Noam Pikelny’s Banjo Life

Noam Pikelny talks with Pollstar about the banjo, his latest album and touring with fiddler Stuart Duncan  He notes, “The banjo is such an interesting instrument in that it’s tuned so closely that you can’t really access much of the range of the instrument without moving across the neck rapidly.” 

The former Leftover Salmon member and co-founder of the Punch Brothers constantly amazes fans as well as his fellow musicians whenever he picks up a banjo.  A recipient of the first annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, Pikelny received a best bluegrass album Grammy nomination for 2012’s Beat The Devil and Carry a Rail.  His 2013 follow-up solo effort – Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – features the banjoist’s interpretation of the legendary fiddle player’s take on Monroe’s classic bluegrass catalog.

Pikelny had a lot to say when Pollstar caught up with the instrumentalist as he was navigating the check-in process at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.  The banjoist extraordinaire  offered up his thoughts about bluegrass, improvising, and how seeing Bela Fleck & The Flecktones perform helped set him on his life’s journey.

What started you on this musical adventure?

I first started playing when I was 9.  For my ninth birthday my parents rented me a Harmony banjo from the music store at [Chicago’s] Old Town School Of Folk Music.  My brother was playing mandolin and I wanted an instrument of my own to learn.  I felt I was wasting my life as a 9-year-old and I wasn’t getting any younger.  Every instance that he would go have his private mandolin lesson I’d just be sitting there, aging, and not furthering myself.  I actually became jealous of his hobby enough that I convinced my parents to let me start banjo lessons.

Who was your first teacher?

A guy named Mark Dvorak at the Old Town School Of Folk Music who was a wonderful folk musician. He couldn’t have a better demeanor for getting a nine 9-year-old kid inspired to play music.  He was just a joyous person.

Did much time go by before people began noticing your then-budding talent?

I don’t know what the average duration of that period is.  I don’t feel like the banjo was an overnight success for me.  I never thought of myself as a child prodigy. For me it was just something that was really fun, something that I would come to and play when I was interested.  There was a time when I put the banjo down.  It wasn’t from the moment I picked it up that [I said] “This is now my life.”  I remember having taken banjo lessons for a couple of years and then got interested in the more profound music of the time, like Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. That was kind of my … interest of the moment.  After seeing Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, live, I just thought, “What am I doing?  Why am I not playing banjo anymore?  I need to get back into this thing.” From that point on I became more serious about it.

How old were you at that time?

I was probably 12, 13.

Was playing with Leftover Salmon your first professional job?

That was the first real kind of professional, national touring gig I had.  I was in college at the University of Illinois with just a couple of semesters left.  I was getting ready to go back to school and they offered me the chance to go on the road … about four days before summer break was ending.  You can just imagine the ecstasy I experienced, just the idea of not having to go back to school in four days, extending my summer vacation indefinitely by joining this band.

So I moved out to Colorado.  They had built this empire for themselves and all of a sudden I was walking into it, a “salaried banjo position,” which is one of the least-used phrases in the English language.

Joining a band that already had 20 years to its credit – you really were the new kid on the block.

It was a great family to become part of. It was extremely unfortunate circumstances under which I joined the band.  The original banjo player, founding member, Mark Vann, passed away of cancer at the age of 38.  It was pretty tough for everybody to deal with, obviously, and, I think, moving forward was one of the ways they coped with it. I was happy to be part of it but I wish that wasn’t the reason the job opened up.

Did the band’s fans accept the new guy replacing someone they had loved all those years?

For the most part everyone was really welcoming.  The jamband world is a friendly environment to be playing in. … The sense of community and family within that world of fans and bands, and the festival culture, people are really interested in preserving these relationships through the music and [what it] facilitates.

Do you have fans that date back to your days with Leftover Salmon or did the fanbase accumulate after you left the band?

I think there’s a group of fans who have followed me along from Leftover Salmon to other projects, the Punch Brothers and solo endeavors.  It’s a compliment to see familiar faces that have now been there for 10 years.

What did you learn from your days in Leftover Salmon that you apply to your music today?

One of the lead singers in Leftover Salmon is one of the greatest frontmen of band that I’ve ever seen. He’s extremely charismatic and I love his ability to be spontaneous onstage, especially banjo-wise.  He has a very great way of having a dialogue with the audience during the show.  That showmanship was something that really impressed me.  [As far as] the importance of creating a community around your music, those guys really helped define the way the jamband theme works. … That’s something I always kept in mind as we built Punch Brothers … a non-commercial group in the sense [that] we’re not radio-friendly pop music.  Traveling the country with Leftover Salmon provided a little bit of a model of how one could stick to their guns musically and artistically and build something up via the grassroots effort.

How do you take the improvisational experience into a studio and lock down one version of a song even though you might be playing it differently night after night?

I guess that’s the challenge of recording music that’s highly improvisational. That record becomes a concrete example of that … and you’re solidifying that for history.  I think you can fall into the trap of over-thinking the way one plays in the studio … trying to make it some kind of ultimate solo, the solo to end all solos.  The way I see it is that it’s just another performance but it’s being captured on tape. … [You shouldn’t] get too clinical about it.

Early on, when I first experienced the studio I felt it was a laboratory where everything had to be handled with white gloves and everything is totally perfect, that it’s a science. But it’s really a snapshot.  My favorite music that I’ve played on that’s improvisational in the studio … that I’m still proud of, that withstands the tests of time …[is] the stuff that was the least-labored, heat of the moment performances, warts and all.

On Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe perhaps the first thing anybody notices is that you duplicated Baker’s track list and the songs are in the same order.  But other than your banjo being the dominate instrument on your album, how do you approach something like that?

My thoughts were that there was no need for improvement.  I didn’t go in there to address what I thought were flaws on that album.  The classic material on there, most bluegrass players have played it at some points in their careers. … I spent so much time over the last decade figuring out ways to play the banjo and not necessarily the most idiomatic ways.  A lot of the music with the Punch Brothers … has forced me to expand my toolbox on the banjo and find ways of accessing music that isn’t necessarily the most obvious. 

When I started thinking about the concept for the record, beyond what was initially kind of a joke as far as the wordplay of the title, I started thinking that if I actually played these tunes like Kenny Baker played them on the fiddle, if I learned these melodies verbatim and played them on the banjo and not necessarily the most convenient way … these songs will sound new.  They will have my own stamp on them.  While these songs have been played on lots of instruments, a lot of times the instruments will find a way of thematically interpreting the melodies.  There are masterful versions of songs like “Big Sandy River” but I wanted to find a way of making it my own.  Kenny Baker’s versions of them were something brand new to me and forced me to access this information on the banjo in a way that hadn’t been done.

The banjo is such an interesting instrument in that it’s tuned so closely that you can’t really access much of the range of the instrument without moving across the neck rapidly.  [With] the fiddle or the guitar you have more strings or larger intervals [and] you’re able to have within your grasp more of a musical range.  A lot of this music arranged on the banjo verbatim requires leaping across the fret board in ways that people probably wouldn’t have imagined as far as the melodies could be laid out.  To me it’s ironic that very progressive, non-bluegrass music is what gave me the toolbox to even consider this record.

What about the other musicians on the album?  Were they encouraged to duplicate what the original musicians played on Baker’s album?

No.  I wanted their take on these songs. I was the one kind of staying strictly to the melodies as far as Kenny Baker did it, but I chose the other guys because I knew they would be masterful interpreters and they all have unique voices.

Any chance you might record your take on another classic album?

I would consider it.  It is such a rewarding experience. … The response has been very positive. I would absolutely entertain the idea of doing that … every three or four years. Maybe not the idea of taking a whole record and redoing it but I like the idea of having an album … reinterpret other classic material.  And there’s a great tradition of that in the world of bluegrass.

I grew up cutting my teeth on albums made by the Bluegrass Album Band.  That was kind of a special events group with Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Bobby Hicks and Jerry Douglas at times.  Those guys would get together every four or five years and put out a record on Rounder of classic Flatt & Scruggs [and] Bill Monroe material.  I love that stuff.  It’s fun hearing people’s takes on material you know so well.

There’s this story that the guitarist David Grier tells.  During a solo show, a lady in the audience raised her hands … in between the songs … and she asked him if he would be willing to play anything she knew so she could tell if he was any good.

I think there’s a little bit of truth [in that].  Speaking in a language people are actually familiar with, with this range of bluegrass music] that has been passed down.  It’s one way to showcase yourself, as long as you’re doing it your own way.  You’re really just trying to put on a musical costume. … While [the Kenny Baker project] started as an effort to learn exactly what he was doing, the nature of translating onto the banjo … and making it my own became the primary objective for me.

Do you see bluegrass as a universal language and not something strictly American?

At this point bluegrass … is not a secret in the parts of the world where there are cultural exchanges.  I think that’s 40-60 years in the making.  Bluegrass is starting to infiltrate the cities and colleges.  Back in the ’60s during the whole folk movement, that’s when Flatt & Scruggs [and] Bill Monroe started playing college campuses.  A lot of people who weren’t in “bluegrass demographics” became [inspired] by playing the records.  Some of them learned to play banjos, fiddles and other bluegrass instruments.

I started playing in Chicago.  A lot of the people who were members of the bluegrass scene in Chicago are now the poster children of that time 20 years before I started. A lot of the guys are now veteran pickers or enthusiasts, people who weren’t from the South, that were from big cities … were turned onto bluegrass and continued to dig deeper.  It’s a process that’s been happening for a long time.

Bluegrass is used a lot more often these days as an umbrella term to describe a lot of stuff that might be referred to as roots music.  So many bands are embracing acoustic instrumentation – mandolins, banjos – essentially rock bands now. … but [the acts] may not really have that much of a connection with bluegrass beyond the fact they’re sharing some of the instruments. The prevalence of the term “bluegrass” being used in this day and age is due in large part to the Mumford & Sons momentum. … I welcome the increased interest. I remember when the banjo would have been the kiss of death on any country record.  Obviously, back when I started, banjo was not something my friends had any interest in.  Nowadays I feel like if your average college student [was] walking by a bar where the local bluegrass band was playing, I bet there would be an increased curiosity to check that out, thanks to bands like Mumford & Sons and Avett Brothers providing a little bit of a path to that.

Because of the size of venues, or when playing festivals, many bluegrass musicians  rely on some electronic amplification.  Are you ever truly in an acoustic setting?  That is, no pick-ups, no mics?

Of course, all the informal gatherings of musicians that happen behind closed doors – whether it’s backstage at a festival or at somebody’s house, having a little gathering of tunes – that happens all the time.  Practicing, with a band or project, that almost always happens acoustically.  We never practice in a rehearsal studio.  Bluegrass musicians get together at someone’s apartment and deal with the noise complaints.

The tricky part of playing to a larger audience, a festival crowd, is figuring out a way to somehow retain the acoustic nature of these instruments.  That’s a huge reason I love the sound of bluegrass.  Because of the actual tones of these instruments, musicians spend countless hours trying to find the right instrument, getting it sounding and tuning exactly the way they want.  It’s kind of sad that you play for a big festival sound and you have to attach electronics to the instrument.  But there are ways of doing it creatively where you can retain the actions of the acoustic sound.

You’re going on tour with Stuart Duncan.  What can we expect from these shows?

I think Stuart is the epitome of the modern day instrumentalist. He’s assimilated … perfectly all the great fiddle stylists that have come before him.  He has this deep knowledge and appreciation of the history of the bluegrass fiddle but has created his own voice on the instrument that is just breathtakingly beautiful, extremely gutsy and eclectic.  Incredibly spontaneous and aggressive musicianship.  He’s a guy I’ve reached out to to plan my solo records because he tells me to kind of leave my musical comfort zone.  He plays things differently every time in the studio. … Each take is an opportunity to play something completely different. From my initial interactions with him in the studio I had to leave any preconceived notions of what I thought I was going to be playing at the door. … He changes the musical force in a split second and you have to respond to what he did.  Stuart has always inspired me to strive for … a higher standard as far as what I’m trying to do as an instrumentalist.

We’ve been talking … over the last year or so of trying instruments to play with each other, live. He’s such a powerful force in the studio I thought [about] what it would be like if we got to play an entire show in a live situation where there’s even more opportunities to take risks.  So it finally came together, and the Kenny Baker record is filled with Stuart’s genius and it’s a natural time for us to go out.  We can play some of the music from the Kenny Baker record as well as stuff that we recorded together on Beat The Devil And Carry Rail.

It’s just going to be the two of us.  It’s kind of a bona fide musical texture. In the old tradition of music the fiddle and banjo pairing is kind of an innate part of that sound … the rhythmic engine of the banjo kind of perforating as the fiddle can play melodies and play more sustained notes.  It’s cool hearing those sounds back and forth against each other.  We’re going to feature that but we’re also going to investigate some new terrain as far as the way these two instruments pair together. 

The banjo is thought of a very staccato instrument. A note dies very quickly.  That’s generally true but I’ve always gravitated towards banjos that have a little more life to the note and have a warmer sound. That’s there as long as there’s something not covering it up.  We’ll have that ability to play slower music on the banjo, quieter music on the banjo because I’m not necessarily competing for song real estate with a guitar, for example.  It’s going to be nice going into the possibilities of the instrument, an exploration of the classic banjo.

One of the upcoming dates is at the Old Town School Of Folk Music.  Will that be kind of a homecoming for you?

Absolutely. That’s where I started and to come back to play with Stuart in front of the hometown crowd, the community that helped launch my passion for music, is really special.  The Old Town School Of Folk Music is the first place I met Stuart.  I went and saw the Nashville Bluegrass Band with my dad at the Old Town School at their previous location on Armitage. And I got a private banjo lesson with Alan O’Bryant.  I remember when I was backstage during the lesson I got to meet Stuart. “Oh, gosh.  This is the guy that plays with Nashville Bluegrass Band and is also on Bela Fleck’s Drive.”  It was like getting to meet a superhero.  So I’m really grateful for the opportunity to play with him.  And to play at Old Town is really sweet.

Have you been able to return the favor and give young budding banjo players a few lessons?

When time permits.  Depending on the touring schedule, it can be wide open or totally jam-packed with press or radio stuff.  I’ve done it multiple times and I always remember back to the opportunities that banjo players such as Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck and Alan O’Bryant afforded me when they were on tour.  So when someone comes along and brings their banjo, I try to make it happen.  I also teach occasional private lessons when I’m home.

What advice can you give an aspiring banjo player?

I think the gold standard for me is the playing of Earl Scruggs.  Regardless of the scope of what you’re interested in on the banjo, the … timing and tone Earl Scruggs got out of his banjo is a fairly undeniable example.  The tenants of his playing is the clarity, timing and melody. … Those are the attributes that you want in any good music.  I would recommend any aspiring banjo player absorb as much of that as possible. Something, over the years, that’s proven itself time and time again is the importance of playing with the metronome, because that’s the only way to set your internal clock so you could have good timing when you play with other people.  You need to establish an internal pulse for yourself.

“My favorite music that I’ve played on that’s improvisational in the studio … [is] the stuff that was the least-labored, heat of the moment performances, warts and all.”

Upcoming shows for Noam Pikelny appearing with Stuart Duncan:

May 21 – Minneapolis, Minn., Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
May 22 – Chicago, Ill., Old Town School Of Folk Music
June 25 – Athens, Ga., The Melting Point
June 26 – Johnson City, Tenn., Down Home
June 27 – Owensboro, Ky., Yellow Creek Park (ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival)
June 28 – Franklin, Tenn., Franklin Theatre
July 26 – Lyons, Colo., Planet Bluegrass Ranch (RockyGrass)

Appearing with Gabe Witcher:
June 30 – Los Angeles, Calif., Largo

Appearing as a member of the Punch Brothers:
June 21 – Telluride, Colo., Telluride Town Park (Telluride Bluegrass Festival)
June 22 – Telluride, Colo., Sheridan Opera House (Nightgrass)
July 4 – Quincy, Calif., Plumas County Fairgounds (High Sierra Music Festival)
July 5 – Yountville, Calif., Lincoln Theater Napa Valley
July 6 – Park City, Utah, Deer Valley Resort Snow Park Outdoor Amphitheater (St. Regis Big Stars, Bright Nights)

Please visit for more information.