The banjo rules everything around Hank Smith—well, almost. He's played it in multiple traditional outfits for almost a decade, added the banjo to area pop-rock acts, built the world's only tribute to Béla Fleck and taught frequent five-string lessons.
But he's more than a skilled picker: He hosts a weekly music series at Tir Na Nog called Beer & Banjos, meant to show that the instrument can reach outside of the bluegrass songbook. In recent years, he has become a genre ambassador for the Triangle, too. He's immersed himself in the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual World of Bluegrass conference in Raleigh, becoming an emissary between the organization and the city.
Smith, however, wasn't always so keen on IBMA. When World of Bluegrass was still based in Nashville, he attended the program as a member of The Kickin Grass Band and wasn't impressed. When the institution brought the event to Raleigh, though, he saw how the city and IBMA mutually benefited from each other. IBMA got an engaging and engaged host city that accommodated it, and Raleigh got another event and an extra economic boost—last year, visitor spending topped $10 million.
Earlier this year, Smith participated in IBMA' s "Leadership Bluegrass," an intense program where participants learn the ins-and-outs of the bluegrass business, from booking and promotion to media and musicianship.
"If I'm going to make a career out of this," Smith explains, "I should have some knowledge of the industry that supports it."
One of his classmates was Ron Raxter, a founder of the roots-music syndicate PineCone. Raxter recruited Smith for a local organizing committee for IBMA. When IBMA returns to Raleigh in September, he will lead a conversation on the state of bluegrass. He hopes to encourage talk about tradition, progression and diversity in a corner of the music industry generally dominated by aged white men.
Smith points to these new duties as an extension of the community outreach work he has long done with the Boys & Girls Clubs.
"This is essentially the same thing, except I'm doing it with bluegrass. I can use those skills that I learned in that context to put towards this now," he says. "I feel like it's just part of my job."
: A spare purple bedroom at the back of
his Raleigh home near Lake Johnson. Smith uses the
space for gear storage and private lessons.
: Béla Fleck, Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger,
Jens Kruger, Steve Martin
: Since moving to Raleigh from Rock
Hill, South Carolina nearly a decade ago, Smith has
played banjo in bluegrass and bluegrass-plus acts
such as Barefoot Manner, The Kickin Grass Band and
The Morning After.
HEAR AND SEE
: Smith’s main project is Blu-Bop,
the first—and, right now, only—Béla Fleck and the
Flecktones tribute act. Mastering Fleck’s unique
style and his ensemble’s complicated compositions
took the band a year, but they’ve played steady local
gigs (and MerleFest) since early 2014. Smith even
got Fleck’s approval for Blu-Bop during IBMA’s 2013
debut in Raleigh.
ROLAND GR-20 SYNTHESIZER & GK-3 PICKUP
The Roland GR-20 synthesizer and GK-3 pickup
work together to transform the Crossfire’s sound
into something otherworldly. Smith’s setup allows
him the option of using the synthesizer or the
processor or both, often to strange and delightful
“It takes a computer signal, essentially, from the
strings itself, processes it through its own pickup
up at the top and then sends the signal to the
pedal, which then turns it into whatever. It’s all
digital,” Smith says.
BOSS GT-6 GUITAR EFFECTS PROCESSOR
Smith bought this contraption in 2003 and, long before launching Blu-Bop, used it to experiment with tone and texture in other bands. A giant pedal board contained within a single machine, it takes input from the banjo and manipulates each note. The processor’s “vintage” sound, as Smith puts it, makes it useful for nailing the Flecktones’ flair, but he’s beginning to reconsider its efficiency. “This thing can do, like, 380 different sounds,” he explains, “but I only use, like, eight of them.”
GOLDEN GATE DOBRO & NATIONAL FINGER PICKS
Smith uses National “nickel silver” finger picks on his middle and forefingers, allowing precision on the banjo’s thin steel strings. For his thumb, Smith uses a plastic Golden Gate pick: “It’s actually a dobro thumb pick, because it’s got an extra bit of plastic on the end. It’s also a heavier
gauge pick, so it rests more comfortably. You can get more out of it with less effort.”
DEERING CROSSFIRE ELECTRIC BANJO
Smith first encountered the crazy-looking
Crossfire in a Deering catalog when he was 16
years old. He drooled over it for years before his
parents purchased it as his college graduation
gift in 1999. It’s got a head, rim and tone ring
like a typical acoustic banjo, but its back includes
pickups like those of an electric guitar. The
instrument’s thinner neck means it’s built for
speed, making it useful for tackling Fleck’s quick
“You can feather-touch it,” he says. “You
barely touch the thing, and it’ll respond the way
you need it to.”
But the additional gear Smith uses to pull off
some of the Flecktones’ idiosyncrasies are meant
for electric guitars, meaning Smith sometimes
has to fuss with his rig to make the equipment
compatible: “With all this stuff, you have to learn
how that works in the context of the banjo.”
Banjo heads function as a blank slate on
which pickers can develop their tone. Like
drums, banjo heads can be tuned to specific
notes, which impact the instrument’s overall
“If it’s tuned up tighter, it’s higher in
pitch. It’s going to have a real Ralph Stanley,
clangety-clang-clang sound. They usually tune
those heads up to a B,” Smith says. “I tune
mine to F sharp, because it gives it a warmer
tone. The Remo heads are pretty standard.
They have a transparent sound, so it’s on you
to make it sound the way you want.”
A six-year-old Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever.
ROLAND JAZZ CHORUS 120 AMPLIFIER
“It offers a stereo chorus sound. These amps
were built for keyboards, guitars—really,
keyboards. Guitarists would use them to
get that big full sound,” he says. “It works
great for banjo because banjo has a lot
more frequency range than a guitar does,
particularly in the high end. You want to
capture all of it.”