About Ken Perlman
“The Heifetz of the Banjo” –The Chronicle Herald (Halifax, Nova Scotia)
Superb instrumentalist, acclaimed teacher of instrumental skills, gifted performer, award-winning folklorist, Ken Perlman is surely a welcome addition to any festival or concert-series lineup. Ken is both a pioneer of the 5-string banjo style known as “melodic clawhammer” and a master of fingerstyle guitar. He is considered one of the top clawhammer players in the world, known in particular for his skillful adaptations of Celtic tunes to the style. On guitar, Ken’s sparkling finger-picked renditions of traditional Celtic and Southern fiddle tunes are simply not to be missed.
He draws his material from traditional sources – the music of Scotland, Ireland, Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island and the American South. His approach to the music, however, is highly innovative. He has developed many new instrumental techniques, and much of his repertoire has never before been played on 5-string banjo or guitar.
Around the folk scene, Ken is often referred to as a musician’s musician – a player whose style is so accomplished and unique that other musicians go out of their way just to hear him.
Ken is an acclaimed teacher of folk-music instrumental skills. He has written some of the most widely respected banjo and guitar instruction books of modern times, and he has been on staff at prestigious teaching festivals around the world. He has also served as director, or co-director for several banjo and music-instructional camps, including American Banjo Camp, Banjo Camp North, Bath Banjo Festival, Maryland Banjo Academy, Midwest Banjo Camp, Northeast Heritage Music Camp, and Suwannee Banjo Camp.
Also an active folklorist, Ken has spent over a decade collecting tunes and oral histories from traditional fiddle players on Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada. 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 Recordings). In 1997 and ’98, each of these works received awards from the Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation for helping to “preserve, interpret, and disseminate our province’s fiddling heritage.” In 2015, his “ethnography” (oral history based book) called Couldn’t Have a Wedding Without the Fiddler: the Story of Traditional Fiddling on Prince Edward Island was published by University of Tennessee Press. He is also curator of a new website devoted to PEI fiddling called bowingdownhome.ca, which is based on his writing and field recordings and hosted jointly by the University of PEI and the Canadian Museum of History.
He has several recordings to his credit, including:
- You Can’t Beat the Classics: New trio recording with fiddler Alan Jabbour & guitarist Jim Watson
- Southern Summits: A duet recording with fiddler Alan Jabbour
- Northern Banjo
- Island Boy
- Devil in the Kitchen
- Live in the UK
- Clawhammer Banjo & Fingerstyle Guitar Solos (Ken’s first recording, on the Folkways label)
Ken has been performing on the acoustic music circuit since the late 1970s. He has played countless folk clubs and coffee houses, dozens of festivals, and scores of other venues such as schools and colleges, pubs, libraries, historical societies, and cafe’s. He has toured across North America, Great Britain, Ireland, Western Europe and Australia.
Ken’s performances focus on his instrumental wizardry. Most of his material consists of traditional Celtic and Southern U.S. dance tunes (often known as fiddle tunes), which he has arranged for his own instruments: 5-string banjo and guitar. Of special interest: the tunes he has collected himself from traditional fiddle players on Prince Edward Island.
Within a few minutes it was obvious we were being entertained by a remarkably skilled musician. The richness and delicacy of his playing complimented by his interesting selections of tunes, made it a wonderful evening of music. (Australian Folk Reviews Internet Site)
Perlman made the difficult look simple for an audience of about 100 people that sat transfixed at his concert… He alternated on the banjo and guitar, performing new songs along with ones that were old before Cleveland got its name. He communicated the feelings [of the music]… with nothing more than his fingers dancing on the strings. (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
Although Ken’s focus is on instrumentals, he does not ignore the vocal element. In a typical show, he sings a variety of numbers drawn from such traditions as acoustic blues, ragtime, ballads, minstrel show music, and Southern string band music. He also tells stories, offers accounts of his music-collecting experiences, and makes wry comments on our lives and times. As noted by the Plain Dealer, “his songs were witty, amiable and engaging.”
Ken is internationally known as a pioneer of a banjo style known as melodic clawhammer. This new approach has transformed clawhammer (also known as “frailing”) from an accompaniment to a solo style of banjo playing. Frets magazine calls him a “clawhammer master,” Banjo Newsletter notes, “Ken is the undisputed king of the melodic clawhammer banjo style,” while Fiddler Magazine calls him “one of America’s great melodic clawhammer banjo players.” Of Ken’s banjo picking, The Glasgow (UK) Herald notes, “he can make his instrument do more or less anything he wants it to.”
Some other comments:
His… recordings… solidify his role as one of the most creative practitioners of this art. He has stretched the boundaries of what can be done on the clawhammer banjo… His… techniques open up a new world to the clawhammer banjoist. (Bluegrass Unlimited)
His Island Boy CD is full of the most intricate and deftly played arrangements… Ken takes the banjo far beyond the role of the thinking man’s rhythm instrument… and explores the furthest reaches of melodic clawhammer playing.” (Old Time News)
Ken’s significant contribution to acoustic guitar styles should not be overlooked. He is adept at old-time blues, ragtime and just plain folk. His specialty is Celtic and Southern U.S. fiddle tunes arranged for fingerpicking. These tunes are played with a sparkling attack and active bass line, which gives them a sound that has been described as being reminiscent of Renaissance- and Baroque-era lute music.
We are treated to first class finger-picking of a highly complex and expressive nature. His stately technique on a steel string guitar possesses a strong drive and full delivery. (Bluegrass Unlimited)
The high quality of his books, articles, taped series and other instructional materials has brought Ken an international reputation as a gifted teacher of folk instrumental styles. This reputation has been reinforced by his many instructional columns and articles that have appeared over the years in such major acoustic-music periodicals as Banjo Newsletter, Sing Out!, Acoustic Guitar and Acoustic Musician.
Ken’s instructional books for banjo include:
- Everything You Wanted to Know About Clawhammer Banjo (Mel Bay)
- Clawhammer Style Banjo (Centerstream)
- Melodic Clawhammer Banjo (Oak Publications)
- New England & Celtic Tunes for Clawhammer Banjo (Mel Bay).
His guitar “tutors” include:
- Fingerstyle Guitar (Centerstream)
- Advanced Fingerstyle Guitar (Centerstream; formerly known as Contemporary Fingerstyle Guitar)
- Fingerpicking Fiddle Tunes (The Mel Bay edition was called Traditional Dance Tunes for Acoustic Guitar).
Ken has made a number of banjo instructional videos, all of which are now available from Centerstream Music/Hal Leonard. He has also made a guitar-instruction video for Centerstream and a series of banjo-instruction audio cassettes for Homespun Tapes.