Bela Fleck

March 23, 2006

After several Flecktones albums (including 2003’s ambitious triple CD Little Worlds that found the act collaborating with all-star guests including Derek Trucks, Branford Marsalis, and Bobby McFerrin), the group chose a back-to-basics approach for its latest release The Hidden Land [Columbia]. The disc solely features the Flecktones quartet, comprised of bassist Victor Wooten, percussionist Roy “Future Man” Wooten, and saxophonist Jeff Coffin. Together, the band expertly hones its trademark combination of bluegrass, jazz, funk, and rock influences within a more spacious and stripped-down environment.

The Hidden Land was recorded just prior to the band taking 2005 off after a decade and a half of intense activity. But the Nashville-based Fleck was hardly dormant during his sabbatical. He kept himself busy performing in a trio with fusion legends Stanley Clarke and Jean-Luc Ponty, as well as working on a triple concerto with cellist Edgar Meyer and tabla master Zakir Hussain that’s set to debut this September with the Nashville Symphony. He also traveled to Africa to trace the roots of the banjo in that country and make a forthcoming record and documentary with musicians from Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal, and Mali.

Why did you choose to keep things in the family for The Hidden Land?

The band has been together for 17 years and we’re always trying to find the right next thing to do and not repeat ourselves. Having a lot of guests playing with us was an incredible amount of fun, but if we were to continue along that path, we would become very predictable. Having other people play with you takes the heat off you to really dig deep and be creative. With guest musicians, there’s an automatic inspiration that happens and it’s not necessarily the same challenge.

Describe your composition process.

Sometimes it starts with me searching around the banjo for cool stuff and sometimes it’s stuff that pops into my head. There’s usually a spark of inspiration and I just run with it and everything happens really fast. There’s also a craft element to composing in which I try to take those inspired ideas and hone, hone, and hone until everything is perfect. But a big chunk of it—a verse or a chorus—has to be there from the beginning. Although most of what I do is instrumental, I do think of the pieces in those verse/chorus songwriting terms. Also, I find that when I haven’t played the banjo all day or for a couple of days, the first thing that comes out is a new tune when I pick it up. I’ve started recording everything I do when I pick up my banjo on an M-Audio multitrack recorder. It stores audio on a memory stick. When I’m done, I dump everything into Pro Tools and edit the material into a core of ideas that are strong enough to build songs from. Ideas can also happen anywhere, like when I’m driving or running. I’ll start humming a melody or singing an improvisation. The good thing about those ideas is that they aren’t necessarily banjo-istic. If I sing them first, they tend to sound more melodic or like a vocal.

Tell me about the instruments you play on the new album.

The main banjo is the same one I’ve played since 1981: a Gibson Style 75 from 1937 that has the original metal ring and wood back. It has a custom arched neck made by John Monteleone. It’s just fabulous. It has a lot of body and you can play it really hard without it ever sounding harsh. I also use another old Gibson Style 18 on the album. My main electric banjo is a custom Deering Crossfire. It has EMG pickups and an EMG preamp. I’ll also use it to trigger synthesizers with a Yamaha MIDI pickup connected to a Roland VG-8 guitar synth and a Roland GI-10 MIDI interface. The Deering’s head doesn’t vibrate much, so it doesn’t throw the tracking off on any MIDI devices. In addition, I use a Deering Bantar, which is a 6-string guitar banjo. There’s also the Paradise guitar, a Swiss electric guitar that sounds like an acoustic. Other instruments include a Rickenbacker electric banjo and a Vega Vox Deluxe banjo.

How do you address the issue of sustain on the banjo?

One solution is to create the illusion of sustain by playing a lot of notes that overlap and ring on top of each other. I try to keep my lines really flowing and use open strings when I can. I also try not to get off the notes too quickly, even when I’m playing fast. If I’m playing closed position scales or lines, I don’t rush so much that the notes become staccato. A psychological technique I use is to imagine the note being longer than it really is, so I don’t quickly try to fill it in. Another interesting thing I do when playing single-note lines is to use vibrato on the note to draw out every nuance possible. I got that from watching acoustic guitarists milk notes. Having said all of that, a lot of time the starkness of the banjo’s notes dying out can be a very attractive sound and one that creates room for other instruments.

How else have guitarists influenced your banjo playing?

Pat Martino was a big influence. I loved his muscular technique and the way he spun out those long, modal lines with a lot of chromaticism. All of that works well on the banjo. John McLaughlin has also been an incredible inspiration. He put out an instructional DVD called This Is the Way I Do It and one of the things that impressed me is that he’s able to play so doggone fast. It was an irritation to me for years that I couldn’t play at the speed of even your average metal guitarist when I’m spinning out long, single-note lines. My blockage was the result of not getting past the single-string style banjo technique I was using. It’s like playing guitar scales, except instead of a flatpick, you use your thumb and your index finger. So, instead of a downstroke with the pick, you do a thumbstroke and instead of an upstroke, you do an index finger up. So, you go thumb-index, thumb-index, thumb-index, and you play licks and scales all around the banjo, using closed strings and no rolls. However, this creates a speed limitation. On a metronome, it’s usually around 140-150 clicks a minute playing sixteenth-notes. What I realized was by going back and forth with the thumb and index, you hit a point where your forearm locks up because of the motion. I figured out that by alternating thumb-index and thumb-middle, the limitation disappeared and I could get to much greater speeds without a lot of practice.

Describe how you developed your impeccable sense of timing.

I studied the work of Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe, both of whom had remarkable timing. I also practiced with the metronome all the time. I had a lot of ego invested in having good time and got very disappointed early on when I would listen back to my playing and hear that it rushed, dragged, pushed, or pulled. When I started playing with Sam Bush in New Grass Revival, I was really impressed with the fact that he was a rock, rhythmically speaking. I felt I could build my style working with him and everyone in that band who were all so rhythmically strong. Later on, with the Flecktones, I realized I needed to lighten up and that playing against the time and in a really relaxed way can be just as important as hammering notes against the wall. Today, I still practice with the metronome a lot, but I’m not trying to be the metronome anymore.

How did Earl Scruggs’ technique impact your approach?

What he did with the banjo is just so incredible. His technique is what made me want to play the banjo and it’s still one of my favorite things in the world. I love its directness and power. When I come up with my own music, I try to have that same power. I use the Scruggs technique as a yardstick. For instance, if I’m working on a new tune and get tired of playing it, I play some Scruggs stuff. Then I’ll go back to the tune I’m working on and realize that it needs to have that Scruggs drive. I want my pieces to feel as natural on the banjo as his stuff does. What I’m trying to do with my music is combine very natural and very unusual elements. Scruggs’ work is a great example of something that fits the banjo like a glove with its incredible drive and simplicity, yet has a whole lot of complexity and subtlety too. It’s truly inspiring.

What are some of the challenges you face as a musician today?

It’s sometimes more difficult for me to find something I haven’t done before. I now try to make different musical choices and reject a lot of things I used to think were okay. For instance, I might not use a certain harmony because it’s too complicated or overly sappy for no reason. I’m trying to get to a more direct, focused, and pure kind of writing.

I’m also trying to become a better musician. The studio is one place where I really push. If I’m in a situation where I’m able to overdub and work on my solos and parts, I might play and record 100 solos in order to get into some areas I haven’t been in before or to complete a thought in a new way. After I’ve done that, I’ll listen to the takes and try to figure out what I liked or didn’t like about my playing. Sometimes I’ll find a solo that was satisfying relatively early and other times it will be around take 91 through 94. This relates to my early days where people would say “Hey, it’s good enough. Stop.” I’d be very resentful when people did that. I felt a lot of pressure to accept whatever happened on the live track or one of the first overdubs in order to not bore the other people around me or put them through the hell I was going through to get to a place where I was satisfied.

Do you feel any pressure to constantly break new ground?

Definitely. It’s sort of like I made a deal with the banjo when I started playing and I really owe it. Music is almost a religious experience for me. I have more opportunities to interact with musicians who are on a very high level because of my abilities and the place I’ve arrived at in the business. They will return my phone calls and want to get together and I get to learn from all of them. That makes so many things possible that could not have happened ten years ago. I love knowing there is always something new to look forward to.

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