Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Michael Duffey from Media, Pennsylvania

What was it that first got you interested in playing the guitar, mandolin or banjo?
I started playing in 1965 when everyone wanted to play the guitar. The Beatles had been popular for a few years, as were the Rolling Stones, and folk music guys like Simon and Garfunkel were getting pretty hot. All my friends were starting to play the guitar; even my sister. So I got an awful acoustic guitar with ½ inch action for Christmas and suffered through a couple of lessons from a local folk music teacher. Everyone I knew who played (including my sister) picked it up faster and was a better player than myself. However, I fell in love with the sound and feel of the instrument.

How long have you been playing and what’s your motivation to play?
I’ve been playing “at” the guitar for nearly 54 years (and man are my fingers tired!). My motivation has come in a few forms, enjoying a challenge, enjoying a better instrument, and finding joy in the musical technicality of the great players. As I stated above, when I began playing, I sucked… badly. But my friends all played and that gave me an opportunity to suck quietly around better players. I had a good solid sense of rhythm and became known in my small circle of friends as a good rhythm guy and then a great rhythm guy. By my mid-teens, I still could not put 2 notes together for a passable solo, but I could fingerpick well, and play barre chords and rhythms in nearly any style you mention (hard rock, latin, jazz, funk, rock and roll, R&B, country, polkas,…etc). It was also during this time that I gained a true love of the guitar as an amazing instrument. I built my first electric guitar at age 13 from a plank of mahogany (and sold it later for $300). The finish was rough, but it played really nicely and sounded really good. I’m hoping it ended up in trash somewhere so there is no evidence! But I still love building and repairing all manner of fretted instruments. In addition, I worked as a kid (paperboy, golf caddie, lawn and yard work…etc) and every year I would save up to get another guitar. A new guitar is a real motivator! The folks who have motivated me most were those players I was enjoying at the time. There was a local fellow who could play the intro solo to Johnny B Goode who I aspired to be at one point. Then chronologically there was Leo Kottke (when my best guitar was a 12 string acoustic), and James Taylor (wonderful chord progressions), from Joe Pass I learned how to walk a bass line while popping out chords (when my guitar was a Guild X350), then Al DiMeola taught me speed and precision (when I was playing a Ibanez Custom Agent), and then Charlie Christian, George Benson and Wes Montgomery taught me arpeggios and prettier lines, Django Reinhardt was just plain scary, and then too many folks to mention. And finally, I realized that every guitar player had something they could teach me. Even players who were not necessarily great players have something they do that is better than anyone else; even if it just the joy they experience when playing. So now, everyone motivates me.

What’s your favorite lesson on Ben’s site and how has it helped you improve?
One of my greatest problems and strengths is my ability to quickly analyze and quantify a person’s playing. It’s a problem when I go see someone amazing play and then realize, in person, that they have all manner of technical weirdnesses to their playing. Like when I saw George Benson playing live and his technique was oddly like a 15 year old rock player. So I rarely enjoy watching folks play. As a side note, when I was at a workshop/concert with David Grier, I saw no flaws to his playing or his musicality; it was, by far, the most enjoyable guitar concert I have ever witnessed! But this same ability gave me a lifetime of teaching others, including some really good players. So what I look for is “How” and “Why” other players choose the lines/solos/breaks they do when they play. I immediately became a Lifetime member here at Ben’s site after seeing his lessons on “Building Breaks”. This was a different approach to soloing than I had seen elsewhere and was a very practical approach for folks of any and every level. These lessons immediately made me a much better teacher.

What’s your goal when playing?
Joy. For me, and if I’m lucky, for those around me.

Are there any other instruments or genres of music that you enjoy playing?
I enjoy the guitar most. I play a little mandolin (aren’t they all little?), some bass, some recorder (just for fun, cause I suck) and a few others I would never leave my home and play in public. As far a genre, I’m probably mostly a folk, jazz, classical and funk player with bluegrass as my guilty pleasure. I’m not sure I will ever get a firm hold on bluegrass as I consider it the most difficult of the styles I play (plenty of good bluegrass players can swing jazz, but not one jazz player I know can play bluegrass decently!).

If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with the extra time?
I would do more projects. I love inventing or designing things and then building them. In the music realm I designed and built an internal amplifier for an acoustic bass guitar (only marginally successful), a backpack battery powered bass amplifier for my wife’s Ashbory bass, a portable line array speaker system that can be used with any PA mixer/amp, a Kalimba bridge tuning system, various guitar repair clamps…etc. In another life I would have been an inventor/engineer.

How long have you been a Gold Pick member
For a few years.

What do you do for a living?
For 47 years, I have taught the guitar. Much of that time, I was also doing guitar/fretted instrument repairs and gigging (jazz, folk and classical jobs). Most recently, I realized the benefits of working for someone else (health care, retirement savings, etc.) so I began working for a local retirement community working in activities. As the 60+ year old fellow working with folks in their 90s and 100s, I’m the young, good looking(?) buck who makes their day a little brighter. It’s nice to be able to be a positive influence in other’s lives.

Do you have a favorite technique? What is it?
I like this question because it tells me a lot about the focus of the player. For me, it was learning tremolo technique with my right hand back in college. If you listen to Recuerdos de la Alhambra, you hear the sound of the tremolo being done with the right-hand fingers (ring, middle, index). That sound, blended perfectly evenly with the thumb, sounds like 2 guitar players are playing at the same time. The tremolo has to be perfectly even in volume and tone to get that effect (not an easy feat). Even the best players seldom can produce that through the entire piece. It took me 3 months to get that to the point that I felt comfortable playing the tune. This fellow does a pretty nice job playing the tune. I got to see him live back when I was in college. https://youtu.be/LrtW99qTk6E

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Great story and impressive history with the guitar!

Congratulations on being the GPotW! Reading this was inspiring. If you suck at recorder, that’s probably why! (Cuz you’re sposed to blow)

Congrats!!! Fascinating profile. :+1:

Congrats Michael on being selected as this weeks Gold Pick Member. An impressive CV. I too loved listening to Johnny B Goode in my youth. There was something really magical about that song that I cant explain.

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Congrats on the GPMOTW, Michael. Great to have you here!

Just a heads down, @Archie, Americans don’t use this term (CV) they say resumé. I know what a CV is because south Africans use the term, but I don’t think most others here will know it

Thanks Gunnar, every day is an education even for an old timer at 71. Who know’s from now on ALL Americans might start using the term CV it’s way shorter than writing resumé. :star_struck:

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yeah,…right after we switch to the metric system…

big%20laugh

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Not entirely true. Use of “CV” has for a long time been common in medicine, science and academia in the US. Resumé is the common term in business and other fields. The metric (CGS) system is common in all sciences, but might take centuries for the rest of USA. I hope it is millennia before metrics system invades our daily life.

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I stand corrected. Yet I believe that the metric system is superior in many ways, the chief being that it is WAY more logical/intuitive being based around the number 10. It’s simple to remember how many meters equal a kilometer, and that one liter of water is one kilogram, etc. Plus, with metric, you can legally drive 120 on open roads, which sounds faster than 75. But now I’m off topic, sorry

Coming from someone who hates the metric system, even I have to agree that it’s superior. Heck, if it weren’t for the old imperial system, we wouldn’t have lost a Mars probe several years back.

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Unless you live in MT…safe and prudent, but also, no longer. It’s only 80 now on Interstates. (Most coppers give you several over if you’re safe and prudent though!) :wink:

Nice to meet you Michael. Thank you for your work as an activity director. Do you play for the residents?

It was safe and prudent in TX too, but that was discontinued

Everyday Peg. It’s funny that all the old folk tunes and standards I used to play in my youth have come back to help with bringing out good memories with the residents. I rarely play a tune younger than 50 years old and most were written over 80 years ago. It is a blast having someone, who never speaks, sing along with a tune they remember from their youth.

Here is a question for you. I never realized that the name “Peg” was a nickname for Margaret until I met so many residents who use Peg as their nickname. Is your full name Margaret?

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That is a wonderful “Dad” joke. :+1:

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I am a Peggy, not Margaret.
Yes, many women named Margaret go by Peggy.
Once @ school the kids were calling me Margaret and saying that was .unreal name so when I came home I thanked my mom for not naming me that!
Its so great how music brings out the memories in people who have mostly lost theirs.

A few years ago, a student at a a school where I was teaching asked if music was an important subject to learn at school. The premise for this question was that the subject of music was being dropped at many schools across the country and whether music had any validity in society. Keep in mind when you see my response that the school where I taught spent much more time and money on athletics than it did on any other (all other?) subjects including academics like math and science. For example, math, science, or language classes received about 3.5 hours a week of class time, music or art received about 2.5 hours a week of class time while athletics received about 10+ hours a week of class time. No exceptions. So I put together a short video explaining what I thought of the importance of music in the life of a student and society.

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Good stuff Michael, and a great story you have!