Gordon Johnston - Fingerstyle Irish Tenor Banjo by Paul Roberts 9/8/08
Gordon Johnston is a master of the Irish tenor banjo with an unusual style. Instead of a plectrum, Gordon uses finger picks, with a technique that opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities for rhythmic textures and tonal subtleties. His approach has introduced me to a very satisfying tenor banjo style, and I am quite grateful to him for that.
Gordon demonstrates his technique on a YouTube video that has received over 10 thousand hits. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6rK30O3HjQ
My interview with Gordon Johnston was done via email:
There's an unmistakable authenticity in your Irish tenor banjo playing. Obviously, you've got it in your blood. Would you say something about your early musical experiences and what influenced the way you developed your musical expressiveness?
“I was brought up in Northern Ireland and moved to NW England in 1971at the age of 16. As a youngster in Belfast, I became very keen on Irish folk music – the sort of stuff that was being churned out by the likes of the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers.
From a very early age, I was captivated by the sound of a banjo. The 5-string became my first instrument, the age of 13, and I more or less taught myself bluegrass banjo. Only years later, when I got the Scruggs book, could I iron out all my misconceptions. I still play 5-string in a group with my brother and we perform a mixture of bluegrass and ‘British’ and Irish folk song.
From my early days, I was keen on traditional Irish music and went to sessions in Belfast, then, subsequently, to sessions in England. It wasn’t until 1979 that I got my first tenor banjo. For about 20 years, I played the Irish tenor in the conventional plectrum style. Ironically, I had always played a few reels and jigs on the 5-string fingerstyle!
When it came to learning tunes I would always find it more interesting to listen to good box and pipes players, but was always a bit frustrated that I couldn’t emulate what such players were doing, a reflection on my inadequate plectrum technique.
In about the year 2000 I was in a session at a Scottish folk festival and found myself messing around with fingerpicks on my tenor. I got the notion that maybe I could produce the ornamentation more effectively and consistently if I could develop this technique. This is what I have been doing for the past 8 or so years. So, my ‘musical expressiveness,’ such as it is, is the result of an odd amalgamation of bluegrass banjo technique and a love of the playing of grassroots traditional players. I still think of my technique as work in progress, as I’m constantly thinking of different ways of doing things.
Playing the tenor banjo with fingerpicks results in a different tone (and not to everyone's liking!). It's something that works for me, as I've found that I can play much more fluidly and the decorations come much easier. I think that, at the end of the day, it's what you produce that counts and not how you produce it. I'm still experimenting with different pick and string combinations. Recently, I played a couple of vintage 'pre-war' tenors and was taken by their response to the fingerpick style. The tenor I play mostly is a typical 'mastertone' design, so I intend to explore other types. continued on page 2
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Gordon Johnston , Irish Tenor Banjo
from Lancaster, England