Welcome to our Banjo Interviews series. Each week we will be interviewing a different Banjo performer, player, maker or enthusiast. Please contact us if you would like to be involved.
Please introduce yourself
Duncan Fremlin. I live in Toronto, Canada. At 72, I’m still pretty passionate about the 5-string banjo and have been since I met a banjo player when I was 27. I play every day. I write songs and produce shows and recordings. All banjo players seem to have a story about getting gobsmacked by the sound of the banjo. I play banjo professionally but think of myself as a singer who plays the banjo rather than the other way around. I’m also an author and student of life who wants to be booking a great paying gig the day before I die.
How long have you been playing Banjo?
I picked up the banjo for the first time in 1977 when I was 27. Before then, I was an amateur folk guitar player when I came across a tablature book of Mississippi John Hurt style finger picking songs. Tablature made a lot of sense to me so I started to learn Deep River Blues (I think it was). A year or two later, I picked up the banjo. I don’t read a note of music but I did sing in church choirs and sang solo in music festivals when I was a boy. There was music around the house but my mom only could afford lessons for my sisters. So I had to develop an ear for melody and harmony. A big advantage I think.
What/Who first got you interested in playing?
I attended the Carlisle Bluegrass Festival near Toronto in 1976 and luckily, camped right next to a very good banjo player from Richmond Hill Ontario, Gord Braithwaite. I had my Gibson Dove guitar with me and he allowed me to strum along during his picking sessions. I was a folk strummer so I wasn’t a very good bluegrass accompanist. All that weekend, I stared at his right hand and was mesmerized. I knew on the drive home that I could do that so I rented a cheap banjo the next day and within 12 months I was teaching banjo at the local music store and within 2 years I had quit my job and was touring Canada with my band, Whiskey Jack. I spent a lot of alone time in my cubby hole learning how to do this.
How did you learn? Did you have any formal lessons?
After I had been plucking on my own for a few weeks, I took 4 formal lessons. They weren’t necessary as it turns out. I knew how to read and write tablature but trying to make the notes sound like something was a challenge. That was the beginning of my ear training. After a week or so, I could play the notes to Old Joe Clark, but it took me a few weeks before I heard the melody. Once I got that, I was off and running. Then, I got my hands on an issue of Banjo Newsletter and Hub Nitchie’s “Exploring the Fingerboard” column spoke to me. I bought all the back issues and without a doubt, I learned how to play the banjo from that publication. I had a band early on and was busy with work and a family so I rarely jammed with anyone. BNL kept me company. It was all tablature and working out solos by ear. My band began to busk and look for gigs immediately. When I think back on it, we were a brazen bunch of wankers. I guess we didn’t mind being really bad so we kept on going. Once we turned pro and began to play 6 nights a week, we got really good really fast.
Tell us about the Banjos you own, including your very first.
Today, my main banjo is a 1981 Goldstar with a Huber tone ring. I know that banjo. My first good banjo was a 1957 RB-250 Bowtie which I played for many years. But the darn thing didn’t tune easily. I also owned a Stelling Golden Cross for a couple of years. Too heavy. Presently, my back-up banjo is a Deering Golden Era which is terrific. Around 25 years ago, I bought a Deering Goodtime with no resonator and I’ve travelled the world with that instrument. As I age and my tastes change, I’m loving this instrument more and more. I was also fortunate to meet Edward Dick, a Canadian luthier living in Denver who invented his exquisite 5-string banjola – essentially a wooden banjo. I own 2, one a steel string and one a nylon string. I record and tour with the nylon string. It amplifies beautifully and compliments the sound of the voice very well – with or without picks. I think Gold Tone builds an instrument they call the banjola but it doesn’t compare to Edward’s. Not even close.
There’s another Canadian luthier, Bruce Dowd who used to make the Ruby banjo. By luck, I bought one that he made in the early 1970’s with a wooden tone ring. I’m not a fan of the harsh “pick back by the bridge” style so this gentle and pleasing tone suits me perfectly. And, it’s light.
I’ve used various pickups over the years. The Jones Acoustic Plus worked well in it’s day. My local music store suggested Kavanjo Pickups. I had one installed a few days before I was scheduled to play with the Barenaked Ladies in Las Vegas. If you google “fremlin barenaked ladies“, that video of Fox on the Run should appear. That’s the very first performance with this pick up. For the banjo, there’s no better pick up being sold to the public.
Who are your favorite players and influences?(Current and all-time)
Being a student of the 1970’s, Butch Robbins probably provided me with more “go to” licks than anyone. John Hickman also excites me. Bill Knopf isn’t as famous as the others but I learned much from him and his books. For years, I looked forward to Hub Nitchie’s tabs in BNL but I never did hear him play. All of these players had patterns and phrases that I could hear and relate to so I returned to them often. Now, when I sit down to work out a solo, I probably use many of the finger patterns that they used. Lots of forward rolls. Today, Kruger invents very pleasing melodies, some of which I can actually play. I don’t consider myself to be an instrumentalist so I love finding players who I can copy easily. My bands have all been vocal bands with few instrumentals. Harold Streeter’s phrasings and picking patterns don’t make sense to me but Peter Wernick’s do. Tony Trishka and Pete Wernick are also players who make me reach higher and I’ve spent time with both of them over the years. Bill Evans style is also pleasing. The one I’d like to sound like is Craig Smith but that ain’t ever going to happen.
I understand you play in a few musical projects, tell us all about them, including notable shows and your previous and upcoming recordings/releases.
My band Whiskey Jack has been on tour in Canada for 45 years. I’m happy to report we’re still going strong, post Covid, and have shows booked into 2023 across Central and Eastern Canada. My partner in the band, Douglas John Cameron is an award winning guitarist/singer/songwriter and he tours with me in the band and in our duo, Doogie and Dun (Now known as Whiskey Jack)
My band has released 9 albums/CD’s and in the 1980’s was a featured performer on Canada’s biggest country TV show, The Tommy Hunter Show. We also had coverage on The Nashville Network with appearances south of the border – Ralph Emery (Nashville Now) and David Holt (Fire on the Mountain) shows. We also toured and recorded with Canada’s most famous and popular troubadour, Stompin’ Tom Connors. He’s very famous in Canada but too much a nationalist to travel outside the country. I’ve been told he’s Canada’s “Slim Dusty”.
What is the best way for people to check out your work? (youtube/facebook/direct website?)
Or simply google my name. My name doesn’t have much competition on the world wide web.
Tell us about your other work in the Canadian Banjo community, I understand that you have been interview your fellow players?
I have 1500 Youtube subscribers (Covid projects added many). One video in particular is almost at 1 million views. It features my fiddler (Canadian national fiddle champion) Randy Morrison. In the video, he’s backed up by my ace band as he plays a medley of the three most popular fiddle songs in Canada. I’ve posted many of our entertaining TV appearances as well as some newer footage with my present band.
My newest video project involves meeting with and talking banjo with Canada’s premier banjo players. Canadian National Banjo Champion, Denis Lepage was my first guest. He was featured on the cover of BNL years ago. www.youtube.com/banjodunc I’m presently editing an interview with Larry Good, banjo player with Canada’s most successful and famous bluegrass/roots/country band, The Good Brothers.
My new touring show is taking shape – Legends of Canadian Country Music. Given my years in the industry, meeting and performing with these country stars from years past, it’s a comfortable role to organize and MC a show like this.
Any tips for up and coming players?
I’ve been a student of the banjo for all of my career. My larger-than-life banjo playing insecurity complex keeps me on my toes. I don’t have stage fright when I’m singing or MC’ing but when featured on the banjo, I’m very uncomfortable. If I hadn’t been so busy touring and raising a family, I would have tried to hang out and pick with more banjo players. That would have helped a lot. As it is, I rehearse every day with Band In A Box. On stage, I cover up my inadequacies by surrounding myself with virtuosos. I stand on stage each night with some of the best musicians in Canada. They make me sound better than I really am. However, I haven’t given up and every day I work to improve. So, I spend as much time learning as I do playing. To that end, I’ve attended banjo camps by Pete Wernick and Jens Kruger and have learned much from those weekends. I still learn new songs, some instrumentals, but mostly vocal songs with banjo accompaniment. I’m not usually asked to offer advice but as someone who began when he was 27, I suspect my challenges were different than many. The index finger on my picking hand flails away (no economy of movement) and my speed and clarity suffer. I love Noam Pikilney’s right hand. If I were to do it over again, I would have spent much more time working on “relaxing” and “playing lighter”. The Feldenkrais Method helps. Today, I rarely play scruggs style. I’m all about melody now, more often than not from the great American songbook. Many of those old songs work perfectly with the 5-string, particularly on my banjola.
I’d also spend 15 minutes each day playing very slowly and as lightly as possible. Kruger gave me that tip and the improvement in my playing was immediate.
One more thing. Sing! I wouldn’t be playing banjo today if I didn’t sing. I practice singing every day and sometimes take lessons. I should have started doing that a long time ago.
Anything else you would like to share?
If there is one regret it would be my lack of musical education. If I had devoted even 15 minutes a day to learning some basics, chord structure for example, I’d be a much better musician today. I saw a Bill Keith Circle of 5ths seminar at a festival one time and it was inspiring. I didn’t follow up in any way. I was stupid and lazy.