Cello Banjo Interview with Mary Z. Cox - by Paul Roberts

  Mary Z. Cox

“If you suspect you need a new banjo, you do,” says Mary Z. Cox. “Trust your musical instincts. If a banjo calls to you to buy it, don't fight destiny. It was meant to be.”


The 17 fine banjos in Mary’s collection reflect her obvious passion towards the instrument.


“All of my banjos are so awesome,” she says. “Some of them are the finest ever made - most have been set up by pros.” I asked her which she liked better, nickel or gold plating. “Of course I like the gold better, because it matches my hair, and it’s pretty,” she said.


Mary Z. Cox began playing banjo when she was 12 years old. Now, her banjo music has been played on the BBC and National Public radio and is available on iTunes worldwide. Mary has recorded six CDs, written five banjo tab books and published in Banjo Newsletter, Studio Magazine and The Old Time Herald.


Mary has won numerous awards and competitions. She and her guitarist husband, Bob, entertain audiences with banjo and dulcimer concerts. Mary and Bob enjoy introducing students, of all ages, to tunes and techniques on the banjo and dulcimer at workshops and camps throughout the U.S.


I spoke to Mary about her experience with the Cello Banjo.


How did you find out about the Cello Banjo and what motivated you to start playing it?


I just love my cello banjo. You should hear it now that it's set up. It sounds exactly as I imagined it would. I'm happy to be interviewed and honored that you thought of me.


Last May, Wayne Rogers played his cello banjo in the banjo contest at the Florida Folk Festival. I was one of the judges. After the competition, Wayne brought out a couple of them and let me sit and play them. It was love at first touch. IMHO, cello banjos sound best played with a simple, uncluttered style that emphasizes the bass string, and that is my style--so the cello was immediately playable to me.


Of course, I was on heavy banjo restriction last May, but even my husband could see that there was a cello banjo in my future, and that it would be impossible to block such a force of nature from our home. He walked right up and said “Hope this not going to be too expensive--but we'll find a way for you to get one.”


Besides the tonal range, what are some of the differences between playing the CB and a standard banjo?


Its big and on the heavy side, but not heavier than some of my other banjos. I've ordered a wider strap to make it more comfortable to stand and play. The strings that I have on it now are silver wound nylon and they respond wonderfully all over the banjo. I like them much better than the plain nylon strings it came with.


I have been keeping my cello in the D, A, A modal tuning to play tunes there. It is a good range to play duets with others and also for me to sing and play. I love it as a solo instrument, especially with singing. Since the bass notes are so low--it sounds good alone, even without a guitar. The large string gauge makes it definitely worth using a clawhammer pick or having an acrylic nail on my right hand. The left hand is easy to finger because of the short scale.


How are others responding to your CB playing? In what contexts are you using it?


I played it at a local benefit on a solo set right after I got it. It was in a room at the back of a store. I was the second act. When I came on stage, the empty chairs began to fill. When I began to play the cello, folks stopped talking and listened. The folks that were in the store came and stood in the back and listened to the whole set. I'd say they really were drawn in by the sound of the cello banjo and knew it was something special they wanted to hear.


I recently took it with me on a trip to North Carolina. All my buddies there wanted to play it. Each got this look of wonder on his face while playing it, and some did not want to give it back. Folks seem to be attracted to deep bass sounding instruments right now.


Last year, I got a John Bowlin 1865 fretless and I took it all the way to California and back. Everywhere I went--folks wanted to see and hear that banjo with its deep wonderful voice. However, John Bowlin builds these banjos one at a time by himself, so it takes almost a year to get one. It is well worth the wait. Many of my friends have ordered a Bowlin—but then the cello banjo came on the scene--and guess what! They have a growly bass sound, are extremely affordable, and you can have one immediately. I know there are quite a few folks that have bought them and are playing them while they wait for their Bowlins to come in. But, they are actually quite different banjos, so those folks will end up with two very fun banjos in the lower range.


I taped a video right away of “Greasy Coat” and put it up on Youtube for folks to hear. Most of the folks who had put up videos of this banjo used a more classical style--but I wanted folks to see the possibility of a wild rumbly clawhammer style on it. I think many players were looking for this sound to add diversity to his/her playing. Wayne tells me that they are selling the five-string version 5 to 1 over the four-string version.


The five-string version is almost immediately playable for someone who already frails or clawhammers. The four string is beautiful, but you essentially, need to learn cello left hand fingerings and be a strong flatpicker on your right hand to play it well. Guitarists, mandolinists, and 4 string Irish banjo players take well to the 4-string version.


Now that these instruments are beginning to emerge, what musical roles possibilities do you see them fulfilling?


I plan to work mine into our stage show whenever possible because folk love to hear its low growling voice. Bob and I are working on a couple cello banjo/guitar duets, and I will be singing and playing the cell banjo too.


We sometimes present historical workshops on the history of the banjo, and I plan to include the cello in the line up of reproduction banjos that I bring out for this.


It is fun to bring out to play duets with banjo picking friends too. Here is a little Youtube that I just put up playing a duet on "Ragtime Annie" with my friend, John Warren in Cashiers, North Carolina.




How do you know Wayne of Gold Tone and what are yours thoughts about what Gold Tone is doing?


Wayne Rogers is an awesome and generous man as well as a thoughtful banjo builder and businessman. I first met him several years ago when I won first place in the Tommy Thompson Memorial Banjo Contest at the Florida

Folk Festival. Wayne donates many banjos as prizes in banjo contests all over the country.


The first place prize was a Goldtone Elite Classic. It was a special banjo in that Wayne had designed it after the spun rim banjos such as the old SS Stewarts. My local luthier set it up for me with real gut strings—just like the original SS Stewarts--and the Elite quickly became one of my favorite banjo voices.


I dropped it down into a low A tuning and recorded several pretty tunes on it on our "Banjo Dreamin' Suwannee Nights" CD. I also recorded “Shenandoah Falls” and “Waterbound” on it on our new “Florida Banjo” CD.


“Waterbound” is a double tracked solo duet on the Elite, and “Shenandoah Falls” is a double tracked banjo/mountain dulcimer duet. Dulcimer Player News selected “Shenandoah Falls” for its current compilation disk that comes with the magazine. (Fall/Winter 2008) It turned out really nice. We are the only track with a banjo/dulcimer duet and the voice of the low tuned Elite Classic really stands out nicely with the mountain dulcimer.


Wayne not only builds banjos, but he researches historical models, and then produces reproductions at resonable prices so that banjoists everywhere can experience a little of the magic without having to be a vintage banjo collector.


Recently, I visited his shop/factory in Titusville, Florida to have my new cello banjo professionally set up. Wayne and his head set up man, Chris, spent two hours fine tweaking it, and now sounds as fine as any cello banjo I've ever heard. Wayne actually went back there on the workbench and worked on my banjo himself. Lots of folks don't realize that he is not just a manufacturer and business man--but an actual builder and player too.


I was very impressed with his shop and its family atmosphere. Wayne's lovely wife and daughter were working right along side of his other employees the whole time I was there. Everyone was busy, but seemed relaxed and happy--there was no sweatshop assembly line. It was neat and clean and had a family business atmosphere where folks seemed to be enjoying assembling and packing banjos. You could tell from the atmosphere that Wayne is well loved by his family and employees. Happy banjos from happy folks.

I was most impressed with a technique that Wayne showed me that he had developed especially for the new cello banjo. While playing, he alternates his thumb between the fourth and fifth string while clawhammering to bring in more bass notes on the cello. It fits the voice of the cello perfectly, and of all the folks I've heard play the cello banjo--I think I enjoy Wayne's playing with the alternate thumb style the best.


One of the things I like best about Wayne is his ability to think outside the box. His ability to take a reproduction instrument and develop technique to move its sound into new genres is of great value to the entire banjo world.

the end

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