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The comedy of entertainer Steve Martin has been a part of American life for 4 decades. We all know his hilarious movies and abilities as master of ceremonies at the award shows. He’s more than a comedian, actor and writer; he’s a true American icon and musician. Who would have thought that this untouchable star would descend to Earth and start hanging out with us banjo players?
As a player and specifically a builder, I run into the world’s best players from time to time. I am friends with several superior players. While these players represent my own personal stars, you might see the greatest banjo player in the world walking around in public without worrying about the paparazzi. The world of great banjo players exists at very much a grassroots level. The banjoist’s world represents the antithesis to glitzy Hollywood fanfare. All the players I know display an earthy and honest approach to life.
As an average Joe, my view of Hollywood is limited to supermarket pop tabloids and magazine covers. It’s an imaginary world so far from home that I don’t want to know too much about it. Thankfully there are those in the limelight of fame who are unafraid to become known to a wider grassroots populace. Steve Martin has shown us a passion for banjo music that is making a huge difference in how bluegrass and acoustic music is perceived and appreciated.
Martin has spent a lot of time touring the last several years with The Steep Canyon Rangers, a talented North Carolina bluegrass band. If you have not yet experienced their show, you are missing some great entertainment. Being dubbed Entertainer of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association is a fitting honor. Not because Steve Martin is actually bringing anything new to the genre. His love of the music shines through in his well-arranged performances.
It’s this same joy of playing that has hooked thousands of bluegrass and acoustic players worldwide that he shares with the rest of us. Audience members attracted by Martin who may not have otherwise been in attendance likewise begin to catch the spirit of this joyful artform. To be sure, Steve’s sense of humor and jokes make the show extra entertaining, but his biggest impact is opening the eyes and ears of a much wider group of people. (Not that bluegrass fans aren’t wide enough.)
Martin’s belief that bluegrass, oldtime and new-age banjo playing, is underappreciated in the world led him to further the cause by sponsoring an unprecedented annual banjo excellence award. A panel of a few of the world’s best players help determine the most deserving candidates. In 2010 Noam Pikelney received the $50,000 prize for being a great technical player and a blossoming example of what the future may bring to the music. In 2011 Sammy Shelor, a veteran traditional player got his well-deserved recognition for his contributions to bluegrass. And in 2012 Mark Johnson, innovative clawhammer stylist combining the old-time techniques with more contemporary material led to his award. Not only does the financial award inspire and encourage the musicians, but it delivers well-deserved national attention through exposure to millions on the Letterman show and elsewhere.
On behalf of all banjo players across the globe, I’d like to heartily thank Mr. Martin for his love of the music, and his willingness to support players of this wonderful instrument in such a generous and meaningful way. Here is an example of one Hollywood star who follows his passions and is making a difference in a “real world” way.
The general impression of what I have seen in my travels the past few years is that Acoustic music is flourishing in many parts of the world. While recorded music sales have undergone a huge change with the advent of digital music, handmade acoustic music has grown through presentation at live festival events, along with a widening of participation as “jammers” and hobby musicians.
Music has proven to be a fulfilling and fun social event for all ages and such acoustic music including folk and traditional continues to spread at the Grass roots level. While mainstream media does not highlight this music much, increasing awareness of folk and acoustic alternatives has a positive effect upon acoustic instrument sales. In particular, the banjo has been on an upswing, and sales of Nechville banjos have been strong through the slow economy of the last few years. Sales statistics show all fretted string instruments on the rise.
The vast majority of banjos are relatively low quality imports from the far east, and many players that stick with banjo are now in the market for a better banjo. Nechville is becoming a clearer choice due to their unique and sensible high quality designs. I see plenty evidence that participatory social music of Bluegrass, Folk and Oldtime is here to stay. As more and more people discover the enjoyment and challenge of learning to play, our jamming circle will soon extend around the world.
Liz Meyer will live on in her music , in her friends, and in the mark she left on the world. Liz never gave up hope during her long battles with cancer. She never stopped working and she con-tinued to correspond with all who reached out until the end.
I was fortunate to have gotten help from Liz several times when planning trips to Europe. She was central to the European Bluegrass scene and was a great connector of people. Even while bedridden, she would do her work that she was passionate about. She didn’t say “Why Me?” She simply forged on despite the pain and cancer. We all face mortality, but I don’t know anyone who faced it with such courage and strength. She was in no shape to appear in per-son at the EWOB festival last June, but she did. It was amazing. Even her obvious pain would not diminish her smile.
Liz, an awesome musician and song-writer was loved by so many Interna-tionally, and was such a valuable and central link between thousands in Bluegrass worldwide. When people like Liz are taken from us, it charges us with a new directive; to live on with-out fear but to face our challenges head on.
Thanks to Liz for all she has done and for her inspiration. Finally a bit of a rest for another hero. Thanks also to Pieter who stood by her side always, and went through these battles in nearly as painful of a way. Thanks Pieter for all you did to prolong her life so long. And thanks for having me in your home twice when I was last in Europe, The time I spent with Liz could not have been any better. Tom Nechville
Making music is a great hobby. It’s a fun and creative outlet, It can be expensive if you collect expensive instruments. But compared to Cable TV, Golf, Boating, skiing, and driving, hunting, raising pets, or sky diving, it’s cheap. Especially if you are wise and purchase good instruments with high resale value.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to buy the best instrument you can afford. I know many people who have wasted money on banjos that looked good, and even sounded pretty good for a while. Then the instrument starts needing continual adjustment, and unfortunately never delivers top-tier performance. Then people lose money on a trade for a slightly better instrument which still doesn’t measure up over time. Even after a player has lost money several times over on inferior banjos and settled on one he thought would be his last, invariably a picky player’s ear begins to seek alternate sounds.
Please don’t just go out and buy a banjo just because somebody said it was the best. Make your best choice by learning what really makes a banjo great. Here’s a practical checklist for those of you looking.
The following is a list ofthings that I find important as a player and a builder. You’ll have your own priorities however, like how it sounds and looks, but the following are banjo luthiers’ details that may not be obvious to you but are worth considering when looking for a banjo.
* Smooth dressed frets (wider frets wear slower)
* Ergonomically contoured playing surface (compound radius retains neck integrity while improving playability)
* No excessive weight (professional banjos can be 7 pounds or less)
* Neck angle adjustability (don’t expect coordinator rods to give you much if any adjustment)
* Evenly tensioned head (Helical mounting guarantees even-ness)
* Low enough string height with high enough bridge (taller bridges increase power and sustain)
* Beveled non-metal armrest (metal armrests cut down circulation in your arm)
* Bridge properly compensated for intonation and optimal action on each string (bridge should be custom fitted to each banjo)
* Easy head changing (Save time for more practice)
* Wide and generous Neck to body interface (for tuning stability and solid sound)
* Dual point anchoring for tail piece (tailpiece shouldn’t move from side to side)
* Easy string changes (avoid tailpieces with covers for quickest changes)
* Straight-line tailpiece design (keeps string energy directed straight into head)
* Flexibility of options (does it have adaptability for alternative tone components or necks?)