Plectrum Banjoist Ron Hinkle grew up in a banjo playing family, where the four-string banjo and the music of the 1920’s was perfectly natural. After playing what he calls “Pizza Parlor Revival” banjo music, he discovered other music and has become an accomplished “Classic Banjo” player. The British music publishers, Clifford Essex, hired Ron to edit the classic Emile Grimshaw manual “Plectrum Playing for Modern Banjoists.”
Ron also writes for his own blog The Banjo Snob, publishing opinion pieces where he aims to “start a conversation.” He also includes helpful banjo instructions and exercises.
Ron Hinkle is undeniably passionate when talking about banjos, which is a passion that comes out in his playing as well. Knowledgable in the history and technique of the four-string banjo, Banjo Boogie sat down with Ron to discuss topics like these in an interview in August 2018.
RH – You ever heard of Your Fathers Mustach?
BB – Yeah
RH – The Red Garter?
BB – Uh huh
RH – They were really popular in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and there was a Seattle version called The Blue Banjo.
When my dad was hired to be the piano player there, it turns out there were banjos and the owner and found out that my dad used to play. My dad hadn’t played banjo in 20 years because it just wasn’t popular in the 40’s and 50’s, and so he agreed to get back on banjo and lead the banjo band. That’s how he came back to the banjo, and that coincidentally is the year that I was born.
Before that for 20 years he led jazz trios and quartets. They played swing. Rhythm and blues and swing, my dad was a boogie piano player. Most of my brothers and sisters were basically living on the road. My oldest brother went to 15 different schools during his 12 years of school time, and right around the time that I was born he finally stopped doing that. He quit the Jazz because he said he’s tired of working with drunks, and he took up the banjo. So I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if he had continued on the road. If I had grown up hearing great saxophone players instead of banjo players. Because the saxophone is my natural instrument
BB – Meaning that you kind of picked it up and just had a feel for it?
RH – Yeah I don’t have to think about the saxophone. I just play. I’m unstudied. I don’t have spectacular technique because I don’t play, you know I haven’t practiced my scales and stuff like that but I just play what comes from me easily on the saxophone.
BB – So then you just grew up with that banjo sound and those instruments around as a kid. Did you just just kind of pick it up naturally or did your dad say, “here’s a banjo, this is a C chord” or that kind of thing?
RH – Well he gave me a banjo on my 6th birthday and I still have that banjo. He woke up the next morning and I had drawn a farm scene on the head of the banjo. Dad decided, “well he’s not old enough yet,” and he was right. I wasn’t ready to start. So unfortunately that head with that farm scene drawn on and crayon got burned up in a house fire about 12 years ago. I wish I had that.
Anyway, so what had finally happened was my sister got involved. The Grays Harbor Banjo Band had Charleston dancers. Some of the ladies wore Charleston dresses and fringe dresses and danced the Charleston. My sister saw this “oh I want one of those dresses” and and Dad said “well learn to play the banjo and we’ll get you one.” So she took it up and pretty soon there were four kids in the banjo band. And Dad started a great junior banjo band.
They were playing gigs in the area, and I went to one of them and saw them get paid. It was probably like five bucks each. I said, “okay I’m ready to start.”
BB – How old were you then?
RH – Twelve. My dad at that time was learning guitar. He’d decided he wanted to learn guitar. He bought an old, I think it’s an old Epiphone semi hollow body, and was teaching himself. He’d figured out a system for scales and all that. That was what my dad was like. I got interested, so I started learning guitar with him. I still remember those scales that he showed me and a couple songs. But, then about that time, he’d started having problems at work. He started playing guitar chords on his banjo, and he started getting confused between them and said “okay that’s it I’m done with the guitar.” That’s right about the time that that happened with my sister, and I decided to take up the banjo. So yeah, Dad taught me three chords, C, F, and G7. Within a couple weeks I was playing with the banjo band, and then they got me in the junior banjo band and the rest is history.
BB – If that’s how you grew up, hearing this four-string banjo music, do you remember the time when you realized there was other types of banjo or did you already know that right away?
RN – No I didn’t. That was probably as an adult when I came around to that. I was a very sheltered kid. I was very shy and didn’t have a lot of friends. My friends were in the banjo band, and of course I had heard that banjo music all my life and knew the words. My mom would sing along with everything Dad did, and so even though I was too shy to sing, I knew all the words. When Dad taught me those three chords that’s all I needed to figure out the rest. I already knew the songs, I already knew the music I just needed something to play it on.
I think the deal was I had been growing up with it and just took it for granted and didn’t really see the magic of it. I was too close to it. So really it wasn’t until I was an adult that I started realizing “wow there are different kinds of banjo and different kinds of music” and you know I was not into the music of my era.
BB – Can you clarify and define the different styles of banjo that you that you do play? I know the Shakey’s (Pizza Parlor) and Peabody style is kind of one thing, and then the classic banjo and the Grimshaw stuff is another. Are there clear simple names for those different styles? How you would describe them?
RH – Well I’ve come to call the pizza parlor stuff Vaudeville. That’s really the tradition that that comes from. You know because during the 20’s Vaudeville was huge. Eddie Peabody was an enormously well-paid guy, extremely popular in New York and when he moved out to the West Coast he had a regular tour up and down the coast. All the vaudeville houses and stuff like that. Of course Vaudeville started going out of style. Then he led the Navy Band at Great Lakes during World War 2. He was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, and actually made it to captain by the time he retired. So when the banjo was revived in the 50’s and 60’s Eddie Peabody was still still a going concern he was still making records. Mostly his records are from the 50s and 60s. You know so he was a huge part of the revival. The original players got their banjos out of the closet started playing again. Shakey’s and Your Father’s Mustache and places like that. And there were a lot of new guys. I was at the tail end of that movement. If I started in ’66 at age six I would have been right in the middle of it. By the time I started in ’72, it was already kind of starting to fade. You know Shakey’s was already on the outs.
BB – That’s the vaudeville style.
RH – And I often refer to it as Pizza Parlor Revival. Revival because they brought the music from the 1920s, all that crazy Charleston sing-along stuff, and revived it in pizza parlors. It was magical in its own weird way. Because it’s really noisy, and it just adds to this noisy atmosphere. Which I guess today has been replaced by lots of TVs going and everything.
I was at Porky’s Pizza in Oakland California, this is about thirty years ago, and Buddy Wachter was there. Buddy was playing, and Buddy being Buddy, you know it was something serious. It was probably Hungarian Dance he’s playing. It’s just in a noisy place; he grew up doing that stuff. He knows the environment. They were announcing somebody’s pizza was ready, “number two your pizza is ready.” Over a couple minutes he said it like three times and Buddy finally stopped and grabbed the Mic and said “number two where the hell are you” and then he went right back to this serious playing. And like I say he grew up with that, he knows what a challenge that is. That’s the environment, it’s just fun.
I don’t have any memories of that as a real young kid, but I know that when my dad played at Shakey’s that I was there probably most of the time because my mom was his biggest fan. So I’m sure that I was around that. I remember it as a player as a young man playing pizza parlors and having that crazy noisy environment. It was fun because for an inhibited guy like me, shy inhibited guy like me you know, just nobody noticed it. We’re just part of the noise. As an adult I’ve kind of railed against that. I turned my back to it for many years, wanting to be higher class than that. Terrible way to put it.
BB – Have you been you’ve been to the banjo museum in Oklahoma City? Because we went there and we didn’t know about the Shakey’s replica. I don’t know if it’s a Red Garter or what exactly, but we walked in there and were so surprised, and it was it was pretty magical in that little room.
RH – Here’s an interesting side note to that. That was originally (called) the Shakey’s room. Shakey’s started up again, and they wanted to charge the museum royalties for using their name. So they changed it to the Your Father’s Mustache Room. Because a guy who started Your Father’s Mustache is also a member of the Hall of Fame. They asked him about it and he said “sure go ahead I’d be honored.” So now it’s Your Father’s Mustache (room), and it basically covers everything, you know Red Garter, Shakey’s, and everything. All that genre, but it’s no longer called the Shakey’s room.
BB – Is anybody doing that anymore as far as a banjo pizza parlor place?
RH – California has a few places. I know the Sacramento Banjo Band plays at a… pizza chain. That’s where they rehearse every week. I’ve been out there a few times, it’s fun. It kind of brings back the memories.
BB – So if that’s the pizza shop revival then music like a Emile Grimshaw, is that “classic banjo?” Is that what you call it?
RH – Yeah, that’s what I refer to it as. Classic banjo of course you know 1890s through 1920s, this finger style, with gut strings.
BB – Was that with the fifth string as well?
RH – Yeah. It was as much strumming as it was picking. So when the four-string came into being, in the early 1910s, some of the guys like Emile Grimshaw saw an opportunity, and wrote a book on the plectrum and tenor banjos. Which were just becoming a thing in the 1910s. So he was a classic guy that went over to the four-string, and his original book even had a page on how to disable the fifth string. Basically how to play plectrum style on the classic banjo.
It wasn’t until about 1922 that American manufacturer started making Plectrum banjos. So everybody thinks, “oh the plectrum banjo was invented in 1922.” No. It came a good ten years earlier than that. There’s a lot of controversy about when exactly, and how did it come about. The classic plectrum banjo was simply a 5-string with the 5th string disabled, and played with a pick, played with a plectrum.
BB – Right and I guess enough people did that that they just started manufacturing or building them that way.
RH – The Jazz Age pretty well cemented that.
BB – So the five-string in the 1800’s was this other type of music. We know about mountain music, and and the Civil War music, and fiddle tunes, and then I guess the five-string classic music was trying to class it up, or make it more of a legitimate instrument. Is that a proper assessment?
RH – Yep. To put a tuxedo on it. The basic story is the British have a very important role in this. King Edward, when he was a prince, he was enamored with minstrel music, and he brought over the Virginia Minstrels and a command performance basically. He was so taken with the banjo that he retained, and hired the two banjo players from the minstrel troupe to stay in England and teach him to play the banjo. Within a few years the banjo was of course the “in thing.” It became a high-class thing because the Prince was playing it. And you know guys were, some of the players of the time, were converting classical music to the banjo. Like that Nocturne in E-flat, you know, Chopin. Very popular piece at that time and a wonderful banjo arrangement by Grimshaw. It’s about my favorite thing to play, it just lays so well on the banjo. And I listened to the original, and downloaded to the original music. He was very faithful to it. It’s just a big extended cadenza at the end that he didn’t include. Some day I’m gonna learn that cadenza from the original music.
The players that started writing music specifically for the banjo. And when the plectrum and tenor came along they said, “well let’s just convert these pieces of music to that.”
BB – Then the forum of vaudeville kind of brought the rowdiness back out of the banjo again? What is that transition from classic until the vaudeville sound?
RH – Well I think there were probably a couple of streams there because you know the… minstrel banjo. Minstrel players didn’t necessarily put on a tuxedo and learn all the classic music. They kept playing. That style remained viable for a long time, and a lot of them ended up in Vaudeville, and actually a lot of the classic players ended up in Vaudeville too. So there are two streams there, and then of course you got New Orleans; where you have illiterate musicians picking up the instruments “oh what’s this” and figure out how to play it. They’re strumming along with a jazz band, and so there’s always been a couple of streams there. I would say that the minstrel led to the Vaudeville. More so than Classic led to Vaudeville.
Learning The Music
BB – I wanted to ask what your approach is to learning and researching the historic music and how did you get into that originally?
RH – Well I was looking for ways to improve my own playing. You know because I could play chord melody, hundreds of chord melody songs just like falling off a log. To me that means nothing. That doesn’t put me on a stage as a soloist. Although there are some soloists today who that’s all they do is play chord melody songs, invite the audience to sing along, and that’s cool you know. They’re entertaining. They have their place and they know the music, and some of them are amazing entertainers. I just watch that and I’m envious. I wish I could do that.
BB – So you were trying to improve your own playing. How did you find out about that style and how do you research it?
RH – I think probably the first thing… I copied. I discovered that I had the knack of copying recordings. Somebody lent me Buddy Watcher cassette tape, and you know of course I just blown away. That… “whoa-ho this is amazing stuff,” but there is one tune in there that I thought, “oh I can do that.” Liebestraum, and so I listened and listened and already knew the song. I just had to apply his picking techniques to it. It probably took me six months to learn the “duo style” but I had no guidance. I forced my right hand to do it, and my arm would ache after rehearsal.
I was getting better, I was getting it… and then when I met Buddy and took one of his workshops and he showed me how to do duo style, then, “oh I would have had that in two minutes.” To this day Buddy is convinced that he taught me how to do that. I figured it out on my own before I met him. I have no idea how I did it. Because I didn’t have any of the logical step-by-step things that he did that he showed. Then I wanted to get on stage, I wanted to be a soloist, and I knew that I needed to have solo type things. Around that time I also was given a cassette tape of Perry Bechtel, and so I learned Dixie medley. Pretty good, Buddy helped me with some of the parts that I wasn’t getting right. I was also learning “Cat and Dog” from Harry Reser. That seemed like an accessible one. I had no idea at that time that was actually recorded by Harry on plectrum banjo. I just assumed like everybody else it was tenor.
So I learned those three and I worked up a couple of arrangements on a couple of other things and that was my show for a good 20 years. I knew enough to play 15 minutes on the solo stage. So that copying was already there when I was approached about the classic stuff with Clifford Essex, it didn’t take me long to realize that that’s what I had been missing. You know in here is the blueprint for how to play the banjo.
BB – I wanted to ask you about the early classic banjo stuff. How would you describe the your audience reception to that kind of music.
RH -That kind of music requires a little bit of introduction. Now (certain places) maybe I can go in there not say anything about it and just play. You know and they’d probably enjoy it. Banjo show, forget it. 95% of the people there want to see you throw your banjo in the air and jump off your stool all that stuff Eddie Peabody used to do.
I have found that I have to introduce it a little bit. I believe it’s been very well received. You know I’m not a spectacular entertainer. I’m not the guy that’s gonna get the standing ovations. When I play something really pretty I get some oo’s and ahh’s and that’s what I’m after. If somebody comes up to me, one person is all it takes, comes up to me after the show and says, “I never knew that kind of music could be played on a banjo.” That’s what I’m after. I get it occasionally, and often times it’s from a non-banjo player. Somebody in the street. They hear that and say, “oh, I was expecting dueling banjos but I got this!”
BB – You’ve heard more banjo players than normal mortals on earth. I’m sure like thousands of banjo players…
RH – On purpose!
BB – So what is it that stands out about your favorite banjo players that makes them exceptional?
RH – Well to me because I’m so focused on technique and so impressed by technique, that’s what catches my ear. Whoa this guy has chops you know? Some of my favorite players aren’t necessarily all that great of players, they just have the music in them and you can tell. I guess the test is close your eyes and see if you still enjoy them. You know that’s one of my pet peeves I have. People tell me all the time, “you should smile more.” In my head I’m thinking oh you should listen more.
Ron Hinkle lives in Sierra Vista Arizona, and is available for video lessons anywhere by using Skype. Check out his own blog “The Banjo Snob” for more about Ron, lessons, and a wealth of other banjo information.