Features and Reviews
How I Became a Ragtime Six-String Banjo Player
(Continuing our series on Rose Leaf Club members, Phil Cannon, one of our star performers, contributed the following musical autobiography)
By Phil Cannon
I got my first guitar in the late 1950s, motivated by the sounds of Chuck Berry and Duane Eddy. In the early 1960s my family arrived in California from Seattle and for a couple of years I played with primitive instrumental surf rock bands. A few years later I started to learn the finger-picking style of ragtime folk blues artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake. I heard a recording of Reverend Gary Davis on a six-string guitar banjo that influenced me to want to play that instrument.
The first real ragtime tune that I learned was Dave Van Ronk's version of "St. Louis Tickle," circa 1970. During the mid 1970s a company called "Kicking Mule" issued several ragtime guitar albums and instruction books. I learned a lot from that material, including a few arrangements of Joplin rags. For the next 20 years my interests went off on a few tangents. I played bluegrass five string banjo. Then I joined a country rock band playing electric guitar and pedal steel. I studied modern jazz too, but all the while I remained partial to ragtime. There is something in the melodies and rhythms that is uniquely stimulating and pleasing to me. About four years ago I decided to focus my attention on trying to master this form of music. I began scrutinizing piano scores with the goal of creating accurate, original transcriptions of the pieces. A guitar only has half the range of a piano. The way I compensate for this shortcoming is by moving voices up or down an octave and simplifying chord voicings. Still, some of the fingerings are difficult to execute to make it sound right.
In October 2000 I was living in Orange County and attended the first RagFest in Fullerton. It was there that I hooked up with the Rose Leaf Ragtime Club. I went to the next club meeting and have been to almost every one since. In August, 2001 I moved to Monrovia, only five miles from the Pasadena IHOP. It's mighty nice to have a supportive venue to share music and build friendships with other ragtime enthusiasts. Being a club member inspires me to keep progressing to become the best ragtime musician I can be.