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Outtakes: Highlights from the Tom Collins Interview That Didn’t Make the Cut

Considering more than a thousand people viewed my last post in the span of a few days, it seems Tom Collins is a popular guy. He provided some great answers to my questions, so inevitably there were some responses that didn't make it into last week's post. As a bonus, here are some highlights from the cutting room floor.

On Collins' favorite banjo player
If I had to pick one, it would be Fred Cockerham. He’s a big part of the sound I have in my head. I spent the first several years chasing his sound like some kind of mad dog. His style is spare, but can drive real hard. He also wasn’t afraid to get weird. Some of his renditions of tunes are downright experimental. He can hew to tradition, but has these moments of leaving it behind and soaring into the unknown. That’s exciting to me.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Walt Koken. Such a different player than Fred, but has that same spirit: spinning the old melodies and taking them into the unknown. Walt’s exuberance, and stubbornness in seeing the entire banjo fretboard as his playground, is inspiring.

On the challenges of making Banjo Blitz
I got halfway through filming the series and I almost gave up. I was struggling with the technical side of producing the videos in a timely way. I have no videography training, so I really had to learn how to make compelling content that was also beautiful, well-shot and well-edited. I had set a very high bar for myself, and the workload almost derailed the project. I don’t feel like I truly achieved the look and feel of what I wanted until the last five episodes.

For me the first goal of Banjo Blitz is represented by the actual content of each lesson: build great fundamental technique with consistent practice of short exercises. There is a meta-lesson that I hope I demonstrated throughout the 52 weeks of instruction: If you bang your head against the wall enough times, you will break through. If you want to learn how to do something, you have to keep going. You have to put one foot in front of the other. I tried to capture that meta-lesson in my final episode.

On what he would have done differently with Banjo Blitz
There was such a huge learning curve for me on this series. Much of it was technical in nature. For example: white balance. Knowing what the hell that was and why it’s important would have been useful earlier than Episode 37. But in the beginning of a project like this, there’s no way to know what you don’t know. You have to dive in anyway and figure it out as you go.

There’s also something I know now that I wouldn’t want to know before starting the series: how much work it would be! Had I any clue I’m not sure I would have had the gall to get it off the ground. That speaks to the importance of just leaping into the unknown. It’s a valuable lesson and one I’m carrying with me into Banjo Quest.

On Collins’ own banjos and preferences
I have two main axes. The first is my Enoch model 400 semi-fretless. I waited seven years for this instrument, and I would have waited seven more. [It has a] 12-inch pot, rolled brass tone ring, exquisite inlay and heel carving. The main feature is the semi-fretless finger board that is the physical manifestation of my notion that fretless linear styles can live comfortably with up-the-neck playing. Kevin Enoch is a genius and national treasure.

My second is fairly new: an Ome Omega with inlays by Glenn Carson. [It has an] 11-inch pot, Ome vintage tone ring and radiused fretboard, all walnut. Chuck [Ogsbury] and Glenn designed it to be reminiscent of 19th century rifles. And not to be corny about it, but it’s a cannon. So much sound. I think it’s still ringing from recording our “Walking in My Sleep” video the other night. The Ome is my only full fretted banjo, so I use it as my main teaching banjo. I’m a huge fan of Ome’s instruments and have had at least one Ome in my stable since 2002. They are so meticulously crafted, and they’re not afraid to use modern ideas in their instrument building. I’m a huge, drooling fan of everything Ome.

On banjo recommendations for a beginner
Buy the best banjo you can afford right off the bat. It will hold its value better than an entry level instrument, and it will inspire you to play more. I tell people to either pick up a used Enoch Tradesman or a used lower level Ome. Tradesman is good for the player who wants a more conservative and traditional look. Ome nails setup and overall feel. Jumbo frets and a modern neck profile make left hand work much easier. And you get volume and tone for days.

On the Beach Boys
Editor’s note: Collins sports a Beach Boys shirt in episode 34 of Banjo Blitz. As a lifelong Beach Boys fan and fellow banjo player, I just had to ask some questions about his own attraction to the stinging, sweet nostalgia of the boys from Hawthorn, California.

On what banjo players can learn from the Beach Boys
The list is long. I think first off: learn to sing. Don’t be shy about your voice. Just have at it. It can add a ton of interest to your music, especially for people who aren’t old time nerds like us.

I approach old-time tunes with arrangement in mind. I want to tell a story with each tune. Even if it’s a simple dance tune, I want to use it to create a physical place or mood. I think the Beach Boys are great models for learning how to arrange. Both “Saddle Up the Gray” and “Cumberland Gap” on my Sinful to Flirt album take some basic cues from the Beach Boys in that regard.

On his favorite Beach Boys song that uses a banjo
Their use of the banjo seems a little cartoony to me, so I’m not in love with any of the songs that feature it. “Cabin Essence” is a really strange song, and it’s probably the stand out for me.

On his favorite Beach Boys album
You hear the invention of modern production in Pet Sounds. It is one of the greatest recorded albums in human history. “God Only Knows” might be the most perfect pop song. It’s easy to love.

But I’m going to be a little controversial here and say that Surf’s Up might edge out Pet Sounds for me. It doesn’t sound as good as Pet Sounds technically speaking. It’s more raw. Some of the vocals are immediate and unvarnished. But it’s the riskier album. It’s weird. It’s dark. It’s starkly ironic. It’s brutally self-aware. It’s downright alchemical in the way it transforms how we look at their previous albums. The Beach Boys stand their candy-striped beach tent on its head ... and then light it on fire. “Feel Flows” is one of my favorite Beach Boys songs. It’s so strange, cosmic and ambitious. It’s Carl Wilson coming into his own as a writer with that gorgeous melody and melancholic lyrics. "'Til I Die” is a masterpiece. And of course, the album sports the greatest album cover of all time. The whole Surf’s Up project feels scary, dangerous and sad, and that’s really something coming from the same band who wrote “Surfin’ USA” and “California Girls.”

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