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23 March 2014

Rob Stenson - Gold Mountain EP (2013)

I'm having a bit of an obsessive interlude. This week I've found it hard to think about anything other than banjos. You can blame +shankti oviedo for this... He showed me a video by a remarkable gentleman by the name of Rob Stenson and the rest, as they say, is history...

Rob Stenson - Gold Mountain EP (Vulf Records - 0003)

I've tried to get hold of Rob Stenson to ask him a few questions, but so far, no dice. This is a video of what may well be the whole Gold Mountain EP being played in someone's back yard. It's brilliant! I love all the ambient interference. Somewhere into the second song you even have a cameo from a yapping dog. It's been driving my own yapping dog nuts trying to figure out where the sound is coming from. Ha ha. Here's a link to itunes where you can buy the EP. This is raw, live clawhammer banjo at its uncut best. Go buy it and see for yourself.

As soon as I heard Rob's playing I was instantly inspired to try and emulate him. I was amazed to see that his banjo was partially fretless. I hadn't seen this being done before. After a bit of digging around I found a comment by Rob on a Banjo Hangout thread where he revealed what instrument he's playing on the Gold Mountain EP.

Rob describes his banjo as a "half-fretted Enoch Tradesman (from 2009), with a 13" pot." I'm not really that much of an expert on banjos, so I hunted down the Enoch website to see if I could learn anything about their instruments. All the banjos are made by luthier Kevin Enoch and I'm getting the impression that his main business is making custom builds. On the video he says that there are about 300 of his instruments out there in the wild. I must say that they do look great! He's definitely got a talent for making beautiful instruments.

I'm only going by what I think I can see on the video, but the partially fretless banjo appears to be missing the bottom 5 frets and all the frets above the 15th. Rob uses it to great effect adding some fantastic little slide embellishments into his songs. At times I'm reminded a bit of the sound of a sitar. The overall sound is quite otherworldly which has lead some people to speculate over whether Rob is using nylgut strings. He's not - they're steel. I want this sound!

Talking of fretless sitars sounds... I have to show you this! See +Graham Hendrick demonstrating what can be done with a "sitar peadle"... and the power of this mind. I was blown away when I saw this. What a great sound! If I close my eyes whilst listening to this, I get images of Darth Vader fighting Obi Wan. I wonder if there's going to be an album? Ha ha!

I do actually have a banjo that I never play. It's a vintage Windsor Whirle and looking at it now, I can see why... it's got far too many frets! Don't worry, I'm not going to pull any out. My current plan is to find a cheap one somewhere that I can do that to. Ha ha. I am soooo easily lead!

This video is of the Whirle being dusted off. This is about the limits of my banjo-playing prowess at the moment. I hope to remedy this soon.

I was interested to find out what tuning Rob is using on the Gold Mountain EP. He does actually jump around a bit and retune between songs. Here's what Rob has to say on the matter:

"As for the tunings, the first D-flat tuning (used from the start of the Gold Mountain video until Cumberland Gap / Little Birdie) is just the standard Double-C (gCGCD) tuned up a half-step. The second D-flat tuning (used only for Cumberland Gap / Little Birdie), is something I arrived at by dropping the high-D to a C, making it a "Triple-C" (gCGCC) (I just consulted, and it looks like Triple-C is indeed an historical tuning, and even mentions the drone-y quality that I really enjoy about it, i.e. you can drop-thumb and hammer on the two high C's for a great C-drone. To be honest, I can't remember if I arrived at the tuning by chance or if I saw it on that tunings page.)"

I've tuned my Whirle to double-c tuned up a half-step just like Rob describes above. It gives it a great sound that screams trademark banjo to me.

Rob finishes off with a few more tuning insights: "And, as a few people have pointed out, the last tune is just a G sawmill jumped up a half-tone to A-flat. All in all, I think of the tunings more in the C/G tuning sense (rather than D-flat/A-flat), since I realized only after recording the record that the banjo was up a half-step from where I thought it was, so we labeled it accordingly."

There seems to be a lot of debate as to what style of banjo Rob Stenson plays. I must admit that I'm not really up on all the different permutations. This video title suggests "clawhammer".

Wikipedia has this to say on clawhammer:

"A common characteristic of clawhammer patterns is the thumb does not pick on the downbeat, as one might in typical fingerpicking patterns for guitar. For example, this is a common, basic 2/4 pattern:
Pick a melody note on the downbeat (quarter note)
On the second beat, strum a few strings with your strumming finger (roughly an eighth note)

Immediately following (on the second half of this beat), pick a note with the thumb, usually the shorter fifth string. (roughly an eighth note)
Here, the thumb plays the high drone on the second 'and' of 'one and two and'. This combined with the middle finger strumming provides a characteristic 'bum-ditty bum-ditty' banjo sound, whether actually played on a banjo or on a guitar.

Banjo players often also use the left hand, the fingering hand, to pick. Using a motion similar to a pull-off, the left hand picks up at the top of the neck, usually on the second half of the first beat. The result is a change from the 'bum-ditty' sound to a 'bum-pa-ditty'."

Watching Rob on his videos, I'm not convinced that he's following the style-guide too religiously which is absolutely fine with me. Rob has this to say on the subject:

"I'm imitating (poorly) the style and tunes that I grew up hearing my dad play — he plays clawhammer & bluegrass style, although not on a fretless (which probably explains why my playing is fairly different from his). right hand is really a product of my dad's style — he really loves to use the drop-thumb for melodic notes, or more generally just to get the thumb off of the drone string when possible. My left hand is very unlike my dad's — he plays out of chords a lot, which came out of playing bluegrass. I'm the opposite — I try to use as few fingers as possible on the neck, since that means sliding becomes more necessary if you're only using one or two fingers. I grew up playing guitar and using lots of chords — mostly for jazz — but never really learned all the scales, or got used to improvising in the jazz-sense, where you have so much freedom of note-choice. That's what I really love about the banjo — that it's so ear-oriented, and tune-oriented. I can hardly tell you any of the notes I'm playing, and I feel like always playing close to a tune's structure let's you emphasize rhythm & style a little more."

So now you know ;-)

I finish with a picture of a fretless electric uke that +Daniel Hulbert's building. Well... it's fretless in this picture ;-)

Being only a matter of hours since this picture was taken, I reckon that the instrument must be almost built by now ;-)

Can't wait to see the finished instrument!

Fantastic stuff! You can find out more about Rob Stenson at his website Be sure to buy the EP first though!


  1. You probably already sussed this out, but that lack of frets near the pot on his banjo is what they call a scoop. The fretboard (and sometimes the neck) is lowered there to make it easier to play clawhammer.

    Playing that far up on the neck with your right hand helps with that tubby, old-timey sound (as opposed to the Super bright bluegrass sound), but its hard to do when you've got the neck in the way....

  2. No, I hadn't Jake! There is so much to learn about banjos! Thanks for posting this insight