Those of us who study the history of string music in the United States are well aware of efforts to fashion the various instruments of the viol family into fretted counterparts. In the late 19th century, newly popular instruments like the banjo and mandolin seemed that they would be easier to play and, in what may have been more a triumph of marketing than artistry, banjo and mandolin bands began popping up across the country, enduring well into the 1900s.
Some of the instruments of that era, like the mandocello, have found a home in contemporary acoustic music, while others, like the banjo bass, fell into a well-deserved obscurity.
But that didn’t deter Troy Johnson, who together with Matt Manning work in and around Nebraska as Banjo Loco. This slightly odd, banjo-fusion duo performs primarily rock and pop covers, along with some original numbers, on a a pair of electrified banjos. Matt plays the five string, with Troy on a custom banjo bass.
Here’s a look at their schtick covering a Beatles classic:
We had a chance to chat with Johnson, who in addition to a successful musical career working with rock and jazz artists, enjoys his loco diversion with Manning.
“We both come from rural Nebraska rock roots, but were also raised on, and share a love of old school country and bluegrass. Matt from his carnival family upbringing, and I still have fond memories of spending summers as a youth on my aunt and uncle’s farm where every sunday night we all gathered round the tv to watch Hee-Haw… (and let’s face it Grandpa Jones and Stringbean rock!!).”
Troy, or t.roy as he bills himself in Banjo Loco, has spent more than 30 years working as a professional bassist, including work on dozens of national tours. He has appeared in the pages of Guitar Player, Bass Player, Metal Edge and other music magazines, and has his own instrumental trio, JRZ System, based in Omaha.
He shared a few words about how he stumbled onto a banjo bass and into Banjo Loco.
“I had my original banjo bass built in the early ’90s by a crafty old luthier, Dale London (R.I.P.) in Lincoln out of an Applause acoustic bass neck and a Ludwig snare drum after reading about Primus’ bassist, Les Claypool’s bassjo in Bass Player magazine. I immediately realized the potential of transferring my percussive slap style and two-handed tapping, playing it whenever possible and recording it occasionally, but always had the idea for a ‘banjo loco’ in my head. Then a couple years ago, while teaching at the local music store (Russo’s Music), I heard a banjo down the hall. It was Matt Manning, the new banjo/mandolin/ukelele and guitar instructor.
Banjo Loco has performed primarily in Eastern Nebraska/Western Iowa, although we did do a small tour to Nashville last summer on our way to meet with Gold Tone at the NAMM show.”
When I asked him to describe what they do, the best he could come up with was…
“Funky nu-grass? Twisted black and bluegrass? Oh nooo… it’s Banjo Loco!!! 100% banjo… 100% loco…”
I think that covers it.
Banjo Loco is working now on a debut CD, which is expected to hit sometime this summer.
You can find more Banjo Loco videos on YouTube.