Ken Perlman is a pioneer of the 5-string banjo style known as melodic clawhammer.
Meet Ken Perlman. He is considered one of today’s top clawhammer players. He is known in particular for his skillful adaptations of Celtic, Appalachian, and Canadian fiddle tunes to the style.
Perlman has toured throughout most of the English-speaking world and in Western Europe, both as a soloist and — for over 15 years — as part of a duo with renowned Appalachian-style fiddler Alan Jabbour.
An acclaimed teacher of folk-music instrumental skills, Ken has written such widely used banjo instruction books as Clawhammer Style Banjo, Melodic Clawhammer Banjo, and Everything You Wanted to Know About Clawhammer Banjo. He has been on staff at prestigious festivals around the world, and has also served as director for several music instructional camps. These camps include American Banjo Camp, Midwest Banjo Camp, and Suwannee Banjo Camp.
Perlman’s most recent solo recordings are “Frails & Frolics” and “Northern Banjo.” His recordings with Alan Jabbour are “Southern Summits” and “You Can’t Beat the Classics.” Ken’s latest book – just published by Mel Bay Publications – is Appalachian Fiddle Tunes for Clawhammer Banjo.
On multiple occasions, Ken Perlman has been called on to judge the old-time banjo contest at the Appalachian String Band Festival (better known as “Clifftop”). He was accorded a Masters’ Workshop at Clifftop in 2017 — an event showcasing legends who are dedicated to the preservation and presentation of old-time music.
Ken pioneered adapting Southern and Celtic fiddle tunes to fingerstyle guitar
His soup-to-nuts instruction book, Fingerstyle Guitar, first published in 1980, was highly acclaimed and is still widely used. Its sequel, Advanced Fingerstyle Guitar, offers an innovative and highly effective method for notating delta and “country” blues. It’s rated as one of the world’s 50 Greatest Guitar Books.
A Musician’s Musician and Folklorist
Ken is referred to as a musician’s musician. An active folklorist, Ken has spent over two decades collecting tunes and oral histories from traditional fiddle players on Prince Edward Island. The first outgrowths of his research were a tune book called The Fiddle Music of Prince Edward Island, and a two-CD anthology of field recordings called “The Prince Edward Island Style of Fiddling” (Rounder Records).
His ethnography (oral-history based book) Couldn’t Have a Wedding Without the Fiddler: the Story of Traditional Fiddling on Prince Edward Island was published by University of Tennessee Press in 2015. Ken is also curator of a website devoted to traditional PEI fiddling called bowingdownhome.ca. The site is based on his writings and field recordings, and is hosted jointly by the University of P.E.I. and the Canadian Museum of History.
Talking Shop with Ken Perlman
Chuck Schiele: You have a flourishing career and you are acknowledged to be pioneering. And it looks like you’re having a great time doing it. What is your perspective and/or philosophy on the success of all this?
Ken Perlman: I really needed to create a “niche” in the music business that only I could occupy. I started creating systems for effectively capturing the spirit and nuance of Southern and Celtic fiddle tunes on clawhammer banjo and fingerstyle guitar, figuring out how to express them in words and music notation and tablature so others could follow exactly what I was doing.
My philosophy paralleled that of the Dickens character who was always saying, “Something will come up!”
My career has evolved quite a bit over the years. At some points, I made most of my living from teaching lessons and workshops. At others, it was mostly performing. Then, from about the turn of the last century to the start of the pandemic, it was running music camps. So, I’m back to teaching (via the internet), now that none of us can tour or run camps for a while.
Chuck Schiele: What does life as a musician mean to you?
Ken Perlman: I can’t imagine any other way of life. It certainly keeps me out of offices and bureaucracies. It allows me to be my own person and follow my own star. Plus, I simply find it interesting to figure out how to play things on my instrument that no one has done before, and then to sort out how to write about it afterwards. Performing and jamming with like-minded musicians is truly the spice of life!
Chuck Schiele: Please tell us about the clawhammer style of playing the banjo.
Ken Perlman: Clawhammer is the current name for a style of picking that originated in West Africa. It was carried to the New World by African slaves along with banjo-like instruments. Both the instrument and style of plucking were adopted by European-Americans in the 1830s and 40s. They have been on the go in western culture ever since. It was originally known as “stroke-style,” but then became known as “knocking,” “rapping,” and “frailing.” The motion is unique in that all activity is directed in a downward direction. In fact, “downpicking” is another name for the style. The player strikes one of the long strings of the banjo with the back of either the middle or index fingernail in a motion driven by wrist and forearm. The player alternates this back-of-fingernail downstroke with a thumb-stroke that plucks either another one of the long strings or the short 5th string. This is often referred to as the drone-string.
Beyond that, as they say, everything else is just “fancy stuff.” Stroke-style was superseded by fingerstyle banjo in the late 19th century, and for over half a century it was played almost entirely in isolated rural areas. Interest in the style rekindled in the 1940s and 50s as a result of the Folk Revival. It continued to grow in the last third of the 20th century as clawhammer became the dominant banjo style of the Old-Time Music Revival. There are probably far more people playing clawhammer today than during its 19th century peak.
Chuck Schiele: What makes you interested in working with any particular artist?
Ken Perlman: The most important thing is similarity of musical sensibility. But it doesn’t hurt if he or she is pleasant to work with and relatively reliable.
Chuck Schiele: Please tell us a bit about your ax, and the gear associated with it.
Ken Perlman: For the last couple of decades I have been playing Ome open-back banjos with what they call “Silverspun” tone rings. These instruments ring out powerfully across the whole tonal range. Ome also produces necks and fretboards that are comfortable to play throughout the entire fingerboard. And, they’ve been willing to build to spec. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that their instruments are quite stunningly beautiful, with all kinds of inlays, elaborate wood-grains, fine finishes, etc.
Chuck Schiele: Are there things that happen in your off-stage life that factor into your onstage world?
Ken Perlman: Well of course. None of us are immune to doings in the outside world. Witness the current pandemic that’s keeping most of us at home. After 9/11, I had to stop touring with two instruments when flights were involved because of increased security concerns at airports, so that constrained my stage act.
Chuck Schiele: What is the Number One thing on your mind as you take the stage?
Ken Perlman: Don’t panic! Seriously, I try to stay focused and determine if there’s anything in the particular venue or audience that requires special attention or an alteration of my set list.
Chuck Schiele: What would you say to a kid interested in picking up the banjo and music in general?
Ken Perlman: Anyone attracted to playing the banjo or any other musical instrument should give it a shot, and see how they enjoy it and whether they have an aptitude for that particular kind of musical expression. My sense is that most people could play music if they’re able to get started at a young age. For example, I have little interest in keyboards, and I have no feeling whatsoever for wind instruments. But put a fretted instrument in my hands and I’m right at home.
If you’re talking about music as a career, my advice has always been, “If you have to ask whether you should do it, you should probably get into some other line of work.” Being a musician is not the easiest life, and usually requires a very high tolerance for ambiguity.
Chuck Schiele: You play other instruments as well…
Ken Perlman: I was inspired at the age of 5 or 6 by singing cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey. They were on television. When I asked for a guitar, I was immediately enrolled in piano lessons. Adults told me, “You have to play piano first before you get to play anything else.” Needless to say, I had no interest in playing piano and practiced only intermittently. I took up the guitar, specializing in fingerstyle, in my teens, and then the banjo during my senior year in college. I own a mandolin, tenor banjo, and a few other fretted instruments and can play on them. But I’ve never practiced on any of them consistently.
Ken Perlman Recordings
- Frails & Frolics
- You Can’t Beat the Classics
- Southern Summits
- Northern Banjo
- Island Boy
- Devil in the Kitchen
- Live in the UK
- Clawhammer Banjo & Fingerstyle Guitar Solos
Ken Perlman Books
- Appalachian Fiddle Tunes for Clawhammer Banjo (Mel Bay)
- Couldn’t Have a Wedding Without the Fiddler: the Story of Traditional Fiddling on Prince Edward Island (University of Tennessee Press)
- Everything You Wanted to Know About Clawhammer Banjo (Mel Bay)
- The Fiddle Music of Prince Edward Island (Mel Bay)
- Advanced Fingerstyle Guitar (Centerstream)
- Clawhammer Style Banjo (Centerstream)
- Fingerstyle Guitar (Centerstream)
- New England & Celtic Tunes for Clawhammer Banjo (Mel Bay).
- Melodic Clawhammer Banjo (Oak Publications)
- Fingerpicking Fiddle Tunes For Guitar (The Mel Bay edition was called Traditional Dance Tunes for Acoustic Guitar).
Ken Perlman banjo books: Visit here
Ken Perlman guitar books: Visit here
Ken Perlman books on Prince Edward Island fiddling: Visit here
Tools of the Trade
Ken Perlman is an official endorser of Ome Banjos, based in Boulder, Colorado.
Ken runs three annual “banjo camps.” These weekends are devoted to instruction in banjo and related instruments such as fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.
- Suwannee Banjo Camp takes place at Cerveny Conference Center, Live Oak, Florida. Next dates are March 11-14, 2021. For information: suwanneebanjocamp.com
- Midwest Banjo Camp takes place at Olivet College, Olivet Michigan. Next scheduled dates are June 3-6, 2021.
- American Banjo Camp takes place at Pilgrim Firs Conference Center, Port Orchard, Washington. Next dates are Sept. 9-12, 2021. Americanbanjocamp.com.