Five-String Wizard

BELA FLECK TAKES THE BANJO WHERE NO ONE HAS GONE BEFORE
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Photos: Greg Kessler

Heralded by many as the Charlie Parker of the banjo, Béla Fleck has taken his unprepossessing instrument to places unimagined even by the immediately preceding generation of five-string virtuosos who were his mentors. And the world is taking notice: in just seven years, Fleck has won seven Grammys across multiple genres including jazz, classical, pop, and country. He's done it on an instrument that some might think is limited in approach and appeal — until they hear Fleck.

Béla Fleck has made a career of dashing expectations about what can be done with a few strings tuned to an open G chord. He's assimilated classical music by producing note-for-note banjo transcriptions of Bach violin partitas. He's a superb modern jazz player, improvising bebop-type lines on an instrument that hasn't been a part of jazz for 70 or more years. His uncannily intuitive musical sense allows him to traverse various genres of world music; he's collaborated with Tuvan throat singers, Indian tabla players, steel drummers, and a host of other musicians, including violinist Joshua Bell, bassist Edgar Meyer, pianist Chick Corea, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and singer-songwriters Dave Matthews, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Hornsby, Sting, and Bonnie Raitt. He's even played with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

Aside from his eclectic musical pursuits as a soloist, one of Fleck's greatest musical achievements is his inspired creation of the unique ensemble in which his banjo is allowed to shine. Since 1989 Fleck's musical home has been his own band — the Flecktones — consisting of core members Victor Wooten on electric bass and Victor's brother Future Man on Drumitar (a guitar-shaped electronic percussion-triggering device of Future Man's own conception). Early on the band included harmonica player Howard Levy; he was eventually replaced by saxophonist Jeff Coffin. Béla Fleck and the Flecktones have released eight albums since 1990, producing some of the most progressive, original, and diverse new acoustic music of our time.

Early Influences

Despite keeping pace with such instrumental wunderkinder as Mark O'Connor and Chris Thile, Fleck's musical background is somewhat unremarkable and fairly typical for someone who attended high school in the '70s: “I'd been playing guitar since I was eight, and I was into the Beatles and really falling in love with Joni Mitchell,” Fleck says. “When I was 15 and got my first banjo, I had already been playing folk guitar and Beatle guitar.”

That almost makes Fleck something of a late bloomer, considering how many musical prodigies get their start a decade sooner. But Fleck made up for a lost time by adopting an almost obsessive approach to the banjo: “I couldn't stop once I got my hands on it,” he says. “It turned me upside down.” Fleck then began to play the banjo day and night. He would wake up early just to play the banjo before going to school. If he couldn't play it — like on the bus or in class — he was thinking about it. As he puts it, “Guitar was a hobby. Banjo was a life.”

Thanks to his ever-increasing virtuosity and the fact he lived in Manhattan, the young Fleck soon found himself in the company of some of New York's leading banjoists. “I took lessons from Erik Darling of the famous folk band the Weavers. There was a certain point where Erik said, ‘You have to learn “Keith-style.”'' And when I found out who Bill Keith was, I ate it up. Then I took lessons from Marc Horowitz, who taught me all the Keith and melodic stuff and the music of Tony Trischka. After a while I just wanted to learn Tony's stuff, and Marc got tired of trying to stay ahead of me. So one day he said, ‘Here's Tony's number.''”

“Keith-style” and “melodic-style” are synonymous terms referring to a complex type of banjo playing where successive melodic notes are played on different strings. It involves almost no fill or drone notes — something the banjo naturally excels at — and instead requires a rigorous, intellectual, almost counterintuitive approach to figuring out melodic passages.

Fleck's gifts allowed him to absorb the new style easily. In fact, he often took the longer, more arduous road to come to a relatively simple place. “When I got together with Tony, I found I had learned a lot of his stuff, but I wasn't doing it right,” Fleck recalls. “Most of our lessons we just sat around and jammed, and I would say, ‘How did you do that on this record?'' He'd show me, and mostly I had learned it ‘wrong,'' except that I had the notes right. Usually it was easier than I was making it, and he would just laugh because of how hard I had made things. But Tony and I got to be good friends, and I've never met a more gifted and knowledgeable musician — on any instrument.”

After high school Fleck left for Boston; there he cut his teeth with the band Tasty Licks at age 19. Fleck then joined another bluegrass band, Spectrum, with which he recorded three albums. His big break came in the early '80s when he replaced Courtney Johnson in the well-known progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival, having been recruited by the band's founder, world-class mandolinist Sam Bush. It was with New Grass that Fleck became widely recognized as a progressive bluegrass banjoist of the highest caliber. He soon began cutting solo albums for Rounder Records; by then it had become clear that Béla Fleck was a bluegrass force to be reckoned with.

However impressive his bluegrass accomplishments were, Fleck's eclectic musical curiosity was also taking hold. “Ever since I was a kid in high school I was also playing progressively,” he stresses. “I was just as interested in sitting in and playing Led Zeppelin along with my friends, or blues, or Joni Mitchell, as I was the folk stuff. So I had been developing this parallel path along with my bluegrass one.”

From left to right: Victor Wooten, Jeff Coffin, and Future Man

The Jazz Factor

The next key phase in Fleck's musical development came largely because of his love for jazz. “I got into Parker, Corea, Martino, McLaughlin, Metheny, because I felt I needed to break away from bluegrass to get a bigger picture of the world,” he says. In the process, Fleck made a significant discovery: he realized that, while the rhythmic strumming of a banjo had been a staple of early jazz groups, no musician had truly played modern jazz on the instrument in the way, for example, a guitarist like Pat Metheny or Pat Martino had. So Fleck devised a system for studying jazz — formally, and in a disciplined way — on the banjo.

Other people had played jazz on the five-string banjo before, notably Bill Keith, who's credited with inventing the melodic style. Fleck, however, points out the difference between learning a melody or set piece that's worked out on the banjo, and playing in the true style of jazz: improvising idiomatically in the swing and bebop style. “Certainly, there were already players experimenting with jazz on the banjo,” Fleck acknowledges, “like when Keith did the Benny Goodman stuff, or [Duke Ellington's] ‘Caravan'' or [Duke Jordan's] ‘Jordu.''” But Fleck wanted to take a more modern-jazz approach.

“I had an epiphany when I saw Chick Corea and Return to Forever at the Beacon Theater in New York,” Fleck continues. “I'm watching Al DiMeola and Stanley Clarke racing up and down their necks, and I'm thinking, ���All those notes are on the banjo, and there's no reason you shouldn't be able to play them.''”

Although Fleck is respectful and admiring of his forebears, he clearly understood on an intellectual level how his new approach would differ from theirs. For example, the style of Don Reno, an incredible banjo innovator who had elements of both Earl Scruggs and a flatpicking single-string technique on banjo, wasn't where Fleck was headed. “Even the Reno thing is not scales, it's licks,” he says. “And chromatic licks that are comfortable in that position on the banjo neck are still licks too. It's very position-oriented and not a comprehensive scale study that takes you up and down the neck, or that allows you to turn right and left on a dime and take another direction. There's no voice leading, intervals, odd rhythmic patterns. All those are hallmarks of true jazz playing.”

Fleck then developed a more formalized regimen for studying the banjo: “I figured out the modes, which is what you have to learn when you play guitar,” he says. “I learned scale passages that went from bottom to top, in all 12 keys, then in thirds, fourths, fifths, octaves, ninths. Then in odd groupings. I went up the neck, down the neck, across the neck, and switched directions until I knew the entire fingerboard according to the notes and not just licks where my fingers were comfortable going.”

In addition to taking a systematic approach to scale study, Fleck used another practice technique common to jazz players — learning tunes and solos from the masters. “I learned every Charlie Parker tune on every record I had,” he says. “I learned some solos, lots of fragments, Coltrane licks. I learned Pat Martino stuff, which was very chromatic, and I explored heavily the jazz minor scale,” which is the natural-minor scale with a raised sixth and seventh degree.

At this point he made the decision not to alter the banjo's tuning, as some players might do when trying to stretch it from its folk roots to make it more versatile. “I alter tunings to write songs, but for improvising, you need to know where everything is,” he explains. “If you want to internalize the fretboard, you can't have the third in a different place every time you play. I stuck with the G tuning because I found there was as much good as there were problems. Different tunings may be good for working out songs, but that's different than improvising.”

Fleck bows his banjo as his bandmates look on.

To World and Beyond

Fleck has assimilated other genres by applying the same kind of formalized discipline he used to learn jazz. On Live at the Quick (Sony, 2002), his recent CD and DVD, Fleck tackles Indian music in a trio with Victor Wooten and tabla player Sandip Burman. Fleck doesn't find playing with the tabla to be unusually difficult, even though there is some fierce counting and rapid meter changing afoot in the high-speed tour de force. “What you're seeing is all the hard work that was done at another time,” he says. “You're just seeing the effect. Sandip and I had toured before as a duo. The Bach violin partita was, again, work I had done at another time, and now it's no big deal for me to do it. The Indian stuff follows it [on Quick], but it's all internalized, as is all the Flecktones stuff. That's what's kind of cool: You keep building on top of the last thing. And you don't even remember all the stages it took to get it there.”

The smorgasbord of styles served up on Quick illustrates a variety of approaches to the material. For instance, Aaron Copland's “Hoedown” requires a different mind-set than some of the other classical pieces Fleck plays. “‘Hoedown'' is more like a jazz tune or a bluegrass tune,” he says. “There's a lot more leeway there. In the Bach, there's no leeway: every note must be played as written. In the Copland, it just doesn't seem like that to me. Maybe because I grew up hearing Emerson, Lake, and Palmer play it and it's just a great tune. After we recorded it, Victor said, ‘Man, I had no idea that this thing would ever sound any good.'' And by the time we added bassoon and tabla and a horn section, it had taken on a life of its own. And it doesn't sound at all like the ELP version.”

Banjo Breakdown Playing a live show that runs the gamut from baroque to East Indian to Appalachian music naturally requires more than one axe; Fleck uses three banjos and a guitar as his main stage instruments. Closest to his heart is his prewar vintage Gibson banjo. “My main axe is a 1937 Gibson Style 75, called that because they [cost] $75 at the time,” he explains. “It's a great old banjo, a flathead, one of the ‘holy grail'' banjos. It's like the Earl Scruggs vintage, but a different model.”

Banjo Breakdown

Playing a live show that runs the gamut from baroque to East Indian to Appalachian music naturally requires more than one axe; Fleck uses three banjos and a guitar as his main stage instruments. Closest to his heart is his prewar vintage Gibson banjo. “My main axe is a 1937 Gibson Style 75, called that because they [cost] $75 at the time,” he explains. “It's a great old banjo, a flathead, one of the ‘holy grail’ banjos. It's like the Earl Scruggs vintage, but a different model.”

His other two banjos are electrified: “The black one is a Nechville Meteor, with a small head,” says Fleck. “Some [electric] banjos have no head, but then they have no characteristics, and you might as well play a guitar. The head and the wood bridge have to be in there somewhere. The Nechville sounds like a banjo, and it's in a different tuning, a dropped C, which John Hartford used to do a lot, and which is a sound I just love. I use that tuning on ‘Big Country.'' My other electric banjo is a Deering Crossfire, which was one of the first electric banjos during my time. It has a real rich, dark sound. It sounds more like a jazz guitar in a lot of ways, but I use all the banjo techniques on it. I run a Yamaha hex pickup on it to drive the synths.”

For occasional guitar passages, Fleck uses a Swiss-made Paradis guitar, which is also equipped with a hex pickup. “I have a lot of systems onstage: an acoustic banjo, an electric, a synth system for an electric, a guitar, a wireless system, preamps, and EQs,” he explains. “It's a lot of stuff, so I just use the onboard sounds. Live, the Roland GR-33 works just fine.”

The pickup in Fleck's acoustic banjo is a special floating element made by Gerald Jones. As Fleck explains, “It's a magnetic pickup that floats underneath the bridge and under the head. A sliver of metal fits between the middle bridge foot and the head. That makes the banjo into a mic. The problem with that, though, is that mics feed back. So I have a 10-band Klark Teknik parametric EQ to kill the feedback. I have to go pretty deep and wide, but once I filter out the muddy stuff, it sounds a lot more acoustic than any pickup I've ever heard.” Fleck mixes the pickup sound with an instrument-mounted mini condenser mic, a Shure SM98.

For effects, Fleck keeps the banjo paths isolated, each with its own separate signal chain. The acoustic rack contains the Klark Teknik EQ and an Eventide Eclipse. “In my electric rack, I've been using the Line 6 Pod Pro,” says Fleck. “I use a little bit of delay and not much distortion, but occasionally I want some crunch. Sometimes I like it to crunch when I'm doing single-line stuff. And there's a really nice chorus and some good amp sounds in the Pod. After playing a lot of digital guitar processors, I've found that a lot of them don't play well. They sound good, but you can't play through them. They slow you down. But the Line 6 sounds good and feels really good to play through.”

All effects are applied by the time the banjo signals come out of their respective onstage racks and go out to the house engineer. The three banjos feed a Trace Elliot TA 200S 4-channel combo amp, which Fleck uses as a stage monitor. The guitar signal goes through a unit called a Polysubbass Controller, which processes the hex pickup signals and sends them out to a Roland VG-8 Guitar System. That goes into a Lexicon PCM80 for effects and then straight to the board.

The Flecktones' stage-monitoring system is entirely wireless. All the musicians use Shure PSM 600 in-ear monitors, which drastically reduce the feedback potential created by conventional speakers bleeding into open mics. “The in-ear monitors really help with the banjo, especially the acoustic banjo,” says Fleck, “because the louder we get, the more volatile the situation is with feedback. And the band has naturally been turning up recently, and that would be much more problematic with conventional monitors. We adopted them pretty quick after they came out.”

Spotlight Sharing

Fleck is quick to acknowledge the high level of his supporting talent, both in the core of the Flecktones — the Wooten brothers and Jeff Coffin — and the distinguished and recurring guests that regularly grace his live shows. Live at the Quick documents and celebrates some of the most successful and popular cameo appearances: Andy Narell on steel drums, Paul McCandless on oboe and saxes, and Paul Hanson on bassoon, as well as the more exotic exploits of Sandip Burman on tabla and the throat singing of Congar-ol Ondar. It might seem daunting just to play along with such virtuosic and diverse individuals, let alone mold them into a cohesive ensemble, but Fleck has developed his own approach to directing: “I don't tell them what to play so much as I might tell them when to play,” he says. “I might say, ‘Play the pocket and then when it's time to jam, do whatever you want.'' I may have them take five or six passes.”

Or Fleck will simply tell them when to enter and exit, and that's often enough. “I do have a very clear sense of that as we do start to play a song,” he says. “I'll be able to say, ‘Leave some space. Don't play all the parts.'' There's ten guys onstage, after all, so you need to come and go. Or, ‘I think you should stick with the melody here and take off there. Can you fill in chords here?'' Or Paul [Hanson] has this pedalboard that allows him to play whole chords with the bassoon. So it might be, ‘Do your chord backup stuff here.'' And that's how rehearsals go. As you know what each person does really well, you can just say at a rehearsal, ‘Oh, you should be doing that thing that you do that's really cool.'' And not, ‘Play this note, play that note.''

“You know, being a leader is a funny position,” continues Fleck. “Often the people you're with are more than your equal. I've been playing with people like that — Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, Branford Marsalis — all my life. The interaction might be equal, but often the player is more than my equal. You're just the leader today. Tomorrow they could be the leader. I try let people do what they do best.”

In that egalitarian attitude may lie the key to a larger principle that makes Béla Fleck's ensembles so unique and successful: he knows how to put musicians together and then let things happen. For Fleck, the creation of a viable ensemble doesn't mean just throwing together a bassoonist, a throat singer, and a steel drummer. It's gathering a group of kindred spirits who are bound to inspire each other, regardless of their chosen instrument. Says Fleck, “I find musicians I love and then figure out how to make it work. I never had any preconceived notion about playing with a bowed bass or soprano sax or synth drums or electric bass, but I did love Edgar, Jeff, Future Man, and Victor. I used to follow the philosophy of ‘Learn from the masters.'' Now I learn from people I play with. And I'm still learning from those guys. I learn something every day of my life from playing with them.”

The House of Flecktones

Richard Battaglia is the Flecktones' Grammy-winning front of house engineer as well as the band's tour manager. He's an acoustic-music veteran, having worked with the Flecktones since their inception and before that with the influential and pioneering New Grass Revival.

What are the particular challenges that front of house engineers face in sound reinforcement for acoustic musicians?
The primary issue is balancing miked signals with pickup signals. No acoustic musician in his right mind enjoys the sound of his pickup, and that's what we've been working on all these years: combining a mic and pickup into one great sound. It's the musician's desire to hear the acoustic part of the sound, but it's the engineer's job to get it out to the audience.

FOH engineer Richard Battaglia

How do you combine the miked sound and pickup sound on Béla's banjos?
We built these little mini condenser mics and mounted them onto the instruments and then combined them with the pickup. I spent a couple of years working out a preamp with D.I. capabilities, which is called the ACH-104. It's a single-rackspace stereo preamp, and the concept is that you combine the pickup and mic into a single stereo jack at the end pin of the instrument. You then take a stereo ¼-inch cable out of the jack and plug it in to the preamp, which splits the signals in the preamp. You can then add EQ to the mic or pickup separately and send the signals out separately from the preamp over separate outputs or combine them. It's got six outputs — XLR outs and ¼-inch outs — plus patch loops, EQ, a tuner output, and a mute switch. The pickup signal goes to the monitor, the house gets mic and pickup. I've made about 80 of these, and a lot of folks are using them: Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Sam Bush, Emmylou Harris, Bernie Leadon, and Mark Shatz. I hope to be manufacturing them soon.

What is the blend of mic-to-pickup in the house?
Almost an equal blend.

What are the advantages of the pickup sound for the house, as opposed to just a straight mic?
It's punchy. The pickup gives the banjo the sound that will cut through, and that allows you to turn it up. It's got all of that, it just doesn't have the air the mic does. But to be able to combine the two sounds gives you a really fat acoustic signal.

How has the Flecktones' wireless in-ear monitoring approach evolved?
We've been doing wireless monitors for quite a long time. We jumped in early — when everything was really expensive. [Laughs] It had mostly to do with making it easier for Béla to turn up without his banjo feeding back into his stage monitors. That was a big move for the acoustic side of it. We've now got it to the point where about a year ago we did a bluegrass festival with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Béla, Stuart Duncan, and Bryan Sutton. All great players. We had great mics on stage and used no pickups whatsoever. And we were able to get a great sound onstage, all because we used in-ear monitors. And because the musicians were able to hear the actual miked sounds, not just the audience, that made it all the more enjoyable for them.

Flecktones Gear

Béla Fleck: banjo and guitar

Fleck's setup provides him with a variety of tone and instrument options, including acoustic and electric banjo, synth and guitar.

(see Fig. A)

Victor Wooten: bass

1983 Fodera Monarch Deluxe bass with Kahler tremolo
D'Addario strings
X-Wire XR-905 wireless system
Ampeg SVT-Pro head
Ampeg BXT-115HL (1×15) cabinet
Ampeg BXT-410HL (4×10) cabinet
MidiMix Controller
Visual Volume Pedal
Furman PL-Plus power conditioner
Korg DTR-1000 digital tuner
Alesis Studio 12R mixer
Alesis MidiVerb 4
Roland SC-50 Sound Canvas

Future Man: drums, percussion, synth drums

SynthAxe Drumitar MIDI percussion trigger
Zendrum ZX MIDI percussion controller
Pearl Tall Congas (2)
X-drum kick
Pearl Master Series drums:
10" × 10", 12" × 10", and 13" × 11" toms
M1330 snare
Elite Box Cajon
Sabian cymbals:
20" HHX Manhattan ride
12" HHX Splash
14" AAX Studio crash
Alesis D4 and D5 drum modules
Roland TD-7 drum brain
Roland S-760 samplers (2)
Midiman (M-Audio) MiXiM 10 10-channel mixer

Thanks to Richard Battaglia and Zach Newton from the Flecktones crew.

Jeff Coffin: sax

Selmer Mark VI soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones
Yamaha 581 flute with low C
King Saxello
Buffet B♭ clarinet
Noblet bass clarinet
Yamaha Custom Series 9 baritone sax with low A
Shure instrument wireless system
TC Electronic M2000 effects processor
Electro-Harmonix Q-Tron envelope filter
Shure SM98 mic (clipped onto the bells of the soprano, alto, and tenor saxes)
Shure KSM32 mic (used for the flute, clarinets, bari, and Saxello)

Jon Chappell is the author of Rock Guitar for Dummies (John Wiley and Sons, 2001) and The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard, 1999).