Interview with Tom Berghan-BanjoCrazy.com Exclusive
Paul Roberts interviewed Tom Berghan in June of 2011
Tom Berghan was transported into the old-time banjo scene, a couple years ago, as a refugee from the Early Music camp, rockabilly bands and various other genres he’s delved into throughout a rich lifetime of musical exploration and achievement.
Even a casual participant in the premier Internet banjo community – banjohangout.com – couldn’t possibly have missed Tom’s arrival into the world of all things banjo. It was immediately obvious that his profound musical expertise was catapulting him towards unusual and gorgeous renditions of early American music. It’s been fascinating to see Tom’s evolution as a wonderful banjoist through his musical uploads to banjohangout.com. On the hangout, banjoists representing a wide range of styles appreciate Tom’s musical offerings and enjoy the creative musical renditions he comes up with, on his seemingly ever-expanding collection of interesting banjos.
Besides Tom’s extraordinary level of musicianship, his personality and dedication really come through his prolific contributions to banjohangout.com where he can often be found hanging out - communicating from high level of erudition and with a great sense of humor. This is a guy on a musical mission; we can look forward to lots of superlative banjo music from him.
Shortly before I first found out about Tom, I had written a piece about Adam Hurt’s musical finesse, saying it was as if a lutenist had picked up a banjo. Then I met Tom - a lutenist who had picked up a banjo. In fact, Tom had specialized in music of the 17th century and had been among the central figures of the American Pacific Northwest early music scene - founding and directing an organization devoted to the study and performance of historical dance and dance music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
And that’s just one part of Tom’s résumé.
Through his ability to turn any instrument into an incredibly expressive voice, and through his creative use of various types of banjos, Tom Berghan clearly stands poised, ready to make a lasting and meaningful contribution to the world of banjo music.
Tom, as a lifelong professional musician you approach the banjo from a fascinating multi-prismatic musical perspective. What is your perspective about and approach to banjo-family instruments?
Great question Paul! There are two parts to my answer.
In my case, it was the sound of the steel-stringed-banjo that attracted me. Following that, I was attracted to Old Time music. So, since the primary driver for me was literally the sound of a metal string played over a stretched membrane (made from either skin or Mylar), I was therefore attracted to all types of banjos; long ones, short ones, four strings, five strings, etcetera. It wasn't long before I began collecting and playing all of these different types of banjos. So that explains only a part of your question.
The other part of the answer is that I have a pretty varied musical background. As a performing musician for many decades I have been fortunate to have had extensive experience with a number of musical genres: Baroque, Renaissance, Blues, Rockabilly, New Orleans Jazz and Funk, Northwest Rock, and recently American Old Time music.
So naturally I began making arrangements of ensembles of banjos (duos, trios, and quartets) and recording them. I don't have a regular band at this time in my life so I play all the parts myself. Mostly I have done this for American Old Time music but recently I have been creating banjo arrangements for other types of music that I have always loved, such as Baroque music.
With regard to my developing style, a few of the most characteristic elements people have picked up on are that I often play an old time melody with a kind of Baroque approach . . . perhaps how a 17th century court musician might have approached the tune. Of course that is just pure fantasy on my part. I also create arrangements of American Old Time melodies that are realizations of what that music might have sounded like in the late 19th century, but only in my imagination! Again, it is just pure fantasy. I am pretty sure that 19th century banjo performance did not sound like my arrangements. Since I grew up in the fifties and sixties I watched lots of movies about the old west and the American pioneer days, and they would often have these sound tracks that were some Hollywood composer/arranger's version of "period" music, and these sound tracks influenced me of course. For instance, you could listen to the theme song of the old TV show Daniel Boone, and you might well hear the kind of connection I am talking about! I hope my music isn't quite that campy, but those old west soundtracks definitely took root in my imagination.
An even more significant influence on my arranging and playing of banjos is my years of listening to, and playing country Blues and Jug Band music from the 1920s and 30s which I have been involved with since I was a young teenager. When I was 18 years old I hitchhiked all the way from Spokane to Memphis to visit the great banjoist and Jug Band leader Gus Cannon. I loved Gus and he has always been one of my great heroes. Another one is Sunnyland Slim who was like a father to me. I played bass for him for several years and I studied piano with him.
Tell us more about your musical background.
When I was nine years old in the summer of 1961 I heard a rock band practicing in their living room on my block. They were called The Marauders. I snuck up to their front porch and looked in the screen door. I scanned across the room watching the musicians and then my eyes fell upon the guitarist. I can still see him in my mind’s eye now. He was playing a great big apple-red thin line hollow body Epiphone guitar. It was beautiful! I knew right then and there that I could play that instrument. I went home and asked my mom if I could please study the guitar and the very next day we had rented a cheap Danelectro guitar and I was studying with an older jazz player. That was a great guitar, but I traded her in for an old Telecaster. I wish I had all the instruments I have ever owned because I would be filthy rich!
I played in many rock bands as a kid. In the Pacific Northwest we had our own unique brand of Rock and Roll. The Wailers, The Sonics, The Kingsmen, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and many more; That was the music I grew up with and cut my teeth on. In those days there were lots of dances and plenty of opportunities for young bands to play and even make a little money! As I mentioned, early on I fell in love with country blues of the 1920s and 30s. I collected a lot of blues records and spent many hours learning what the various instruments were playing.
Later, I decided that attending a music conservatory was the best education for me to pursue. It was then that I became fascinated with musicology and specialized in music of the renaissance and baroque periods. I have played various types of lutes for over forty years now.
From that point on I continued to make my living as a musician and I played all sorts of music over the years and was very fortunate to always be able to play with amazing and truly great musicians. I have been very fortunate and I am grateful for that. Unfortunately, being successful in the music business takes more luck than talent. There are many, many great musicians all over the world, great artists, who play in totally obscurity and never get a chance to break out. Mississippi John Hurt is an example. He was in his sixties before he was "discovered." and yet he was an absolute genius.
You're making a significant impact on the banjo hangout Internet site with your creative approaches to banjos but my understanding is that you've only been playing banjos for a couple years. How is it to find so many players receptive to your ideas?
Okay, so here is the story. I had been playing guitars and lutes for many years and I played bass guitar also. I had always used a flatpick but mostly I picked with my fingers on all of these instruments. I was what we call an "up–picker." I had always wanted to learn to play clawhammer banjo but the technique was backwards for me and I could never get it! (Clawhammer is down-picking)
I travel a lot on business and one time a few years ago I had returned from Europe with a very bad fever.
I was laying on my deathbed. A friend of mine from college days visited me and brought me his five string banjo. He said "Keep it! I have listened to you complain for years that you always wanted to learn clawhammer banjo so NOW is your chance."
I needed some pointers to get me started so I watched some online videos by the Banjo Hangout's very own Donald Zepp and Tony Spadaro (The Old Woodchuck) and their videos showed me exactly what I needed to know. My hands eventually figured it out, and from that point I was able to advance very quickly since I had years of experience playing other stringed instruments. Actually, it is all chronicled on my banjo hangout recordings page. The dates and the recordings tell the whole story. It is fun for me to go back and listen to how my progress and personal style developed over the past few years. These days, I play a lot of clawhammer of course, but in addition, I also continue to up-pick and I often play my four string banjos with a flat-pick.
As always, I was very lucky to make friends with some very fine musicians, but now it was on the Banjo Hangout. So the truth is, for all of my musical performance across my life, all credit goes to my many fine teachers and friends that I have been so lucky to have known and played with.
The international community of banjoists on the Banjo Hangout, including you Paul Roberts, have really made it possible for me to learn the many types of banjos and I highly recommend all aspiring banjo players to join in and get to pickin! And, always keep in mind that you can learn a lot from all musicians and certainly including those whose technique may be less than yours, but although their technique may be primitive, their creativity can be unique!
Please tell us about the banjos you play and your perspective about various styles of banjos and setup?
I learned most of what I know primarily from three friends on the Banjo Hangout, who each have vast knowledge: Ed Britt, Dan Knowles, and John Balch. I should start by explaining that I have a fairly wide definition of what a banjo is. To me, a banjo is a stringed instrument whereupon the strings are played over a stretched membrane . . . traditionally a skin, and in modern times, some form of Mylar is common. That is what gives it a sound unique from most other stringed instruments because they have wooden soundboards (not skin). So, there have been many different types of banjos since the mid 19th century.
Let us postulate that there is spectrum of banjo-timbre. On one end is the fretless gut strung open-back minstrel style banjo of the mid 19th century. On the other end is the modern bright ringing heavy cast brass or bronze alloy tone ring banjo. This is a gross oversimplification, but I think it will suffice for this discussion. My personal preference in banjo-sound is in the middle of this spectrum.
Although all of my lutes have gut strings, I prefer metal strings (primarily steel) on my banjos. I have also played with different types of nylon strings on my banjos, but in the end I prefer the sound of metal strings. That is the sound I first fell in love with.
I also like either just a plain rim with no metal tone ring, or, I like a simple tone ring such as a ½ inch brass tube hoop. Maybe a Dobson tone ring or a Whyte Laydie, but it depends on the banjo. Suffice to say that I seek a warmer richer sound with more low frequencies. There are so many tone rings in banjo-history, but as I have stated, I tend to prefer a simple banjo design and the lack of a tone ring is generally fine with me.
Having said that, I also like a rim-diameter, that when combined with the scale of the neck, will place the bridge nearer the center of the head. Not dead center, but closer to the center. That gives it more of what we call "plunk" and a warmer sound. I also prefer my banjos to have resonators because a resonator adds to the low frequency response. It functions the same way as an enclosed ported speaker cabinet. For instance, on my soprano the scale is 14 inches, but I have an 11 inch rim, which places the bridge near the center and so it has a warm “polite” timbre. Historically, soprano banjos have 8 to 10 inch rims and have a very in-your-face brash timbre that cut well through a theatre orchestra back in the days of Vaudeville.
I prefer a skin head to a Mylar head. I have tried calf and goat skins and I would probably like other skins as well. Mylar is generally too "punchy" sounding for my personal taste; although I do have a Mylar head on my baritone and I like it.
Because I like to arrange for banjo-ensembles, I need what is referred to as "consort" of banjos (family of banjos), so I have a soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass. These are all four string banjos. I also have a five string with no tone-ring, built by Chuck Lee (Ovilla model) that was originally open-back, to which I added a resonator. I think Chuck is one of very finest banjo luthiers in the world today. Three of my four-string banjos were custom made for me by Wayne Rogers and his Gold Tone Banjo Company. I love that company! Wayne is a real visionary kind of guy, and is always willing to experiment. I should also mention that my custom built Gold Tone bass banjo is fretless which makes its timbre lean closer to a double bass. It is unique in the world of banjos. My bass banjo is always a real crowd pleaser. People love the sound of that bass banjo! My tenor banjo is a very special 1929 Gibson TB2. It is a simple but elegant design. It has a brass hoop tone ring. It sounds very sweet.
I used to have a very fine fretless banjo by Jason Romero, but I sold it having decided that I want to get a partially fretless banjo. Jason's banjos are "top drawer," and always so tastefully stylish. My latest is a custom design of my own creation being built as we speak. It is a nine string banjo made by luthier Dan Knowles of Paris TN. Four of the strings are simply sympathetic to provide greatly extended sustain. Other than that it is a normal five string . . . except that any banjo made by Dan Knowles is anything but normal. Dan's instruments are truly works of art as well as very fine instruments. I believe we are living in a golden age of banjo building. There are so many, many, excellent banjo luthiers at this time. It is very exciting.
For now that is my current stable of banjos.
Tom, you're a musician, a music educator, a musical scholar and a stringed instrument expert. What would be your essential advice to beginning banjo player?
1) My advice is to always spend a significant amount of time playing melodies just as a single line. Since we banjoists often combine playing a melody with harmony or with some sort of counterpoint, such as occurs when we play bluegrass or clawhammer or traditional jazz style . . . we can often start to lose the melody in all of that fancy picking and strumming. It isn't enough just to listen to a fiddler playing the melody . . . we need to play the melody ourselves as a single line and really pay attention to the phrasing. Where will you add "breaths?" Where will you accent? Which notes will you play staccato? Which notes will you play legato? Where will you build the volume? Where will you diminish the volume?
So, you might well actually never perform that way (on the banjo by playing just a single line), but when you do this every day (or often) you will find that when you play "fancy" you will naturally bring that melody out much more than otherwise, and, you will work that same phrasing into your performance. In short, it will really help you to play musically versus just technically proficient.
2) If you want to play fast, practice slowly and use a metronome. Many musicians hate playing with a metronome but then many musicians do not keep very good time either! Do not set the metronome to click on every beat of every measure. That will force to you play in a mechanical way. Rather, set it to click on the first beat of each measure, or, set it to click on the two & four.
3) Scales can be a little boring but practice them often. It will help your ear training, your improvising, and your speed.
4) Carefully work out your fingerings. Go through a new piece or tune slowly at first and decide on the best, most ergonomic, fingerings. If you try to take on a new piece too quickly at too fast a tempo with clumsy fingering, you will be imprinting that fingering into your brain and into your muscle memory. Once that happens, those habits, those muscle memories, become very hard to break.
5) Have fun! If you are stressing out, slow down, or put it down for a day or two. We don't have to be technical wizards to make good enjoyable meaningful music. And keep in mind that no matter how good any of us become, there is always going to be someone better, and someone of lesser capability. No one is the best! No one is the worst! Love your banjo!
What a concise and eloquent primer! Any more thoughts on how to create more musical expressiveness?
Yes, I do have some thoughts on this subject!
When we play music we must not simply play the notes. Playing music is a very transcendental form of communication. And like speaking, we need to know what we are saying. If we speak words without knowing their meaning, it would be like dumbly reading aloud in a foreign language. It would have little meaning. The listener can easily tell the difference. We must have images and ideas in our mind. We must communicate something of our human experience. So I always suggest to musicians who ask this question that they have images in their mind when they play. So knowing a bit of history about an old tune or considering what the title suggests to your imagination, that can be very powerful. If you let your music flow from your imagination you will be communicating in a very meaningful way. It is difficult to explain in words. I think music transcends words, so, it cannot really be fully explained with words. But if a musician plays from their imagination, they communicate much more than just notes.
I think that's one of the really important things you demonstrate in your mp3's on Banjo Hangout. Extending beyond the notes. That's where the real communication comes in.
Thank you friend, I appreciate that very much.
Tom, where's your banjo music going? What are your musical goals and aspirations?
I want to contribute to the great canon of recorded banjo performance. I have been exploring on my banjos and finding the trails I want to hike. I probably will not continue to keep adding and adding different musical genre, but rather try to refine and hone the paths that I frequently traverse now. There are great banjo artists such as Bela Fleck, but, I am not now, and likely will never be in Bela's league. But that is okay! I can still make wonderful music that will communicate to lots of people. That is all I want to do.
You know, Bela is just phenomenal. Of course he is a great Bluegrass player, but he also, of course, has recorded works by Vivaldi and Paganini. He is also a much respected Jazz artist. I was watching him perform just before Christmas (2010) and he is even dabbling in eastern music from Tuva and China! Bela is great. But I am much, much simpler, less complex, and less technical.
I am not saying "I know my limits." I have no limits, but I will do things that have not quite been done before. That does not mean they will be amazing technical feats of virtuosity. Some of it may be as simple as it gets, but hopefully good music that will communicate to people and speak to their imagination, and to their heart.
In addition to being an "okay" soloist, I'm a pretty good ensemble player. I can be very useful in a band and as a session guy. I love to play with other people.
I make a decent director, producer, and collaborator. I have always had a knack for polishing the work of others. So I strongly see that in my future. I want to record and produce other banjoists and Old Time musicians. There are so many great musicians across America and in the world, and so much better than I am, but they are obscure! They work at other trades and only perform occasionally in their local communities. But they are great artists none-the-less. I would like to spend a significant bit of my time left in life recording and producing others. I have not really taken a serious run at this yet but that is one of my major goals.
What's your impression of the current state of banjo music?
We are in good shape at the moment! You know, there have been great peaks in banjo popularity, performance and building. The first was in the mid 19th century with the advent of the minstrel shows, another was in the late 19th century as the banjo moved into "respected society" and into the music parlors of America. The third was during the first decades of jazz music. And now we are in another cycle. (To all you music historians, I acknowledge that this is an oversimplification). Bluegrass fans may think I did not include that genre. But I am. This current cycle starts with Earl and we see the curve still climbing in my estimation. If we accept my little theory, then this is the longest cycle yet!
Bluegrass is still rising in popularity and Old Time is definitely on the rise ("Old Time," a bit of a misnomer as it is still developing and evolving). And we can't forget the Irish scene of which I am a huge fan! There are more festivals, camps, and workshops every day, and the list of banjo recording artists continues to grow. And, we see that there are many, many young people taking part in all of this so I don't think we have seen the peak in this cycle yet.
But, I suspect it will peak, and we will see another decline. Maybe not . . . some instruments such as the violin hold steady. But, if there is another cycle, it is exciting to think of what the next cycle will involve, but I don't think it will be in my lifetime. Maybe I will be fortunate enough to see its leading edge!
Most musical instruments experience this phenomenon. It is like the "Legend of the Phoenix." It rises, it peaks and burns, then rises from the ashes, and the cycle begins anew. But I truly believe that the banjo is here to stay and will eventually shed its shackles and take its rightful place amongst the world's "respectable" instruments. And when that happens, hopefully it won't cause too much damage to its wild and irrepressible nature!
Tom, your personal musical renaissance is helping set off a renaissance in the global banjo world, right now. I hope we can continue this discussion.
I would like that Paul. From one old picker to another, you keep on pickin' friend and I'll see you around the old BanjoHangout.com
Read more about Tom's custom made banjo's on page 2 of this story
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Tom Berghan - Banjoist Extraordinaire
Through his creative use of various types of banjos, Tom Berghan clearly stands poised, ready to make a lasting and meaningful contribution to the world of banjo music.