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Mark Olitsky: The Banjo Wizard of Cleveland

My first exposure to the dance-groove rhythm of Mark Olitsky’s banjo was in a brief YouTube clip of him playing at the Tazewell County (Va.) Fiddler’s Convention. Just over half a minute was enough to leave me craving more. Thankfully, Olitsky lives in Cleveland, just half an hour north of my home.

For the past two years, I’ve attended a workshop with Olitsky at the Kent State University annual Folk Festival, where I’ve tried to gain just a tiny insight to his playing style. Last week, he explained his approach to the banjo and old-time music.

“I don’t know how I would describe my style,” he says. “When I first started playing, I tried to put in a lot of melody notes, not really a melodic banjo style — I wasn’t proficient enough for that — but something that I thought might sound like an intricate take on the melody, with as much drop thumb as possible.”

However, that all changed after Olitsky attended his first music festival in the South, where he saw banjo players who played a more rhythmic style to accompany the fiddlers.

“They weren’t necessarily dropping their thumb a lot — some didn’t at all, but the syncopation and the groove were amazing to me,” Olitsky recalls. “I’m sure that I could have found that revelation back home, as there were some great players in Cleveland, but it took going to music festivals to really open my ears. After that I tried to find what notes to leave out of my playing, and to be more aware of the rhythms that can be played along with the melody.”

Some people have described Olitsky’s playing as “popcorn style” because of the rhythmic pop he sometimes creates. Olitsky finds the label confusing. Whether this term is meant to be derisive or not, he is in good company, as other well-known players such Richie Stearns of The Horse Flies, Frank Lee of The Freight Hoppers, and Tom Riccio of the Bubba Red Hots have also been lumped into this group. As with any label, it’s limiting to what these players do and far from actually describing the sound they create.

You can hear Olitsky play on a number of recordings and there are many video clips of him online. What you’ll find is how he varies his playing to complement the fiddler while driving the rhythm. Sometimes you’ll hear him play high up the neck, and other times he’ll play a bassier accompaniment. You’ll hear that popping pulse, but you’ll also hear his virtuosic approach to melody, counter-melody and harmony.

Olitsky started playing the banjo in the 1970s while he was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He remembers getting together between classes with his friend Neil Carroll, who is now an old-time fiddler and banjo player living in Asheville, N.C.

“Someone brought an old banjo around and we’d try to figure out what to do with it,” he says. “We both ended up taking lessons at Goose Acres Folk Music Store, which was next to the Case Western Reserve University campus.”

Goose Acres was run by Peter Smakula and his son, Bob, who were both accomplished banjo players. Goose Acres has since closed. Peter died in 2008, and Bob now owns Smakula Fretted Instruments in Elkins, W.Va.

“When I first met Pete I told him that I wanted to learn how to play bluegrass banjo, the only style that I was aware of at the time,” Olitsky says. “He told me that I should start by playing old-time in order to start some rudimentary right hand work so that I could concentrate on the left hand. I didn’t really want to do this, I didn’t even know what old-time was, but I went along with it. I got to a point where I ‘graduated’ to trying to learn bluegrass banjo, but it didn’t last very long.”

It was too late. Olitsky was hooked on old-time music.

It may seem strange that Cleveland was the setting for Olitsky’s early exposure to the banjo. Although Cleveland is most often associated with burning rivers and rusty factories, Olitsky says the city had a strong community interested in this Appalachian music.

“When I first started to learn banjo, and before I started going to Southern music festivals, Cleveland had a nice old time music scene and I listened to Bob Smakula’s banjo playing a lot,” he says. “I also tried to find any recordings that I could find of Kyle Creed, Wade Ward, and Fred Cockerham. But Tommy Jarrell’s ‘Come and Go With Me’ was the album that I never got tired of listening to. I had the opportunity to hear him fiddle at festivals, but I never saw him play banjo. I don’t know if you would call him an influence of mine, since I don’t play anything like he did, but I thought that his banjo playing was incredible.”

Olitsky says other early influences were the younger musicians like Al Tharp’s playing with the Plank Road String Band, David Winston, and John Herrmann, among many others.

* * *

To be continued. Read part 2 of "The Banjo Wizard of Cleveland" tomorrow. Until then here is Olitsky at last year's Portland (Ore.) Old Time Gathering: 


  1. thanks for doing this. Are there any videos of Mark playing that aren't from his back? I watched him at Clifftop as long as i thought was polite, but i couldn't figure out what he was doing. Like John Hermann and others, he primarily plays rhythm, but it's hard to figure out how to do that, especially if you've been trained at many workshops and classes to play {mostly} melody.


  2. Viper -

    Do you know if Mark is taking on students and how to contact him? I live on the West side of Cleveland and I'm a new banjo player. I'd like to take some lessons...

  3. Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for your comment. I'm not sure if Mark is taking on students now or not. I know of one reader who was taking lessons recently, but I don't believe they were on a regular (i.e., weekly) basis. Mark typically hosts a workshop at the KSU Folk Festival, which I encourage you to attend and meet him face to face. The free workshops are not yet posted, but will likely be on Saturday, Sept. 22.

    I'll post to the blog when I know more. In the mean time, you should check out the Raccoon County festival in Burton in a couple weeks. Bob Smakula is scheduled to play a set, and he was one of Mark's early influences. Also, be sure to visit the Northeast Ohio Old Time Music Group on Facebook. Cheers!

    1. Viper -

      I'll check out all these resources! Thanks for the help.



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