To tell about the journey of learning to play the banjo and some insight into playing it both professionally and in the pure joy of making music we had the chance to interview Scott Avett of the ever growing folk-rock band the Avett Brothers:
Was the banjo your first instrument that you learned to play? It was not, I did not start playing it at all until I was 19 or 20 years old. I didn’t even really think about it a lot growing up. Though the presence of the banjo was around me being in North Carolina. We started with Piano, my brother, sister and I we all started with Piano and moved onto guitar.
When I did begin inquiring about playing the banjo, and thinking of it as something I might want to play, I instantly felt connected. I think I started playing it because it was reflective of my voice and my need to write songs and find an instrument that was reflective to my voice. There was a presence that’s undeniable about the volume and the shape of the sound that comes out of a banjo, and that presence being so potent and so solid. It was almost like the sound of the banjo was possibly something that I longed for my voice to be like, abrasive at times but also dynamic enough to be pretty, and also very childlike at times and also it would be very strong and big. It was an instrument that’s very self-sustaining. I don’t need any electricity, I don’t need any extra anything, if you want to entertain someone with a voice and a banjo that’s all you need. The banjo has the ability to be so primitive or complex and technologically awesome, both ways are just terrific. Something that also amazes me… it might be you can’t have too many banjos.
What was it like switching from piano and guitar over to the banjo? It was strange as it was something that I didn’t have to be told to practice, I didn’t have to be told that I need to meet certain goals. It was something that I enjoyed sitting down and playing to this day. I’m finding new things to learn on the banjo and finding new discoveries with it, it was something that was very different. Piano and guitar was a means to an end for me I loved what I did and figured I had to play something, but it took a lot more work to discipline myself to do it and a lot less effort or discipline to play the banjo. It was almost more effort not to want to pick it up. One of the great things about it that kind of goes with the irony of the fact that I was in a world of electricity and Rock and Roll, was it had more history of where I grew up, a more urban approach. The irony came along with the banjo that people would either be enjoying what I’m doing or they would almost make fun of it, or laugh at it when I was around and I loved that. I loved the way I could get a rise instantly. Now anybody who had any love of music, they would probably never make fun of the banjo because they know how serious and beautiful an instrument it is. It’s terrific to introduce that to people and see different reactions.
What kind of music did you grow up with and were you influenced by? Early we started with what our dad was listening to. Records of John Denver, Three Dog Night, Bob Dylan 8 track recordings, Neil Diamond, Neil Young and some other country. It wasn’t really folk or bluegrass all that readily available. Then I branched out and listened to whatever was presented to me, that was a journey through all genera’s and an appetite for whatever the next album or next song would lead me to. It was in a convoluted way, a journey through R&B, hip hop, gospel, rock and roll, heavy metal, hard core and punk rock. And as the dust settled I started finding interest in an instrument that was undeniable for me, the banjo. I started zeroing in on what that instrument meant and what its place was in my life and musical voice. At the same time all those musical influences to me didn’t really feel that alien to the banjo when I look back on it now. The banjo is a fine instrument for all those turns through genera’s. It’s a true American instrument, it’s more than just an American instrument, it is a world instrument, and obviously its roots aren’t in America entirely, but part of it are of course.
Tell me about the learning process of the banjo for you, did you take formal lessons? I learned banjo from a guy named Ned Mullis, his nephew taught us guitar and niece taught us piano. He was a musician of all country instruments. They were a local family in our community in North Carolina.
Right off the bat I learned 3 finger Earl Scruggs style and that was pretty strict in my formal teaching, and was all I learned. From there I couldn’t accept that that was going to be it, if I was going to use the instrument as my voice for creating music, then to limit it would have been impossible for me. As I learned more about banjo I started writing with it. As I learned beyond the 3 finger style I started really enjoying listening to Charlie Poole, which is more of the 2 finger style, and Uncle Dave Macon. Uncle Dave never seemed to be one school in the way he played, it was pretty much about the delivery of song and the banjo was the wings for that, to carry the song. I like that idea, that you are going to tell a story or sing a song to entertain somebody and that is the instrument you are going to use.
What was the first song you learned on the banjo? Boil Them Cabbage Down and Banjo In the Holler. The standard bluegrass songs that Ned would teach me. I’m very thankful he taught me in a way that it was staying away from sheet music as much as possible and trying to learn by ear and learn in the moment. Ear and sight of somebody playing instead of reading it, trying to keep it from being too mathematical.
Looking at all the different aspects of the banjo and learning to play it, is there anything particular about it you enjoy the most? When all pistons are firing for me the instrument and I can become that sort of song making machine that they need to be, when that’s in harmony there is nothing better. That is what life is all about, those moments you grab onto and try to seize, the good parts of living. When it does fall into a sweet spot it reminds me of what it is all about.
Another aspect about it that I love is discovering another way of playing or thinking about it. I didn’t know until well into the learning process of the banjo that there was a whole world of people playing Jazz on banjos, back in the 20’s the banjo bands. I don’t know anything about that but it is just so exciting that it’s just stilling there waiting for me to learn about it. That aspect of the banjo is pretty bottomless as far as the depth that you can delve into it, that is pretty awesome.
What kind of advice would you give someone who is first picking up the banjo to learn? A good practice in discipline and patience. I’d picked up some advice somewhere, for the first 6 months just don’t even worry about making chords but keep the banjo in my hands, pluck at it, feel the strings, make noises out of it, practice simple rolls and let them become complex, for certain play slow don’t worry about playing fast and it would speed up on its own. All of that working together was a very organic way for me to start. The natural love of the instrument was already in me. There was no pressure for me to learn and go do something with it at all. It was purely about taking that time I was able to find and spending it doing something that was good for me, or somebody around me. It helped build my confidence to be able to step in front of many people and play. That slow development of comfort with the instrument in my hand was key when I went to actually learn a song.
What is your take on traditional methods of playing the banjo? I think that banjo has the need for traditions to be upheld and carry on. The problem for me with that is my attention doesn’t stick to it very well, it is not in my make-up to do that. I kind of equate it to the difference of being a musician versus an artist, or a musician and a creator. I’m so thankful for musicians because without them I don’t think I would be operating like I do.
I support people upholding those traditions of playing in a certain style and perfecting those and being obsessive about them. If that’s their bug, I think it’s great, it really is. I am certainly impressed by it and like to hear, and always get excited when I see an old timer or bluegrass. I’m just not made up for it. I drift a little more than that, unfortunately or fortunately. Thank God for those traditions I’ve learned a lot from them.
How do you think the older or heritage image of the banjo is changing now with current bands picking it up and making new ways of playing? I think that it’s much needed. Who knows maybe it’s been happening all the time, communication is so hyper and so great now that we’re allowed to be exposed to all of it. I can’t say enough good things about how great it is that there is so much more awareness of the instrument. It is kind of a rock star instrument these days. It’s in a lot of bands, banjo and fiddle and acoustic guitar are just massively popular right now. I mean everywhere. And it’s much more than in the 80s and the 90s, much more. When we would go to Merlefest there was just this corner of the world where the banjo will always be, always was and is still loved. In that place it’s such a predominant and beautiful piece of the music, well I don’t know, it is totally different now, it’s expanded and crosses over easily into rock and roll for sure and easily into commercial country music as well. Along with a couple other instruments that are roots and acoustically based, I think that it has been over the last 5 years to the present one of the powerful instruments out there.
As it was growing in me I’m sure it was growing in many other people too. I think it was needed, that tangible organic sound that acoustic music offers was needed. Sustainability, self-sustainability, self-sufficiency, things like that are very relevant these days, they are thought about quite a bit in all realms of life, especially here in America. More in other countries but in America I think people are really thinking about that a lot. This music reflects that feeling, it helps sort of comfort and guide that feeling. Back in the day I imagine in the depression in the 30’s and 40’s the banjo was a common instrument. There is no reason it should have gone away. It is probably more strange that it went away than it is back.
What do you think about the fact that you are becoming a major influence for other people picking up the banjo? I think that is a big responsibility and an obligation that I have to people that may be influenced or inspired by me, and I take that as the greatest complement that could possibly be given. I am so honored by it, it’s a dream come true that someone would say that to me. As I know how that is, I still am that way and know what it is like to be inspired and feel something that someone else is doing and that’s the point in doing it, so I welcome the obligation. I welcome the responsibility as something that is priceless and very valuable, and like I said is quite a dream come true.
You are known for having a lot of your own creative artwork on your banjos, is there a reason behind it or ritual when you get a new one? From the time I could remember I was the nightmare type of kid that would carve into my parents cabinets. I would draw on the telephone. I would mark or paint on the walls. It’s always been some sort of, country graffiti is really what it amounted to. If I was having a telephone conversation I could fill up the telephone book with all kinds of things. So spending time with the banjo on the road and spending a lot of time on the road, I found that it started first with me just doodling on one. I began to have folks that we played for sign the banjo. I saw pictures that banjos have always been written on or drawn on here or there. But to me the banjo is no different than the wall or the telephone or the cabinets that you mark on. I’ve always been a bit of visual junkie I guess. I would gather pictures, I would make pictures, I would love looking at pictures. I love shapes and lines, I love color. I guess I just enjoy sight quite a bit probably as much or more than I do to hear. It just becomes part of that whole big picture and that machine that I am running off of I guess.
You have several different Deering banjos that you play. How would you describe the different sounds of them? The first banjo I got was a Sierra and then the second one was a Black Diamond. They sound similar and they are the banjos I use more on stage as my number one and two. They are both very resilient and very sturdy. And just do terrific on the road as my workhorses.
I have a Tenbrooks Legacy it is a much prettier sounding banjo, a little more delicate.
I’ve got the two Vega (Senators) and the Calico (with a custom 4” openback pot) and those I play more now at home than anything else.
They’ve all been very dependable overall for what I put them through I can’t even believe they still work, but they do and are ever changing. I have recorded with all of them for different things, for different reasons. I can’t say anything but good things about how I’ve loved all of them. The Sierra which is the most inexpensive model that I have and it was the one I bought first, has found its way to seeing more miles and played more shows than any of them, I really love it and enjoy it.
Is there anything sound wise about the Deerings that you notice is different than other models? I think I play Deerings consistently because I like the fuller darker sound, a deeper tone. I don’t rely only on a strictly roll style of playing the sharpness and definition of the sound isn’t as important for me. I have had my Deerings where it sounded very defined but I frail on them a lot and the Deerings have given me a lot of depth to allow that to happen without a lot of distortion and no sort of trash in the sound. It takes a banjo that is very solid, it takes a banjo that has depth of tone to do that. Also my banjos are new, the oldest one I have is 2001 and for them to be that great in tone as new as they are is to me a difference from the experience I have had with guitars.
How would you describe the Deering Banjo Company? The first time that Deering was nice enough to speak with me and hear me talk and help get a banjo in my hands for a reasonable effort. They didn’t have to, they probably didn’t know me from anybody else. Carolina was the first person I spoke to, I have been talked over quite a few times elsewhere, and I never got talked over by anyone at Deering, I don’t forget that. I feel I have been respected as a person, not as somebody that has anything they want or need. They’ve never asked anything of me that was unreasonable. You guys have always been extremely respectable to me, respected me as a person first and foremost and I think business wise that’s got to be across the board, period.
I think good business, in no matter what you do, it takes care of itself, it monitors itself. Good business makes for good customers, and good customers make for good business. And it’s just a great exchange. You guys have never forced a banjo, forced a thought, forced anything on anyone, so far as I know, around me, including myself. You guys know If you operate on an honest and good level then those that you work with react on an honest and good level, and that is just good human exchange. That goes before business, well before business.
You have the disadvantage of being a big company, relatively speaking in the banjo world, not a big company in the world like Pepsi or Coke. But big in a world or market or demographic that likes small things, local things. The sound of a banjo is a very local thing. With that disadvantage you guys seems to operate totally transparent to that, or totally removed from that, and that is appreciated. I understand because we’ve become a bigger entity as a band than is always attractive for people that don’t know what it’s all about, or don’t have time to make those exceptions. It’s really irrelevant because if you do a good job then it’s good and all just falls in place.
What is your preferred banjo pickup? Radio Shack collar mic. Comes in a little purple box. The piezo Pick Up the World bridge pickups you put on my Vegas, those treat me right. But I’m no authority on the pickups.
The radio shack mic turned out great for me because it was inexpensive and blows my mind that it translates on all the stages that we played from big or small. A lot of it is about mic placement, sometimes it gets moved a bit it can sound a little different and sound bad so you have to stay on top of that. But it’s treated me well.
Dunlop Med thumb pick
Strings? I have no idea (laughs). We use whatever comes our way. But I think we may put Martins on it, in a blue box. But I will grab whatever is around. I have gotten thinner in the gauge, I used to put as heavy as I could on, but I have backed off.
- 22 or 23
- 9 or 10
Do you use an amp or go straight to the mains? Both, that’s ever changing. Have used a little SWR Strawberry Blond but it broke so I stopped using it and go straight into the PA. I do use a little DI. I am more about playing songs (laughs), not much of a gear guy.
There are tons of challenges in playing live with the banjo. But my inconsistencies on what I use do not help with that. I just do the best I can with the traveling. How prepared can you be? We try to be as prepared as I can be, but I’m also not going to weigh myself down as I travel. It’s got a give and take. I want to be able to get on stage and fly free. If the banjo falls apart then I change the show and use the banjo …if I just beat on it. Whatever happens needs to be a surprise and I love it when it is a surprise. That being said we keep a consistency as best we can of the gear.
One of the banjo players I really really loved is Derroll Adams. I LOVE his style of playing. Something he said “Just go play the banjo, if you’re a player you don’t have time to be a critic, just go out there and do it and things will work themselves out. If you want to play you will work them out as you go”. There is not enough time in our lives for me to get too obsessive to try to make a totally wild instrument more tame than I really want it to be.
Do you ever use effects on your banjo, like pedals? No never, talked and thought about it. But never.
How have you found the higher action you prefer useful? It cuts back on the “trash”, like the rattles and the dirt in the sound when you get to the frailing. When you get to tearing down on the banjo it needs that space to give it the slinky sort of sound that I seem to like. I’ve found that the higher bridge had been very beneficial.
How would you describe the sound of the Avett Brothers for someone who may not have heard of you? I used to say something like “I would like to describe our sound as honest” then I thought about it and was like how could anybody even know that! (laughs)
Maybe complicated (laughs).
Do you feel you fit into a certain genre? If Neil Young was rock and roll, I don’t see why we couldn’t be rock and roll. I think that if John Prime was country then I don’t see why we couldn’t be country. Both those guys in the shelves of record stores are still rocking, that’s a good point there. It is somewhere in that realm of folk-country-rock or indie-punk-old time.
I know that Winston Marshall of Mumford and Sons is a big fan of yours. How do you feel about that? (laughs) Well I think that’s nice. I think Winston is a super person. It’s hard not to like Winston. I appreciate that. I appreciate his honesty. Just like he probably is, we’re all as musicians honored when somebody appreciates what we do. We feed each other and we get excited for each other. Anybody that’s in it for hopefully the right reasons is always proud to see somebody do well, that’s doing their best. I think that’s what Winston does. I think that it is very exciting seeing his journey, and their journey and watching ours cross paths at times. The whole thing is just terrific all around. Absolutely!