Banjo Miracles

After three decades of playing banjo, guitar and mandolin, Tim Wiedenkeller releases his first solo album

It's a well-documented fact that Tucson music fans crave new sounds and are willing to keep their ears, as well as their minds, wide open when it comes to inventive musical hybrids. So Tim Wiedenkeller's new CD, Milagros, a collection of classical compositions for the banjo, should find avid supporters among the Old Pueblo's adventurous music buffs.

Perhaps one of Tucson's best-kept musical secrets, Wiedenkeller plays banjo, guitar and mandolin, drawing from experiences of more than 30 years playing bluegrass, rock, R&B, country, folk, ethnic and world music, as well as writing film scores. He'll join with a few friends to celebrate the release of his debut solo album with an intimate concert Friday, March 4, at the eastside St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church.

Although he plays several instruments, Wiedenkeller will primarily stick to the banjo and the Sevan, a seven-string guitar of his own design that bridges the sounds of guitar and banjo.

In an interview last weekend, Wiedenkeller explained: "The high string on the banjo is typically played as a drone string, but I was playing it another way, as a note in a scale, to make it all run together in a linear, fluid fashion. I realized that I could put this short, high string on the guitar and have these two sounds together."

After four years of designing and experimenting, Wiedenkeller built a prototype of his Sevan, which was a solid-bodied, acoustic-electric banjo-guitar-synthesizer. "I finished the instrument and played it for three weeks or so, when it was knocked over, and the neck broke."

So Wiedenkeller hooked up with Tucson luthier Dennis Coon. Together, they redesigned the Sevan, and Coon built the hollow-bodied acoustic version that Wiedenkeller now plays. It can be strummed or played with finger picks. You can hear it on the track "Haiku" on Milagros.

Born in Southern California in 1959, Wiedenkeller has lived and played all over the world. He moved his family--which includes a 14-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter--to Tucson in 1999 and has stayed here since.

He became enamored with bluegrass and old-time country as a kid and started playing bluegrass with a buddy and touring the country when they were both in their teenage years. "Here we were, playing hillbilly music with long, bleached-blond hair."

Even early in his career, Wiedenkeller was experimenting with different sounds on the banjo. "I began taking the banjo and adding more complex harmonics and rhythms and phrasing."

In the 1980s, Wiedenkeller started playing electric guitar, moving into jazz, rock and fusion music. He lived in Southern California, Japan and Hawaii, where in 1993, he landed a gig playing banjo with the Maui Symphony Orchestra. "That forced me to sit and practice the banjo again for the first time in 15 years. I began developing some fluency again in the instrument."

As his facility with the banjo grew again, so did his interest in exploring the possibilities of new sounds. But Wiedenkeller did not plan to play classical music on it, he said.

"I never did and never have made it my intention to sit down and write classical banjo music. It was very much a fluke based on the fact that I had regained fluency on the banjo, and merely followed my ear. This way a new music started to emerge."

Thus was born the title of Wiedenkeller's CD, Milagros, which in Spanish means "miracles." "These pieces of music were in a sense little miracles, because they just kind of fell into my lap."

Wiedenkeller's concert this Friday won't simply feature classical banjo music, though. Concertgoers will hear a little of all of Wiedenkeller's styles, honed during a career playing with such diverse artists as Alison Brown, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, Greg Leisz, Rosie Flores, Michael Tavera, Bill Medley and Santo Giuliano, as well as members of Steel Pulse and Frank Zappa's band.

Although Wiedenkeller estimates he has played on more than 100 albums by other artists--as well as having owned a recording studio--Milagros is his first solo CD.

Among the Tucson-based players with whom he has played have been Peter McLaughlin, Chris Brashears, Alan Shockley and Todd Hammes.

At this Friday's concert, he'll share the stage with violinist and bassist Rob Paulus, keyboardist Richard Katz and vocalist Debbie Daly. Also a singer-songwriter, Wiedenkeller will perform some original songs from his next album, Soul House, which he already is readying for release later this year.

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