As far as banjo players go, Chris Pandolfi is a trailblazer: He was the first to major in the instrument at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
And as a member of the Charlottesville, Va.-based Infamous Stringdusters, Pandolfi is working to pioneer a new path for bluegrass bands.
"Our roots in bluegrass are there, but are wrapped in something that is much bigger sounding," said Pandolfi via phone from his Charlottesville home.
That means that five-member group will appeal to more than just bluegrass purists. While adherent to the genre, its hefty and often effects-laden sound also includes U2, Police and Bob Dylan covers.
During live shows, the Infamous Stringdusters, who perform at Harlow's on Tuesday, also exhibit a certain jam band sensibility. The Bee talked to Pandolfi about his evolution as a banjo player, the Stringdusters concert experience and what it means to expand the definition of bluegrass.
How old were you when you took up the banjo?
I was 18.
Why the banjo?
At the time, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones was the thing. My older brother was into them. I was going to the shows and was just inspired, and this was the purest form of inspiration. It was so meaningful. Without thinking twice, I decided I wanted to play the banjo. And I decided to become a professional musician even before I got my first instrument.
You were the first banjo major at Berklee?
Yes. I was there from 2001 to 2003. Before then, they had no stated banjo major. The idea was you work on banjo but had to major in one of the 25 other instruments. With the help of Matt Glaser, who was the chair of the string department, I was let in as the first. I sort of flew under the radar because they didn't know exactly what to do with me.
How did they teach you?
I worked mainly with guitar players. They were teaching me what to play, the content of the music and not necessarily technique. I had to translate these musical ideas to the banjo.
What are some of your other early musical influences?
I've listened to a lot of things, but really I just loved anything that I'd call fusion. Like, I was a big fan of John Scofield. And I listened to Steely Dan as well as Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.
Where did the Infamous Stringdusters get their start?
In Nashville, but we've since spread out. Charlottesville is now home of some of the band members.
The band sees itself as bluegrass, but not exactly. Why?
When people think of bluegrass they think of a performing arts center or of folding chairs at a festival. But we feel bluegrass in a different way. Our music is derivative of bluegrass.
Is that reflected in the band's shows, which some describe as having a jam- band feel?
As far as the concert experience goes, we draw from a sort of rock-club scene. We have a sound that really caters to interactions with the audience. So when we play, people are up front dancing and partying, and they're part of the music. We have a show that differs a lot every night, and it relies a lot on audience participation. With our music, some things are really designed to come to life in front of a crowd. We don't shy away from that.
Does that mean you get to improvise on the banjo?
We craft our music to showcase the instruments and there are certainly times when I take a turn at improvising. It's a great instrument for that.
What are the Stringdusters' goals?
We want to reach more people. We want to keep crafting and examining our musical experiences for our fans. I can see this band playing in front of a lot of people, especially now that there is a big trend under way with bands like Mumford & Sons, and others.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Harlow's, 2708 J St., Sacramento
Information: (916) 441-4693, www.harlows.com
Call The Bee's Chris Macias (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.