Steve Wilson is a very talented fellow who wears many different hats in the world of bluegrass music. Perhaps it is his complete immersion in every aspect of banjo playing that makes his playing so driving, precise and tasty. Steve is not only a great banjo player; he is an excellent luthier, a bluegrass band leader and a highly respected recording engineer. All of these skills seem to have strongly impacted his banjo playing style. He studied with many great banjo players when working for the Gibson Custom Shop in Nashville years ago, where he played with local bands and appeared on studio recordings. Steve’s work with Gibson gave him the experience that enabled him to create his own line of Wilson Custom Banjos, integrating his keen ear for quality tone and woodworking with his high-quality banjo designs (endorsed by super players like Dale Perry, Gina Britt and Tony Wray). He formed the Wilson Banjo Co. band soon after moving to South Carolina, and the recording he made and engineered with them was picked up by Pinecastle Records’ sister label Bonfire Records, which led to him becoming lead engineer and producer for that label. Steve has recorded many well-known bluegrass artists for the label, including Dale Ann Bradley, with whom he has also toured as her banjo player. I believe Steve’s various musical life experiences have strongly contributed to the tone, taste and timing (aka the “Three T’s”) that are major components of his playing style, and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation for this interview.
Greg Cahill: So, Steve, you’ve got such an interesting background. And I know you have a new recording out, but you wear a couple of hats, as luthier and as musician. I’m so impressed with all the stuff you’ve done, the bands you’ve played with and recordings you’ve been on. And then, of course, the Wilson Banjo Company, both the band and the company. So how did you get into all this?
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Steve Wilson: Well, I’ve always had a love for music. When I was little, my dad was in a band, he was into country music and he taught me to play guitar. When I was little, I really didn’t get into banjo. I picked it up but didn’t stick with it.
We moved around a lot when I was young and so I really didn’t get back into playing music again until I was probably about twenty six.
BNL: Oh wow.
SW: Yeah, I’d just gotten out of the service and had kids and was kind of settling down. So I decided I’d pick up banjo again. So I started learning, taking lessons. And then I was hooked, and it was like, Boy, why didn’t I keep this up when I was a kid?
BNL: Where did you grow up?
SW: I was born in Virginia. My family’s from New York State. I grew up out in Casper, Wyoming, and then went back to New York, when I was in ninth grade. I finished high school and then joined the service. Then I went all over the States.
BNL: That’s really interesting, because that’s a similar story to mine. So go ahead.
SW: So, yeah, I got a banjo and started learning, moved back to New York and stayed there for a few years. I was in the Carpenter’s Union and things weren’t going real well. So I looked around in Nashville and found out there was all kinds of music down there. I mean, there was no music in New York. Really. I had no way of playing with people.
And there was carpentry work around Nashville. So I transferred my Carpenter’s card down there. They’d told me they had work, but when I got there, they didn’t. I was on a waiting list. So I went to work building decks, and then a job opened up at Gibson—part of the custom art division; I was intrigued. Because I’d been a pattern-maker in the Navy, which is a kind of fine woodworking.
So I told them, I never built a guitar, but here’s my background. I’d love to learn. So they put me in the Pro Shop and the custom art division, next to a guy named Bruce Kunkle. And Bruce is just an outstanding artist and builder, and he started teaching me how to do inlays and carvings and how to build these RPE guitars, which were Gibson’s best guitars.
BNL: That’s way cool.
SW: And while this is going on, there were jam sessions all over Nashville. Every schoolhouse and everywhere you went. So I started going to some. And you know how it is when you’re starting out. You get to the jam and everybody kind of turns around and says, Oh, what’s that noise? You know?
SW: So I said, something’s wrong here. And I realized I didn’t really know how to play. So I took three or four lessons with Dave Talbot, and he really showed me. He’d say, okay, it’s not what you’re playing, it’s how you’re playing it. How I needed to practice technique. And then go and out learn, he’d say, all the songs. He helped me out with all that—my right hand. And I actually started making music with the banjo instead of noise.
So I dug into all that, and eventually people started letting me play with them. And I met up with a guitar player and mandolin player. We started playing together every week. And there was a place called Cherry Tree Orchard. I’d go there every Saturday night, and the owner, he kind of put me in his house band. So I was playing with them. And then, sometimes there’d be another band coming up, and they’d say, Hey, we need a banjo player! Come on. So here I am, pretty green. And I was on stage every Saturday night, playing with bands I’ve never played with, songs I didn’t even know. It was sink or swim. So, strange and a little nerve wracking.
BNL: But, boy, how great. On the job training. Wow, wow.
SW: Yeah. So that was both how I got into both building, and playing. So I stayed in Nashville for about four years, and then my dad got sick, and there was less work around Nashville. So I decided to go back to New York. And stayed for probably 12 years.
And I got into a band up there called PlexiGrass. But up there, you usually only get to play festivals during the summer, and that’s pretty much it for the year.
But I spent the next twelve years playing as much as I could, but not full time. I got back into carpentry, kept building guitars.
BNL: And banjos?
SW: Very little. There was guys playing in local rock bands, they had Les Pauls that I’d do repair work on, and I actually built a couple of electric guitars. I just wanted to keep my hand in, you know? And my son got into a recording program in high school called BOCES—like a job training program. For audio engineering, and I was interested, obviously, so when he told me what he was doing, I said, What are you using? He said, Pro Tools, so I went out and got us Pro Tools and a computer and some microphones.
BNL: Well, there you go.
SW: Yeah, that’s how I started getting into the recording side of things. And I started to record with friends, local people. And that got me going.
And while I was up there, I thought, I’ve built guitars before, I might as well build a banjo. And I had a Scruggs model at the time, so I built one modeled on THAT. I got parts from different places, including a Kulesh Big Ten tonering. And I started playing that one out, and a guy saw me. We were at a festival, and the fellow asked me afterwards, What kind of banjo is that? I said, “It’s one I just built.” And he said, Will you sell it?
BNL: So, there you go. The first one you built. Wow.
SW: Yeah. So at that point I got a Gibson 30’s model TB-11. It hadn’t been cut yet, so no tone ring, just the brass hoop. And I fell in love with that banjo. It was so light, and it sounded good. So I built a banjo modeled after that. And as a matter of fact, that banjo is the one Dale [Perry] plays now.
BNL: Oh no kidding. Well that’s a great sounding banjo. I’ve heard Dale play it. He loves that banjo! So what did you call that banjo?
SW: The Guardian, no tone ring.
BNL: And what does Gina Britt play?
SW: Gina plays my Warrior model, with a tone ring.
BNL: And what year was it when you sold your first banjo?
SW: Probably around 2011.
BNL: Okay, wow. And so you’ve got this banjo company.
SW: But I don’t build a lot of banjos. I don’t have a bunch of banjos sitting around, and I don’t really advertise. If somebody wants me to build them a banjo, then I build one. It’s just a passion of mine, really. And I do my inlay work by hand, with jeweler’s saw. I don’t have any fancy machines. Matter of fact, the little bench in my bedroom is where I built them.
BNL: Wow. So let’s go back to banjo playing. Who are you listening to? Who were your influences back in the day?
SW: When I first got into it, I was listening to Blue Highway, IIIrd Time Out, Lonesome River Band. And Blue Ridge. I was around people listening to them—our set lists were made up of their songs. So that’s what I was trying to learn. And especially Sammy Shelor—I really listened to him a lot, he was probably my biggest influence. I really wanted to play like him.
BNL: Well, Sammy is a pretty good model, for sure.
SW: Oh yeah. And my band, Plexigrass, we played a lot of older LRB, back when Ronnie Bowman and Tim Austin were in it. So that’s what I concentrated on
BNL: Well, you play great, man. And that’s the stuff, with the drive and little twists. So now your band is the Wilson Banjo Company.
SW: Well, yeah. I did an EP when I built the Guardian, to showcase that banjo. The EP is called “The Guardian,” and has five songs, all in different keys. This was after I’d moved down to South Carolina, about seven years ago. And I got a bunch of guys from around here, did that EP, and then it started getting radio airplay, and people started asking, where’s the band playing? And I would say, it’s not really a band, just a promotional CD. But that’s when I thought, Well, maybe I should put a band together. So I grabbed some people here locally, and we went through quite a few members, until we finally landed on the members that cut to the actual band’s album, Wilson Banjo Company, “Spirits in the Hills.”
BNL: And when was that?
SW: Three years ago.
BNL: I know that you also have played for Dale Ann Bradley and Deeper Shade of Blue, right?
SW: Yeah, I play for Deeper Shade of Blue now full time. The way that playing with Dale Ann came about, I also am an audio engineer for Bonfire Recording Studio, which is owned by Pinecastle. And I was recording Dale Ann’s album, “The Hardway,” and we just hit it off really well. And got to the point where we were farming out a few tracks that people cut banjo on. And she said, “Send this track over to Gena, and this one to Scott Vestal, and this one to Alison Brown.” And she said, “Why don’t you play banjo on this one?” She ended up giving me three songs to put banjo on. And I went, Wow, Dale Ann!
BNL: That’s fabulous, and pretty good company you keep—Scott Vestal, Alison Brown and Gena.
SW: Yeah, I was scared to death. But I said, Okay, no problem. So I locked myself in the studio after she left, and started playing banjo to those songs. I’d play a track and listen to it back. And I’d think, Just what is wrong here? You’re just playing banjo; you’re not doing anything. And I’d play to another track, and listen. And this normally works, you know, this is how I usually do it. But it wasn’t working. It didn’t sound good. And then I started listening real close to the vocals, and to my banjo against the vocals. And I started to realize that there were certain notes—even notes IN the chords—that I shouldn’t be hitting because they were competing, with the vocals. So I started to figure it all out—okay, pick your finger up off that chord. don’t let that string ring. Do this, this, and this. And then things started making more sense. So I kept playing, kept playing. And I just really learned her vocal very well and found ways to truly support her instrument and back her up. And basically, leaving out the notes she was singing and finding the complimentary notes to support her. And I recorded those tracks and sent them to her, and she said she really liked them, and would I like to play with them that coming year.
BNL: That’s great. Good for you.
SW: But now I’m even more scared to death.
BNL: Well, that’s interesting, because how many times have we heard from players talk about Scruggs, and about leaving particular notes out, and that’s kind of what you’re talking about, right?
SW: Yeah, I mean, I never thought about it that way before.
BNL: And you figured that out on your own. That’s great.
SW: Well, until then, the only thing I’d ever recorded was just straightforward, you know, grass. You know, where you can just roll, and constantly push things. But when I started digging into her kind of music, it’s a lot more intricate—there’s all these vocal things going on, and more happening. And I’m finding out that you can’t always just steadily roll. You have to get into the flow of the music. And I heard it coming back at me, in the studio.
BNL: Well, that flow, it’s such a big thing, isn’t it? I mean, it really can make or break the sound of what you’re trying to do. And the banjo stands out so much. Some people say it’s loud, I don’t know.[laughter] . But that’s really cool. So how did you get in with the Deeper Shade of Blue folks?
SW: I met up with Troy Pope at Christmas in the Smokeys a couple of years ago. And at the time, Jimmy was starting to get a little ill and was having to miss a few shows. So Troy asked if I would fill in on a couple of things. I said, Yeah, any time, give me a call. And so I went and played a few shows with him, and Jimmy finally got to the point where he decided he’d better retire. And so they’d asked me if I’d want a job full time. I said absolutely, because I just fit with those guys so well. I have a ball with them on stage, and traveling. And that’s my dream spot now.
BNL: Let’s talk about when you’re learning a song or putting a break together, what’s your approach? Are you tracking down a melody, are you working through chords or are you looking at phrases? I mean I know these are all things we think about.
BNL: Well, let’s say somebody gave me a song I needed to put banjo on, first thing I do is listen to it a few times, get the overall feel. What kind of rhythm is it? A shuffle, or straight forward driving rhythm, or whatever. That will determine what direction I’m going to go in.
If I’m going to have a lead break, I’ll usually work on it over a verse. I’ll actually put the verse on the screen and play over the vocals over and over and over—until I start to play as much like what the vocals are like as I can, you know. I mean, obviously there are places where you can veer away from the melody and throw in some of your licks or whatever.
SW: I just want to flow like the singer flowing with that verse or chorus, I’ll play right over that vocal so I can see how it works. Then once I’ve got that in place and I know what I’m going to play, then I’ve got to get away from that, and move to the other spectrum when I’m playing backup.
BNL: That’s a great idea, because that gives you the phrasing, and that flow we were talking about.
SW: Oh yeah. And I never realized how important timing is until I started getting into the recording side of things. You can be playing the right stuff, but if your timing’s off, it just doesn’t sound right.
BNL: What is a typical practice session?
SW: Well, I’ve got iTunes on my computer, and also ProTool band practice session, with all the Deeper Shades of Blues sets on it. And what I usually do is, I record a drum beat, you know, of kick drum. And I’ve got it set up in three minute increments. It starts at 90 beats a minute and then goes to ninety five, 100 and up and up until each one is done. So I just play like that until I just get wore out. And I just play anything—anything that comes to mind. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a song in mind or nothing like that. Just rolls, licks, a song if it comes up, fine, play it.
BNL: Just basically practicing with a metronome—and getting your timing and your tone.
SW: Yeah. And once I go through those band songs, then I’ll start searching through other songs I’ve got on iTunes I like to play along with. And then I’ll jump into Deeper Shade of Blue songs. Just kind of skip around. Yeah, timing and tone! I wish I could master it!
BNL: That’s what the rest of us have to work on, no kidding, all the time! So let’s talk about picks and strings.
SW: I’ve got a custom GHS set, 10, 12, 14, 20, 10. I don’t use anything else. I’ve tried all kinds and those I don’t have to tune so often. I get almost a month before changing. I especially like the tone about a day or two after I’ve put them on, they settle in.
As for picks, I use a Blue Chip thumb pick, and the ProPik brass finger picks. I tried to use other picks and I’ve just used these for so long, everything else feels like putting on somebody else’s shoes.
BNL: Oh yeah. It does. And those Pro Picks, the brass ones, I’ve seen those.
SW: They’re not real bright sounding—and I’m not a fan of real bright anyway. I just got used to their tone, you know, not quite as crisp.
BNL: Yeah, but you get that fat tone. Sounds great. Well, let’s circle back. So what is the banjo you’re playing now?
BNL: The banjo I’m playing now is actually a parts and pieces banjo that I built. The tonering, resonator and rim I believe came out of an old Gibson RB 250. Some of the parts I couldn’t tell you where they came from. And then the neck I built. So it’s kind of a banjo out of necessity, because every time I build a banjo, somebody buys it.
BNL: That’s a good problem to have, Steve, as they say.
SW: Yeah. And the prototype for the Warrior, Tony Ray has.
BNL: Well, you got some mighty fine pickers playing your banjos, that’s for sure. Well, what about your new recording?
SW: Yeah, it’s a full album. It’s going to be called “Six Degrees of Separation,” with 12 songs, and it’s still under Wilson Banjo Company name. But it’s not the band. We call it the company. And the reason for the title, I gathered people I have connections with, either in the studio, from stage or that I built banjos for. People I’ve gone and toured with. And also three banjo players playing banjos I built for them—Dale, Gena, and Tony Wray.
Just my way to put everything together that I’ve been doing. And we’ve got songs my wife and I wrote. So, just our many connections to the business of bluegrass. Pinecastle is releasing it.
BNL: That’s fabulous. Oh, man.
SW: The album’s being mastered now. The first two singles have already been released. The current single, Midnight On The Highway, is a grassy driver that is actually a cover of a great Hot Rize tune from the ‘70’s. It includes our lead singer Sarah Logan, Alan Bibey on mandolin, Andrew Crawford, Scott Burgess and Troy Pope.
BNL: Do you have any advice, thoughts about trying to pick up the banjo, especially like you did, in your 20s? A lot of young folks pick it up now when they’re kids.
SW: I know. I mean, some of these young players are killing it! Well, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that, I always wanted to be at a certain level, and every time you get to that next level, you then want the next level, and there’s always one above that and above that. It never ends. But if you get yourself too bound up on getting to the very top that you can get to, you’re not going to enjoy, you know, the process. And I’ve always looked at other banjo players, and said, I wish I could do that. But then I find myself missing out on what I’m doing right now, you know? Enjoying the place I’m at at that moment.
Now I find that I can learn faster, and easier, and enjoy it more, if I just take each level as they come. Enjoy it, move on, and keep trying for the next one. And you always hit plateaus, you know? You only learn so much. And sometimes it feels like you’re not learning anything. But then all of a sudden either a song hits you or you get in a new band or you buy a new banjo, anything that gives you the kick start you need, and you can start learning again. And also enjoying it again, because it can be fun. So, the advice is, don’t get too lost.
BNL: You know, that’s some good advice, Steve. No kidding. Just enjoy where you are. I’ve had several people that I would look up to, and speak to about these things. How do I do this or how do you get there? And you just nailed it.
And it’s like what you say: just play what you play really well, play it the best you can. And sometimes we get distracted from that because we’re always thinking of that next level. I should be better than I am, you know? And then it’s almost not fun anymore. Right? Because then you’re beating yourself up instead of enjoying what you’re doing.
And it’s so mental, a lot of this. If you play and you just feel like, okay, this is it, this is what I’m feeling now and this is the best I can do, and I’m enjoying it. Man, that comes across as well as playing 50 more notes than what you played, you know, in the song or whatever.
SW: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I spent so much time beating myself up and I get off stage and say, “Oh, man, I could have done so much better.”And you’re right. I mean, we’re banjo players . We’re mental!
BNL: That’s true. There must be some kind of gene or predisposition here, for anybody who wants to seriously play the banjo. Just one other thing. Did you learn using tablature, or by ear?
SW: I started with tab. I had the Scruggs book, and went through that quite often. But it was just kind of hard, because tablature tells you what notes to hit. But it doesn’t sound right until the phrasing and the timing is right. So I sounded a lot better as I progressed. And I realized it was better for me to not worry about picking the exact same notes somebody else has picked, but try to say the same thing they’re saying. Does that make sense?
BNL: It makes perfect sense, and it’s a great way to put it. I think that’s the key, that feel.
SW: And at least that way, you can kind of structure what you’re hearing more to your taste—because everybody plays different, everybody’s got a different style. And if you try to play too many different people styles, you’re going to get yourself really ... in a mess.
BNL: You get all balled up, right?
SW: And another thing I’ve found to be true to is that if you learn a break or a lick or something, if you learn it exactly note for note out of the tablature, when you get on stage, you’re going to mess it up! [laughter]
BNL: There you go. If you would just PLAY it, and not worry that you didn’t play it exactly the way you learned it, whether it was from tablature or by ear or whatever. Right?
SW: Oh yeah.
BNL: Well, thank God we love playing the banjo, you know, it’s just such a wonderful thing. Well, how do people find you and Wilson Banjo Company?
SW: Wilson.com, and on Facebook.
BNL: Thanks Steve, this has been fun.