Benji Flaming
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Q

Do you have any advice for a fellow player that is really fed up with "string noise"? Other than playing without picks?


Benji Flaming responded on 12/04/2010
A

Based on your second question, I think you are referencing what I've usually heard referred to as "pick noise". If so, here are a few thoughts:

- If you're not playing material that needs a lot of sustain, you might find that setting your instrument up for a faster decay would minimize the force with which the vibrating string would strike your picks. Tom Nechville's "The Dynamics of Banjo Sound" would be an excellent resource if you haven't done much with setup before.

- Different types of picks will make different types and amounts of noise. This is probably more true for flatpicks than for fingerpicks (since most fingerpicks will be made of very similar material), but would probably be worth exploring.

- Reshaping your picks, or changing your hand position, could allow the pick to strike at a different angle - which might or might not improve things.

- Different string gauges, or even different string brands, could also effect how much pick noise you perceive.

Best of luck!

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Q

What key is your banjo tuned in for carol of the bells.Please and thank you!


Benji Flaming responded on 12/04/2010
A

It is a C minor tuning, based on the classic "double-C" tuning. From the 1st string to the 5th string, the notes are: D#, C, G, C, D. The tricky bit is that I have the 5th string dropped all the way to the peghead in order to get that open D note - which is something that I can only do because I'm playing a Nechville "Nuvo" (visit nechville.com if you haven't heard of Nechville banjos before). You might be able to get away with tuning the 5th string all the way down to a D, but it might start sounding a bit odd, depending on the string gauge in use.

I'll be adding a "tunings" page to solobanjo.com in February.

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Q

Hey Benji - hi from Tucker'd Out - John here. Brother Lynn passed along your wonderful weekly offering - would love to get each one as you develop them. Would like to talk about recording with you.


Benji Flaming responded on 12/04/2010
A

Hi John,

Glad you guys are enjoying the sketches! I'm looking into the feasibility of setting up this list so people could choose whether they receive the sketches right away each week, or just the monthly update with the past month's sketches.

I'd be happy to talk about recording. Current contact info is always on my web sites. I look forward to hearing from you. :)

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Q

How is your banjo set up? What are your favorite string gauges, bridge, head, tension, etc. (we gear-heads have to know). Also, you hold your instrument like an upright bass. Is there some benefit?


Benji Flaming responded on 11/12/2010
A

I think I've addressed most setup details in the questions I answered just moments before answering yours, so I'll avoid repeating that information. The head on my instrument is whatever generic Remo head Tom Nechville uses on his instruments. I tried a different kind of head once, but at this point I'm happy with the way the instrument is responding, and any substantial changes might adversely alter the way certain notes blend together in my existing arrangements.

As for the way I hold the instrument, it allows the left hand to make bigger stretches, which is especially useful for solo material (since you may, for example, want to hold a bass note, while simultaneously reaching for a distant melody note). When performing with a band, around a single mic, it also makes it easier to move around, since it minimizes the required square footage. Finally, sometimes I deliberately exaggerate it onstage, in order to create what I hope will be an interesting and unusual visual aesthetic.

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Q

Who are some of your important musical influences?


Benji Flaming responded on 11/12/2010
A

Any such list will be *woefully* incomplete, but:

I'd have to start with electronic music pioneer Isao Tomita. After that (chronologically), probably John Williams (Star Wars, Hook, Harry Potter, and countless others).

Melodically, I would definitely cite Enya as influential. In a similar vein, Karl Jenkins would be both a melodic and rhythmic influence.

As far as banjo players go, my #1 influence is probably Czech banjoist Lubos Malina, who plays with the wonderful band Druha Trava. Many of the *types* of chord voicings that I like to reach for on banjo, I first heard from him.

I try to learn from everything I hear, though. When I'm driving around the Twin Cities, if I'm not just enjoying the silence, I frequently listen to KDWB or 93X (a top-40 station and a hard rock station, respectively). I wouldn't hesitate to say that I've been musically influenced by Brittany Spears and Eminem.

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Q

I love the tone you're getting - sounds a great deal like Bela Fleck. Looks like you have a non-standard 5th string and a non-Nechville bridge. Anything else noteworthy? Head, tap tone, etc.


Benji Flaming responded on 11/12/2010
A

Thanks a lot! The 5th string on my solo instrument runs the entire length of the neck, with a 5th-string-capo in a recessed track on the side. This is Tom Nechville's patented "capobility" design, which is a feature of his "Nuvo" models. The neck on my instrument is also graphite-reinforced, which may or may not have a lot to do with how the instrument sounds.

As mentioned elsewhere on this page, the bridge is one that Rick Sampson built from Koa and Purpleheart.

Other than that, I just tighten or loosen the head occasionally, if the instrument is no longer responding the way I need it to.

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Q

Why?


Benji Flaming responded on 11/12/2010
A

Because the voices told me to.

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Q

How is your Nechville set up? We love your solo banjo album.


Benji Flaming responded on 11/12/2010
A

Glad you're enjoying the album! Since my solo material tends to employ lower tunings, I use slightly heavier strings in the middle. The gauges I am currently using are 10-11-13-26-10. These are also the gauges I used on the album. A number of years ago, I was actually using 11-12-14-32-11, but I found that it clamped too much life out of the instrument when using tunings closer to "standard".

The other major setup factor is the bridge. I am using a Sampson bridge made from Koa and Purpleheart. (Incidentally, I've also used one of Rick Sampson's Native American flutes in a couple of my "weekly acoustic sketch" videos.) A quick Google shows that Elderly Instruments carries Sampson bridges in this wood configuration, if you're interested to try one.

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Q

How many hours per week were you (or do you) practice your instrument?


Benji Flaming responded on 10/15/2010
A

0 or more. It really depends on how much traveling the band is doing, whether I have anything special I need to work on, and how strictly you define "practicing".

I have found, for example, that the lock-picking mini-game in the video game "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion", makes a marked improvement in my timing (which, frankly, needs a little work at the moment), because it exercises the same skills as working with a metronome - listening very carefully, and moving my fingers at precisely the right moment.

I also find that playing "different" instruments allows me to maintain or enhance the dexterity of my fingers, while giving my ears something fresh and inspiring to work with.

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Q

We've seen you numerous times w Monroe Xing. You're amazing. We enjoy talking with you. How did you learn to play banjo and break into the music scene? How'd you find others "serious" about playing?


Benji Flaming responded on 10/15/2010
A

After a couple of years as a self-taught keyboardist (my roots are in electronic music), I got a guitar and banjo for Christmas. A dear friend of our family (Susan Khaury, who later married Tiny Tim) purchased the instruments for me, showed me my first guitar chords, and paid for my first banjo lessons. Kevin Barnes then served as my banjo instructor, and eventually my general-music-mentor for many years.

It was through Kevin that I originally got to know his neighbor Mark Anderson (who would later become Monro Crossing's bass player). At one point or another, I met all the other members of Monroe Crossing through various MBOTMA events (see minnesotabluegrass.org).

I was originally with Monroe Crossing back in 2001, and I co-engineered their first CD along with Mark. I was 17 at the time. After that, I did "other things" until I came back to the band in the beginning of 2007.

I'm limited to 1000 characters in this answer, but my bio at benjiflaming.com has more details. :)