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The Banjo Ninja
October 16, 2009 6:49 AM   Subscribe

A few days back I was introduced to the Banjo Ninja [via Boingboing] and found myself instantly hooked to the 'gritty hard edge Appalachian claw-hammer and Scruggs style banjo with punk rock intensity'. The more I watched video and listened to streaming tracks on Phillip Roebuck's web site, the more I liked it, particularly Summons Song, which blew me away. Other great tunes include Little Bo Peep and Monkey Fist. The downside to my newfound musical interest is that being in Hong Kong I can't buy any of the tracks via iTunes or Amazon, which sucks royally because I would love to send Phillip some money for my favourite tracks. After searching MeFi all I could find was one brief mention in the green back in 2007 (which I missed as I don't always visit Ask MeFi), and couldn't believe Roebuck hasn't been introduced via the blue, so I hereby rectify that situation. It may not suit everyone's tastes, but I defy you not to tap your feet.
posted by bwg (34 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Off to throw away my banjo. Thanks, bwg.
posted by barrett caulk at 7:01 AM on October 16, 2009


God-DAMN.
posted by notsnot at 7:03 AM on October 16, 2009


I like this guy's style, but there's precious little Scruggs style and zero clawhammer going on here. He's basically playing the banjo like a guitar, which trad banjo players don't. No hazard, though; the results are fun. (For reference, here's a good sample of clawhammer style. Scruggs I'll leave to the experts.)
posted by argybarg at 7:10 AM on October 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Daddy like! But why do so many video people wanna punish my head with those rapid camera switches??? Is there a demographic that actually likes that?
posted by rahnefan at 7:23 AM on October 16, 2009


The heavy editing/production process in that Summons Song video kinda made me gag, especially since you can't tell if it's geniune or not given the possible number of takes he could have done, but thankfully there's a more natural version. This one's also pretty fantastic.
posted by tybeet at 7:28 AM on October 16, 2009


tybeet, i saw the 'natural version' vid as well, and the thought that struck me was how dead the spectators were.

What's wrong with those people?
posted by bwg at 7:35 AM on October 16, 2009


bwg:

Buskers become part of the scenery in the city. Anyone asking for money immediately gets ignored most of the time. I find it amazing people stopped to watch.

Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell got similar treatment
posted by JeremiahBritt at 7:53 AM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow.
posted by rusty at 8:06 AM on October 16, 2009


He plays at a rundown diner near my office every once in a while in nowhere, Virginia. I think they have about 20 tables and everyone raves about his performances. I only managed to catch him once, but it was a delight.
posted by Lame_username at 8:18 AM on October 16, 2009


that Summons Song is excellent - thanks for posting!
posted by jammy at 8:24 AM on October 16, 2009


Holy hell, that's some playing.
posted by lekvar at 8:38 AM on October 16, 2009


Daaaayyum! I've been listening to Flatt & Scruggs Radio on Last.fm for a few months now. Was lamenting the fact that there didn't seem to be any new artists carrying on the tradition and taking it new places. This is way cool. Maybe the technique isn't for purists, but the instrument has had some new life breathed into it.

Hats off, and thanks for the FPP, it's a really good one.
posted by Xoebe at 8:47 AM on October 16, 2009


He's basically playing the banjo like a guitar, which trad banjo players don't.

Well, that depends on how you define a "traditional banjo player." Tenor banjos have long been a staple of New Orleans jazz, for instance, and that kind of guitar-like style was predominant (and quite popular) until the 1920's or 30's, when Appalachian music started to enter the outside world. Now, there's a good argument to be made that a jazz player's banjo is a fundamentally different instrument than an Appalachian banjo, so there isn't much sense comparing the two; but even within Appalachia, there were and are lots of different styles floating around, including lots of different up-picking styles, so to say that "traditional players" do this, that or the other doesn't really mean much.

Was lamenting the fact that there didn't seem to be any new artists carrying on the tradition and taking it new places. This is way cool. Maybe the technique isn't for purists, but the instrument has had some new life breathed into it.

Oh, Roebuck's not the only one; they're out there. They just don't tend to show up on the internet much. I'll readily admit there is an unfortunate divide within old-time music about what's "authentic" and what's "too modern," but the culture is still very much alive and evolving.
posted by Commander Rachek at 9:04 AM on October 16, 2009


I gotta disagree with this. That first link to Summons Song is almost pure Scruggs picking, and tybeet's second link is pretty much straight frailing. The thing is, its r.e.a.l.l.y fast. But if you listen to the fifth string, the styles are pretty clear. This guy's definitely taking traditions into new territory without leaving them behind. The percussion is great. I would hazard a guess that David Lindley would dig this. He's done come frantic stuff.
posted by carping demon at 11:53 AM on October 16, 2009


Well, he maybe done come, but once he arrived he's done some frantic stuff.
posted by carping demon at 11:55 AM on October 16, 2009


Why do I suspect that he wouldn't consider stepping on stage for shows like America's Got Talent? This is sooo America. Yet, my brain hurts trying to visualize him on T.V.. Can someone explain that to me?

This guy or guys like him could prove to be a new Pete Seager pied pipering us out of a more contemporary version of a dark age of war and recessionary sloth.

I consider myself pretty mass man 2010 - I work and watch t.v. at night. The only thing Pete Seager makes me want to take a hammer to is his head. This guy on the other hand, I'd follow him into battle. Why is it that our bodhisattvas today hide on the street when it seems the doorway to national consciousness is right down the street?
posted by astrobiophysican at 1:53 PM on October 16, 2009


I disagree with this..

I don't know if you are a player, though I suspect so with your vocabulary and knowledge. Clawhammer is a very misunderstood style but there is nothing resembling Clawhammer in any of the clips. The one you pointed out as "straight frailing" may in fact even be using a guitar pick. Many of clips are using a guitar pick, he appears to play it like a guitar. An open tuned guitar with a slide in particular in the video mentioned. The first linked song is something resembling Scruggs, but appears to have some of Seeger's two-finger style thrown in. Either way, his style isn't pure anything, it's very much a hybrid style. Most of the time he is using a guitar pick and strumming frantically. It works excellently for his modern, rock and roll style to an almost punk rock effect on Monkey Fist.
posted by mediocre at 3:07 PM on October 16, 2009


This is awesome. Thanks for pointing it out, I really like his stuff.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 4:51 PM on October 16, 2009


Well, I don't know clawhammer from banhammer, but this I like. I have been looking for some new music, that is different from all I have and am tired of. Off to iTunes I go. Thanks for a nice post.
posted by genefinder at 4:53 PM on October 16, 2009


The thing I like most is the unabashed energy in the performance, somewhat necessitated by the one-man band apparatus, but mostly from the heart.

The guy shreds like its his last performance ever. I can get behind performers who lay it all out on the line.

He wouldn't have to appear on a TV contest show because he already knows he's got talent. If anything, he should appear on Conan or SNL where he can get some props.
posted by bwg at 4:54 PM on October 16, 2009


grr ... it's his last ...
posted by bwg at 4:55 PM on October 16, 2009


Is there a portmanteau for apostrophe nazi? Apostrazi? Nazstrophi? Apostronazi? I need a word for all the people who rag on others for improper apostrophe placement. And to a lesser extent those who insist they are better human beings because they use "its" perfectly, every time without fail.
posted by mediocre at 5:35 PM on October 16, 2009


Well, mediocre, I don't pick banjo, but I've played guitar with a lot of banjo pickers in the last fifty years. I just looked at this again, and I'd like you, or somebody, to explain just how he gets that fifth string in there the way he does with a guitar pick. And as far as I can remember, which is at least an hour ago, if you're in open tuning and using a bottleneck, you're usually not using a guitar pick.
posted by carping demon at 10:05 PM on October 16, 2009


And to a lesser extent those who insist they are better human beings because they use "its" perfectly, every time without fail.

It's not about wanting to be perfect, it's about not wanting to appear uneducated, especially on the web, which is full of morons who think "hardly" is an adjective to describe the intensity put into an action.

Such as (back on topic): Phillip Roebuck plays his banjo hardly.

'Phillip Roebuck plays his banjo like a man possessed' has a much nicer ring to it. The man could duel against the Devil and win.
posted by bwg at 2:48 AM on October 17, 2009


Yeah, he's fast; frantically so. But I don't care for his tone.

The young Pete Seeger managed speed and tone. Listen to East Virginia from Darling Corey.
posted by scruss at 5:01 AM on October 17, 2009


I don't find his tone that bad, but then maybe tone is easier to attain when you don't have to concentrate on percussion as well as lightning picking. " )
posted by bwg at 5:14 AM on October 17, 2009


There are venues around the nation for folks who play offbeat music like this to find audiences that like that kind of thing. Oregon has Pickathon, but many of the artists I saw there were clearly "mid-tour" between like-minded string-picking festivals. I first saw Hillstomp there, and the Banjo Ninja would fit right in next to them. Just sayin'.
posted by dylanjames at 7:58 AM on October 17, 2009


The thing is, its r.e.a.l.l.y fast.

It's really not.

Style-wise, he's a mess. It's neither Scruggs nor clawhammer—much closer to flailing as mentioned already. He does have a sort-of authentic I-live-on-the-streets sound, but there's only the barest bit of competency in his playing.* He got plenty heart, though.

* Versus, say, this guy.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:15 AM on October 17, 2009


Also, because everyone always seems to link to Fleck at some point in a banjo thread, I offer this clip from my personal Lord Almighty of the Holy Banjo, Mr. Charles Wood.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:25 AM on October 17, 2009


Bela Fleck?
posted by carping demon at 5:39 PM on October 17, 2009


> The young Pete Seeger managed speed and tone. Listen to East Virginia from Darling Corey.

(Pete Seeger probably had better recording equipment and didn't have to deal with youtube compression: here a youtube clip of the song you suggested)
posted by Decimask at 8:24 PM on October 17, 2009


Update: for those outside the United States unable to use iTunes or Amazon, Roebuck has added a shopping cart to his site for whole album downloads, with individual tracks to be available in the near future.

Track previews are still available on Amazon.
posted by bwg at 5:22 PM on October 19, 2009


erm, Decimask, it was recorded on a 1940s-vintage tape deck - there's nothing there to compress ...
posted by scruss at 7:47 PM on October 19, 2009


Civil_Disobedient, that Charles wood clip was definitely fast and clean, but what I like most about Phillip Roebuck is that his playing isn't so refined; perhaps it was that quote about 'punk rock intensity' that nails down the way it makes me feel.

Because ordinarily I'm not a huge banjo fan.

What can I say, I like grit.
posted by bwg at 5:11 AM on October 20, 2009


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