Gordon Johnston - Fingerstyle Irish Tenor Banjo
Gordon Johnston – “Fingerstyle Irish Tenor Banjo” (page 2)
Any particular musical experiences from childhood that stand out?
I was a youngster in the 60s and was aware of all the things that were happening then (Beatles, etc). However, I never really liked popular music and when my two older brothers started playing folk music in the 60s, I became hooked on their kind of stuff. I taught myself guitar and 5-string banjo and quickly became a member of the group. I started playing gigs when I was 13, although some venues were out of bounds for me because of my age.
Going to my first Dubliners concert in Belfast, in 1967, was a revelation. I knew then the sort of music I wanted to play. I was very lucky to find myself in places where the real traditional music was being played. For example, there was a pub in Belfast called The Old House were we would be booked to play and, on the same night, we would get to hear the likes of Uilleann piper Sean McAloon and legendary fiddler Sean Maguire. One of the earliest session pubs in the city was Pat’s Bar, down by the Docks, where I would regularly go to listen to other traditional players. I still remember clearly particular events, such as a certain Tommy Peoples from Donegal, turning up at a session in Dundalk and mesmerizing everyone.
Did anybody in your family play traditional Irish music? Parents, relatives, friends, acquaintances?
My dad was a musician of the dance band variety; he played keyboard and drums. In his early life, he was a top-notch accordionist, but not a player of traditional music (which, in fact, he despised). As I’ve mentioned, it was my older brothers who awakened my interest in Irish music. None of my peers were interested in it, nor would they have been aware such a thing existed. At that time, traditional Irish music would have been the preserve of the Nationalist community. In this respect, I was something of an anomaly, as I came from ‘the other side of the fence’. In fact, when the Troubles escalated in the late 60s, it got too dangerous for my brothers and me to go to certain parts of the city to hear the music we loved.
Are there any precedents in Irish banjo for your fingerstyle technique on tenor banjo?
I’m not aware of any. The only other non-plectrum style I know of is the ‘thimble’ style. This is where a small piece of plastic tubing, cut at an angle, is placed over the index finger. I have experimented with this style and enjoy employing it occasionally. Manchester’s Tony Sullivan is an exponent of this style. I think he refers to it as the ‘Traveler’s style.’ I’ve only ever seen about three other players using it. In fact, the famous Longford Banjo Festival in Ireland was established in honor of Johnny Keenan who was a player of this style.
What has been the response among traditional players and banjo enthusiasts to your approach?
Generally, it’s been quite favorable, but not to the extent that anyone wants to learn it. Some observers think I’m just using a thumb pick, whereas I use a thumb pick and two modified plastic fingerpicks.
What are your musical interests and aspirations? Do you play any other instruments?
I am passionate about two types of music – Irish Traditional and Bluegrass. I’m not too keen on ‘cross-fertilization’ and am a bit of a purist when it comes to the music (i.e. I’m not keen on electrification, drum kits, etc, and squirm at the sound of ‘Afro-Celt’ fusions!). The same goes for bluegrass; I love a good traditional band - like Del McCoury’s for example.
Banjo(s) is my first love and I like all sorts of styles, including classical, jazz etc. I play guitar and mandolin in the band as well as banjo. In my early days I played pedal steel, dobro and bass.
As for my aspirations, I simply want to continue to perfect my technique. In the past, when I played conventional plectrum style, I often left a session thinking, ‘I enjoyed that, but it was hard work’. I don’t feel like that anymore, since I adopted the finger style. It’s effortless in comparison.
How do you think the Internet is affecting the awareness and appreciation for Irish tenor banjo?
I think the Internet is a marvelous toy, especially for banjoists and aspiring banjoists. It’s wonderful to just type in your favorite player’s name and, more often than not, there he’ll be playing just for you. As I said, I play bluegrass banjo, too, and in recent times, I’ve been able to see footage of the likes of Don Reno, Doug Dillard, and so on. A lot of the Irish players are on there too (e.g. on YouTube).
The Internet provides a great opportunity for teaching and learning. I know, for example, there are some sites that show you how to build a banjo and I’ve seen at least one that will teach you how to play Irish tenor. It’s a tremendous means of disseminating and sharing knowledge. There is a glut of books and DVDs that will show you how to play an instrument but I think this can be a bit confusing for the beginner. The Internet could be the way forward in terms of banjo instruction!
What is your understanding of how the banjo was introduced into Irish
I believe this is fairly well documented, especially by Mick Maloney (there's a website about it somewhere). Many cite the Flannagan brothers as being some of the earliest musicians to introduce the tenor into Irish Music. My own experience has been the same as probably everbody else's in Ireland - the advent of the Dubliners and Barney McKenna. I can vividly remember the first time I saw him play at a concert in the Ulster Hall in Belfast in the late 60s. It was hypnotic. I can remember saying to my brother, ‘how can he play so far up the neck!’ Undoubtedly, McKenna spawned a whole generation of would-be banjoists.
Recently I unearthed a very old 10" LP of the great Sean Maguire (fiddle)
with his Four Star Quartet. Someone is playing the banjolin on this recording. I have heard this instrument on some early, pre-McKenna, ceili band recordings. I have built myself a banjolin, which I enjoy playing (with a plectrum of course!).
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Gordon Johnston , Irish Tenor Banjo
from Lancaster, England