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Setting Up the Sound: Mark Olitsky, Part 2

Read part 1, "The Banjo Wizard of Cleveland"

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A small part of Mark Olitsky’s distinct sound comes from how he sets up his banjos. He says he likes a deep, bassy sound from a banjo, and he uses heavier strings, a relatively loose head, a low tension tailpiece, and “things to keep as much towards the low end as possible.” You might notice some duct tape if you look at his banjos closely.

Olitsky usually plays one of two banjos. His “jamming” banjo is a Vega Little Wonder with an 11 13/16-inch diameter pot, Fiberskyn head, and a partially fretless neck he says was made at Goose Acres by Bob Smakula and Kevin Enoch.

“At the time that I was buying this banjo, I couldn't afford to buy two banjos and I wanted to try playing a fretless,” Olitsky says. “A fretless plate was put over the fret slots already put in the new neck. My plan was to try my new banjo out as a fretless for a month or two, and then when I was ready, have the plate removed and frets put in. Well, that was probably 25 years ago, and I still haven’t had it changed. I found that the sound achieved on a fretless was something that suited me. I also like to think that I have more control in trying to nuance the notes without frets.”

Olitsky’s other banjo is an S.S. Stewart Thoroughbred, with a fretless fingerboard, an 11-inch pot, skin head, and nylon strings. He usually keeps this banjo tuned down a couple steps, and it has a deeper, quieter sound. This is what he plays at home and feels more comfortable playing in solo situations.

Being Your Own Player
Olitsky suggests that individuality is important to banjo players, and he suggests new players work up their own ways to play a tune.

“The advice that I would give to a new banjo player — advice once given to me — is to use tunes played on fiddle or by a string band — not necessarily on banjo — as a resource for material,” he says. “The banjo is a rhythm as well as a melody instrument and every banjo player will put his or her own take on the rhythm — probably why you will rarely hear two banjos playing in a string band. The idea is to learn a tune and play it the way you would play it — not like another banjo player might.”

He suggests that if you’re trying to work on a tune being played by a fiddle or something other than a banjo, then you are the banjo player.

“You can create your part as you work out the melody,” he adds. “That’s not to say that there aren’t things to learn by watching someone else’s banjo playing, but not to the point where you’re trying to copy them.”

Get to a Festival
Along with creating your own banjo part to a tune, Olitsky stresses going to music festivals to play. While learning from DVDs, tablature, or lessons is fine, he says there is nothing like being in the music.

“My favorite place to play is at festivals,” he continues. “There are so many great players out there and for that three or four days, many of them are concentrated in one spot. That gives me a chance to play in a lot of different jams — many of them with a different spin on old-time music as well as an opportunity to hear how many musicians approach their playing.

“And I wouldn’t want to leave out that this is folk music — community music — and, for me, I can’t think of a nicer community to belong to.”

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Where to Hear Olitsky’s Playing
Olitsky has played in a number of different bands, including the Able Brothers, Bad Dog, JimmyJohnnyJoe and Killer Grits. You can find these albums at places like County Sales and CDBaby, to name a few. Here is a sampling:
  • Bad Dog — “Oldtime Blah Blah Blah”
  • JimmyJohnnyJoe — “Oldtime Fiddle Music and Songs”
  • Killer Grits — “Midnight on the Run”
  • Christian Wig — “Gate to Go Through”
I don't know why it seems every video of Olitsky playing shows him from the back, but here he is again playing the Ohio tune "Big Sciota" at a local gathering:


  1. fun to read, great idea. I agree that he is a master, fun to listen to like John Hermann and Tom Riccio. I wish i could figure out what they do. It's more than just rhythm, because there's a little melody there too. I once stared at Tom Riccio for a long, long time but still couldn't figure out how he was getting that flat sound so high up the neck on the 1st and 5th fret. As you said, all videos of Olitsky seem taken from his back---way too bad.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Herrmann, Riccio and Olitsky get some similar sounds, but I think they all achieve it a little bit different.


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