Interview with Laurence Diehl-BanjoCrazy.com Exclusive
Paul Roberts interviewed Laurence Diehl in August of 2011
Laurence Diehl is a musician’s musician whose ability to play the banjo in so many genres - from his original compositions to bluegrass, jazz, rock, blues, and beyond - is widening the perception of where it’s possible to go on the instrument. An exceptionally talented banjo and guitar player, Laurence toured for many years playing in bands that covered a wide range of musical genres.
Laurence is highly accessible to musicians throughout the world because the place he enjoys sharing his music and communicating with others is on the Internet. No longer constantly hitting the road as a performer, Laurence’s chosen creative domain is the premier banjo website Banjo Hangout. There he posts his music and communicates with musicians from beginners to professionals, encouraging them to cultivate the many creative possibilities of the banjo. Laurence Diehl stands out as a brilliant musician and a magnanimous role model in today’s banjo world.
Laurence, it's always informative to learn about a musician's early childhood musical experiences. What are some of yours?
They say that before I could talk I would point to the radio and make gurgling noises until they turned it on. My parents did not play music but they loved it, especially my Dad. He would play classical music or sometimes some swing music all the time he was home. I started playing violin at age 9 but the instrument didn't really resonate with me; I just couldn't make it sound good. My world changed in 1962 when I heard "Twist 'N Shout" by the Beatles blasting out of a neighbor’s living room in London. I think that is when my relationship to music changed from passive to an emotional one. Like many others around me, the Beatles were the catalyst for that change. Also, they allowed me to think that people like me could play music for a living and be successful at it.
When did you begin playing music and how did that come about?
I took up guitar at 14. The first song I learned was called “Strontium 90” out of a Sing Out! Magazine - hey, this was the ‘60s! My brother Bob played fiddle and he was getting immersed in the British folk revival while at Manchester University. He came home on break and left his Harmony Sovereign guitar with me. The next time he came home, I was playing Carter Family songs on it. A good instrument makes all the difference. Pretty soon, we were playing guitar and fiddle at folk clubs in South London. We sang badly with quasi-American accents. We learned a lot of New Lost City Ramblers material back then. Music was becoming a very big part of my life; it really helped me make it through my teenage years.
So, you actually started with folk music. For some reason that surprises me. I guess because you site the Beatles as an early influence before you started playing. How did your music evolve?
Well, I didn't feel like I could go off and sound like the Beatles. All those vocal harmonies, drums, and electric guitars - I didn't even consider it. But with American folk music, I could learn the chords and the words and pick out a melody on the guitar in a few days and it sounded okay! Then there was the social aspect of playing with my brother and finding an audience in folk clubs and pubs. I think this is why folk music remains so vibrant - you don't have to be a genius to play it (although it has its share of great players). Ordinary people can participate; it is not passive entertainment.
Was that time frame in those overlapping years, before Dylan turned electric? I went to England in the summer of '64 and hung out with a folk group from Lancaster who were performing in working men's clubs, where families would gather to socialize. They were still heavy into the Kingston Trio even thought the Beatles were already riding high.
This would be the late 1960s. The folk revival in the US came across to Britain, but that in turn spurred a renaissance of homegrown folk music. It was a time of great creativity. The Beatles had gone global by this time, but there were several other strains of music that were going full force.
When did you start playing banjo?
I took up the banjo when I was 16. That's when things started getting a lot more interesting. By the time I was 18 I was hanging out with bluegrass musician Bill Clifton who was living in England at the time.
What was that scene like?
Well, the venues were the working men's clubs (which were like union halls), folk clubs and pubs. Festivals were just starting to take off in the summertime - Cambridge was the big one. By 1973, Bill started bringing over the great mandolin player Red Rector (a regular on the Cas Walker ‘Farm and Country Hour’ out of Knoxville TN), and I would tour around with them for a week, usually in the northern counties of England. I was fortunate in that I not only played with them, but we lived and traveled together the whole time. So I really got to know these guys. I was in awe of being around real bluegrass musicians! Bill Clifton was not only a good singer, but also a great rhythm guitar player. Playing with him felt like a freight train was on stage with you. I learned a lot about timing, and also when not to play...valuable lessons.
Tom Paley - formerly of the New Lost City Ramblers - was another person I got to spend time with. I would plan my vacations around meeting up with these guys. Nobody was making much money but it was a small, dedicated scene.
Were you performing on guitar and banjo at that time?
I was playing both, but in band situations, it was the banjo that people wanted to hear. There weren't that many banjo players around back then.
How did you get inspired to take up the banjo? How did you learn? Who were some of your early influences?
My brother was playing fiddle in a bluegrass band called Country Strings. I went out to hear them when I was about 15. I had never heard bluegrass banjo before, let alone seen somebody play. I think the banjo player's name was Keith Bennett. All these notes were blasting out of the instrument and his hands didn't appear to be moving. And I was blown away. I was hooked immediately.
I bought a banjo about a year later, but by that time I had moved down to Dorset in the south of England, and there were no banjo teachers, or players, in the area. I bought the Pete Seeger book and started trying to learn that way, but it was slow going. Then I had an accident at my summer job on the beach where I cut my little finger so badly it was incapacitated. I couldn't play guitar but with 3 fingers on the left hand I could play banjo.
I spent that summer sitting on my bed, slogging through the tab to Old Joe Clark. After about 6 weeks, I could play it up to speed. The melody suddenly appeared from a jumble of notes, and I felt like I had broken the code! My hand did heal up, by the way.
My early influences were any banjo player I could find on record. But, this being England, bluegrass records were hard to come by at the time. I found a Flatt & Scruggs record at Woolworths of all places. It was the one with Earl’s Breakdown, Randy Lynn Rag, etc. And I had a Country Gentlemen record with Eddie Adcock on banjo. I had a record player that would play at 16 RPM so I didn't actually have to put my thumb on it! That was about it. But Earl was definitely an early influence, so I started off right.
So, basically, it sounds like you taught yourself how to play the banjo.
I have never taken a lesson. But, in a way I have been taught by everybody, once I learned how to listen.
From the depth and diversity of music you’ve posted on banjohangout.com, I assumed you'd at least be a professor emeritus from Julliard. As a guy who didn't have formal music education in childhood; who taught himself how to play guitar and banjo; and, who plays in many genres – to me you're outside-the-box and off-the-charts style is amazing.
Wow, that's such a very nice compliment Paul! I think that a lot of people have diverse musical interests, but I was never content to just listen, I had to try and play them all, with varying degrees of success. For instance, after I came to appreciate Charlie Parker I had to go out and buy a saxophone. I am not sure how many bluegrass musicians would have done that. But I think that you, Paul, as a multi-instrumentalist, can probably relate to it. Although I never took a lesson on an instrument, I did take a course in jazz band arranging at the University of Arizona (Tucson). I learned a lot about harmonization and how to write music scores. I also took music theory lessons from a graduate of the North Texas U. music program.
Your Banjo Hangout bio states:"Originally from London, England. Moved to Charleston WV in 1976 to play with Morris brothers. ... I strayed from the bluegrass fold (I wanted to eat, regularly) and wound up playing electric guitar in country dance halls and venues all over the place, including the Opry. I even sold my banjo! Then, in 2002, after a 15-year hiatus I bought that same banjo back again. Since then, I have been trying to challenge myself with new stuff, including writing my own tunes." Could you flesh that out a bit?
I was touring around with a couple of pals from England, hitting the festivals. We wound up in Bowling Green, Ohio where the Morris Bros. of Ivydale, WV were on the bill at a local festival. One thing led to another and Dave Morris asked me to join his band. I decided to take the plunge, live the dream and I just went home long enough to quit my job, sell my car and say goodbye to everyone. I played with them for about 6 months, until the end of festival season.
Then I drifted around and did a lot of things, all music related... but within 3 years I was playing electric guitar in country bands, swing bands, rock bands etc. The work was plentiful and steady. Perhaps I should add some detail about my transition from acoustic bluegrass musician to electric dance bands. I was rather down on my luck in Tucson AZ and I ran into this road band that was desperate for a guitar player. I told them I could do the job and we hit the road – I didn’t even audition. It took them until about Thursday before they confronted me with the fact that (a) I was a complete novice on the electric guitar and (b) I didn’t know any of their material! But by then we were in Yuma or Gila Bend or somewhere – impossible to find a replacement, so I stayed on. It went a bit smoother after that experience, but everything I learned was by slogging it out on stage – 5 hours a night, 6 nights a week. Sometimes 50 weeks a year.
I did that for the next 15 years and I didn't play any banjo the whole time. It wasn't until I had gone through a career change that I felt like 'getting back to my roots' so to speak. But when I returned to banjo I didn't feel like I could just pick up where I left off - too much had happened in the interim. I wanted to play in a way that reflected all my influences. Not just different genres, but techniques too. There is a lot of electric guitar technique that transfers readily over to banjo for instance. Small differences in your left and right hand techniques are amplified back to you at high volume. You really start to appreciate the effect of things like right and left hand damping, vibrato, attack and touch. So all that history is what shaped me as a musician.
Here are some questions from Ric Hollander:
Ric - Hi Laurence,
When you figure out a complex piece, do you write it out (tab) as you go?
No, I always memorize. I figure I have to do that sooner or later anyway. When I am composing, I sometimes write down ideas in standard notation, especially if they come at awkward times like when I roll out of bed in the morning.
Ric - What inspires you musically?
I'm glad you said "what" and not "who" - that would be a really long list! Still, a tough question. A lot of times there is just an emotional response, which defies analysis (as it should). But if music is composed of tones and rhythm, it is the rhythm component that I respond to the most. I love hearing phrases that cross the bar line, or end on the weak beat. I love grooves and polyrhythm and I love playing with drummers. I really like being surprised when I hear someone play. I enjoy the unpredictable. Rhythm just seems more primal to me - you can feel it! All the people that I enjoy musically have a mastery of rhythm.
Ric - What other types of non-banjo music do you listen to and does it have an influence on your playing?
Well, lots - and it has a huge influence. Quite honestly, the only banjo players I listen to anymore are on banjohangout.com. The influence of non-banjo music is rather indirect. For instance, I discovered the Oud playing of Anour Brahem a few years ago and it didn't make me try and adopt anything of his style, but I did start investigating some of the scales used in North African music and applying it to banjo. I have listened to a lot of Charlie Parker and I may not be playing any of the same notes, but I will try and internalize his phrasing. Music is derivative - constantly combining and recombining different forms. That's one of the things that are so wonderful about it - there is just no end to the ways you can produce new music.
John Kuhn asks:
“Laurence, you had a background as a horn and jazz guitar player, so how did the banjo come into play, despite that kind of background?” John also says, “He's a monster Strat chicken picker as well...He has a rock background, too.”
When I look back at my musical development, it does seem pretty crazy, like I'm trying to play every instrument in multiple genres. But really, I just love all these kinds of music and my response has always been to try and play them, not just sit back and listen.
So now, I'm just trying to take all these musical forms that I love and channel them through the banjo. I love the banjo more now than I ever did, and I think I have surprised myself at how versatile the instrument can be. I love jazz and I love banjo so it felt very natural to put the two together. But since I have also played saxophones and guitar in a variety of contexts, my approach will also draw from many different places when I arrange these tunes.
It is hard for me to say what constitutes a 'background' because for me, things have always been so fluid. Although for most of my professional career, I played country venues. The emphasis was on dance music - which can include a lot of things. In one band, I played a lot of Asleep At The Wheel and even Duke Ellington. Another band played a fair amount of R&B, Delbert McClinton. Country/Rock, Blues/Rock and Jazz/Rock hybrids were also acceptable as long as they had a dance beat. And when you are playing 5 hours a night, six to seven nights a week, this kind of diversity was a welcome relief to the band. I never wanted to play Merle Haggard all night long. Although as professional musicians you are constrained to play what your audience wants to hear, we often decided that maybe they don't know what they want to hear until we play it for them!
Here's a question from Rob MacKillop:
“I'm wondering if he learned Bach on the guitar in his past, or if he is coming to Bach for the first time through the banjo. I like his free approach, but Bach was a contrapuntalist more than a melodist, so I personally feel I'm only hearing half the story, as if one headphone is not working. But I'm 100% behind his exploration and experimentation.”
I used to try and play Bach on the guitar but, basically, I'm a hack. I have no formal training, classical or otherwise. Rob makes a valid point, and he is referring specifically to my recent arrangement of Prelude in D Major, which was written for the lute. Bach writes beautiful counterpoint but, unfortunately, in this case the harmonization fell below the range of the banjo, making it impossible to include in the arrangement. I do take liberties, even with works of great masters, without too much guilt. That is sometimes the price for pushing the banjo beyond its comfort zone.
I was a bit more successful with my arrangement for two of Bach's harpsichord pieces, where I could cover both 'hands' of the keyboard in a multi-tracking environment. But this has really whetted my appetite for a cello banjo! I can imagine making a CD of this kind of contrapuntal music, playing the parts on a standard 5 string and a cello banjo.
Could you comment on what you enjoy about participating on banjohangout.com? How does this fit into your own creative musical exploration, and what is your interaction like, with other players, that makes this meaningful for you?
My focus on the banjo now is only because of the Banjo Hangout website. This is where my audience is, and playing music without an audience seems a bit pointless to me. I don't think of myself as a banjo player, but rather as a musician who plays the banjo.
Banjo Hangout is creeping up on 60,000 accounts as I write this. With that many banjo players, some of them are bound to be like-minded individuals, no matter how outside-the-box you are. The site helps fill the void that I felt when I quit playing professionally. In some ways, it is actually better.
Some of my favorite projects have been online collaborations with John Kuhn (The KIDD), John Boulding (Banjophobic) and JoeMac. I have huge respect for these guys and you really get to know a person (their music side) by the intense interactions that these collaborations demand.For me, it has been the next best thing to joining a ‘supergroup’. Some examples of these projects would be ‘Jessica’, ‘Little Wing’ and there are more on The Kidd’s page.
Playing to a dance crowd, I would often feel that they didn't understand what I was doing. Shocking, I know, but I don't think they were critiquing my playing very much. With my friends on the hangout, I know that they 'get it' - even if they're too kind to tell me what I'm doing wrong. Their support gives me a lot of confidence to keep trying new things and to keep improving. Also, hearing their contributions is inspirational and can lead me in new directions. There are some really great players on the hangout that I would never have heard of otherwise. It's a real community and I have made a lot of great virtual friends that I hope I can meet in person some day.
That's quite a testament to the Internet's significance in today’s music world, if a true artist like yourself can feel like they're actualizing their creativity and getting the feedback the need by utilizing it the way you are.
Yes, it's surprising how close you can feel to people you have never met. There are many players on the hangout whose opinions I value highly - mostly because I have heard their music on sound files and videos and know what they are capable of. What could be better than appreciation by your peers? I would go so far as to say that if it were not for the hangout, I might not even be playing banjo anymore. As it is, I am still improving, which is quite gratifying at this point in my history!
Could you give us some reflections on your creative process in relation to your composing?
Sure, I love talking about this kind of thing. I have wanted to write music all my life, but was only able to do so in the last 5 years or so. I think I must have been trying too hard before that. I have 2 distinctly different approaches: composing on the instrument (banjo or guitar), and composing away from the instrument. By composing away from the instrument, I am talking about ideas that come to me when I am doing something mindless, like washing dishes or riding the bus.
I have even woken up in the morning with fully formed tunes in my head.
Maybe it was Bill Monroe who talked about tunes floating around in the ether, and all you had to do was intercept them. I must admit it almost feels like that at times. These tunes tend to be more melodic and therefore better in many ways. Examples of this approach would be “A Banjo in Paris” and “Monique” on my Banjo Hangout home page.
Tunes that I write on the instrument are the result of noodling around and stumbling onto something cool that I can build on. These tend to be more technical in nature. A good example of that approach would be “Tangier” on my home page. That was a case where I had a scale that I wanted to work with, and not much else. It took over 2 years to write because I would pull it out every few months and add a little bit onto it.
But whatever the approach, you just need one solid idea to get you started; then you can build on it. Others have said and I agree, that it is the process that is important, more than the result. The act of composing, even if it is rubbish, will help lubricate that creative process and it is something you get better at the more you do it. I firmly believe that everyone is capable of doing this; it is just a matter of the right orientation and bringing the creativity to the surface.
How does it feel to have crafted some of your own compositions? Do you feel differently about these pieces than, say, arranging a traditional tune or one that someone else composed? And, if the ether is full of tunes why do you think more people haven't yet taken the plunge into composing?
It felt like a huge accomplishment in the first few years. I had wanted to write all my musical life, and to finally be doing it was a thrill. And, yes, I do feel differently about these pieces because they are such a personal statement. It is a window into who we are, our creative part anyway. At the same time, you feel more vulnerable to criticism with these pieces - they are like your children.
These days, I am almost as happy in the role as interpreter of other people's tunes. There is so much great material out there, and often it is nice to channel your energy into putting your personal stamp on a tune, rather than creating the whole thing from scratch. But I am sure something will happen that will turn me back to writing again. Things change all the time. I also have a love of arranging, which can be a different kind of creativity. Anyone listening to my stuff for 5 minutes can tell I have a penchant for intros and endings!
The creative process is a bit of a mystery for most of us, I think. You can't force it. In fact, that just makes it worse. Perhaps more people don't take the plunge because they either don't believe they can do it, or because they are locked into a rational thought process. The creative wellspring comes from somewhere else. You have to relax and let it come to the surface. That's my impression anyway.
It’s interesting to see how fast kids can take off in this direction if they're given permission to give themselves permission to do it.
Yes. My 16-year old daughter wrote a tune the other day (she plays flute), and I hope that I have been a good model to her in that regard. I always play my latest to my family for approval before I 'go public'. If you play music, it is a natural progression to want to write music. You also need to know that you probably won't make money or get famous, but the creation is an end in itself. I think it's a hard time to be a kid - to find meaning among all the distractions. Playing music can have a real grounding influence on a kid. It just is what it is.
It’s hard to beat having a parent imparting their love of music, as a role model for an aspiring child. It was also quite incredible, wasn't it, to grow up with so many creative role models in the music business and to see how music could evolve in such colorful ways.
Yes, all my heroes were musicians. Even later, when I learned about their personal flaws and limitations, I still feel connected to these people because of this shared experience of the music.
Janet Burton has a several questions for you:
“Laurence, you played with the Morris Bros. How did you come to be invited by the brothers to join their band? After all, you were in England. On Banjo Hangout you described a best memory playing gospel songs, including “Green Pastures,” in Bristol, VA at a Carter Family site. I'm not sure if you meant in Bristol or in Hiltons, where the Family Fold is located. What are your memories playing with the Morris Bros? I'd also like to know about your instruments, how much you practice, your present involvement in performing, whom you associate with musically, and where your musical evolution may be heading?”
My meeting with the Morris Brothers was indeed a crossroads in my life. We met in 1976 (I was already touring around in the US with friends), played some music together, and they just started treating me like family right away. It has been a recurring theme on my travels to various countries, where instead of being regarded as a foreigner and viewed with suspicion, music bridges that gap and I am totally accepted. I was with them for 6 months until the work petered out. During that short time (thinking back) I played 3 funerals, 1 county jail, 2 'fire and brimstone' prayer meetings (where people were speaking in tongues, souls were being saved etc.), numerous promotions for truck dealerships, a spot on the Wheeling Jamboree (radio show, a bit like the Opry), the United Mine Workers convention in Cincinnati and the usual run of festivals, bars, resorts and clubs. One of my favorite experiences was playing at the Carter Family home place where I got to meet Sarah Carter.
My banjo is a Style 2 Baldwin that I have owned since I was 19. It would not be considered a premium instrument, but I like it. In fact, I don't know much about banjos - I didn't really understand what an archtop was when I bought this one. I just liked the way it sounded.
I don't associate with anyone musically around here. I think the problem is that the young kids don't want to play with me, and the 'older kids’ my age are a bit stuck in their ways, musically. I have friends on the hangout that I would love to jam with, but they live far away.
I don't know where I am heading musically. I had no idea 5 years ago that at this point I would be playing Bach, bebop or Allman Bros. material on the banjo. Part of what drives me to innovate is my postings on the hangout. I don't want to keep repeating myself; I feel that I need to offer something fresh every time. You will probably not be hearing note-for-note Scruggs tunes from me. All my sound posts are work-in-progress. I don’t think they could be completely fleshed out unless I was playing them with other musicians for quite some time. Often, I feel like I am going off on the ‘Road less traveled’ and looking for feedback on whether I got away with it or not! I hope that, at a minimum, they provide some entertainment.
I practice about 30 minutes a day on average, and more on weekends. But I don't practice techniques - rolls, scales, anything like that. Since I am always working on a new tune, I practice everything that will make that tune sound good, which could include certain scales and techniques but in a focused, applied way
I grew up thinking of the banjo as an ensemble instrument, especially in the bluegrass context. You had the guitar and bass underneath, and banjo skipping along on top. But lately I have been enjoying seeing the banjo as a solo instrument. Banjo Hangout has helped me adjust to this orientation.
So I now enjoy playing jazz chord-melodies and Bach pieces, sometimes double-tracked, to play both parts of the keyboard arrangement. I think part of the trick is turning the banjo's limitations into an asset. For instance, the rapid decay and relatively 'thin' timbre of the instrument allows you to play with 'space' in an arrangement, and it can have quite a plaintive voice, as opposed to the normal happy sound that we associate with the instrument.
Laurence, we already have a review of this interview because I sent it to Janet Burton to proof read. Janet says, "Thoughtful, well-written, extremely intelligent, pertinent, interesting, abstract, thought-provoking. It's a gift to be able to express with words ideas that open up and stretch our thinking. "I know that Janet speaks for many others as well. It's been great talking to you. Thank you. Looking forward to seeing you on Banjo Hangout!
Paul, it's been a pleasure answering your many well thought out questions. I suppose everybody has a story to tell and this is mine. I hope that some people will find it interesting!
"A Banjo in Paris" by Laurence Diehl
Listen to more of Laurence Diehl's Music on page 2 of this section
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Laurence Diehl - original compositions to bluegrass, jazz, rock, blues, and beyond -
An exceptionally talented banjo and guitar player, Laurence toured for many years playing in bands that covered a wide range of musical genres.