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Getting Blitzed with Tom Collins

A little more than a year ago, Salem, Massachusetts-based banjo player and teacher Tom Collins embarked on a yearlong project he called Banjo Blitz. The weekly YouTube series provided short banjo lessons on technique. Each video is about five minutes long, give or take, and presents a short pattern — or “ostinato” — designed to teach and improve a specific aspect of banjo playing.

The mission was to get the audience “to practice clawhammer in discrete chunks every day without the burden of trying to memorize tunes,” Collins says. He wanted to build skills rather than repertoire.

“Let’s take the tune off the table,” says Collins, who has been teaching banjo for 11 years. “Let’s focus on a simple, mantra-like ostinato that can train your body how to execute a technique properly, while training your ears how to hear it properly. Let’s also make it so that you can do this every day without it sucking every spare minute from your life. The big dirty secret about learning how to play an instrument is that you have to play it every day. Banjo Blitz is designed to make that a reasonable goal for most people.”

The videos are great for beginners, as Collins starts with the very basics, but the lessons can also help five-string veterans. As someone who has spent the last five years focused on learning the fiddle, these short videos helped me get back to playing banjo more so that my skills don’t atrophy.

Throughout the Banjo Blitz series, Collins explains the importance of consistent practice, listening deeply, using a metronome and recording your own playing. The series becomes a tool box for improving technique and evaluating your progress. The emphasis on skills was something Collins felt was lacking in today’s banjo teaching.

“I dug through all the instructional material I had collected over the years and found that although technique is sometimes taught, the emphasis is on compiling tunes,” Collins says. “There was this huge gap in the pedagogy, and so I conceived of Banjo Blitz as a way to fill it.”

To understand how Collins arrived at the idea of these short, technique exercises, you have to go back to when he first started playing music. He says he discovered the banjo “fairly late.” Growing up in rural, southern Vermont, his family was not particularly big on music.

“I only had what I heard on the local radio stations, a few Beatles and Beach Boys 45s in the basement and a local fiddler named John Specker,” Collins explains. His first instrument were the drums, and he played in local cover bands throughout his college years. However, he gave up the drums when he went to grad school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and couldn’t afford housing that would also accommodate a drum kit.

“Giving up music felt really wrong to me after a couple of years,” he says. “I was like a fish swimming against the current. In my visits home to Vermont, I’d go to local fairs and hear John Specker or Gypsy Reel. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the archaic tone of the banjo with the sophisticated music it was playing.”

Collins graduated in 2000 and found a job in Boston, where he met a coworker who knew about traditional music and lent him a VHS tape of Mike Seeger’s banjo playing. He also was inspired by watching Kirk Sutphin and Greg Hooven play fretless banjo.

“I wanted nothing else but to learn how to do that,” he says. “It also made a connection with my experience listening to John Specker in Vermont. I hadn’t realized that they were all in the same genre at first. I fell in love with old-time music.”

Soon afterward, Collins ordered his first banjo, a Deering Goodtime. He often played five hours a day or more in that first year. After about eight months, he got the courage to call Specker to ask if he wanted to jam.

“I went to his house in the woods in Vermont and I played with him for hours,” Collins remembers. “Afterwards we listened to records of old-time music. He introduced me to recordings of Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham. He was so kind, even though I’m sure I was terrible.”

Collins also learned that Specker had worked with his grandfather building stone walls. Having that family connection “really enhanced my appreciation of John and old-time music in general,” he says. 

Around this time, Collins also met Jon Anderson, a banjo player who was just starting to learn the fiddle. The two formed a strong musical friendship by getting together nearly every week to play old-time music.

“Finding Jon was a huge part of finding my sea legs early on the instrument,” Collins says. “He was already an accomplished clawhammer player at the time, so he gave me lots of pointers which accelerated my learning.”

Collins and Anderson recorded a banjo-fiddle duet album in 2016, called Sinful to Flirt, which is available at CDBaby.com. The album “is a culmination of that long and deep musical friendship,” Collins says.

About four years ago, however, Collins dove back into drumming and found himself playing in a progressive rock band, called Schooltree, with national press.

“I was in way over my head,” he says. “The band leader, Lainey Schooltree, was embarking on this massive double album, rock opera. I was the only member of the band who didn’t have proper musical schooling, so I was scrambling to catch up.”

Collins spent the most of his time between teaching banjo lessons relearning how to play drums “from the ground up,” using ostinatos on a daily basis to “booststrap myself to that level” he needed to play on Schooltree's 2017 album, Heterotopia.

“I discovered that simple patterns, played with intention and consistency, dramatically increased my facility and flow on the drum set,” Collins says. “There’s no way I could have played the Schooltree material without seriously transforming my technique.”

Collins pulled what he learned from the professional, progressive drumming world and inserted it into the realm of traditional clawhammer banjo.

“Ultimately, I wanted to produce a body of work that could serve a clawhammer player for her entire career,” Collins says. “When she’s getting her footing, the basics of clawhammer are there in the first few episodes. When she’s recording her first album, she can boost her creativity with variations with the advanced techniques that I present toward the end.”

Banjo Blitz is not the first banjo instruction video series Collins has created for YouTube. I first heard of him through the Banjo Hangout, where he goes by FretlessFury. I was just learning the banjo and came across his three-part series, Elements of Round Peak Banjo. A couple years later, he produced a video called Kokenology 101, exploring the intricate playing of Walt Koken.

At first glance, these two styles seem widely disparate. However, Collins explains how he views each approach on the clawhammer banjo spectrum.

“Round Peak and Walt Koken’s playing are so different,” he says. “Round Peak is lean and spare, and Walt’s is kaleidoscopic and busy. You’d think they would be mutually exclusive. I don’t see them that way. In fact, I think they’re perfectly and wonderfully compatible. Although Walt uses chords a lot more than a Round Peak player would, he’s often approaching them linearly, meaning he’s using pull-offs to get note-at-a-time patterns. This filled the gap for me with Round Peak. I wanted the upper regions of the fretboard, but I wanted that lean fretless sound.”

Collins calls his own style “linear clawhammer.” He aims to combine both styles.

“For me the banjo is about synthesis,” he says. “I want to bring different styles, smash them together and see if they hold.”

The Banjo Blitz series ended in January with Collins introducing a new video project he plans to launch this spring, called Banjo Quest. He won’t say much about it yet.

“I will tell you that Banjo Quest will allow me to be broader in scope than Banjo Blitz,” Collins says. “I’m planning wide ranging topics, all banjo related, and I’m still planning on at least one video a week.”

The ideal audience is “anyone who ever loved a banjo” and old-time music fans in general. Collins says he also hopes to widen the banjo’s audience, a goal he admits is “probably a little on the ambitious side.”

“When I finished Banjo Blitz I thought, ‘Man, I finally got this video thing. I’m just getting warmed up,’” Collins says. “Banjo Quest will take everything I’ve learned in the past year of creating content for the banjo community and expand on it. I’m also going get a little wild, so hold on for dear life.”

Be sure to subscribe to Collins’ YouTube channel to catch all of his latest content. He is still producing weekly videos leading up to the debut of Banjo Quest. He is also setting up a Patreon page so that viewers can help fund these video projects.

You can also hire him for individual lessons in person or through Skype, so feel free to contact him directly if you’re looking for more personal banjo instruction.

Finally, Collins and Anderson are also working on a second album, so stay tuned for that announcement via YouTube. In the meantime, purchase Sinful to Flirt at CDBaby.com. And if this wasn't enough for you, check out the outtakes from our interview that didn't make the cut.

Comments

  1. Awesome article! Thanks Brad and thanks Tom for your most-excellent contribution to both teaching and the progressive (today's and tomorrow's) history of the banjo!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Terrific article! I've been aware of Tom's work for quite a few years - but I learned so much about him and that work in this article: very enlightening!
    (I can't figure out how to sign this - so I'll just put my name down here.)

    Thanks,
    Marc Nerenberg

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Marc, I know the comments section is a bit goofy. Thank for taking the time. I appreciate the feedback.

      Delete

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