A Banjo Tribute to Warren

new banjo

my new banjo is a cherry condition, 1975 Iida, made in Japan, with an aluminum body

I bought a new banjo today as a tribute to Warren Hellman, who passed away late yesterday. My family was lucky to get to know Warren around the time he formed the band The Wronglers with Ene’s sister and brother-in-law, who played fiddle and mandolin, respectively. I sat in on a few jam sessions with the gang before The Wronglers were officially formed, playing guitar (badly), and we often babysat for our nieces during practice sets in Bolinas, earning us ‘Family and Friends’ passes at the legendary Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. We are proud to have had The Wronglers perform at two of our annual gatherings at the Wowhaus compound, the Great Chicken Coup Revival (2007) and the Apple Jamboree (2008).


Warren Hellman and The Wronglers playing at our Apple Jamboree.

I credit Warren for reviving my interest in old-timey, Appalachian music, and will remember him primarily as a banjoist. To this end, he managed to convey authenticity in his playing despite his social stature. In my experience, great banjoists were old codgers, retired coal miners and farmers, sitting on porches sipping moon hooch south of the Mason Dixon Line and East of the Mississippi, a generation that died out in the 1970’s. Their playing style was a direct offshoot of hard labor, handicraft, and contact with the African born diaspora, and they tended to play solo. I think Warren resonated with the inherent eccentric attitude of the traditional banjo player, transcending any class divide. He played with the focus, humor and dedication of a seasoned pro. As a banjoist, Warren is the most ironic character I can imagine, but his playing speaks for itself and is the real deal.


I made a fretless ‘glass banjo’ in 2002.

I began playing banjo at about age 12, encouraged by my Uncle Don, who taught me how to frail a few old tunes. I never progressed beyond transposing a banjo style to electric guitar, returning to banjo periodically to maintain my core. I switched to a 100 year old, fretless banjo about 20 years ago, and built my own, radical version about 10 year later, meanwhile playing guitar as a standby. I bought my new banjo as an homage to Warren, who never seemed to think it was too late to try, and as a vote for the future. I look forward to learning a few new riffs and finally have actual frets again. I will always look up to Warren Hellman as a banjo mentor, and know we will all miss him as a rarely gifted and and inspired man.

banjo book

My new banjo came with the same  classic book by Pete Seeger I used at age 12.