Adam Hurt – Inspirational Banjo Virtuoso (page 3)
How would you describe your approach to the banjo, and what kinds of experiences are you trying to convey to your listeners?
In a nutshell, I seek to reconcile two seemingly disparate approaches to clawhammer banjo: the Northern melodic style and the more rhythmic
Southern sound. I do my best to combine elements of both - to create something that can stand alone, but also fall in step with a fiddle - something that is melodically intriguing, but also rhythmically exciting, all wrapped up into a package that is aesthetically appealing.
So, you don’t consider yourself strictly as a melodic banjo player.
I have always been amazed by the technical facility of the great melodic players who started making an impact on the old-time scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but to me that style alone often lacks the driving rhythm that is so central to more traditional clawhammer, which I also love. But, I enjoy treating the banjo as an instrument that doesn't always need to be paired with a fiddle.
What draws you to old-time music?
Simply, there is so much more to the form than meets the eye and ear. What may appear to be rather basic melodies can in fact express unspeakable emotions and evoke the experiences of generations past.
Besides performing and teaching, you’re on the faculty of several banjo camps.
For which I am very grateful. I love these programs. I wish that they had been around when I was learning to play! I hope to do a lot more teaching in these situations.
So, what’s on the burner now? Any new projects in the works?
I've fallen into a comfortable and diverse routine of performing concerts, playing regularly for contra dances, teaching private lessons and conducting workshops, many of which have turned into annual or twice annual events.
I figured that this time in my life would be the best time to try making my living as a musician, while my expenses are few and I don't have the responsibilities of a family. I can't say whether I will be able, or want to, continue down this path indefinitely, but it's unquestionably enjoyable right now.
I am working on a new CD, which will hopefully be released in the summer
of 2009. It will follow a format similar to “Insight,” with many banjo/guitar duets, some three-piece band numbers, a couple of banjo/fiddle duets, and some solo material. The personnel will be somewhat different this time around and with any luck I will play some fiddle on it myself. I have assembled some uncommon repertoire for this project, perhaps more so than the collection found on “Insight” and now I'm fine-tuning my arrangements.
I played your to CD, "Insight," to a lady who is far from a banjo aficionado. She was struck by what she described as the "sweetness" you bring out of your instrument; exactly the same response I, and many others had when first hearing your music. There's something about the tone you are able to pull out of the banjo, which along with your distinctive style is a uniquely defining characteristic of your music. Can you say something about how you arrived at this sound?
The matter of tone is an issue I have some pretty involved feelings about, and one that I am glad you raised.
I have spent a great deal of time thinking about and experimenting with tone.
In my experience, many banjo players feel that most of their tone comes from whatever instrument and setup they choose; in other words, a Whyte Laydie or Tubaphone-type banjo with a plastic head and a Kerschner-style tailpiece will produce a bright, focused tone, while a short-scale, 12" banjo with a skin head and a No-Knot tailpiece will produce a dark, fuzzy tone, with various other types of banjos and setups filling in the spaces between fully bright and fully dark.
While the instrument and its setup are one piece of the tonal puzzle, the manner in which the player's body interacts with the instrument is another, and is in my opinion has equal, if not greater, significance.
The area of the preferred fingernail that hits the strings may seem like a trivial matter, but it affects tone in a startling way.
I use my index finger nearly all of the time, only wearing a pick if I require extra volume and only switching to my middle finger if I break the index nail. Extending my index finger straight out in front of me - and thinking of its nail as having a left half and a right half - I can identify the upper right half as being the section that actually strikes the strings. This section of the fingernail, for me, produces a warm, round and clear tone with adequate volume. If I rotate my hand while playing so that the upper left half of the nail strikes the strings, my tone becomes increasingly bright - to the point of being almost brittle and riddled with clicking fingernail noise. The volume also seems to decrease as I move my hand in this way.
The right-hand attack which sounds the very best to me, is one that runs neither totally parallel to the surface of the head nor totally perpendicular to it, but halfway in between the two extremes, in a sort of 45-degree angle to the head and strings. The clearest way that I have found to teach this attack involves playing over the base of the fingerboard, whether or not that is where one typically prefers to play (scooped fingerboards can present a problem here, but the point can still be understood). In that position, one should be able to literally feel the preferred fingernail - striking as I described - graze the edge of the fingerboard after hitting the first string. Of course, the same thing cannot be felt, per se, on the other strings, but if the attack remains the same from string to string, the resulting tone will be consistently full and rich.
The manner in which one holds the banjo also affects the tone. Holding the pot in the middle of the lap, as so many people do, can feel secure, but the torso blocks a great deal of the escape route for the sound. Moving the pot over to the top of the right thigh allows some of that sound to get out, and also brings the neck a bit closer to parallel with the floor. This neck angle feels more comfortable to me than holding my left hand well up in the air as I would with the pot cradled in my lap, but more importantly, at least for me, it makes the fingernail-to-string relationship feel more natural. Some might worry that the banjo can slip away too easily in this position; if that is a concern, it would be better for a strap to be worn - yes, while sitting down -than to write off this posture as impossible. But nothing is set in stone; these are merely my preferences and others might feel totally different about their ideal tone, attack and so on.
I periodically conduct a short workshop on the mechanics of tone, in which I go over all of these concepts, all the while demonstrating the different types of tone that I can get out of one banjo simply by adjusting my physical relationship with the instrument. At some point during the session, I ask to borrow a couple of banjos from the participants; ideally, I look for instruments that represent, in and of themselves, the extremes of the bright- to-dark spectrum, and are as different sounding from my banjo as possible. With these banjos, I repeat the same procedure - rotating my right hand, changing my angle of attack and moving the banjo from my right thigh to the middle of my lap - all the while striking the strings. Though the tone is never identical to my banjo, it can be fairly close. It is always amazing to see how much warmth I can bring out of a fundamentally bright banjo, and vice-versa, simply by exploring these basic concepts.
All of that having been said, let's go back for a moment to instrument and setup choice and how these things relate to tone. Years ago, I heard Richie Stearns of the Horse Flies playing his H.C. Dobson banjo. I knew immediately that the tone of his instrument, regardless of the way in which he played it, was something special and different. It was exactly what I was looking for. I played examples of these banjos whenever I could and found them to possess - by virtue of their patented Silver Bell tone rings - a remarkable combination of warmth and definition, striking a kind of happy medium between the Vega-style instruments and the 12" banjos. These Dobsons were also rather consistent-sounding and surprisingly responsive, as long as they were properly and similarly set-up.
It took me quite some time to locate an excellent example with the characteristics I was seeking - an 11" rim, and a build quality substantial enough to handle light-gauge steel strings, with no repercussions - along with the very best tone of this nature. Finally, I was able to trade another banjo for the perfect Dobson Silver Bell: a rare slot head model with a possibly unique double-spun (metal on the outside AND inside) rim and some fancy appointments, which may have been a custom-ordered banjo. While there doesn't seem to be any one standard Dobson banjo, this instrument is more unusual than some, and a definite cut above most. It has a very light setup, with a thin skin head, a No-Knot tailpiece, and a maple bridge without an ebony top. I also stuff a medium-weight dishtowel inside the back, balling a portion of it fairly tight near the neck attachment and spreading the rest of it throughout the pot. This banjo and set-up, together with my physical interaction with it, combine to create exactly the tone I seek.
Sounds like there’s at least enough material in all that to base on entire course on banjo tone. Thanks for going so far into it, here, from your perspective.
Adam Hurt, it’s wonderful having the opportunity of getting to know you. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of company waiting in line when your next CD comes out.
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