Mark Hickler seems an unlikely fan of bluegrass and American roots music.
But get the self-described “Yankee” talking, and you’ll see it’s in his very soul.
“There’s so much power in that music,” he said. “These songs are story songs, and they speak to you.
“When the fiddle and banjo met in America, that’s when it started. You just want to get up and dance. It still thrills me.”
Hickler has taken his love of bluegrass and his own musical talent and turned it into a banjomaking business. He builds custom banjos in his home, 1026 W. 6th Place in Mesa, and sells them on hicklerbanjo.com.
It all started years ago as Hickler describes the “indelible memory” of sitting around a campfire in Maine with his cousin Dave Gill, who took out a banjo and played a song called “Pretty Polly.”
The song is a murder ballad, a folk song that typically recounts the details of a mythic or true crime. In “Pretty Polly,” the singer murders the girl he can never have.
Hickler was mesmerized.
“It’s the kind of tune that only the banjo can pull off in a spooky, visceral way,” he said.
“The banjo has a weird, ancient sound, in a minor pentatonic scale,” he said, revealing his deep musical knowledge. “That’s what hooked me.”
At first, though, Hickler set his sights on an instrument called an Appalachian dulcimer. It’s close to a zither, a fretted instrument with three or four strings, played sitting on the musician’s lap.
Later, in his early 20s, Hickler decided to build musical instruments to sell.
“I was young and stupid. I didn’t realize it was virtually impossible to make a living at it,” he said.
“I crashed and burned pretty quickly, but I sold the instruments. I was only making dulcimers at that point. But the idea of building instruments never left me.”
Decades later, he took up banjomaking in Massachusetts.
“I didn’t have any shop to speak of. If you’re going to build a complete banjo, you need all the usual woodworking tools, plus some specialty tools.”
Not knowing how to start out, Hickler visited a bookstore and did some research.
“Literally, a still, small voice talked to me and told me I should start with banjo rims. It seemed doable. So, I started thinking about how I could build a banjo rim first. I didn’t have a lathe yet. I succeeded in making some rims.”
Hickler started selling his banjos on eBay, and got a good reputation for his craftsmanship.
“People started asking me, ‘Can you make me a neck?’”
He went ahead and started making banjo necks and full instruments.
“It took me probably well over a year before I felt any confidence. To this day, I’m making improvements on my neck building.”
Hickler’s custom-made banjos are well-regarded. The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix has purchased one of his instruments and has it on display.
He moved to Arizona in 2001, partly because of the weather.
After moving, Hickler later found an all-ages bluegrass collective in Chandler, the Jam Pak Blues ‘N’ Grass Neighborhood Band, and started playing with them. He mentors children in the band, and has spun off with a few other seasoned musicians to form Cisco & The Racecars, a well-regarded sextet that has won state and national bluegrass awards.
Hickler now has been making banjos in Arizona almost 10 years. He also started teaching banjo and guitar in his home.
Hickler himself will tell you that he’s not getting rich off building banjos and playing gigs. Currently, he’s trying to raise money through GoFundMe to pay for dental work. In a testimony to his impact on the music community, his “Save the Teeth” drive is filled with comments from friends and admirers.
Anni Beach, founder of Jam Pak, wrote, “(Hickler) has been a friend to all of us. And now he needs our help so that he can be healthy and pain-free. Thank you for all who can spare something to help our great friend and musician.”
Through it all, Hickler still feels an affinity for the music. He says the tunes share authentic stories of life.
“You have to remember the people that made the music had to face sickness and death in a very personal way,” he said. “In this culture, we brush it off as far as we can. At that time, clinging to God meant survival. It wasn’t a luxury.”
Even though he plays and sings the songs of the rural South, he knows his own approach is from a different place.
“I can never feel that I’m not one of those people who’s doing cultural appropriation,” he said. “I’ve met people whose roots are in the rural South. Some of that music is coming from their speech patterns.
“As a Yankee, I don’t try to do that, that’s not right. I will never have authenticity, but I make it my own in my own Yankee way.”
Information: 480-276-8294 or hicklerbanjo.com. GoFundMe: tiny.cc/banjo.
– Contact Ralph Zubiate at 480-898-6825 or email@example.com.