood tunes his first, E, string down to a D - just like the first four strings on a banjo - to use the glass slide.  If you do that, you can play tunes you’ve learned on your banjo; you just have to figure out how to handle the drone function of the 5th string G.  Stuff like that version I mentioned of Somewhere Over the Rainbow sound great on a guitar that way.  What’s more, it drives guitar players crazy trying to figure out how you’re doing it.  But I don’t want to get started talking about a lesser instrument – let’s stick to banjos!  (laughs).


MM: That’s rich!  Anyone who knows you at all knows how much you love the guitar.


MJ: Yeah, you’re right.  As for learning, do what you can to not lose interest.  Get a good teacher, one that can deal with the plateaus but if you don’t have one, or don’t want to get one, go to jams.  But realize that learning on your own can lead you into a lot of bad habits that are going to be difficult to undo years later.  I used to teach and, well, it taught me a lot!  Listen to a lot of music.  Learn about the instrument; its history and construction.  Don’t bog yourself down with one style of music. If you don’t already, learn to sing along.  Concentrate not only on lead but on back up.  Learn different tunings.  Get frustrated!  But never let it dissuade you; recognize that it’s part of learning.  Also, when I learn from tab, I’ll learn a section at a time, then go do something else, or play something else.  Your mind likes to recall and learn in short bits.  If it becomes distasteful, your mind will kick it out.  Don’t run before you can walk!  That is, you are developing muscle memory and economy of motion in your hands and fingers.  Play it slowly, but play it correctly… speed will come.  Pay attention to big time and to little time and to grouping; does that make sense?.  And, remember, if you can’t pick up in the middle of a tune, if you have to start over at the beginning each time, you don’t really own the tune.  You know, I didn’t consider myself a banjo player until the day I listened to myself play.  I’m not talking about a recording or just paying attention to what I was doing, I actually felt as if I was somewhere else, just listening.  I had no conscious input into my playing – it was almost as if I was listening to a record.  I do believe I could have read a book while I was playing.  A weird feeling, being autonomic like that.  But enjoy it – that’s why you wanted to play in the first place, isn’t it?  That’s why they call it “playing” the banjo as opposed to “working” the banjo.”


MM: How often do you practice?


MJ:  When I first started out, about 2 to 3 hours, sometimes twice each day for a total of about 4 to 6 hours.  I learned over a hundred tunes that first year – not just bits and pieces, but whole tunes – back up and all.  Then, after my fifth year, I quit for over fifteen years.  It’s strange, but not a day went by without me playing “Shuckin’ the Corn” and other tunes in my head over and over again during those fifteen years.  As Ty Piper (Imperial Banjo Company) told me when I visited him in Oklahoma, Utah is not exactly a hot bed of bluegrass!  I found it difficult to hang out with other pickers and my life took other turns.  But… I’m back!  You know, you grow.  (laughs)


MM: Mike – you crack me up!  Do you warm up before playing for an audience?


MJ:  Never used to.  But it has become more important the older I get.  Also, it’s unbelievably important to keep my mind on the tune; not the audience!


PP: Any ideas or suggestions on getting the best tone?


MJ: Two parts to that answer.  First, set your banjo up properly.  I knew a little about set up, but when I got my Recording King, I learned a LOT!  Once the banjo is set up to sound and play well, pay attention to how you hold your picking hand, from the shoulder down.  Relaxed?  Up or down?  Your elbow – is it in or out?  Your wrist: arched, flat?  Now, how does all that affect your picking fingers?  Are you getting the right strike?  That is, are you avoiding scraping the strings, hitting the head; are you picking cleanly and accurately?  Be relaxed, yet accurate.  Where, on the head, are you placing your fingers?  Play around with the tones you get in different spots.  Your fretting hand: Again, start with the shoulder and go forward.  Is your elbow under the neck?  You know, there are certain pieces I can’t play unless I’m sitting down because I need the relaxed control of my elbow directly under the neck, the ability to move both hands freely, and I need the banjo closer.  Again, keep relaxed, yet accurate.  Also, John McEuen taught me a little trick for the left hand: don’t cut your fingernails down to the nub.  Keep enough so you can roll up on them and do slides, clear notes up the neck, and special effects such as a train whistle.  Playing comfortably is just something you have to experiment with and find your own sweet spot.  But that’s part of the fun of playing a banjo.


PP: So… do you place both fingers on the head?  Just one?


MJ:  When I started playing, I placed only my ring finger on the head and later, after about a month, I started putting both of them down.  Sometimes I’ll notice both fingers have lifted off the head, but only when I’m doing exaggerated pinches and other movements.  Have you ever felt like you can feel an additional finger between your middle and your ring finger on the banjo head?  Man, that’s weird!


PP: Uh… no… but then I’m pretty normal.


MJ: Yeah, I reckon you’re right.  I feel that mostly when I’m playing melodic stuff like Devil’s Dream.  Another thing, you know that little move you do up the banjo head to get softer tones when you do the D lick – actually more of a pinch on the G and D strings in a D position: da-DA, da-DA, da-DA, da-DA, da-da! (Note: Mike is obviously referring to the D lick on tunes such as Ground Speed)?  I used to like doing that one until a really obnoxious, pushy banjo player tried telling me how to do it.  I certainly didn’t need to know from him!  Remember what I said about some folks make you not want to show up to jam sessions?  Well, this guy is one of them.  He’s always complaining about folks not being in tune, telling everyone how to play, incessantly bragging, talking about how everyone wants to put him on T.V., insulting your banjo, and it makes the whole experience, well, not fun.  I heard he was playing for his company Christmas party one time and folks couldn’t get him to put his banjo away.  I guess he was pretty obnoxious there too and I realized it wasn’t just us in the jam who he was a jerk to.  So, folks, common courtesy and pleasantry are paramount in jam sessions!


Which brings me to another point.  Sometimes you are going to be exposed to people you consider a waste of carbon.  This is especially difficult to deal with when you are just starting out.  Do your best to tune them out!  For the most part, the folks I’ve met in bluegrass, and folk music for that matter, are the most friendly, helpful people you’d ever meet.  If there is someone you don’t like, you’ll find that most others will also share your view.  So if this happens, or if you are in over your head – that is, the players in the jam are way ahead of you in skill and you feel uncomfortable, form another group on the side.


MM: Push off or pull offs?


MJ: Pull offs.  I’ve known folks who use both and even one who used push-offs exclusively, but I get a better sound out of pull-offs, not to mention being easier to do.


MM: Let’s get into banjos and set up.  What is your principle banjo?  How do you have it set up?


MJ: A 1928 Gibson Granada 40 hole archtop; I think the Gibson code was a TG.  She is listed on the website for old Gibsons: as the Mar 30, 2010, lot #9152 entry. She probably began life as a tenor.  I say that because, according to company records, the serial numbers close to before and after were tenors.  But from there it gets even fuzzier.  I found her in 1984 and was told the neck came from an original flathead Granada that was mounted to the pot assembly by someone at Mandolin Brothers.  She has a beautiful vintage looking neck, no doubt, but I don’t know if MB did this sort of thing.  The neck is not mounted as one that had been made for an archtop... too high and you can see where someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make the thing fit.  But she is solid and plays extremely well and the gold is pretty good.  There were other rumors regarding well known players and even Earl himself being former owners, but I don’t know and what’s more, I don’t care.  I guess some folks put a lot of stock into these things, but in the end all I want is the best sounding, best playing banjo I can find.  And this one is the best I’ve played, in both respects.  You know, I’m extremely glad I found her – I’d never be able to find one like her today, at least not for under tens of thousands of dollars.  But I have a philosophy regarding instrument collecting:  I disapprove.  At least regarding collecting just for the sake of collecting and resale.  It’s a weird juxtaposition because, on the one hand, many fine stringed instruments wouldn’t be around if folks didn’t value them and, on the other hand, it also puts them out of the price range of folks who play and want to own them and appreciate them.  I recall what Frank Zappa, of all people, once said; something like there is a great interest in guitar collecting these days.  And some of them are being bought by people who actually play!  I think there is a lot of truth in his cynicism and, in a perfect world, these instruments would be owned by players.  But it’s not a perfect world, nor would I try to make it that way because then we would be one step away from also dictating that only people of a certain playing level, recording quantity, etc., could own certain vintage instruments.  Am I making sense?  It’s not as bad as gun collecting where you have certain buyers from countries like Japan, England, etc., bidding on firearms on auction in America and putting them into their collections.  Most of these folks keep their collections simply because they are rich and powerful elites and their country turns a blind eye to it.  I mean… these folks outlawed guns in their country and now they are buying up our history and their own common folks can’t own them at all.  Guns didn’t make and keep them free as they did and do for America.  I believe in that case you can pass a law or something to stop these treasures from going out of the country and into the hands of elites, but in the case of musical instruments… well, I reckon we’ll just have to live with it.  But I do hate to see these beautiful works of musical art taken out of circulation and put someplace where they can’t sing.  Do you have any idea how much I’d like to find a ’64 or ’65 Fender Mustang in red with a white pick guard in full scale?  One I can afford, that is?  Or a Fender Bandmaster amp?  Or a Gibson pre-war flathead?


I’m not going into great detail on set up because each instrument is different and requires a set up that brings out the best sound.  And each of us likes a different sound anyway.  Remember what I said about the opening theme to the Beverly Hillbillies?  Well, that sound, and especially that pinch at the end is my personal benchmark for the sound of the bluegrass banjo.  It’s different from what Pete Seeger’s daughter once said in an interview in BNL where she said a banjo should have a “… nice plunky sound.”  (Laughs).  But if that is what she wants, that is what she should have.  My first banjo met that requirement.  It was made in Korea and didn’t have a tone ring – at least, if it did, it was probably made out of aluminum because the banjo was very light.  It was made out of mahogany, with very low volume, and sounded, well, plunky.  But it was worth the $50 I paid for it new in 1981 and got me started.  I recall driving home and glancing over at it n the car and wondering, “Now what the devil am I going to do with this thing?  I haven’t got a clue how to play it!”  From there I went to a Japanese copy of a flathead Granada.  A beautiful banjo, but a bit difficult to play.  The sound was muted and not the best, but I didn’t know how to set one up in those days.  I sure would like another crack at that banjo to see if I could make it ring.


The best advice I have is to buy the book, “How to set up the Best Sounding Banjo” by Roger H. Siminoff (Note: Mike reviewed this book in his product reviews in BHO).  If you follow the book, and do as he says, you will understand the sound produced by your banjo and how it is affected by the way you set it up.  His set up instructions are easy to follow and, before I got the book, I was timid about working on my banjo.  But now I am very confident.  I wonder how many banjos have been saved by this fantastic book?  I’d say buy the book even if you have a really good luthier to work on your instruments.  You should know what is going on and why.  The final advice I’ll give is use medium strings if you can and don’t set the action too low.  I’ve found, with most banjos, that they sound best with heavier strings and higher actions.  When I say high, I mean within limits, but a bit on the higher side.  For the record, here are my banjo’s stats; folks will have to get the Masters of the 5-String Banjo book to see how they compare with all of the artists in that book:


Head:  I think it’s a 5-Star, heavily frosted.  At least it has a star on it and it used to be heavily frosted.  The head is “tuned” in the neighborhood of D.

Action: 3rd, G, string at 12th fret is just under 3/32”

Bridge: Snuffy Smith, 11/16 – and very slightly angled to get the proper intonation

Tailpiece: Original Granada clamshell; string angle over the bridge is 13 degrees

Frets: Medium, rounded and polished

Strings: GHS PF160, mediums (11 – 13 – 16 – 26 – 10).  I change them only if they lose some of their brilliance.  I’ll use lighter strings sometimes.  D’Addarios are actually too bright.


Thumbpick: Zookie M-10.  I used to boil my thumb pick and twist it to a slight angle, but these Zookies come that way and they won’t fly off my thumb, though I still boil them and stretch them out a bit because they come too tight.

Fingerpicks: Original Nationals (never could get used to the Dunlops).  Been using Showcase 1941s lately and really like ‘em.  Note: See the photo below to see how Mike bends them.

Tuners: Yes, gold Keith/Scruggs with ivroid buttons on the B and G strings.

Fifth String Capo: Railroad spikes

Strap: The Banjo Strap (popular in the 80s)

Mics and pickups: Any quality directional mic, placed just below the picking hand.  I used to use a Jones acoustic pickup, but haven’t it used in years. 


MM: Any other banjos?


MJ: Yeah.  Last year I bought a Recording King RK-R85-SN Soloist.  Gave me fits to set up, but now sounds very good – I’d match the sound up against 95% of all banjos out there, pre-war Gibsons included.  As I said, there were problems such as the truss rod cover, fingerprints in the paint from being handled before drying, scratches, etc. (Note: See product review), but I fixed ‘em all because of a lack of response from RK.  This one’s not as easy to play as my Granada, but a lot easier than most banjos out there.  As I also said, Utah is not exactly a hot bed of bluegrass so it’s impossible to test play a new banjo before buying and through the mail is about the only way to buy one.  I took a chance and am happy, but it took some work and patience to get that way.  I just dropped her off for a fret dressing job; she needs it because her frets are pretty rough, especially at the binding edges.  I wish RK would have been more responsive (laughs) I guess responsive at all!


My friend, Mike Iverson, plays a Stelling Staghorn.  Beautiful banjo and he sounds great on it.  I wish I could have tried one out when I bought the RK last year, but there aren’t any around and I haven’t played with Mike for years.  Another old friend of mine plays a gorgeous Ome Banjo.  Fred would get up every morning and play before he went to work.  I’ve never played it or any other Ome.  Finally, another old friend, Mark Dickerson, plays a ’25 Gibson Granada ball bearing archtop.  It is bright, but not much depth.  Maybe it’s just set up the way he likes it.


I also have a Gold Tone Banjola which is currently back at the factory for repair.  It’s nice to play at night or when you don’t want to make a lot of noise.  Purty thing…


That’s it, but I sure would like to find a Gold Star like the used one I saw for sale years ago.  It was an archtop and played and sounded incredible.  The guy wanted $600 for it and I just couldn’t come up with the money.  I’d pay that in a minute if I had the chance today.


PP: So, Where do you go from here?  What do you want to do with the banjo?


MJ: Keep enjoying it!  Get better!  There are a lot of tunes I want to master and I hope I have a long time to learn them.  I would like to build a banjo.  I build flintlock rifles the same as they did over 200 years ago – no power tools except a drill press.  I carve and inlay the wood and engrave with a chisel and chasing hammer.  I’d love to have the chance to put those skills to work on a banjo.  I have reviewed several items (Note: You can see them in the product reviews on BHO) and one of the things I had to do to my RK was to make a new truss rod cover.  The original came trashed and I couldn’t get RK to answer any mail, so I made a new one out of German silver.  I cut and sanded it and polished it to a mirror finish so it matches my nickel plated Soloist.  Then I engraved it.  I considered putting my name or initials on it, but thought better of it (too arrogant).


I’d also like to write a book about the banjo.  Maybe some history, some of the stuff we’ve discussed here and honest product reviews.  I’d like to focus on people like me who started with the burning desire to play every waking hour, but somehow lost the connection because of life changes, boredom, bad experiences, whatever their reason.  I’d like to get them back into it and share some experiences and ideas how to do that and some of the benefits and good things awaiting them.  I’ve written two books and enjoy doing that sort of thing.  I’ll be retired soon so I’ll have time to do it. Hey, maybe I’ll luck out and BNL will ask me to do a column!


And I’d like to get into some sort of entertaining.  You know, dialogue sprinkled with playing.  I used to have an act where I’d come out wearing a white glove on my left hand only – a reflection on my name.  I’d tell a bit of history of the banjo, demonstrate different types of music, and do a few comedy routines.  Yeah… I’d like to get back into that.


MM: Any last words?


MJ: Boy… does that sound ominous!  Do I also get a blindfold and a cigarette?  No matter… I don’t smoke anyway.  I would like to express two sentiments.  First, a big THANK YOU to the entire banjo community!  You are, with no doubt, the best bunch of folks I could ever meet and I’m proud to claim association with you.


Second, I am bound by my deep, heartfelt appreciation of the banjo yet limited by the English language, and this keyboard, to try to convey some sort of encouragement to every player out there.  It doesn’t matter if you are Earl, someone as accomplished as he, someone just starting out, or someone who left for years and is now back into the fold: We are ALL banjo players!  Don’t ever say, someday… that day is now – even if all you’ve learned is how to put on your picks.  By the way, they go with the open spot by your fingernail, not the opposite; I think we all made this mistake when first starting out!  We’re all one community.  No politics; no jealously guarding licks.  And remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every artist was first an amateur.”


I plan on being around a very long time and wouldn’t want ya’ll to be any different.

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