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Nice to start this series on main banjo players with a living legend.
Béla Fleck is considered by many as the world´s premiere banjo player. The banjoist and musician that has reinvented the sound of the banjo exploring into new musical styles with the instrument. Winner of 16 Grammy Awards (this number still increases year after year) and 30 nominations, Fleck is probably the world´s most popular banjo player today.
Born July 10, 1958 in New York as Béla (for Bartok) Anton (for Dvorak) Leos (for JanaceK), it resulted obvious from an early age the world-class musician he´d become when he first picked up a banjo. Fleck recalled in a magazine interview that he and his brother were watching the Beverly Hillbillies show at his grandparents´ house. “The theme music started, and I had no idea it was the banjo,” he said. “It was Earl Scruggs in his prime. I only remember hearing something beautiful. It called out to me.” Fascinated with bluegrass music at an early age, he started taking banjo lessons with Tony Trischka (another beloved banjo master we´ll talk about in another post) at the age of 15. Soon it resulted obvious for Trischka that Béla Fleck wouldn´t need too many lessons. “Some people say banjo is an instrument you either love or hate,” said Fleck. “For me I just instantly loved it. I couldn’t put it down for days. I didn’t want to go to sleep. I got up early to play it. I thought about it in my spare time. On the bus to school I was thinking about it. I was so excited to get home and play it again. I tried to play other instruments, but nothing else ever really caught on, nothing else called out to me that way.”
In 1982 he joined the New Grass Revival band where he made a name for himself in the bluegrass world. New Grass Revival took bluegrass music to new heights, exciting audiences and critics alike. Through the course of five albums, they charted new territory with their blend of bluegrass, rock and country music. The relentless national and international touring by NGR exposed Béla’s banjo playing to the bluegrass/acoustic music world. By that time, Fleck also recoded a few solo albums including the ground breaking 1988 album Drive. He also made collaborations with Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Mark O´Connor.
In 1989, he formed the Flecktones with Victor and Roy Wooten and added Howard Levy and then Jeff Coffin when Levy departed on keybords and harmonica. In 1990 they released a self-titled album financed by Béla Fleck himself playing what they called blu-bop, a mix of bluegrass and jazz. The album was critically acclaimed and commercially successful and gained some Grammy nominations for the Flecktones. The Flecktones second album Flight hit number 1 on the Billboard Jazz Chart.
Béla Fleck has recorded during his career over 40 albums, most famously with the Flecktones. His first album collaboration with Abigail Washburn (both partners in music and life) was awarded the 2016 Best Folk Album Grammy.
Currently, he distributes his time between solo projects, Flecktones albums, tours with Abigail Washburn and some other numerous cooperations and appearances (mainly with Chick Corea and Chris Thyle).
Bela´s main banjo is a pre-war Gibson with original tone ring and resonator. Originally a 4 string banjo, he customized with a five string neck and amplified with a Jones pick-up combined with a Shure SM-98. As electric banjo, he carries a Deering Crossfire. Between his large collection of banjos, he also has his own Gold Tone mode, the MS-1 Missing Link banjo; a baritone banjo made in collaboration with Gold Tone owner Wayne Rogers. This model covers the gap between cello banjos tuned to G (an octave below standard) and the standard models and tunes to C.