by Wilbur Whitten
My first encounter with Gerald Jones was at Joe Carr’s and Alan Munde’s Camp Bluegrass (http://CampBluegrass.com) in 2002 at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas. As I entered the large common room of the dormitory, Gerald was in a jam session with three teenagers –two boys, each on guitar and a skinny little girl singing in a high-lonesome voice that made the room ring. She would play a shaky solo on her mandolin while Gerald (on banjo) and the boys backed her; I just sat down and listened. This was his pattern for the week of the camp; when not teaching a workshop, he was jamming with various groups.
Gerald and three others comprise the group, From Ragas to Riches, an outreach program of the Fort Worth Classic Guitar Society. They introduce students to a large number of string instruments and use songs, poetry, and geography to teach them how music can express feelings and the essence of a place. For example they use flamenico as well as such pieces as Hungarian Dance #5. The first half of this interview took place as Gerald was driving to give four shows with the group at Fort Worth’s Bass Hall to two thousand kids at each performance.
GJ: I’m vice president for Fort Worth Classic Guitar Society and we do a program called “Ragas to Riches”
WW: It sounds really cute.
GJ: It’s fun and cute. We fit the banjo in at the end. The only real connection it has is in showing how sound creates images. We do that with “Whoa Mule”. It has nothing to do with that show but everybody likes it. .
WW: Given your wide musical tastes what first sparked your interest in the banjo?
GJ: The first thing was the Glen Campbell Summer Show in 1970 or so, seeing John Hartford come out and sit cross-legged on the floor, play the banjo and sing. Matter of fact, I talked to John a few years ago and I told him that he was the reason I took up the banjo. He said it made him feel so old. I said, sorry, John.
I didn’t know anything about bluegrass. I didn’t know the names to ask for. When I first tried to find out about bluegrass, I knew there was something called “Cumberland Gap” and I went out and found a record by Union Gap, which has nothing to do with “Cumberland Gap”. I bought a John Hartford record that only had banjo on one song and I was real disappointed about that. Then I found an album called Earl Scruggs, His Family and Friends. It had Joan Baez, the Byrds, but it was fairly bluegrass. Clarence White was on it playing with the Byrds. It had “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” by Bob Dylan.
WW: Back in the days when these folks were quite well known.
GJ: Yeah, it was 1970, so it was the tail end of that folk music boom. That’s how I got on to Earl Scruggs. I asked my dad about it because I was a senior in high school and my parents gave me a banjo for graduation.
WW: Where did you grow up?
GJ: In Gainesville, Texas, about 70 miles north of Dallas. Almost in Oklahoma. We are five miles from the Red River. There was not that much Bluegrass there or in Texas back then. The banjo I was given was a terrible banjo. The neck was thicker than it was wide. The best thing I could say about it was very red. It was aluminum, a long dark contour. It was a terrible banjo but I had fun with it.
WW: Was it something from Japan?
GJ; Well, I don’t know if it was that high end; it was from somewhere in the Asian Pacific rim. I don’t know if it was Japan or Malaysia or Indonesia or wherever. It wasn’t much of a banjo. My Dad didn’t know anything about banjos, but it was fine; it got me started. I played it about three months and then I bought a Gibson Mastertone. I quickly educated myself about what was a more proper instrument.
WW: That’s important, isn’t it.
GJ; Oh, very important. My dad, Elbert Jones, had bands, country bands. He was in a band that played with Red Gordon’s Variety Show. Red Gordon had had polio and would raise money for the March of Dimes. He didn’t play anything but he would MC and put shows together. They’d have jugglers and clowns and all sorts of music and they told the worst jokes. But I grew up hearing that. The humor was like Homer and Jethro. I enjoy Homer and Jethro a lot.
WW: I haven’t heard them in a long time but they were quite funny, weren’t they.
GJ: They were. Half of my jokes are Homer and Jethro based and a lot of Joe Carr’s are, too. A man who played a banjo with my dad, Robert Davis, showed me some things on the banjo and took me to my first Bluegrass festival. That’s what opened my eyes. There was this whole subculture I had no inkling of.
At that time Robert was playing in a group called The Stone Mountain Boys who were regionally well known. Byron Berline was in the band at one time; Alan Munde and different folks. The banjo player in that was Eddie Shelton who is probably my first big influence. Eddie was local and I would go with Robert to their rehearsals. I didn’t know that they were a real good bluegrass band – I thought everybody was that good. As a matter of fact, Alan Munde attributes Eddie as his biggest influence, along with Alan Shelton. When Alan started learning, one of the first good banjo players he was exposed to was Eddie Shelton.
WW: Now that you mention it, I recall having read in the interview Alan gave for the Masters of the Five String Banjo book that he credits Shelton as the person who taught him to play.
GJ: Alan will mention Eddie for certain. Eddie died not too long ago but he was a very innovative banjo player. There are several things you hear Alan playing that go directly to him. There’s this whole inside out roll that Alan does, 1-3-2-l-5-3-2-5 picking pattern, and that is directly from Eddie. Usually while holding an A minor chord up the neck, I’d say 10 10 9, with the fifth string held for 9, and doing that roll, when I hear that I think of Alan and of Eddie Shelton. I use that a lot.
WW: I’ll give it a try.
GJ: Once you hear it, you go, Oh, yeah, I’ve heard Alan do that. Alan uses that roll on things like “How High the Moon”. Anyway, Eddie Shelton was a big influence. He would show me things just being around him. I never took lessons.
WW: Did you ever study music formally?
GJ: No, not really. I never had a real banjo teacher. I would buttonhole people at festivals and ask questions like “Hey, how do you do that lick? Would you mind showing me that?” I would get them to spend a few minutes showing me something and I would go off and an hour later come back and say, “Is this right?” That was one thing I really loved about it because people in general were so friendly that they would show you. After a while I had things I could show back.
WW: Did you listen to a lot of records in those days?
GJ: After I started finding out who you could listen to, yeah. There was a banjo player over in Fort Worth by the name of Bill Lincoln. I don’t know if he’s still playing or not. I would drive down to Ft. Worth and over to his house and we would go up to his room and spend the weekend dropping the needle on records and working out solos together. So we’d buy like a Don Stover record or whatever, obscure banjo players. He had one of these little turntables that folds down on a stereo, a little portable unit. There were a couple of pennies on the tone arm. It was horrible. You could see where the banjo breaks were on the records because we’d drop the needle and wear it down. You could physically see the banjo breaks on the record.
WW: I’m crazy about Don Stover’s stuff.
GJ: I used to know several of his tunes and he had some really unusual licks, real angular sounding. I’d have to hear them to remember them. We worked out every song on one Don Stover record and tabbed it out. That’s what we would do, all weekend long, spend hours working out banjo breaks.
WW: Do you still listen to bluegrass music a lot?
GJ: Not a lot. I listen to it some. Most of the music I’ve bought recently have been reissues of records I already have.. The other day I bought a CD of Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall. The CD is cool because it has the whole concert, not just what was on that record originally, including several tunes that you don’t usually hear. You can even hear Earl make mistakes. For example, Earl reaches up to grab a G note on the first string of the 17th fret and hits the 16th fret instead. The Live at Carnegie Hall was a fairly big influence on me, that and the Foggy Mountain Banjo album.
I enjoy it, even though people don’t hear me play too much straight Scruggs. If I’m jamming and people have already played straight breaks three times before it gets down to me, why should I restate what they just did? So I have a tendency to get a little crazy.
WW: When you were first learning did you collect a number of tabs and what is your opinion of the balance one should have between tab training and ear training?
GJ: I had the Earl Scruggs book, but during that time period there wasn’t a lot of tab out there. There were one or two tunes in that red Pete Seeger book and that was about it, other than an occasional Banjo Newsletter.
But I’m not a big believer in heavy use of tabs. I believe in getting some tabs and memorizing them, and then putting them away. I believe that after you learn four or five Scruggs tunes and maybe one or two melodic tunes, you start learning stuff off the records yourself. I learn mainly off records, I learn some from people showing me, and I learn very little off of tabs.
In some ways that can hurt you because you wind up reinventing the wheel, wrong sometimes. But you learn so much more.
WW: So it gives you strength and confidence.
GJ: It does. Like anything else, after you do it a bit, it gets easier.
WW: Do you try to slow it down a bit so you can hear it?
GJ: I used to, but now I can pick most things off hearing them full speed and running them back a few times. When I was first learning I had a turntable that had a 16 rpm speed – that’s how I learned Alan’s Banjo Sandwich. Alan Munde was a big influence on me. I followed him around like a puppy dog. He’s still my hero. He was one of the first really exciting traditional-but-non-traditional players. He had a foot in either folk camps, folk banjo player. He’s always so pristine and impeccable in the way he played. Alan makes it sound easy. I think a lot of people don’t realize how hard some of the stuff Alan does is.
WW: That brings to mind his tune “Molly Bloom”; it just keeps moving.
GJ: There’s no place to rest in that especially when you get to the second part. That’s where you can mess up.
One time Alan thought I was making fun of him. At Camp Bluegrass the instructors played “Molly Bloom” and by the time we came to my solo, Alan had already played “Molly Bloom”. Rather than attempt to play what he did, I played his version of “Little Liza Jane” and it worked for “Molly Bloom”. He thought I was making fun of him and I was trying to give a little tribute to him. He took it with good humor even if he thought I was being sarcastic.
His “Liza Jane” is hard to play. Alan brings his index and middle fingers inside and does some odd things. I put the Banjo Sandwich album on one side of a 45 minute cassette tape and then I took all the breaks and slowed ‘em down to 16 speed on the other side of the cassette tape. On my way to gigs, I would play the fast way all the way to the gig and then the banjo breaks real slow at half speed all the way back. And get it in my head. I recommend that, you know, listening to it fast and slow. That’s how I learned Banjo Sandwich. I didn’t play it as well as Alan and in some places I did the fingering differently, but it was 90% note for note. That’s how I got it in my head. When I’d see Alan and he’d play a note on the inside string, maybe the seventh fret while I’d play the first or second fret, I’d say, well, I like mine and I’m not going to change it. If it works you don’t have to be note for note. I would try to play like whoever it is I was trying to learn but if I found a way I liked better, I’d do it the other way. There are so many ways to hit the same note. That’s mainly how I learned. People showing me and trading licks back and forth and studying with Bill Lincoln just dropping the needle down for hours.[At this point, Gerald, looking in his rearview mirror, says, “I hope he’s not coming to get me,” as he sees the flashing lights of a police car. “This Mustang just went around me at about 80 mph, so I hope he’s after him.” Luckily he was, and the siren clearly wails as the police car passes Gerald, who breathes a sigh of relief.]
WW: Did you ever wake up and feel, by gosh I can sort of play this instrument so that other people like to hear it?
GJ: Well, I haven’t really reached the stage yet where I feel like I can really play. I have moments that I feel the hair go up on the back of my neck and I go, Wow, I don’t know how I’m doing this. But when I first started I remember I worked on your Cripple Creek roll, 3-2-5-1, for about three days so I could play it evenly at any sort of tempo at all. Just that roll. I would lay on the bed on my back with the banjo doing that roll over and over and it took me a week and a half before I felt comfortable with it. But I started teaching after I had been playing three months which I think was a really big help. I could play Cripple Creek badly and play Cumberland Gap about as bad and I could play Foggy Mountain worse but that’s all I really knew. I started teaching in a music store and I had to really kick myself to stay ahead of my students.
WW: That’s certainly one way to do it. I’ve known some professors that had to do that.
GJ: One thing I discovered about teaching – I still teach some and I enjoy teaching – is that in the process of teaching you have to get your mind around what you are doing well enough to explain it and write it down. I have discovered so many bad things I was doing while teaching – “No wonder that’s hard. – I’m trying to use my thumb twice in a row here” or whatever. I think teaching early on really helped me.
Then I was playing in a band pretty quickly. We were playing five nights a week. The first record I was on Alan Munde was the other banjo player. I had been playing just under three years at that time. I wasn’t any where near Alan’s level but at least I got up to where I wasn’t ashamed to be on a record with him. .
WW: So you eased into being a professional musician then.
GJ: Yeah, when I started playing banjo, I met Joe Carr at Bill Monroe’s festival in Mckinney, Texas, and Joe was a banjo player at the time.
WW: Oh, I thought he was mainly mandolin.
GJ: Joe was a guitar player who took up banjo. He was the banjo player in a band with Dan Huckabee. I was at this festival and as usual I’m hitting up every banjo player to see if there’s any licks that they know that I don’t and vice versa. So I got together with Joe and we exchanged numbers, and then about two weeks later he called me up and said there’s a festival at Winfield, Kansas, do you want to go. He and his girlfriend at the time and this other guy who was a mandolin player – Greg Kennedy who later played bass with Monroe and other folks – said they would pick me up on their way through and I said well, let’s go. That’s where we first saw Country Gazette. It’s weird thinking about it because we idolized them and that’s where I first saw Alan Munde play. Then Joe joined that band four years later. This was 1972, that’s when I first started trying to play banjo. I had one and I messed with it for about a week and then I put it down. About a year later, I picked it up and said I’m going to learn this and then I found some records and stuff and then I got started teaching.
Joe decided banjo wasn’t for him and he went back to guitar. He had a band and they already had a banjo player and they needed a mandolin player so I borrowed a mandolin for a gig. I had a guy show me chord forms so I was a mandolin player for about four months.
WW: Did you play guitar before the banjo?
GJ: James Taylor got me into music in the first place . I learned all the intros to the first couple of James Taylor albums. “Fire and Rain” and “Country Roads” and “Blossom” – great stuff, James Taylor is still one of my heroes. He’s such a great writer and a great guitar player. He plays with such finesse. I started the guitar I guess around Christmas of my senior year in high school, ’71 I guess it was. I played guitar a little bit until I decided to really try the banjo and then I just gave up guitar for five years or so. I got so into banjo and I played it so much that my fingernails grew flat underneath on my first two fingers. I had these permanent marks on my first two fingers. I’d have picks on my hands 7, 8, nine hours a day.
WW: That must be wearing.
GJ: You do improve quickly when you do that. But who has time! At that time I did. My college studies went to hell.
WW: Where did you go to college?
GJ: I went to Cooke County College in Gainesville.
WW: What did you study?
GJ: Computer sciences. I had already been taking computer classes and programming and stuff since ninth grade. I would go out there and take continuing ed when I was about 14. We were working old IBM 360s and stuff. Computers back then weren’t very much fun. It was all punch cards and stuff.
WW: That was the prehistoric days for computers.
GJ: Oh, yeah, I didn’t learn data sorter, you know card sorter, with all the plugs and the wires, you had to go from hole to hole and run your sorts and everything. I learned COBOL and FORTRAN – I don’t remember any of it anymore. But that was just stuff I was messing with. By eleventh grade I was tired of it and didn’t mess with computers until it got fun again. So I was still taking those classes and seemed aimless. Then I got into bluegrass and got into banjo and joined that one band that started playing regularly. It was better money than I was making doing the jobs I was in and so I just blew off school and became a musician.
WW: What was the name of that group you were with?
GJ: Oh, Grandma’s Bluegrass Preserves. A terrible name.
WW: That reminds me of what I heard Eddie Adcock say up at the Maryland Banjo Academy one time that his first little band was the James River Boys.
GJ: It was sort of a hippie-dippy band. I had real long hair.
WW: Are any of the other guys playing music today?
GJ: Joe Carr and then Greg Kennedy I think are still playing. He was playing with Berline in Oklahoma. He played bass with Monroe for a while and he was in Country Gazette for a while. I haven’t seen Greg and so I’m assuming he’s still doing this. The guy who was the banjo player, Randy Chapman, moved off to New Mexico and lived in a commune and I haven’t seen him in over 20 years. When he left, I became the banjo player. And the fiddler, Ernie Taft, still plays Irish music around but he’s the head of the office of emergency management here in the Dallas area. I still see him at the Irish and old time things. We have a great photo of us playing in a locally famous place, the Rubyiat, where we were opening for Townes Van Zandt all that weekend. We just look like we’re emoting and we are all holding our instruments up and it just looks so cool, but if you look at our hands we are all playing different chords. So this photo looks like such a beautiful moment but it must have sounded terrible. I was playing mandolin at that time and when Randy went to the commune, I gave up the mandolin and didn’t play it again for 20 years. My love was the banjo.
Then Joe and I formed a group called Super Grass; we were real modest, obviously. We had a trio with a woman named Debbie Bridgewater. I saw her recently at Camp Bluegrass after about 25 years. She was a really good flat picking guitarist and to be a girl flat picker in 1973 was really unique. Girls didn’t flat pick at that time. They played bass if they did anything. They stood there and clapped their hands and sang. Super Grass played around a bit and Joe and I decided to put together another group. We got Dan Huckabee, a dobro player, and Mike Anderson who later played with Country Gazette. Mike was in a group called the Sunset Harmony Boys, sort of a punk bluegrass band.
It took a while to come up with a name; we thought maybe a geographical name and some of us lived in Fort Worth and some in Denton and so we couldn’t name it after any one of our towns. So we started looking at towns in between and there was one town called Roanoke and we thought that was a bluegrass sounding thing so that was my vote for Roanoke. It was good because there’s another town next to it called Watauga, that’s an Indian name, and Joe wanted to call us the Watauga Wamblers. So we became Roanoke. I got us a gig playing Chelsea Street Pubs and we played there six nights a week for a couple of years. At that time Joe was working for the welfare department, but he quit his job because we made a lot more money than the government paid.
WW: Where was that club?
GJ: There were a whole series of them, about 17 of them. Two in Fort Worth, two in Dallas, one in Baton Rouge, one in Houston, two in Austin, two in San Antonio, Lubbock had one, Albuquerque, New Mexico, also. I can’t remember all the places we played. .
WW: So you just would play around at different ones then?
GJ: We’d play like a week or two weeks at one and then move to the next. We were making about $350 a week each and for young musicians in 1978, we thought we were rich. Here we were making 15 or 16 thousand a year playing music. Country Gazette came out and saw us in Albuquerque.
WW: Do you have any special venues of banjo playing or bluegrass songs that you prefer, for example, Scruggs style, progressive, gospel, etc.
GJ: I really like Scruggs and Crowe. I don’t play a huge amount of it but I really like it. And then of course, Alan Munde is a hero of mine and as for styles, I enjoy playing Scruggsey kind of stuff but I really enjoy playing sort of original kind of jazz, slightly jazzy, you know, new age fusion stuff. If that makes any sense.
WW: Like Keith’s Santa Claus, say?
GJ: Well no, more like not just real straight ahead jazz, more like funky fusion even like bossa nova stuff, things like that that you can play on the banjo, prettier kind of thing. Sort of like (plays) Prettier. I got the bossa nova by a guy Jobim, who wrote the “Girl from Impanema”
WW: What’s the name of that?
GJ: I don’t know what you’d call the style. A lot of times when you do stuff like that people think you are doing Bela Fleck music, but you’re not really. Only Bela does Bela music.
I have originals I’ve written (plays). You almost have to hear it, cause they have a jazz rhythm. And of course, the standard (plays) that kind of thing. Or Beatles tunes.
Lots of things that are pretty.
WW: That’s great.
GJ: That’s the stuff I enjoy playing the most. I really like regular old (plays) that kind of stuff too. Things are finally starting to open up. I got an old wood banjo but I don’t get a chance to play it much so it’s starting to sound better. There’s probably a lot of distortion on your end. I like this kind of thing if that makes sense (plays) Sort of original kind of tunes and light classical things like that plays a bit of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.] I play a lot out of C.
GJ: You know, the prettier long drone-y kind of things, not super driving, but it’s a pretty sound.
WW: It reminds me of the fairly new record (Perpetual Motion) of Fleck’s on which he does classical pieces.
GJ: Yeah, I’ve heard most of it, I think, and Bela’s pretty amazing on that. I wonder if he could play some of those tunes on any given day. I heard in an interview that for one of the caprices he said he had to practice up to six hours a day for a week before, with people massaging his hands when they’d stiffen.
I wish they’d turn down the reverb a little on that record . I thought the reverb a little excessive. I like a little bit of reverb on the banjo like the old Columbia Flatt and Scruggs. Those recordings had a certain amount of reverb which I thought was cool but on that classical one, I thought that they were trying to smooth out the edges a little too much of a banjo sound. But that’s an amazing one; he’s just really amazing.
WW: It seems to go through long sections that have virtually no repeats in them. It goes over vaguely the same melodic part of a song, but it’s really totally different.
GJ: That’s one of the hardest problems I’ve had of trying to learn classical tunes. I did more of those on mandolin. I used to do it the concerto for two mandolins in G, by Vivaldi. It doesn’t repeat. Playing all three sections, you play about nine minutes, and you haven’t really repeated. You’ll have themes that will repeat motifs, but they won’t be exactly the same. They’ll be in different places; they’ll be answering parts and stuff. It’s hard to memorize.
WW: It must be.
GJ: The other day I was trying to play a little bit of it and I didn’t have the music and I couldn’t get halfway through the first movement. The second movement does have to repeat so it wasn’t so bad. It was slow they have a fast, slow and a fast. I know what you are saying and that’s really a lot. I like it but it’s really hard to do. One of my problems I have always had making banjo solos for things is I will tend not to repeat much. If you do an A A B A thing, I have a tendency to make each one a little different.
One of the bad things about that is you sort of blow ideas that you could have made three whole solos out of if you repeat it. It is always in my inclination not to keep things that I make up or just copy from somebody. It does mean you have to come up with a lot more ideas if you are going to carry three solos out.
WW: I have recently been working through the Washington and Lee Swing. I know the song well, but it is still trouble, not like what you are talking about. It is several degrees away from that. Even some of those songs in Scruggs’ book are somewhat long.
GJ: Scruggs is a real master at taking a tune that really has almost no melody like “Sally Goodin” and turning it into a big, long thing. “Sally Goodin” is just a little ditty. It then got elaborated over the years by everybody. Even his “Cumberland Gap.” There’s really not much to “Cumberland Gap” but he makes minor variations and it turns into an interesting song. “Cumberland Gap” is easy to memorize, a lot easier than “Sally Goodin.”
WW: I don’t think that has any comparison with playing jazz or playing classical music.
GJ: Learning fiddle tunes on the mandolin seems a lot simpler because you’ll have two lines of music and that’s a whole song. The complexity is in the way you play it, I think, rather than the notes. I have a bad habit of twisting the versions as I go around, some of it on the fly. I do that on banjo too, but it’s harder to improvise properly, especially with melodic tunes. You almost have to work it out and then practice it. That’s the nature of the instrument. It doesn’t allow you to improvise where you think of a melody line and just play it. That always makes me jealous of the mandolin and fiddle or saxophone.
WW: They can switch in the middle of things.
GJ; Oh, yeah. They can just think it and do it.
WW: Sometimes I have noticed that I will run through a lick and just by missing an intended string and hitting another, it will really sound good but to go back and repeat it, I can’t figure out what I did.
GJ: It’s hard to repeat on a banjo. I’ll do things where I’ll be jamming but I will do this leap of faith where you jump out and run your fingers through stuff and hope you don’t crash and burn. It’s like running across a lake that has little rocks and you can’t stop. That’s what it always feels like and when it works, it’s such a great feeling. But when it doesn’t !
WW: What kind of banjos do you have and what’s your favorite and why?
GJ: I have only owned three banjos in about the last 15 years. One of them is made by a man named Marty Lanham in Nashville; he used to play with Wilma Lee and Stony Cooper. He has the Nashville Guitar Company and makes guitars, banjos and other instruments. He’s also a great banjo player. In 1983 I went to England for a month and while I was over there I played some English-style banjos that don’t have a fifth string peg. The string goes through a hole in the neck. As far as I know, I’m the first one in the United States to have a fifth string through the neck style banjo. I never saw any bluegrass ones like that before I built one twenty years ago.
WW: You mean like a Stealth?
GJ: Exactly like a Stealth.
WW: I bought a Stealth last year and I know what you are talking about.
GJ: They have made banjos like that since the turn of the century in England. I used to have a 1912 Clifford Essex banjo. A real cute banjo; it sounded like crap but it was real cute. It only had an eight inch head on it. But anyway, when I came back in 1984 I made a banjo like that with the fifth string up through the neck. I played that for a while until I had Marty Lanham build this banjo for me in ‘84 or ‘85. It is the same idea as a Stealth. So, I have one that Marty made for me and the year before last I had an old wood banjo built for me.
You know Bill Stokes who has the Timeless Timber, he’s real proud of those things. So I have an old wood banjo with a McPeake ring. It’s the first maple banjo I’ve owned. I’ve owned mostly walnut banjos over the years. I had a Stealth. About three years ago, Scott [Vestal] was out at Camp Bluegrass and he gave me such a deal on a Stealth that I bought one. I played it for about a year, but the neck was almost too wide for me, and I got rid of it. I played it recently and I remembered that it is a really good banjo. I sort of had seller’s remorse.
WW: I guess that yours had a radius neck.
GJ: Yeah, the one I built and these others, all my banjos been radius.
WW: You’re used to that anyway, aren’t you?
GJ: Yeah, well I played electric guitar for a long time. Well, electric guitar is a radius. So when I had mine built, actually I don’t remember seeing a radius banjo. I know I’m not the first one to build a radius banjo, a radius neck. I don’t know anybody who had one before I had mine made in late 1983. There are probably some. I got the finger board from Stewart McDonald and they had the special banjo scale onto the radius board and the banjo fret slots.
WW: What kind of tone ring did you put in that one?
GJ: I used that and then I had Marty [Lanham] build me one with an First Quality pot. This last one is a Curtis McPeake with old wood.
WW: I think Scott has put some McPeake rings in his, too. At least that’s what I understand.
GJ: I think some of them. I think he has some of the McPeake’s and some with Tennessee 20’s.
WW: Scott does?
GJ: He did. I don’t think he does now but I think he did at one time.
WW: I did not ask him that but I just saw that they are running McPeake rings, now.
GJ: What’s so funny about Scott is that he’s about five or six years younger than me, so I remember him being a kid. When I was 22 and he was 16, I remember him being this kid hanging out. I didn’t see him for years and then when I did run into him, he’s real good and he had a banjo like mine. It freaked me out because I hadn’t seen another banjo with a fifth string through the neck like that. I thought that was pretty cool. He didn’t know about mine. He did the same thing I did. He went to England and he saw some English banjos and he had Phil Davidson build him a banjo.
WW: Yes, I read something about that he first started off with one back in those days. Somebody asked him, got interested in it, and wanted one like it.
GJ: Then he got into selling the things and he named them sort of after a tuner he used to sell too, the Sabine Stealth tuner. I’ve got one he gave me and installed it in my banjo. It fits inside the peg shelf, but Sabine quit selling them. He’s really made them popular. Until I ran into Scott I never saw another one in a bluegrass setting except for Gregg Davis’. Now there are a lot of people using them. After you get used to them, it’s really hard to go back to one with a peg.
WW: Yes, it really gives you room to move .
GJ; I would have kept that one of Scott’s but I just really couldn’t get around it up the neck with my little hands. I just couldn’t stretch my hands that far.
WW: Do you like medium gauge strings?
GJ: I like a slightly heavier string because your third string pull-off is so snappy. But I played the J. D. Crowe set for so long that I still struggle to get exactly the right set. I like the tone of heavy strings, but I played that J. D. Crowe set which is very light. When you think of Crowe you’d think you’d have heavy strings, but the set that he endorses is really light. So, I’m sort of struggling with that myself. When you hit some strings hard, about the first string it’ll wow on you. Especially on open strings, the pitch will seem to go up and down if you don’t strike it right.
WW: I noticed that Stelling and maybe some other people too are starting to offer old wood rims. You can have them convert your banjo or choose it as an option on a new instrument
GJ: That’s if they can get a hold of the wood. Stokes has an exclusive on Timeless Timber which is actually one company that sells old wood. There are other companies mining the wood too. I don’t know if this old wood is voodoo or not, but I’ve played eight or nine old wood banjos and they all sound very good to excellent. Then again I’ve played a lot of good banjos that didn’t have old wood. Last year I had two of Jimmy Cox’s banjos and one of them sounded wonderful and another one I didn’t like at all. And they were identical banjos. So, it’s hard to know.
WW: In watching you play, I was impressed with your Pat Cloud like dexterity –moving up and down the fingerboard so rapidly and accurately, you seem to be able to produce any run you had in mind. How did you come to develop this skill and, to be so bold, how can many of us creepy-crawlers learn to strengthen our own playing in this way?
GJ: The short, silly answer is practice. But one way is learning a lot of Alan Munde’s tunes. You will go from one position, then jump up to the next and you won’t have a note in between the change. You try to change where you have an open string in between when you change positions so you have continuity.
Also, playing electric guitar helped me a lot. When you play the banjo you learn to hold your left hand in one position and then hold it to another position while your right hand does things. You don’t move your fingers individually very much, but doing that and while I’m playing runs and moving way up the neck and having to jump in between while in the midst of a run . [Illustrates on a mandolin.] You just learn to make that real quick move. It helped me to play one chord, like a G chord out of an F position then jump up four frets to a D position, like Scruggs does (plays) You do it until it’s comfortable. I didn’t do that for a long time cause a regular banjo doesn’t do that much.
WW: I never saw Pat Cloud play until recently when he was up at the Maryland Banjo Academy in April ‘02. So when I saw you at Munde’s Camp Bluegrass later, I thought this must really be Pat Cloud with a mask on.
GJ: I got to jam with him a couple of years ago, him and Bill Keith, and he was really fun, very smooth. He likes a real bright strident tone. He likes a brighter tone than I like to use, but he’s probably one of the guys closer to playing real jazz on the banjo. He’ll play stuff something like a saxophone player will play. Unlike me. When I play jazz, I just do jazzy things, if that makes sense, rather than actually being real. There’s good points to all these. Like Bill Keith is really great at taking a jazz tune and making it a banjo tune, where it sounds like it really belongs on the banjo. His “Night in Tunisia“ is real jazzy and it sounds like it belongs on the banjo. Allison Brown is really good about playing jazz too. She’s a hot banjo player and when she is doing her jazzy music, she’ll play where it’s like piano, bass, drums and her, where she’s taking the place of the saxophone player.
WW: Do you often use a capo?
GJ: I use it as little as I can. After playing electric guitar and then mandolin these past few years, I didn’t miss the capo. I think in the key I play in, so if I put a capo on, then I have to think, oh well this is a G up two frets. It makes the fingerboard look odd to me. I can look down at the fingerboard and see notes and see places to put my fingers. If I put a capo on a lot of that goes away. It didn’t used to be that way. It used to be the other way around.
I got away from using a capo in the band Roanoke that Joe Carr and I had. We played those Chelsea Street clubs and it was fast action, you know, bam, bam, bam get the crowd excited. I didn’t have time to put a capo on between songs.
WW: So you weaned yourself.
GJ: Yeah, because I didn’t have time. A guitar player can put it on and be there but a banjo player puts a capo on, then you’ve got to spend 30 seconds more retuning, so I got to where I just didn’t use a capo. Plus, I like being able to sound it out. I’ll play “Salt Creek” in A open. I would retune my fifth string only and it will sound pretty normal. I play a lot in A with just the fifth string up. You can make it sound good. Or I’ll put the fifth string up to a B note and play in an open E. It’s not that hard after you learn a few of the licks. And then of course, B flat works and F is easy. I love D and C. That gets you around most of the keys you need. Bluegrassers, for some reason, don’t play in E flat much.
WW: I recently learned Scruggs’ Home Sweet Home in C, and sometimes I just sit down and play it over and over again because I can play it fairly well.
GJ: And it sounds good by yourself too. That’s why I’ve been trying to learn more things that sound good either by yourself or with a very small group. You don’t have to have a full band behind you. Do you ever play “Sweet Dixie,“ a Bill Emerson tune?
WW: I have not. I know what song you are talking about but I’ve not ever played it.
GJ: Well, if you ever learn it, it works with “Home Sweet Home.“
WW: He does it in C?
GJ: He doesn’t play off C tuning. If you ever learn the tune, you can play it for Home Sweet Home. I like the pull offs. It takes a little bit of getting the pull. (plays)
WW: I like that. Quite nice..
GJ: Yeah, I love those two songs. I would have loved to ask him if he called it “Sweet Dixie“ because it has the same chords as “Home Sweet Home?“ There might be a relation. It’s common in jazz, you know Charlie Parker, Bird, or Dizzie Gallespie, would take a standard tune like “How High the Moon” and take the chords and write a new melody and it sounded like a totally different song. “How High the Moon“ is also called “Ornithology” and “Back Home in Indiana“ is called “Donna Lee.“ Maybe he did that like the jazz guys do.
WW: My banjo instructor, Dave Wells, was a student of his for a while back in the 70’s. I’ll ask him about that.
GJ: I never saw him play. I always really liked his playing. Didn’t he go in the Navy and out of pocket for 20 years or so?
WW: Yeah, what I understand they offered him a good living.
GJ: A good living playing banjo is pretty hard to come by.
WW: What I understand is he came in as a banjo player at first and as time went on he took over the band. It’s called Country Currents. He is gone from there now.
GJ: I thought somebody said after he got out of the navy, he started back in bluegrass. I heard that he was at some festival.
WW: He was at Maryland at the Banjo Academy a couple of years ago.
GJ: I’d like to make that someday. That would be a cool thing.
WW: I’ll say something to them about that. I’m really not sure, Gerald, when they are going to have that again.
GJ: They don’t have it every year do they? Just like every now and again?
WW: Yeah, it’s about every year and a half, but I’m not sure if they’re going to have it again. They’ve had it four times since 1997. There are so many other workshops that go on now Keith and Ken Perlman, Crowe, Jack Hatfield, Doug Dillard, and others put them together. Almost every issue of Banjo Newsletter has an ad for at least one.
GJ: Do they have Banjo Camp North or something?
WW: Yeah, Trischka, Keith, Bill Evans, Pete Wernick, and others do that. There’s a big old-time contingent as well. A great event from what I hear.
GJ: I think the market may be getting a little saturated for bluegrass camps. There’s Nash Camp also.
WW: From what I understand it’s just a whole lot of work to put one on.
GJ: Oh, I can imagine. After seeing what Joe and Paula Carr go through [at Camp Bluegrass in Levelland, Texas.]
WW: It’s nothing but pain and love that’s all you can call it. I mean you don’t get rich doing it.
GJ: You certainly don’t. Richard Bailey who plays with Roland White’s band is going to be one of the [Camp Bluegrass] teachers next year.
WW: Are you going to be there?
GJ: Yeah, I’m sort of a perennial. I’ve done them since, I don’t know, ‘90, ‘89, the second or third one on. The first time I went there I taught guitar. After that I did banjo and I’ve done some other stuff but mainly banjo. It all depends what happens because one thing I play with the people and have a good time.
WW: I have seen you sitting around in the lobby picking with folks.
GJ: I enjoy doing that. Some of the teachers never saw the students except at their teaching hour and they like it to be more of an experience than that. Bill Keith is good about hanging with students. He will jam all night long.
WW: I first heard his Sailor’s Hornpipe in 1980 and was an immediate fan. I let some friends listen to it and they couldn’t believe a banjo could be played that way.
GJ: He’s amazing. He’s one of my heroes too. Keith and Munde and J. D. Crowe and of course, other people like Eddie Shelton who’s taught me so much and then Alan Shelton. I’ve only seen him a couple of times live but I really enjoy the way he plays. And then Bobby Thompson but I never could get very much of him. I was really amazed with his smoothness and his neat melodic give.
WW: Tim Stafford, a guitar player, apparently said that Michael Jordan’s adage for basketball players also applies to acoustic guitar players and that is a constant practice of fundamentals. So, what is your view on this as it applies to the banjo and banjo players and more to the point, what are the fundamentals?
GJ: Well, I agree with that entirely. The main fundamental in banjo is timing. More than anything. It is like the old saying, it ain’t what you eat, it’s how you chew it. It ain’t what you do, it’s how you do it. Timing and tone are the most important things for me. I know people who play really cool stuff but they don’t sound any good. You don’t hear the groove. (plays) When I’m just sitting around, I’ll wind up playing something over and over again, trying to get that groove. The key to practicing playing fast is playing slow, an old cliche now (plays). That’s the main thing, that good rhythmic groove. I’ll put a metronome on. I don’t do as much with banjo now as I do with instruments I’m actually working on, which is mandolin and fiddle. I’ll put a metronome on at a medium or a medium slow tempo and just play over and over and over again the same little tune. That’s the way I did banjo. I don’t do it as much recently because the banjo has sort of become second or third down on my list in the last few years. But I’ll sit and have like a little mandolin run [plays a bit of an Irish jig.] That’s a little faster than I usually practice (metronome ticks in background). Just have that going so that (plays). That’s the same way I’ve done banjo forever and I still do it some.
WW: Did you have trouble learning to use the metronome?
GJ: Oh, yeah, at first I had a terrible time. I learned to set the metronome where I didn’t see it. I would set it on a shelf behind me, not looking at it, but close to my ear. And then I would play. After a while, if you don’t constantly think about it, you’ll get where you can play with it.
WW: I see, kind of like a bass in the background.
GJ: After a while you start hearing “tic tic tic” in your head. It helped me out when I recorded commercials and jingles. I would go into the studio and quite often they would have me do the first track down. I wouldn’t have any rhythm to play by; I’d just have a chart. They’d put drums, guitars, piano, or other instruments on later. It’s a rude awakening to come in and play for people who are so picky.
Drum machines also work well to practice with. You can hear more of a boomp bah bah boompa. It’s easier to keep in a groove with a drum (or strum machine) machine. I have a little Boss metronome I can wear around my neck and it has little earphones. It’s the size of a credit card. It has different beats so you can get those in your head, especially if you are trying to do triplete things. It’s hard to get some of those rhythms in your head.
Another part of practicing is listening as much as possible. I talked about recording Alan Munde’s banjo normal speed on one side of a cassette and then recording the banjo breaks in half speed on the other side. I did the same thing with the Foggy Mountain Banjo album. I got to where I can hear “Little Darling Pal of Mine“ played at half speed. That helps a lot.
WW: I have not tried that, but I think that it’s a good idea.
GJ: It’s like learning through osmosis.
Also get in front of as many banjo players as you can. Look at them and be around them. You seldom see anybody who’s isolated, and they’re the only one of whatever instrument and they are really good. It happens but usually you are part of a community. There’s a dynamic that happens that raises players above what they would be normally. Was it Newton who was talking about standing on the shoulders of giants? Same thing in music. If there hadn’t been an Alan Munde, there wouldn’t have been a Scott Vestal. If there hadn’t have been a Tony Trichka, I don’t think there would have been a Bela Fleck. Bela owes a lot of his stuff to Tony.
WW: He took lessons from him when he first started, didn’t he?
GJ: Yeah, you hear a lot of Tony in some of the older things.
WW: I love that record Drive that he did back in ‘95. I’ve played that over and over. It’s just great.
GJ: That’s a bluegrassy sounding album.
WW: And I don’t have an idea, except for the first song, “Whitewater“ I don’t know what the names of any one of the others are.
GJ: I know. I’m really bad when I’m writing instrumentals I’ll name them “Song of the Mall Dwellers“ or “Rasputtin (The Felonious Monk)“. Silly things like that. “Quantum Cats“ It’s not alive or dead until you listen to it. You have to observe the song before it’s good or not. I’m pretty bad about having silly titles.
WW: I’m not sure that that’s bad; it’s just that you don’t hear them anywhere else too much unless you go out of your way, and they are maybe not in the circuit of people in jam sessions.
GJ: Different strokes, different folks. I think the main reason “Whitewater“ is about the only tune you hear of Bela’s is that’s the only one people can play.
WW: Maybe that’s true.
GJ: It’s fairly accessible, not too hard to play. My favorite album of his was called Natural Bridge. It’s an old, old one that has some really cool tunes. It’s not quite so strange as his Flying Hippo kind of music stuff.
He has a real good tone and he has a real good D tuning tune on that. If I can find it on CD I’ll probably buy it someday because all I have is the vinyl that came out in probably 1990. It has a lot of tunes that a bluegrasser could learn. Not like most of Bela’s stuff that nobody but Bela can play. If you like Drive, I think you’ll like Natural Bridge. I heard his Crossing the Tracks, that’s so early on he’s not quite developed at that point.
He’s real good; he does some weird stuff like Chick Corea’s “Spain.“ Bela was 18 or so.
WW: What is your process for tuning the banjo? Do you have a special way?
GJ: Yes, I do and it’s a real simple one. I tune the D string, the first string, to whatever or whoever gives me a D note. [Starts to tune] From there I get up and get the octave which is your low D string. So I get the first string in tune then I get the octave. [Pinches first and fourth strings.]
WW: You pinch with your thumb and middle finger?
GJ: I pinch them with thumb and middle finger, and then I’ll get the first and third strings because that’s a fifth or a fourth, depending on what you want to call it. Next pinch the first and fifth string to tune the fifth. Then I’ll just match the second string. It’s hard to hear that third. What’s nice about that is that I have tuned everything to the first string so you’re not getting cumulative error as you go. By the time you get to the fifth string, if you’re off a couple percent well you’re off ten percent by the time you get to the fifth string. Plus you can check your tuning just by going [does pinches]. I can check my tuning real quickly that way.
WW: It’s not hard to hear that harmony.
GJ: You’ll hear that ring. If you’re in the key of G, that’s going to be a one and a five and that’s a real strong sound. It’s called a power chord when you just hit one and five only. There’s no third in it at all. That’s the way I like to do it and I can get one note for somebody. I’ll be playing and tell someone, give me a D chord and they always want to give me a G. I can do the whole chord and I’ll tune to that chord and I’m sort of averaging out their problems. It may not be perfectly in tune but it sounds nice, like a tempered scale. A piano is really not in tune but it sounds nice in all the keys.
WW: It’s relative. It might not be like a tuner would do it.
GJ: The notes don’t come out evenly for each key. They come out very close and so it’s all a compromise. That’s why I try to say just if you’ll give me a D and leave me alone and tune it and I’ll come back and check my first D again and make sure in the process of tuning that I haven’t moved them very far. You’ll wind up flexing the head. If you tighten it up your D will go flat. If you are tuning just fractionally, the first string will stay in tune. That’s the way I tune it anyway.
WW: I’ll try that myself.
GJ: Sounds like you’re basically doing that already.
WW: After starting to play, I might realize that the tuning’s off some.
GJ: I know. One of the problems I have is that when anything’s out, I always assume it’s me. Even if I’m perfectly in tune and someone else is out of tune, it feels like it’s me. I wish I was like some folks who are certain that they are right no matter what. I don’t have that.