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Banjo Hall of Fame Adds Tony Trischka

banjofest award hall of fame tony trischka

Tony Trischka was recently honored by the American Banjo Museum at their annual Banjo Fest, they inducted him to the Hall of Fame for his excellence in Education and Instruction! Here's what they said on their website about him:

"Trischka is considered to be the consummate banjo artist and perhaps the most influential banjo player in the roots music world. In addition to his work and reputation as a performer, composer, arranger and producer, Trischka is one of the world’s most respected and sought after banjo instructors, creating fifteen instructional books as well as a series of DVDs. In 2009, he launched the groundbreaking Tony Trischka School of Banjo, an advanced, interactive, online instructional site that is the banjo home for students from around the world."

We're very proud of Tony for this great recognition and reached out to him with some questions. 

How was your recent experience at Banjo Fest? 

I had a wonderful time at the induction ceremony, which was a part of the American Banjo Museum’s Banjo Fest.  It was great getting to meet some four string players (historically, four and five string players live on other planets, but there in Oklahoma City the ABM is bringing them together), and to hang out with John McEuen, Jim Bolllman and the Kruger Brothers.  I was a great honor to be inducted and to be included in such August company as Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe.

Did it feel different this time being recognized for your teaching efforts specifically?

It did feel different, but since any awards I’ve received have been for the performance/composition aspect of my career, this acknowledged something that’s just as important to me… the instructional aspect of my life.

My father was a physics professor and there was a time when I didn’t think I was exactly following in his footsteps, but now I realize I am, and receiving this honor just amplifies that feeling. I must say, though, that I don’t know much about quarks.


Who were some of your most important banjo teachers, and what of their teaching has stuck with you the most?

My very first banjo teacher was a man named Jon Gaines. He was more of a folk singer/guitar player and only knew about clawhammer, when all I wanted to do was pick, but I did my very first gigs with him when I was 14 and 15. The guy that really got me started on Scruggs/melodic/and single string playing was Hal Glatzer.  He was a student at Syracuse University and I was blessed to come in contact with him because he understood all of the above mentioned styles and transmitted them to me without reservation.

I also learned from listening to Earl Scruggs, my deepest influence, as well as Bill Keith, who showed me some important techniques in New York City when I was 16, and many things after that. That generosity of spirit that both Bill and Hal Glatzer demonstrated have stuck with me to this day, and it’s something I espouse in my own teaching.

How has your teaching been influenced by your own teachers?

As I mentioned, I believe in not holding back, but giving anything that can be helpful in moving the student forward, whether it’s something that I’ve developed, or anyone else.

What was it about banjo that first made you want to play?

It was just the sound of it that grabbed me when I was 13. I was already playing folk guitar and was also getting into Doc Watson (Deep River Blues), but when I heard the Kingston Trio’s MTA, and the solo that their banjo player Dave Guard took on that, it was like Paul on the road to Damascus. I was hooked, and still am!

What was the first song or technique you learned which made you feel like, “ok, I can do this.”?

Hal Glatzer taught me how to play Eric Weissberg’s version of “Lonesome Road Blues” from Folk Banjo Styles at my very first lesson with him and I was able to grasp it immediately, because I’d been listening so intently, and suddenly there was that Scruggs sound coming out of my own fingers. I can’t describe how exciting that was!

How long had you been playing before you could hang and maintain with other more experienced players?

I actually did that from the very beginning. My very first banjo teacher, Jon Gaines, invited me to play with him when I was 14, and he must’ve been 21 or so.  I’d only been playing for a month or two. My very first paying gig was with him. I earned $15 for playing for 15 minutes. That was darn good pay for a 14 year old in 1963.  Imagine….a dollar a minute.

 At what point did it feel like banjo would/could become your career?

It never felt like it would become my career.  It just always was. As I just mentioned above, I started earning money through music when I was 14 and continued to do so on weekends all the way through college. There was never a point where I asked myself, “What should I do with my life?”  While others of my college compadres were asking that question, I just kept cruising along playing the banjo.

If you hadn’t pursued a career in music, what do you think you would have done as your career?

That’s a great question and the answer is, I really have no idea. I was an art history and music history major in college, so I probably would’ve done something related to that….teaching, or working in a museum.

How long had you been playing banjo before you started teaching?

7 years. In 1970, a friend of mine, Susie Monick, who played with an all female group called the Buffalo Gals, asked if I would give her lessons. I told her that I’d never taught before, and she said that it was alright, she wouldn’t pay me.

How did you find students back then?

They found me. I think I only advertised once in 40 years. Once things got geared up I would have on average, 10 students a week.  My lessons were an hour each time.

How has your approach to teaching changed over the years?

Bela Fleck was one of my earliest students and he wanted to learn some of the weird stuff I was doing, so rather than get deeper into Scruggs style and other more traditional sounds (he could already play some bluegrass and fiddle tunes), we just went full on into the crazier stuff. I would never do something like that today. I would find some sort of balance.  In the end, though, I kinda think it all worked out fine. 

Also, I have a much better understanding of the history of the instrument, which I can bring into a lesson, and was unable to do before. Also, to a certain extent, I can bring in more etude and exercise work, rather than just “here’s another tune” (which is how I was taught, but it worked great for me).
Do you find similar issues with the students you teach online at ArtistWorks, as compared to the ones you taught in person earlier?

Very similar. Many students still need to work on their time, as well as what J.D. Crowe calls separation of notes, wherein every (EVERY!) note a person plays is very clear and strong and present.  Many people are a little bit weak bringing out the first string, for instance. It leaves a whole in the finger pattens.

Banjo seems to be more popular now than it ever was - or is it?

I really am not sure. There are times when there’s a big explosion of interest (the film Bonnie and Clyde, which made Foggy Mountain Breakdown a hit - Deliverance, which gave us Duelling Banjos -  and, of course, Beverly Hillbillies which gave us the Ballad of Jed Clampett. The last one was Bela’s inspiration to start playing. These days, Steve Martin is touring and turning more folks on to the glory of the five string.


Bela’s Flecktones were very popular and reached a little of new banjo fans. Then, more recently, the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons have featured banjo in their shows and on their recordings. And now there’s an American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and it’s beautifully done….so that says something right there. These days I think of the banjos road as more slow and steady. It’ll never usurp the electric guitar, but it’s definitely got a solid foundation.

In regards to playing banjo, what’s something you learned later which you wish you had learned earlier?

I honestly can’t think of anything in particular, and I don’t mean to sound like I always made the right decisions, but when I listen back to my earliest recordings, there are places where my playing is a bit wild and wooly, not necessarily in the pocket rhythmically, and the ideas not always fully formed, but I was playing with total abandon and damn the torpedoes, and I like that youthful exuberance, so I can excuse some of the technical missteps here and there. 

And just to say, I still find myself getting lost in the music (in a good way) and playing with total abandon. Time and space tend to disappear when that happens and I feel like I’m totally in the moment.

What advice would you give to someone who’s been playing a long time but hasn’t progressed very far?

I have a whole lesson about that on the site which I call "11 Ways to Leave Your Level". Try writing a tune in 30 seconds to a minute. Compose a tune on one string of your instrument. Do some free improvisation with no regard for key or time signature or anything, just be absolutely free. If you play a tune in one key, play it in another key. If you play a fiddle tune in the melodic style, try it in single string style. Those are just a few examples.

What’s your favorite banjo joke?

I don’t believe in banjo jokes : )

tony trishcka banjofest


Tony Trischka teaches banjo online at ArtistWorks, click here for free sample lessons! 



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