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Hank Smith

  • Written by  THE BANJO RESERVE
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Hank Smith Gabriel Nelson, f/Stop Grooves Photography Hank Smith

Hank Smith started playing banjo when he was 16 in his hometown of Florence, SC after begging his parents to get him one for Christmas. More than twenty years later, he’s still at it and going strong.

Hank attended Winthrop University in Rock Hill SC and played in several bands of varying styles. Never one to limit himself to just one style of playing, Hank absorbed other musical influences such as jazz, rock, reggae, classical and of course, bluegrass. In 2002 he met Raleigh NC based jam-grass band, Barefoot Manner and that started his tenure touring nationally and headlining their own festivals year after year. In 2004, Hank was a finalist in the Merlefest Bluegrass Banjo competition and in 2005 received an endorsement from Deering Banjos who built him the custom instrument he plays currently. Today, Hank tours with acoustic soul band, The Morning After, progressive bluegrass band, Acoustic Manner, multi-instrumentalist Lindsey Tims and Blu-Bop: A Tribute to the Music of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Hank is releasing two albums in 2014: one with The Morning After and another with Lindsey Tims. He also teaches banjo, guitar and mandolin at The Raleigh Music Academy. Hank will continue to push the boundaries of what the banjo can do by composing and arranging music that adds a new level of maturation to acoustic and bluegrass influenced idioms.

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The Banjo Reserve recently interviewed Hank, here's what he had to say.

Q.  WHERE WERE YOU BORN AND RAISED?
A.  I was born on August 29, 1977 in Suffern, NY. When I was three months old, my family relocated to Florence, SC where I was raised. I left there in August of 1995 to attend university at Winthrop in Rock Hill, SC where I remained until 2005. I moved to Raleigh NC in early 2006 and remain there.

Q.  DID YOUR GEOGRAPHIC AREA HAVE ANY INFLUENCE ON YOUR DECISION TO PLAY THE BANJO?
A.  I'm not sure my geography necessarily helped or hindered, because I wasn't exposed to banjo music through friends or family in Florence, I sought it out. Growing up, we watched "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Hee Haw" like most kids in a burgeoning cable market in the south, so I was indirectly exposed to it, so perhaps there's an argument to be made for the subliminal effect?

Q.  HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN THE BANJO?
A.  I became interested in the banjo as a teenager because I liked the way it sounded as opposed to guitar. Alot of my friends were starting to become interested in that, and I thought it rather bland. To me a banjo was a more exciting sound, something that grabbed your attention. Before I got my first banjo, I did hours and hours of research, went to the library, wrote essays on folk music and tried to wrap my mind around the instrument and it's role in music and the culture.

Q.  IS THERE A SPECIFIC BANJO PLAYER OR BAND THAT HAS INFLUENCED YOU THE MOST?
A.  The one banjo player that has influenced me more than any other is Béla Fleck. Earl Scruggs, Sammy Shelor and Tony Trischka follow in that line, but Béla's approach and sound are, to me, the most one can do with the instrument. I have always wanted to push it as far as it can go in as many different ways as possible.

Q.  WHAT BANJO STYLE(S) DO YOU PLAY?
A.  I suppose my style is progressive, melodic, single string, three finger picking and I prefer to play in whatever style fits the tune or mood I'm going for.

Q.  WHAT STYLE DO YOU PREFER THE MOST?
A.  Being versatile and having the ability to switch on a dime is the most interesting approach. The tune calls out for the style, not the inverse.

Q.  HOW DID YOU LEARN THE BANJO?
A.  I had one lesson. My best friend in high school's dad taught me "Dueling Banjos" and "Foggy Mtn. Breakdown" as well as the forward/reverse roll. After that, I went to monthly bluegrass jams and concerts until I graduated highschool, then in college jammed with a bunch of jazz musicians and Deadheads. I traded banjo lessons for classical lessons with a piano instructor. She would play through classical pieces on the piano and I would memorize the fingerings and the tunes on the banjo. That's it, otherwise, I'm self taught.

Q.  WHAT METHOD OF LEARNING DO YOU FEEL IS MOST EFFECTIVE AND WHY?
A.  I learned by ear, and afterwards, learned to read and write standard notation as well as tab. The most effective way to learn is to make sure your approaching the material and the instrument in a way that makes sense to you. Often times, people are learning not only a difficult instrument, but also another person's way of explaining it. That's too many barriers. Also, immersion in jams, concerts, and anything banjo related in a live sense is highly effective.

Q.  DURING THE EARLY STAGES OF LEARNING TO PLAY THE BANJO, WHAT DID YOU FIND MOST CHALLENGING?
A.  The most challenging thing about starting banjo that I have seen in my students and in my own experience early on is the mechanics of learning three finger style picking. It's hard to reconcile what's happening in your brain vs. your right hand vs. your left hand and figuring out how to make them all work together harmoniously. Once that mechanical barrier is surpassed, then learning becomes a mastery of your own approach to the instrument. Learning your individual style is easy compared to learning how to operate the damn thing.

Q.  WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU STILL HOPE TO MASTER TODAY?
A.  Challenges today include staying current, writing and being creative with it, and making sure I'm not causing physical harm to my hands, wrists, back and mind.

Q.  WHERE DO YOU SEE BANJO MUSIC GOING AND WHAT IS YOUR ROLE IN THAT?
A.  Banjo music is still rooted firmly in the style popularized by Earl Scruggs, and nearly every three-finger style player is going to start there. You have to learn how Earl did it before you can do anything else. That said, Earl was the master innovator on the instrument. The traditionalists who claim that Earl's way is the only way are forgetting that Earl was a rebel and a supremely creative person who mastered timing and technique in order to push the music past it's boundaries. He's the Miles Davis of his genre and was at his peak around the same time Miles was. It was an intensely creative period for music and the musicians who were at the top of the form. Since then, many others have come along and contributed a great deal to the form, and for me, Béla Fleck is the current master. He's the pace setter and just when you think he can't possibly innovate further, he does. Whether it's taking the instrument back to Africa or composing a symphony, reintroducing it to jazz or adopting old time flavor in a new time way, he's out in front. I think banjo music is going to continue to evolve and musicians like Béla are the ones to watch when it comes to predicting how other banjo player will fall in line. New, young artists like Noam Pikelny owe their style to Béla as much as Earl.

My role is to continue to innovate, to take what's been laid before me and change it, play with it, take it apart and put it back together, to get inside my own head and try to interpret the music of others. Today, I am as influenced by Béla Fleck as I am Herbie Hancock and J.S. Bach. It's about pushing the boundaries and moving forward while still maintaining that foundation laid by Earl Scruggs. It's the jumping off point for new styles, ideas and idioms. Why not have a motown influenced, banjo-centric, original soul band? Why not adapt an 800 year old Icelandic hymn to a celtic-influenced, progressive banjo style? Why not? Keep asking yourself that and you'll see the evolution of banjo and your role in it.

Q.  WHAT MOST INSPIRES YOU TO PLAY?
A.  People, voices, places, nostalgia...seeing others rip it up on stage, being able to rip it up with others, tender moments, harsh realities, world events, my own mind...hearing new music or hearing old music with a fresh set of ears...being determined to play and create and move past boundaries...seeing students take what they've learned and create new music with it...inspiration can be found in the most sacred and profane places. Sometimes you just have to look at it right.

Q.  WHAT SONG(S) DO YOU ENJOY PLAYING MOST ON YOUR BANJO?
A.
 Currently, "Bigfoot", "Big Country" and "UFO TOFU" by Béla Fleck, "Shuckin' the Corn" by Earl Scruggs, "Prelude to Cello Suite in G" by Bach, "Hang Up Your Hangups" by Herbie Hancock and a whole slew of new original music written for a duo project.

Q.  WHAT VENUE(S) DO YOU ENJOY PLAYING THE MOST AND WHY?
A.  The best stage I've ever played coast to coast is Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary NC. I also enjoy any festival stage anywhere and local venues in Raleigh NC like The Lincoln Theatre and The Pour House Music Hall.

Q.  WHAT GENRE(S) ARE YOU MOST ASSOCIATED WITH?
A.  Bluegrass, I suppose, but only because I'm a banjo player. Those who know me even a little bit know better.

Q.  WHAT BAND(S) ARE YOU CURRENTLY A MEMBER?
A.  The Morning After, Acoustic/Barefoot Manner, Blu-Bop: The Bela Fleck and the Flecktones Tribute, L Shape Lot, and a duo with Lindsey Tims.

Q.  DO YOU ALSO SING OR PLAY ANY OTHER INSTRUMENTS IN THIS BAND?
A.  I play banjo in all, and attempt backup vocals from time to time in The Morning After and Barefoot/Acoustic Manner.

Q.  WHAT BAND(S) WERE YOU A MEMBER OF IN THE PAST?
A.  Bands:
1996 - 1998: Butterfly Hurricane
1996 - 2002: The Bancroft Boys
1998 - 2000: Fourth Root, Crowded Mountain
1999 - 2002: Toast
2002 - present: Barefoot/Acoustic Manner
2007 - 2010: The Hotwires
2010 - present: The Morning After
2013 - present: Blu-Bop
2014: Hank and Lindsey
2014: L Shape Lot

Q.  DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE BANJO MAKE AND MODEL?
A.  My favorites are my main instruments:

1999 Deering Crossfire
2005 Deering Maple Blossom Custom

Q.  DO YOU HAVE A NICKNAME FOR YOUR BANJO?
A.  No nicknames, but I've heard banjos referred to as: The Five String Woman Repeller, The Frang Machine, and simply, The Five.

Q.  DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE BANJO PLAYER(S) THAT IS STILL ACTIVE TODAY
A.  Béla Fleck, Sammy Shelor, Noam Pikelny, Tony Trischka, Steve Martin and anyone else that's pushing the boundaries.

Q.  BASED ON YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES AS A BANJO PLAYER, WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR BEGINNERS?
A.  Practice as much as possible, listen as much as possible and immerse yourself in live and direct banjo related experiences. Also, take it easy on yourself, banjos are hard to learn. One step at a time and you'll get there. It also helps to have a goal in mind.

Q.  WHAT AWARDS OR RECOGNITION HAVE YOU RECEIVED FOR PLAYING THE BANJO?
A.  Competitions:
2004: Finalist in the Merlefest Banjo Competition (3rd place)
2004: Finalist in the Shakori Hills Banjo Competition (2nd place)
In general, I have no real interest in participating in contests.

Q.  WHAT OTHER INTERESTS DO YOU HAVE?
A.  I enjoy cooking, playing with my dog Django, good beer, good friends and having adventures with Jennifer Call.

TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF THAT YOU THINK OUR COMMUNITY MIGHT ENJOY.
I teach banjo lessons. Also, I have a Master's Degree in Middle Eastern History and can field strip a hotel room air conditioner in the dark.  

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