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The music that I am writing and performing now is "solo" banjo music.  Most of it is original compositions, but I will occasionally play my version of a variety of classical pieces, mostly baroque.  The original compositions are in a combination of styles and they reflect my eclectic musical history and list of influences.  My goal in writing instrumental music is to come up with pieces that are interesting and memorable and that will invoke images and emotions in my listeners.  My songs are about specific things and I'm more than happy to tell the story behind the song anytime, but I don't think of that as any sort of requirement.  I'd like the listener to assign their own meaning to my music and enjoy it.  And now for a word or two about my musical history:  

My father was a jazz trumpet and piano player, so I often heard music being played around the house. I tried piano for a while, but never really got the hang of it, so I quit.  I wish I hadn't because I'd love to be able to play ragtime, boogie woogie, and classical music on the piano.  

 Years later, I had developed an unnatural fascination with drums. I got a cheap kit and tortured my family with my playing along with Kiss albums for hours on end. One day the kit was gone. No explanation, it was just gone. I don't recall being upset at that, but years later when I saw a kids kit, I remembered my old one fondly and bought one for my kids. 

My kit dissapeared around Christmas time and about that time my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas, so I said I wanted bongo drums. Oddly enough, she was not interested in me having any more drums, so she said no which made me mad. I opened the Sears catalog randomly and pointed to a banjo. "I want a banjo!" I stated. I didn't really want one, I just picked that randomly and then over time convinced myself that I actually DID want one.

Well, Santa brought me a banjo that year and I proceeded to teach myself to play it somehow. I did take a few months of lessons but that was all. Most of my learning was by tinkering and listening to others play. I hooked up with some people in a bluegrass band and learned a lot from them, including how to play guitar. Pretty soon I got pretty OK on the banjo and guitar and we played a lot of dates as a bluegrass trio. I was always trying something new though and that didn't set too well with the traditionalists I was playing with at the time, so I branched out and started playing with other people. One group in particular played a lot of surf music and southern rock songs, and it was with them that I started playing rock and roll banjo. Songs from Marshall Tucker Band, Neil Young, and Lynard Skynard were the things I broke my rock and roll teeth on with the banjo, mostly in the parking lot of my high school. Oh the times we had back then!

It was when I was in high school that I heard my first classical banjo songs. I think it was Marshall Weisman (of dueling banjos fame) who I heard. He was playing some pieces by Vivaldi and Bach and I got really excited about that and started trying to learn that kind of music. I knew already that banjo could do bluegrass, country, blues and rock, but now I knew that it could do "serious" music too and that idea really excited me and made me work hard at learning how to make the banjo say what I wanted it to. I think the first songs I worked out in this vein were the Paganini "Violin Caprice #24" and the Beethoven "Mandolin Sonata in C Major" (at least the first half of the Beethoven). These songs are still ones I play often to limber my hands before I tackle some of the other pieces I do.  In fact, I recently did an international collaboration with Phil Lane from the UK based on the Paganini piece. We called the song I Like Dark Blue Pie and it's a modern style dance/trance piece that is currently being played in dance clubs in the UK.

 

I also kept up with my guitar playing and wrote many songs for the rock bands I was in, mostly with Trespassers Will (Beth Kelsey on bass, Laura Blackley on rhythm guitar and vocals, Max Wetzel on percussion, Bud Bennett on banjo, guitar and vocals, Brian Mabe on drums, and Mark David on electric guitars and mandolin and vocals). Most of my rock songs were heavily influenced by Pete Townshend and Bob Weir. I loved their complicated chord structures and their nonstandard rhythms. I'm sure my band mates learned a lot about chord structure playing these songs, and I know I learned a lot about rhythm playing them too.  Many of the rock songs still featured banjo as it is my favored instrument.

I still play guitar, but my main focus is on solo banjo again. I spent a few years trying to transcribe some of the Bach Cello Suites to banjo, then ran across John Bullard who had already done that so I stopped. I've written John a number of times and he has been an inspiration to me. So now what I am doing is original solo banjo pieces which are inspired by Bach and cello music in general. It's been fun and educational and I am currently working on a new album of solo banjo material.

My musical influences are pretty diverse. I play the banjo and acoustic guitar and sing, and am influenced by Bach, Pete Townshend, Courtney Johnson, and Bob Weir. There are a lot more, but those four are the main ones. Pete Townshend and Bobby Weir showed me that I didn't have to be a lead guitar player, and that playing rhythm guitar can be as challenging and exciting as I wanted to make it. Both of them play rhythms and chords that are extremely interesting and complex. I think a lot of both of them show up in my playing and writing. 

"Bach and Courtney Johnson both inspire my banjo playing. I know it sounds a little funny to say, but I really enjoy playing Baroque pieces, and especially Bach on the banjo, and I am always pleased when I can insert elements of that sort of music into my songs. Like in the song Clearing a Space, the whole middle section of the song is a banjo solo that was completely influenced by Bach. I also have a few 'solo' banjo pieces that are very Bach influenced (First Flight and Second Flight). When I play these songs I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing musically, and is my biggest personal reward. Courtney Johnson is a big influence too in my banjo playing, and he's quite different from Bach! I was really excited by Courtney's long ascending and descending runs in his playing. I don't necessarily use them in my playing very often, but he excited me and gave me the inspiration to view the banjo as so much more than the traditional instrument most people probably think of.

My wife, Beth is my bass player and I am influenced by her too. I always run my songs by her before anyone else hears it and her reaction to the song really determines whether anyone else will hear it or not. She's my quality control and a lot of the inspiration for me to do music. I just love her bass playing too, she plays very melodically, but does it with a heavy dose of funk influence.  Beth and I often write songs together in an odd sort of coincidental way.  I find that I often have a melody without words and she has words without a melody.  It's a wonderful system we have worked out!

Beth is playing a classical double bass as well as her electric bass on my solo album.  She also plays piano.  I hope to soon have a series of banjo/piano duets including the Bach two part inventions.  It's been a goal of mine for years to do the two part inventions.

When I write instrumental music, I often close my eyes and imagine landscapes or ideas. If it's a landscape, most of the time I imagine I'm flying over it and the changes in the landscape help me make the changes in the music. Color, texture, features, they all help me change the melody, tempo and feeling in the songs.   I imagine these landscapes when I listen to the songs too.  I judge a song by the beauty of the landscape I see when I listen to it. This is how I approach listening to and writing music. It's a very visual experience and if a song moves me, I'll walk away with a new place to go in my mind when I hear that song.

If it's an idea that I'm focusing on while I write, I think about the idea while I play and try and incorporate the emotions that that idea instills in me into the songs themselves.  I also try and incorporate visual elements into the music so that if you know what the song is about and you listen to the music you may be able to visualize some of these elements too.  That's my hope anyway.  I'd like my music to inspire beautiful landscapes and emotions in my listeners.

 

2002 Bud Bennett