Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Tim Sullivan from Middleboro, Massachusetts

What was it that first got you interested in playing the guitar, mandolin, or banjo?
I’ve enjoyed the sound and the speed of the banjo since I was a little kid. I used to watch Hee-Haw, and I was always in awe, watching and listening to Roy Clark, Buck Trent, String Bean, Grandpa Jones, and Roni Stoneman as they played the banjo. I also enjoyed watching Doug Dillard play the banjo on The Andy Griffith Show and Flatt and Scruggs on The Beverly Hillbillies.

For many years I thought about trying to learn how to play the banjo, but I was always intimidated by the short 5th string.

In 2014, my wife and I traveled to Georgia to visit her family. We were in an antiques store in Statham, near Athens, and I came across a Hohner banjo. I picked it up and started plucking it. Luckily, it was in tune. My eyes lit up, and I thought, “I can do this.” And so began my banjo adventures.

How long have you been playing and what’s your motivation to play?
I’ve been playing the banjo for a little more than 4 years now. I get really motivated when I see myself improve. A lot of times, I’ll hit a plateau and stay there for a while, but I keep working at it, and it’s fun when I finally get it down—whether it’s a lick or a song or timing or whatever.

What’s your favorite lesson on Ben’s site and how has it helped you improve?
That’s a tough one because I learn something from almost every lesson. But most of my favorite lessons revolve around theory and getting around the fret board—for example, the Fret Board Geography and Way Points lessons. Those lessons have helped me with improvising.

What’s your goal when playing?
My goal is to achieve the three T’s—to play in time, with taste, and with good tone, consistently—and maybe someday to play a tune just like Earl, with that amazing tone, syncopation, and tasteful lick-based back-up.

Are there any other instruments or genres of music that you enjoy playing?
I play some guitar and a little mandolin, but really no other genres—I like to stick to bluegrass. When I was a teenager, I started classical guitar lessons, but I really wanted to play rock-n-roll. So I quit classical and tried to teach myself rock-n-roll, but that didn’t work out. I could play a bunch of songs, but I didn’t really know what I was doing or how to improvise. But the finger style of the classical has helped me with the banjo.

If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with the extra time?
I’d like to spend more quality time with my wife, and I’d also like to concentrate more on playing music, maybe putting more time into guitar picking and mandolin chopping. And also maybe finish a lot of those unfinished projects around the house.

How long have you been a Gold Pick member?
Since June 2015, so almost 4 years

Do you have a favorite technique? What is it?
Not really. I mostly like playing three-finger Scruggs’ style, but lately I’ve also been working on Reno’s single-string and brush techniques because I like a lot of his instrumentals.

What do you do for a living?
I’m a railroader. I’ve been a conductor for 22 years now.

What would be the most amazing adventure to go on?
Going back in time and getting to see the pioneers of bluegrass in their heyday—people like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and Reno & Smiley.

In real life, I think it’d be really great to be able to travel around the country. There’s so much to see and do, but so little time.

Anything else you’d like to share?
Last but not least, I love what Earl Scruggs said when asked about what advice he would give beginning banjo players: “Don’t give up. Most folks start off trying to play too fast or too hard a song. Then they get frustrated when they can’t make it sound right or they can’t play it as fast as they think they should. Then they quit. You should start out with easy songs. Take it slow and be patient. You’ll get better in time if you keep at it.”


Hi, Tim! Congratulations on being GPotW! That’s some great advice at the end!


Congrats and good luck on your banjo studies. Love the quote from Earl Scruggs, so true. Becoming a Master is a lot of little steps, not one big leap. Happy Picking!

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Thanks y’all. I also love that quote. I’m guilty myself of trying to play stuff beyond my ability but eventually I’ll get it after coming back to it once I’ve developed the skill set. Most the time I don’t realize I’ve developed those skills until I try playing those songs/instrumentals or licks later on.


Hi Tim…Congrats on the GPMOTW. Very cool about wanting and learning to play. You’re NEVER too old to learn. Welcome to the best teacher anywhere online.

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Hi Tim, Congrats on being selected as this weeks Gold Picker of the Week.

I hear what you say buddy but I am in the camp that say’s you should be constantly trying things out beyond your skill level once you get the fundamentals down pat. So long as your not bieing too ambitious, biting off more than you can chew and trying to play fast when you can’t play slow. Working on an advanced arrangement builds skills. It may take six months or even a year of dipping in and out to get there but by the time you master it your knowledge and skills will have improved massively.

Once again well done and good luck on your journey.

Yes, definitely. I am at that point now where I am trying those difficult things. It was early on I should not have been trying some of the stuff I shouldn’t have and getting frustrated.
Thanks for the encouragement.

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HI Tim, I remember back when I started I came across an audio track on the Banjo Hangout of a guy who’s name I’ve long since forgot playing Tennessee Waltz in D. I really love that tune so I wrote to him and he told me he learned it from Lee Marcus’ TAB. It took me two years to learn it and I set myself a goal that if I managed to nail it I would buy myself a Stelling Banjo as a retirement present.

So here is the TAB if you wanna give it a go.

tennessee_waltz.tef (11.0 KB)

PS. You’ll need to buy your own Stelling :rofl::star_struck:

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Hi Tim,

Congrats on the award. Just as awesome as WINNING GPotW… is enjoying everyone’s stories… well, ALMOST…

Nah, nothing is as good as winning, right? What beats winning, right? Ask Ricky Bobby (a lame Teledega Nights reference) :joy:

Ok… Try again… A close second place to winning is to enjoy everyone’s story.

Seriously now, I really do like this feature because WE can enjoy and share so our fellow BanjoBen Forum participants are more than just a name or number on a list.

Keep on Pickin’, my fellow Northerner Banjer Friend.

Thanks Archie. Very tasteful arrangement I’ll add this to my ever growing list of songs to learn.
Haven’t had the opportunity to play a Stelling yet, would love to try one.

Thank you, it is interesting to read the stories and to see the diverse group of pickers from around the country and world.

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Congrats and thanks for sharing the Scruggs quote…
.it is encouraging for me (and many others based on some of the comments above). Thanks again for sharing!

Thanks, keep on pickin’ you’ll get through those plateaus and and keep on building skills. It is quite satisfying.

The last piece of advice seems to work in every area of life. Thanks for sharing, I didn’t know Earl said that.


Yoink! ???

Congrats Tim! Railroad conductor…what an awesome job. Both my grandfathers were Railroaders on the Erie Lackawanna railroad which became Conrail.

One was a switchman and the other tended a coal tower. Lots of railroad buffs in my home town.

Nope, not five o’clock there. It has to be five o’clock somewhere!

Great to meet you Tim. Hee Haw was a great show, too bad we don’t have stuff like that anymore.

Lot’s of clips of Hee Haw on YouTube Brandon.