Noam Pikelny

Banjo great Noam Pikelny playing his Skokie hometown

by Lilli Kuzma for Sun-Times Media

Banjo virtuoso Noam Pikelny is having a very good year. The Skokie native, a graduate of Niles North High School, was recently named banjo player of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, which also honored him with the Album of the Year award for his critically acclaimed “Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe.”

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Pikelny has found success as a founding member of progressive bluegrass quintet, Punch Brothers, and before that was in the lineup with Leftover Salmon and The John Cowan Band. Two years ago, Pikelny received a Grammy nod for his second album, “Beat The Devil and Carry a Rail.” Now calling Los Angeles his home, the 33-year-old has matured into an accomplished musician who some consider the best banjo player in the world.

“The awards are a huge honor, but they’re not the ultimate goal,” Pikelny said. “There aren’t enough awards to recognize all of the people making profound music. So many artists out there are deserving of Grammys.”

Pikelny performs with renowned vocalist, songwriter and folk artist, Aoife O’Donovan (of Crooked Still fame), November 7 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

“It’s neat for me to finally play there,” said Pikelny. “I remember when they built the performing arts center, and I saw Doc Watson, also Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, and saw Brian Sutter live for the first time there.”

Pikelny will colaborate with O’Donovan, along with Barry Bales on bass and Shad Cobb on fiddle.

“We’ll play original music of Aoife’s and mine, mixed in with our favorite kind of classic bluegrass, old-time and country music, some Osbourne Brothers, Doc Boggs, some of our favorite traditional music, a Joni Mitchell song, so a wide variety of material,” he said.

Asked how he feels he’s helped to redefine the banjo, Pikelny said: “I’ve devoted a lot of time to trying to coax sounds out of the banjo that aren’t innate to the banjo. I’m jealous of what the pedal steel guitar and fiddle can do. But the banjo is like a drum head, similar to a drum that you can tighten, can use different materials to change the sound of it, and I’ve always gravitated for a warmer sound.

“Some of it is just a generational thing. I came along learning the instrument when what I consider the three distinct styles of playing the banjo had finally been unlocked, starting with Earl Scruggs who kind of defined bluegrass banjo. Then you had the next wave with a more melodic style, playing the banjo note-for-note style.

“The third style is more of a guitaristic approach, where you’re simulating the motion of a flat pick with your two fingerpicks, started by Don Reno early on, but then really turned into something by Bela Fleck. When I started playing bluegrass, I noticed that players would play in one of the styles or the other, compartmentalized. I didn’t see the need to keep rigid lines between the styles, and I started shifting between any of the three approaches in a very fluid way, to blur the distinctions, and that’s probably become my defining thing.”

Pikelny is frequently asked how a guy from Chicago came to play the banjo.

“I explain that there are few better places to pick up the banjo than in Chicago,” he said. “My brother was taking lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and I eventually started lessons with Mark Dvorak, who is a great musician and songwriter, but also his musical spirit was so infectious. It was cool to be around a guy like Mark. All I wanted to do was play musich and be around there. I got into more bluegrass stuff and eventually took lessons from Greg Cahill (of Special Consensus fame). At that time, Greg was in Skokie, so I could ride my bike to his house for a lesson with my picks in my pocket. Greg is a world-class, professional banjo player and I was able to take lessons from him [practically] in my back yard. That’s the type of opportunity people assume would only be available somewhere like Nashville.”

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