Michael J. Miles
This “ideal” progressive clawhammer banjoist would feel the need to bring the instrument to many different genres outside the world of old-time music and, at the same time, have the chops and energy to pull it off.
Little did I know at that time that this “ideal” progressive player already existed!
Let me introduce you to the music of Michael J. Miles...
"Take Five" on clawhammer banjo? Backed by percussion, electric bass, trumpet, and vibes? If that weren’t already enough to qualify Michael J. Miles as the poster child for “progressive clawhammer”, he has also tirelessly promoted the instrument, it’s history, and it’s future potential. Here’s an example of Michael exploring both the past and future of the style with this great arrangement paring old-time banjo tunes with a modern string quartet.
I struggled a bit trying to come up with the proper phrase to describe my reaction when I first heard Michael's New Century Suite album, but "blown away" seems to about cover it. I hadn't felt this type of reaction to a banjo album since Bela Fleck's first release with the Flecktones. Speaking of Bela Fleck, he appears as a guest artist on this album; listen to the improvisational feel of this short excerpt from the 'Chicago Trilogy' as Miles exchanges licks with Fleck.
Chicago Trilogy III: Black
As is the case with most great players, Miles uses every technique available to the clawhammer banjoist. Listen to the opening phrase of “Dorian” paying particular attention to the syncopation created with skip/interior thumb combinations:
I’ve had many spirited discussions concerning basic right hand technique with folks who insist that you should never “brace” the thumb against the index finger while striking a string with the nail of your index or middle finger. I’ve always countered this with my opinion that lightly resting the thumb against the index finger doesn’t interfere with technique as long as the player isn't clamping down (squeezing) with the thumb. In fact, this technique may offer significant advantages over those players who feel the need to “tag” the fifth string with their thumb on every nail strike. Michael Miles appears to use bracing as one of his “go to” techniques and therefore proves my point as he is one of the most technically proficient clawhammer banjoists playing today. Watch Michael’s thumb in the opening sequence of this Bach classic to see a clear example of this “bracing” technique in action (even though Michael strikes with his middle, he "braces" the thumb against the index).
Old-time banjo is something special, but then again so is "new-time" banjo...
P.S. My favorite feature in this "Progressive Clawhammer" section, and the one that I feel is the most important, is a survey that I had each of the featured artists fill out. It contains all sorts of information about banjo styles, technique, instrument setup, and anything else I could think of that might be of interest to banjoists. Here's a link to the questionnaire:
Clawhammer Illuminations: insightful answers to banjo related questions provided by Perlman, Johnson, Balch, Miles, and Iverson.