Deering had the opportunity to catch up with our good friend Jeff DaRosa, multi-instrumentalist and tenor banjo player of Dropkick Murphys. We got to hear about his adventure in learning the tenor banjo as a bass player…
What inspired you to start playing the banjo?
I never had any intention to play the banjo in my whole life. So one day James the guitar player of the band [Dropkick Murphys] called me, I was just getting off a tour with my wife’s band and he was like “do you want to learn a bunch of crazy instruments, banjo being one of them?” and I said “yep!”. I joined the band and think I learned them all in a month or something. I didn’t become a master or anything, still not. But now I love it, so there you go.
What was it like when you first started picking up the banjo?
It was a challenge. At first I just kind of learned some of the older songs just by ear. I’ve never been a guy that knows theory or anything like that, I always played by ear. It was pretty hard, I just spent basically all day, learning the songs, playing along to the cd, looking at myself in the mirror...laughs…just kidding.
What would you give as advice for someone who is starting to play?
Practice hard all day long. Don’t care that your mom is telling you to be quiet. It’s a really fun instrument. I especially like the tenor banjo. I’m just starting to learn the 5 String, that’s really fun too. I used to watch this guy in Harvard Square in Cambridge, he had a one man band where he played the banjo, but he’d also play the drums and everything with his feet. It was amazing. That’s kind of an inspiration for me, not that I want to be a one man band or anything. Although I probably could…get some extra cash…Harvard Square! ..laughs…I don’t want to take his job away.
Do you like playing the Tenor more than the 5, or are they just different?
I like it [tenor] because I originally am a bass player and I tune it in, guess you call it an upside down bass tuning. It’s the same as a mandolin. It was easier for me to learn it and I feel I can write more comfortably because of that. Just more comfortable to me…I understand it more you know. The 5 String is harder, but I can figure it out. Just started using the finger picks because the 4 string is mostly the plectrum. But I wrote a song on the new album that I use the finger picks on. That got me interested in the 5 String.
What kind of backline do you use with the banjos?
I just go directly into the PA. I have a wireless set up on my strap. It would probably sound better if I had an amp. We have a pretty good sound guy, Moe is taking care of us. It’s also hard because I have so many instruments during the set, to be plugged into any one backline would be crazy. I have to switch like every song, you’ve seen me.
Having used other pickups on the banjo, and now using the Kavanjo, what do you think of them?
I just like the Kavanjo because it’s already there you know, just put on the head. We used to do a lot of work to install our own pickups into our older banjos, so I love the Kavanjo now, it’s great! We even carry a couple of spares just in case. Mine’s all rusted up and beat up now, but that’s okay, gives it character.
Did you use the Kavanjo pickup in recording?
Actually no, we didn’t plug in for the recording. We used a really nice old mic, which I don’t know the name of. I Just kind of played it sitting down, I think a couple of mics. Our producer was really a stickler, he wanted to get the best sound out of it. I had to play a lot of takes just to get it right. Used the Dropkick Murphys banjo on basically every single song on the new record Going Out In Style. So when you pick it up, which I know you are gonna do, listen closely cuz that’s it!
How integral is the banjo to the overall Dropkick sound?
I think it’s very integral. There’s songs that have become more popular than others, like State of Massachusetts which it’s featured as the intro, and Shipping Up to Boston it’s on. I think it’s become just as important, not to toot my own horn, but as all the other instrument. Every instrument’s pretty important in our band. The banjo has definitely arrived! The evolution of the band is so…we went from being just guitarists to now having so many instruments.
What are some of the things you enjoy most about playing the banjo?
I don’t know, everything about it! Just jumping around looking like a goofball…or I love doing the Climbing a Chair to Bed, you know that song? It’s got the crazy banjo part at the end, it’s really fun. Just trying to push myself to get better and faster, stuff like that.
What is it about Deering Banjos that make them stand out?
Everything. I initially started buying Deering Banjos because they were lighter than others. I was playing some really really heavy banjos. With this band it’s nonstop giving back and forth with the guitar techs and I had a broken collar bone when I started playing, it was killing me. I love how light it is, it is so easy to play and so fun to play. I think it’s just overall better than what I used to play, which will remain unnamed.
You have a lot of moving around in all of your live shows and you’re touring a lot, how are the Deering’s holding up in all of that?
Apparently they are doing great, other than a little bit of wear and tear on them, which makes them look cooler anyways. But we had them checked out today and they’re lookin like they are working out. We’re flying all the time. Just flying that much ruins guitars, sometimes even breaks them in half, crazy stuff, but they’ve been solid. Every time they get checked out they seem to be in great shape. Kevin’s doing an okay job, my guitar guy…my banjo guy I guess I could say. He’s getting a work out, learning a lot. You guys have been helping him a lot, showing him the ropes (of banjo care).
What kind of feedback have you noticed having a Dropkick Murphys Signature Model?
I’ve been getting a lot of people trying to get me to give them one, it’s not that easy. Everybody that works for us is always like “Jeff Can I get one of those?”. Well, they’re not free, they don’t fall from the sky. But a lot of people…and my mom really likes it. We toiled over designing that Dropkick Murphys banjo, over the phone, during the whole recording process we were planning out. I think it came out great! I think everyone likes it. I wish I could give one to all of my friends. I want you all to have a Dropkick Banjo!
You’re quite an instrumentalists, what are all of the instruments that you play?
All the instruments I play… let’s just start, banjo, the bass guitar, the piano, the mandolin, the bouzouki, the tin whistle, guitar. I want to start learning the fiddle and stuff like that, apparently it’s tuned the same way as my banjo. I think I don’t have enough finesse though. I just bought an auto harp. I put it on the new record, some strums and stuff like that, nothing too technical. And now I’m starting to learn the 5 String banjo, which hopefully I’ll be really good atsomeday, who knows. Oh, drums! Yeah, I used to play drums when I was younger. I’m so talented!..laughs…what’s that saying..jack of all trades, master of none.
Jeff two cents on being part of the Deering family of artists…
I like the fact that Deering is a family run business. Greg and Janet and you, and everybody else in the company, seems to be a real family company. That’s stuff that we appreciate in our band. And it is American made, by real Americans! So that’s very cool. I’m proud to be a part of the team, especially with all of those other great people you endorse. That’s some of my two cents.