There is something jaw-dropping about Noam Pikelny’s banjo laying. His mastery and agility—his ability to play lines and scalar sections with fluidity, tone, drive and conviction—are all astounding. We all love the earthy, visceral sound of the banjo, but a musician that can play with the utmost technical prowess and yet retain that visceral vibe is truly special. Since Noam graced the cover of BNL in July 2004, his musical journey (via the John Cowan Band, Crooked Still, and Tony Trischka’s Double Banjo Spectacular) has led him to the upper echelons of stringband musicians. Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile of the now defunct Nickel Creek brought together a new crop of young string masters, as he put it, “to put his stamp on the traditional bluegrass band.”
Playing Bach on any instrument is a lifelong endeavor and many interesting musical challenges arise when tackling Bach on the 5-string banjo. When arranging a traditional bluegrass tune these challenges may not show up, yet many of them are applicable and transferable to many other musical undertakings. What follows is a description of my process in sourcing, learning and arranging a Bach composition on banjo.