Bill Knopf is a prolific banjo virtuoso, former UCLA drum major, and music instructor from the LA area who has been playing since before most readers were born. He was active in the early ’60s playing in his own bands before doing stints with Donna Douglas (Elly May Clampett of TV’s Beverly Hillbillies) and Doc Severinsen’s touring band, plus appearing on TV soundtracks for the Dukes of Hazzard and Hee Haw. He played the 1984 LA Olympics and Ronald Reagan’s inaugural ball in Washington, DC and has published twenty banjo books. His YouTube channel features his virtuosity in bluegrass, swing, ragtime, classical, and others. He’s the traditional bluegrass pillar in Phil Salazar and the Kinfolk who have a new album, All That! For This?. It was great hearing his unique California bluegrass story.
Hi Bill. There seems to be some confusion as to your background. Are you from Texas or California?
I’m a California boy. Two years in Shafter, three in Bakersfield, and ten in Fresno, where I graduated from Fresno High in 1966. Then it was off to Los Angeles and UCLA in the fall. I’ve lived here ever since. The first night I played with Doc Severinsen was in November of 1980 at the Las Vegas Hilton. We played two shows per night for two weeks. During the first show, Doc introduced me as being from Fresno—no appreciable audience reaction. In the second show, he changed it to Amarillo, Texas—the crowd went wild! So, for the entire five years I worked with Doc I was from Amarillo. Also, while we were playing the Hilton in 1980, the MGM Grand Hotel had that horrible fire. It was around 7:00 a.m., and I slept through it.
I assume it was Earl Scruggs that piqued your interest in the banjo.
I’d heard Earl on TV’s Beverly Hillbillies, but my interest in the banjo came from a different direction. One of my cousins played guitar, so my parents gave me one for Christmas 1963. We belonged to the Fresno Yacht Club based on Millerton Lake (the San Joaquin River behind Friant Dam). Two of the members, Claire Williams and Marvin Frost, were into the local folk music scene. There were jam sessions at people’s houses, and at yacht club outings. Clair and Marvin led us all in singalongs.
After a year of playing guitar, Marvin told my parents I was getting better than them. He suggested I take up the banjo. In December 1964 he took us to a coffee house concert where a bluegrass/old-timey band was playing. Peter Everwine, an English literature professor at Fresno State College, was playing the banjo using the three-finger Scruggs style. I said, “Sure. I’ll try that.” At first I borrowed a banjo, and armed with the Pete Seeger banjo book, I began. I started on chapter one, and when I got to the chapter on Scruggs style, that was as far as I got. That was the sound I liked.
At the local jams, there were old-time fiddle players. Peter Everwine pointed out that there were banjo players playing note-for-note fiddle tunes using a different technique. I started experimenting with scales and melodies. It just seemed logical at the time to use an alternating string style, which is Scruggs style. I made up tunes and arrangements of fiddle tunes like Soldier’s Joy, Flop Eared Mule, and Arkansas Traveler.
After a few months of banjo playing, I was totally hooked. For my birthday in June 1965, my parents bought me my first banjo. Marvin Frost helped them pick it out. It was an old Vega Tubaphone tenor that a local luthier converted to a five-string. It had a flange and “pie slice” resonator.
It seems that all Southern California pickers worked at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. Where else do pickers find work? There must be work in the film/TV industry, no?
Hehe, no, not all S. Cal bluegrass musicians work at the theme parks. Disneyland is a union shop, so if you’re not in the union, no way Jose. To get into Knott’s Berry Farm, where Tom Corbett and I work as a duo, we had to be referred by musicians already working there who could vouch for us. I’ve worked there many times since the 1970s, so the entertainment director knew me.
Recording for TV, films, and commercials also requires union membership. I started recording for these genres in the ’70s. Most of the time, like for the Dukes of Hazzard, I was referred by a guitar player who knew or knew of me by asking around. I knew Larry McNeely, the Dukes’ first banjo picker, but when he moved back to Nashville, it was a studio guitar player I knew who was playing on the show that recommended me.
Too often the guitarist on a session would come over and pick my brain about banjo playing. I recorded a lot in the ’70s and ’80s, but then the studio work slowed way down. The technical level of banjo playing for most of these recordings is rudimentary Scruggs style. I’m pretty sure I “taught” myself out of a lot of work. These guitar players started doubling on banjo, where you’re paid half again as much, but not as much a second musician.
Is the Southern California bluegrass scene more like Nashville than Northern California?
I don’t keep up with the trends, but the Southern California bluegrass scene is very diverse. We have our bluegrass purists who won’t tolerate anything outside the realm of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, J.D. Crowe, and others, but for the most part, our local bands stretch the bluegrass boundaries and incorporate music from many genres while using the acoustic bluegrass instruments.
Your YouTube channel displays a huge range of that diversity. How many instruments do you play and how did you come to play so many different styles?
I played clarinet from elementary school through college. I started banjo and guitar in high school. From a young age, my musical influences came from movies and TV. Disney’s film, Fantasia, is an example of a major classical music exposure, not to mention my being a music major at UCLA. I have a B.A. in music composition and theory. In high school, I was the drum major of the marching band, and it was then that I started my love for marches by John Philip Sousa and others. By the way, I owe my success as a banjo player to marches. I learned that the UCLA drum major was graduating, so I applied to UCLA so I could be in the marching band and try out for drum major. I was accepted to UCLA, became the drum major as a freshman, AND met Doug Dillard. Good karma.
Jam sessions in the Los Angeles area could be very diverse, including some who played ragtime on piano and guitar. Someone loaned me a Scott Joplin album, which got me started in that direction. It was at one of these jam sessions that I first heard Kathy Craig play piano. A few years later we started recording together. That led to my Scott Joplin banjo CD, and many performances with her.
Pat Cloud, an amazing jazz five-string banjo player, became a good friend. He got me studying swing and bebop. As a banjo teacher, I would often get a request for a tune outside of bluegrass and country music. Why not?! As I recall, two of the first pop tunes I arranged for banjo were the Grateful Dead’s Friend of the Devil and the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. My first book, Hot Licks and Fiddle Tunes, was published by Chappell Music. Their vice president, Charles Ryckman, left Chappell to form his own company. I wrote a series of chord books for guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, and five-string/plectrum banjo, plus a book of Beatle tunes. Some of these tunes I’m still playing today. If I like a tune, I’ll work it up on either banjo or guitar.
Do you still have your first instrument?
In the late 1970s I started teaching at the Blue Ridge Pickin’ Parlor. Frank Javorsek, the mandolin player in our band, Hot Off the Press, was the owner. I sold the Tubaphone to him. He had a new Vega style neck made and converted it to an open back for frailing and clawhammer.
What other banjo players do you listen to?
In the fall of 1966 I was a freshman at UCLA. Andy Belling, an upperclassman music student living in my dorm, was good friends with the Dillards. He gave me a copy of their album, Live Almost, and a few weeks later took me to meet Doug Dillard. I played what little I knew for him, and he corrected my right-hand position. I wasn’t anchoring a finger on the head. Doug suggested listening to Earl Scruggs and showed me the drop thumb used in some of Earl’s roll patterns. I’ve since applied this drop thumb technique to every aspect of my playing where applicable. For several years my best friend, guitarist Howard Yearwood, Andy, and I would go to as many Dillard performances as we could. We even went to a few of their rehearsals.
At the record stores, I found the Dillards’ Back Porch Bluegrass, Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Banjo, Flatt & Scruggs with Doc Watson’s Strictly Instrumental, and Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman’s New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass. It was the New Dimensions album that increased my interest in what we now call the melodic style.
Right out of college, Howard and I started playing gigs in restaurant lounges. At the time we were more interested in guitar and songwriting. We would end each set with a banjo tune or two, and one night a young lady came up and introduced herself. She told us her banjo teacher was playing in a bluegrass band across town. The next week we went to hear them. It was Corn Bred with John Hickman on banjo, and WHAM BAM we got the bluegrass bug again. It was then that I started buying as many banjo and bluegrass albums as I could find and studying the banjo players—dozens of them. Thank God for County Record Sales. Local Los Angeles area record stores didn’t have much of a bluegrass selection.
In the early 1970s Howard was teaching at the same music store as Frank Javorsek. Frank was a bit older than us and was a big fan of bluegrass and traditional music. Together we formed Hot Off The Press with Howard’s wife, Carol, on bass. Over the years we used many fiddle players.
Why is chromatic banjo playing so maligned?
People who didn’t understand the theory of “chromatic” used it to label the style we now call melodic style. Essentially it’s a misuse of the term, chromatic. The proper term is “melodic style.” Bluegrass purists who think the Scruggs-style banjo picking with roll patterns is the only way to go, might put it down.
How did you come to be the traditional bluegrass anchor in Phil Salazar and the Kin Folk?
Having played straight bluegrass in several bands in Southern California, and teaching primarily bluegrass banjo since the 1970s, probably led Phil to refer to me as his “go-to bluegrass guy.” I’m also the oldest. Be kind to your elders 🙂
Tell us about the new Phil Salazar and the Kin Folk CD, All That! For This? Did you get to choose and arrange the songs that you sing on it?
All That! For This? is the second Kin Folk CD. As the leader of the band, Phil controls pretty much what we play and record. Bill Flores, our Dobro/guitar/accordion player suggested Vic Jordan’s tune, Pickaway, and Phil agreed, but suggested inserting a couple of other tunes to add a little variety: the jazz tunes Kansas City Kitty and Stomping at Decca — brilliant! Phil and Bill Flores also collaborated on a medley of two Irish tunes: Farewell to Glasgow and Dunmore Lassies with Flores on the accordion.
The man that holds us all together is our bass player, Rick Borella. We don’t use a drummer, so we really rely on his rock-solid innovative playing. And it was Rick who came up with the title of the CD.
Tom Corbett, our mandolin/guitar player, is a terrific songwriter. We recorded three of his songs on the first CD and another three on the new one: Picking Out My Memories With You, Robin Banks and Greta Way, and Happy Town.
Phil sings the Western swing song, Ding Dong Daddy, with just a hint of the Beatles; the Stanley Brothers’ If I Lose; I Know You Rider, which is a traditional blues song popularized by groups like the Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna, and the Seldom Scene; and Kate Wolf’s All He Ever Saw Was You and Like a River.
One of the strongest features of the band is the twin fiddling, which Phil arranges. Our new fiddle player is Elizabeth Rizor. Besides playing fiddle, she’s classically trained, so she stepped right into our band playing great solos and twin fiddles with Phil—Phil even arranges the “fills,” hehe.
At gigs, Phil will call on me to sing a bluegrass standard. I know a million of ’em 🙂 For the CD he suggested I sing Bill Monroe’s Molly and Tenbrooks and Little Maggie, which I learned from the Stanley Brothers. I wanted to pay tribute to the Dillards, so I suggested There Is A Time. With my music theory training I find it frustrating to take a song and “hunt and peck” during a rehearsal to come up with vocal harmonies, so most of the time I’ll arrange the harmony to a song at home and bring it to the next rehearsal.
You’ve written some highly regarded banjo instructional material. Is that content still available?
I’ve written twenty books. The six that I published myself are still in print: Bluegrass Banjo Workshop Books 1–4, which come with CDs, Bill Knopf Plays Scott Joplin, and John Philip Sousa Marches for 5-String Banjo. The Joplin and Sousa books contain the tabs for my CDs. The other fourteen books were written for other publishers, and they let them all go out of print. I still get calls for my first book, Hot Licks and Fiddle Tunes, published by Chappell Music, and Melodic Bluegrass Banjo Method published by Charles Anderson and distributed by Columbia Pictures Publications. Those two are my favorites.
What makes for a really good instructional book or video?
First of all, no matter what the instrument, it should clearly mention the level of difficulty: beginning, intermediate, or advanced. Next is accuracy. Except for fiddle, most folk music instrument books don’t use standard music notation; they use tablature. Whatever the notation, every book needs to be thoroughly proofread. When I wrote the Doug Dillard banjo book for ALMO Publications in 1980, they assured me that great proofreaders had checked out the final plates, but still I found over a hundred mistakes. Like the Doug Dillard book, there are many celebrity books out there written by someone else. Often a transcription will be close but not exact. When doing transcriptions back in 1980, I used a tape player with a half-speed setting. Nowadays I use computer software that can slow a recording down two, three, or even four times.
Who all have you toured with?
I’ve never really liked touring much. I prefer to stay close to home. There’s plenty of work here in town: teaching, recording sessions, clubs, concert venues, theme parks, festivals, private parties, etc. For five years I worked for Doc Severinsen and his touring show, but each outing was more like a vacation: two weeks at a time at a great hotel in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Can’t beat that. We also played one-nighters, but everything was first class: New Orleans Mardi Gras five years in a row, TV’s Hee Haw in Nashville, state fairs, golf tournaments, conventions, and President Reagan’s first inaugural in Washington DC.
In 1979 I worked in the Donna Douglas Band for a few months. She dressed as her TV character, Elly Mae Clampett, so she definitely needed a banjo player for The Ballad of Jed Clampett. We played a few gigs in Central and Southern California and a four-week tour in Texas.
Since Phil formed the Kinfolk band we’ve been all over California, from North to South, playing many great festivals and concerts. There has been a lot of driving! Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve lost a ton of work. My friends joke that I’m finally retired and, actually, I’m finding it’s pretty boring.
What are some ways to get past a musical challenge or rut?
Practically all of my projects have posed musical challenges. Playing the Joplin rags, Sousa marches, fiddle tunes, and a variety of jazz and classical pieces all require different techniques. You just have to realize that some things will come easy, and some things are simply going to take longer to perfect. Always learn something slowly and accurately then gradually increase the speed. Trying to play too fast, too soon may result in sloppy playing. Consistent practice is the only solution. My past experiences have prepared me for playing with the Kinfolk. Phil often gives us charts written in standard music notation, and they’re usually very “banjo unfriendly.” I’m going to have to show him some Scruggs roll patterns 🙂
What tunes do you play when you pick up your instrument each day?
I keep many lists of tunes on my music stand: guitar flatpicking, guitar fingerpicking, and banjo lists by musical styles. On my computer, I keep a folder for each band I play in. In each are mp3s of our CDs and rehearsals. If I have a gig coming up, I’ll go to that band’s folder and play what I need to. If nothing’s on the agenda I’ll just play for my own enjoyment.
What are your favorite instruments?
My main banjo is a 1938 Top Tension Gibson Mastertone converted from a TB-12 to an RB-12. I purchased it from Jon Lundberg’s vintage instrument store in Berkeley, California in 1976. The banjo even has its own web page run by Greg Earnest, who’s an authority on old Gibson banjos.
I have a hard time playing a guitar with a standard 1 and 11/16” width nut, so I now have a Martin 00028-VS. The nut width is 1 and 13/16.” I also play a metal body Dobro with a round neck. I had Eric Chaz, a local luthier, make a new neck for it with the dimensions of my Martin.
What do you do when not playing music?
Many years ago I blew out my knee during a triathlon, but I still swim and cycle a lot for exercise. I’m a TV and movie junkie with Netflix disc and streaming accounts. I don’t feel guilty for all the time on the couch though—I usually have a banjo or guitar in my hands. My father was a Navy fighter pilot in WW2, so I’ve always been interested in books about military aviation and computer online video games. I’ve been playing Aces High by HiTech Creations for over twenty years. It’s a lot of fun. Every night I fall asleep reading. My favorites are detective/military/spy thrillers.
Thanks for your time, Bill.
This one is sure to bring a smile to your face.
Special thanks to copy-editor extraordinaire Jeanie Poling.