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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Q&A with Noam Pikelny, Part II

This is the second installment of a two-part interview I conducted with Noam Pikelny.  Pikelny, most famous for his work with acoustic supergroup, Punch Brothers, has just released his second solo album, Beat The Devil and Carry a Rail.  He is also the first recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.

You can read the first installment of the interview by clicking here.

Ok, since this Q&A will also be posted on the Banjo Hangout, let’s get into some banjo nerdery for a few questions.  Tell me a little bit about your main ‘jo, the pre-war top tension Gibson PB-7 with a custom Robin Smith neck that extends beyond the head to offer 24 frets and two full octaves.  What drew you to this particular instrument and have its acoustic characteristics informed or altered your playing in any way?

Noam Pikelny: I got that banjo about four years ago now. I was living in Nashville at the time and was exposed to great old Gibson banjos all the time but rarely were they ever for sale, and rarely did I ever consider buying one just because I couldn’t fathom I would be able to pay for it.  It's really expensive, actually more expensive a couple years ago than they are now.  I walked into Gruhn Guitars one day and there were several top tensions there, and the one that I ended up buying was a 1941 PB-7 with a Robin Smith neck.  I played it, and I loved it, and I immediately put it down because I knew it would become heartbreaking because I know that this is available.  I like it that much, and it is just not feasible. And the lucky thing was that they had two other top tensions that were in better condition aesthetically and those sold, and a couple months later this banjo that I really loved was still there.  

By that time Charlie Cushman had started working there and was doing banjo setups, and I came in and played that banjo again. Charlie heard me play it and came up to me  and said, “You gotta get this banjo. This is your banjo.”  And nobody at Gruhn worked on commission, so this wasn’t Charlie trying to make a sale. He said, “It is your instrument; all your detail and your style are really served by this instrument, and as someone who has been through this many times, I’ll tell you, Noam, that if you don’t buy this banjo you’ll be searching for it the rest of your life until you find this one or one just like it.”  I really took it to heart, and Charlie said do whatever you need to do. You need to ask for any money in the world to try and put the money together for this because you’ll never regret it.  And so I borrowed money and got a banjo loan to pay for this banjo, and I’ll be making monthly payments on this for a long time. It’s a lifetime instrument.

There’s a real wide range of banjos and how they’re set up, and the thing is that some of them respond better to us than others. I had always been drawn to a warmer and darker sound and less harsh attack with more sustain. You can take any banjo and try to set it up with that goal, and some of them will do that well, and some of them won’t do that very well, and this top tension was my favorite. You know, when I came in to Gruhn and played it with that initial set up, which has changed a little bit, it really seemed like it was working for how I play the instrument and the sound I’m getting out of it. I think it’s affected my playing.  It has much wider dynamic range than any other instrument I’ve played before. It’s not hard to find a good banjo, a great banjo, that sounds excellent in a certain dynamic.  But, for instance, you can tell the older instruments from newer instruments in that they kind of work beautifully in a very wide range. This banjo, for me, it has a lot more dynamic range than any other instrument I’ve ever owned. All the other instruments that I’ve played in the past I always felt that they had a wonderful tone to them but you had to cap how hard you hit it, it wouldn’t give back the way you wanted it to give back. This banjo felt like it had an infinite range of percussion compared to what I was coming from, and I haven’t been disappointed with it at any point, and to me it’s a lifetime instrument. I just wish it wasn’t so heavy.

Are all your other banjos just collecting dust? I know you played a Nechville in the past as your main banjo.  Do you still play it or other banjos to achieve different tones, or has the Gibson become your sole instrument to gig, record, and compose?

NP: I don’t’ really have that many. Up until a couple months ago I only had three. I still have my Nechville that I love and will never get rid of. That was my main banjo for the first six or seven years of my professional career. And I have a banjo that’s kind of a copy of my main top tension that’s made out of all pre-war Gibson parts except for the tone ring.  It has a Huber tone ring.  I use that if I’m flying and there’s just no option of bringing the banjo on board. So when I’m going to Europe I’ve taken that banjo because I’ve had to check it, but usually I’d always have my top tension with me. There were maybe only three gigs over the last three years that I didn’t bring it just because it was impossible to bring it on the plane.

Does the copy also have a Robin Smith neck with 24 frets?

NP: Yeah, its almost identical with the top tension. A couple months ago I bought a Deering John Hartford model, and I borrowed one from Bela Fleck that was one of Hartford’s personal banjos to play on “Fish and Bird,” the song that Aoife O’Donovan [of Crooked Still] sang on the record, and I just really fell in love with that sound and found myself wanting something like that to use with Punch Brothers.  Also, I’m getting an album relase tour in December, and Aofie is coming on board and doing things like “Fish.” I think it’s a really cool combination that when you have a low tenor banjo with a third string that’s sounding an E-flat or E instead of a G but will still set up bright if I played with normal strings.  If I tuned my Hartford banjo to G it would be a really bright, bluegrass sound. It would be way too bright for me to use on any material we played. When you tune a banjo set up like that all the way down and put on heavy strings you get a really cool juxtaposition of this low richness. I’ve fallen in love with that sound a lot recently, and a lot of it is instrumental to John Hartford’s music.

Do you use a heavy wound third string like John did?

NP: Yeah, I think it’s a .20.

I posted on the Banjo Hangout that I would be interviewing you and asked if any of the forum members had questions they’d like to have you answer.  Several people were curious about your practice routine which is no surprise given your virtuosity as a banjo player.  Can you talk a bit about that?

NP: My practice routine is always evolving and is really to serve whatever is coming up on my plate as far as musical opportunities, whether it’s going into the studio with Punch Brothers or on my record or tour.  That will usually be the main guiding force in what I’m working on in the idle moments when I’m home or on tour. I lament the fact that I don’t have time like I did five or six years ago where I had three weeks on the calendar and nothing whatever was on the horizon as far as gigs. I really welcome the fact that things aren’t stagnant, but it was under those types of schedule opportunities where I could really feel like I could immerse myself in the instrument and be working on things that possibly didn’t have a deadline on them. Things have been so busy with the band and my own schedule as of late that most of the routine has been trying to get things into working order. Every time I get some time to myself where I feel like I could jump in and really start investigating something deeply, that’s when I’ll return to working on technique or trying to understand the neck better.

As far as what I practice these days when I have that type of time, it can really vary. I feel like I don’t wake up and get out the banjo and run scales. I’m much more interested in playing actual musical excerpts or creating the music, and lately I’ve been on a real kick of trying to transcribe pedal steel music, especially this guy Vance Terry, on the banjo. He really expands one’s playing ideas that seem impossible on your instrument, and you find a way to make them work on your instrument.

Banjo, the way it’s tuned and the number of strings it has, you’re really limited in one position like in one part of the neck as far as the range of the musical idea that you have. Playing a one-octave G scale at the 10th fret of the banjo, that’s specific for banjo players.  You can’t afford to practice technique, and if you’re playing scales then you need to start somewhere. It’s one way of teaching yourself how scales are built and to refine the right hand. To play actual musical ideas you have to be able to have access to more than just one scale position, and I think that’s the danger of running technical exercises and just memorizing different positions, left hand positions. You might be able to play for scales, but when it comes to actually playing music you need to be able to break out of those positions and set up and create an idea that has more of a range than you could necessarily find in scales. What I find is that for the banjo, I’m having to cover a lot more ground left-hand wise. To play a musical idea that on a guitar or mandolin would only require moving your left hand three or four frets, on the banjo you’re having to go up the entire scope of the neck, and those are things to overcome. A line I would play in a solo or a melody of a song shouldn’t be dictated by how closely tuned the intervals are on a banjo. And you overcome these natural setbacks, these things that seem like inherent limitations on the instrument.  You tend to get comfortable in thinking this is what you do on the instrument because it's tuned this way. And I’m not interested in changing the tuning, I’m interested in overcoming some of the hurdles of navigating the neck in order to improvise or play melodies in the same way a different instrument or musician could.

I did have one quick question about the new Punch Brothers album you just finished recording.  I recently spoke with Jaquire King, the album’s producer, and he said the record would have a different sound in its production.  He mentioned the plan was to record everything acoustically but possibly add different sonic touches in post-production. Is this something you’re comfortable talking about so far out from the release date?

NP: Yeah, we just finished tracking it. We kept an extremely open mind to how we were actually capturing the sound of the instruments in the studio and how we were getting the sound of the instruments down on tape.  When we’re writing music we have no constraints or rules of how the music gets assembled. It’s really a wide open canvas as far as our approach to writing music and arranging it, and we’ve been in environments where our recording approach in fact was much more strict than our actual approach to the music in that we would sit down and set up and try to capture the sound of us playing acoustically in a room.  Typically, you get your sounds after a couple days, and you record an entire record in that setting, whereas this recording with Jacquire, which was an amazing experience that I’m still kind of reeling from at the moment, we experimented with sounds based on each different song and the part that each instrument played, how it could be, how you could serve the song better and make the music more compelling by doing a little bit of a extra magic to each instrument to serve the individual song.  That’s the first time that we experimented with that. Maybe instead of having a banjo go through a mic into the control room, we have the mic into an amp and a microphone out of the amp. These effects can be subtle at times, and at times they can be very kind of moving.  If you have a banjo all of a sudden in a reverb chamber or something on the bass, there’s an endless palette of what you can do in the studio with this direction. 

And for us, our endeavor in the studio is trying to make something that could possibly be as exciting as a live show. There are so many non-musicial stimuli in a live show. You’re watching the musicians, there’s also the sound of the room that you’re playing in or the way the crowd responds, all these things have extra gravity that make something really special when you play live. The question is how can you really translate that into a recording when it’s just coming out of someone’s studio. And I feel like, on this record, we didn’t’ limit ourselves in our options or our tonal palette while we were recording. I think that  could provide some of those extra musical or non-musical stimuli to the sound that could possibly give people the same, or get the impact closer, to what would happen at a live show, if that makes any sense.

I'd like to thank Noam for taking the time to conduct this interview.

You can visit Pikelny's website to get information about purchasing his album as well as upcoming tour dates by clicking here

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