The Old-Time Herald Volume 8, Number 1

Feature

Musical Affairs of the Heart
Part Two: Banjo Stories

by Gail Gillespie

This is the second in a multi part series of old-time musical instrument autobiographies—the first was about guitars and this one is about banjos. What follows here is a collection of the banjo stories of folks I know who play old-time music. As with the guitar piece, I’ve made no real attempt to be comprehensive though I am fortunate to live in an area with a lot of old-time music year round. With North Carolina and neighboring Virginia’s many summer fiddlers conventions, music workshops, concerts, dances, and house parties, it has been easy to locate banjo players to talk to about their instruments. Some I spoke with face to face while others I communicated with on the phone or through Internet news groups and list serves concerned with old-time music and musical instruments. To give some structure to my interviews and keep things on track, I used a questionnaire. In it, I tried to get people to think back about how they got their first banjos, their reasons for choosing a particular instrument, and to talk about the relationship between instrument choice, style, and tone. Though I’ve interjected my own thoughts here and there, the centerpieces of this article are the statements from the banjo players themselves in their own words.

When I first began to collect reminiscences, I was disappointed with how hard it was to find people willing to remember the individual banjos in their lives in the same way they were able to with guitars. Durham banjo player Joe Newberry, who wrote a touching reminiscence of his first guitar that was in the last installment of this article, was typical, admitting he was at a loss to write in the same way about the banjos he has owned. Though the banjo is his primary instrument and he has several, including a fine sounding new one by Kevin Enoch, Joe was at a loss to speak of them with the same warm fondness he had shown toward his guitars. When he responded to my questionnaire about guitars and banjos, he added a note at the bottom, "It’s funny that I didn’t even write about banjos. I guess they are more of a tool to me." Bob Carlin, also best known as a banjo player, said pretty much the same thing. He has only had a few banjos in his life, lately playing either a Bart Reiter with an internal resonator or a Depression-era resonator Gibson RB-1, but he really didn’t have much to say about them.

Banjos present an interesting paradox because, while attachment to a particular instrument is certainly an emotional matter, you nevertheless have this thing which is, at its heart, a machine-like assemblage of hardware. A banjo may be made up of guts, skin, and wood, but in its modern form with its nearly infinite points of adjustment it has taken on the soul of a machine. In fact, some very skilled and well-known banjo players openly refer to a banjo as a tool. Bill Dillof described himself as a "cynical, businesslike collector of rare instruments," who rarely feels an emotional bond with any particular banjo, using each one as a "tool to get a particular sound." Others find it hard to resist the practical urge to modify their musical tools, forever picking up a screwdriver or wrench to tighten, loosen, or replace various parts. Volume not knocking down bystanders? Try a new type of head, try a special bridge, or crank on those coordinator rods to achieve a better neck angle. Tone too warm and fuzzy? Torque down on those brackets and tighten the head. Install a thinner bridge. Tone too bright and piercing? Try loosening the head or try replacing plastic with animal hide. Try a thicker, heavier bridge. Stuff the machine with old socks.

These questions bring up another quality of banjos that differentiates them in our minds from guitars and fiddles. Banjos can be pretty easily (sometimes too easily) broken down into components and switched from instrument to instrument using tools you can find around the house and parts from the local hardware store. This means you can have combinations in almost infinite variety. Like cars, you can have "parts banjos," old instruments from which parts are robbed to make up complete new ones. A good many banjos are hybrids made up of old tenor pots which have had new five- string necks made for them. A banjo, with all its replaceable metal gewgaws holding together various strips and shreds of wood and animal skin is therefore as much an assemblage as it is a single entity. When some banjos can be composites of parts from several other banjos or even made from parts of other machines, it is hard to think of a banjo as a single discrete item much less a warm, fuzzy object of our affection in the same way as a guitar. Banjos are just different beasts. After all, the late Jenes Cottrell, of West Virginia made banjo tone rings from automobile torque converters. . . talk about a real music machine!

I found that when people could be cajoled to talk about banjos at all, it was rarely without invoking mechanical images, calibrations, and measurements. It would seem that the things most people want to know about a banjo could be expressed mathematically or diagrammatically. How many brackets does it have? Is there a bracket band or does it have a shoes and plate configuration? How many holes are there in the tone ring? Is the tone ring cast or spun? What is the formula for the alloy that the tone ring is made of? Is the head a high, medium, or low-crown, how many inches does it project above the stretcher band? What is the height of the strings above the juncture of the neck and rim? What is the gear ratio of the tuning pegs? Does it have a long or short scale, etc. etc. Ed Britt is a product designer and Boston area banjo player, collector, and historian who once designed high-end banjos for the Ome Banjo Company in Colorado. Recently, Ed wrote a post to Internet list serve group Banjo-L that parodies the banjo players’ powerful fascination with improving the tone of a banjo through tinkering. The owner of a large-headed banjo had complained that it sounded too much like a "moose fart," and Ed gave the following helpful suggestions:

"Have you thought about replacing the bridge with one made of mystically enlightened pachysandra wood? Have you considered a set of extra heavy Teflon-coated titanium strings? You could also try three to four inches of fiberglass insulation under the head, but be sure to use the pink and not the yellow kind. On my own banjo I have added one of those new centrifugally cast tone rings of heavy cryogenically modified unobtainium with circumferentially case-hardened bearing surfaces, featuring a double-undercut inner edge and 43 holes of varying diameters, randomly spaced across the tonally active surface. The hole size and spacing is empirically determined through the state-of-the-art holographic computer simulation, on a wide-band bi-phasic wireless up-link. Try it. It worked wonders on my banjo."

Just because the banjo brings out the urge to tinker, and can be a hodgepodge of various other banjos, machines, and household appliances, is not to say that banjos don’t stir passionate views. Far from it. As anyone who looks at a week’s worth of posts to Banjo-L knows, a heated discussion is sure to follow any flat declaration that such and such a brand or maker of banjo is the only possible instrument for a particular style—be it clawhammer, minstrel style, or bluegrass. Typically, though, lively discussions crop up not just about the best brand or maker of banjo, but around selecting the right banjo accessories: heads, tone rings, bridges, tuners, tail pieces, fine tuners, railroad spikes. Still, as with old-time guitar, there appear to be several very vocal camps of banjo playing, each of which leans to a particular sound and toward a certain kind of banjo, banjo guru, or banjo maker. It was through such a line of thought that I was, in the end, able to get people talking about their banjos. The question became, "What kind of banjo is it that gives you that particular, elusive sound you want, and how has that changed or not changed over the years?" The following are a few of the banjo stories people gave me.

 

First Banjos

Since I am a geographer by training, I have noticed regional patterns in the types of banjos people have had access to, especially when just starting out. Because where you live controls the kind of banjos that are around as well as the kind you’d get if your wishes came true, the following banjo stories are organized according to place. Going to fiddlers conventions that attract people from all over the country, I had been sort of aware of all this for some time, but became struck by it anew when putting this article together. Though old-time banjo players are part of a larger community of old-time musicians linked by the conventions, camps, and festivals, and connected by electronic communication, where we live or grew up still seems to have some bearing on the banjos we first played. Thus, even today, with ever greater ease of travel and with daily connection with other like-minded folks through electronic mail, banjo regions still seem to break down along certain lines: urban versus rural, East versus West and North versus South.

Because he has owned, collected and played banjos since the early ’60s and has lived in two places with a very different array of banjo choices, Reed Martin’s story is a good place to start. Reed, a highly respected banjoist who has the rare ability to play with both sensitivity and power, grew up in Monroe County, Indiana and then moved to the Baltimore area in the early ’60s. He has had a great many banjos, plain and fancy, come through his hands over the years, and his account shows how where you live can make a huge difference in what banjos you come across. Here he talks about the kinds of banjos he found in Indiana versus those he came across in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area:

"I grew up in a poor area outside Bloomington, Indiana where millions of dollars could not buy a decent instrument. Good quality stringed instruments just never made it up the creeks and out the ridges to where the musicians lived. The banjo players there that I found were displaced Kentuckians and Hoosiers who played mail order banjos with the frets yanked out."

By contrast, the type of banjo Reed came across when he moved to the urban Baltimore area were of a more elevated class:

"When I first moved there in 1960 I was shocked by the instruments that people threw out. I had access to the workshop in the family garage, so I started dragging home anything that caught my eye. Old car parts, outboard engines, old sleds, bicycles, etc. were everywhere in Baltimore County, because families there had money and access to instrument companies in the big cities. Growing up in the hills of Indiana, there was not extra money and the only instrument company was Sears. In the Baltimore-DC area in the 1960s, really good guitars and banjos would turn up in the newspapers and at yard sales.

"My first ‘real’ banjo was a Thompson and O’Dell Artist model I found in Towson, Maryland in 1963. I had gone into a garage there to take a look at a 1929 boattail MG and, there hanging on the wall was this very nice 1890s banjo. I didn’t get the MG but I came out of that garage with this banjo. While I was getting the Thompson and O’Dell in playable shape, I drove back Bloomington to visit my older sister. A friend of hers there played a little knock-down style banjo and he had a little barn-red painted fretless that a lady found lying in a gravel road in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1931. I actually learned my first banjo licks on that little red fretless before I figured out how to install a calfskin head on the Thompson-O’Dell. Later, I played [the Thompson-O’Dell] in lots of contests and it was my regular banjo from 1965–1969. Around that time, I stumbled upon my next working instrument, a J.B. Schall. I was working in the Kensington, Maryland Post Office when a large box burst open and spilled out the parts to four or five old banjos. I hand delivered the stuff to the address and, in the end, bought everything in the process. The banjos had once been the property of ‘Banjo Bill’ Bowers, a deceased classical player. I got a banjo together from the parts and played it until I put together the Vega I play now."

Though I was born and raised in the Deep South, my own banjo experience is similar to Reed’s in rural southern Indiana. In the Florida Panhandle and in north central Florida in the ’60s, banjos came in two general types: Gibsons or non-Gibsons. The non-Gibsons, which we sometimes called "attic banjos," often had no identifiable label whatsoever, unless they were from the mail-order companies and had logos such as Kay, Harmony, or Silvertone. The older no-name banjos had lightweight, metal-clad rims and walnut necks that sometimes had a strange V-shaped slot along the juncture of the neck and pot. Now I know they were probably budget models from the turn of the century made by companies like Buckbee, Dobson, and Stewart, but at the time we just thought of them as attic or garage banjos. One of my earliest banjos, which I still have, is one of this humble breed. A ratty no-namer with friction violin style pegs, a thin veneer of ebony for a fingerboard, unreliable frets, and a greasy calfskin head, it literally came from a friend’s grandmother’s attic somewhere in Louisiana. When I arrived at the University of Florida in Gainesville in the mid-1960s some of my friends had other similar simple banjos for old-time music that were typical of what we could get hold of at that place and time. Lawrence Hetrick, who now lives and teaches in Atlanta, was lucky to find a plain but elegant S.S. Stewart Orchestra model and the late Marty Schuman (who recorded Florida fiddler Cush Holston for a University of Florida folklore class), played in a unique finger style on some sort of budget resonator banjo.

If you lived in the Deep South and had a little more money, then what you did was trot down to the local music store and head straight for the rack of Gibsons, not taboo in the 1960s or even the 1970s for old-time music. We had all seen album cover photos of Dock Boggs, Wade Ward, and Clarence Ashley holding Gibsons, so there was certainly no stigma attached to using a resonator banjo. Eric Muller, Gainesville author of a mid –’70s Mel Bay book on frailing, and banjo player with the 34th Street Laundromat Band, got an enviably strong, clear sound on his Gibson Mastertone. When he took up the banjo in the early 1970s, Dwight Rogers, who had taken lessons from Eric, went to the local music store and bought for his first banjo a Japanese copy of Eric’s Gibson Mastertone, an Aria, or Alvarez. He learned to play clawhammer on that banjo and its brash loudness taught him not to fear mistakes. In this small college town, as elsewhere in the South at that time, what we had were the simple old open backs, Gibsons, and wanna-be Gibsons. What we rarely saw were the fine open-back Boston banjos from the turn of the century of the sort that Reed was able to find in the Baltimore-DC area: the Fairbanks, Cole, and Vega masterpieces that became the ideal old-time banjos among banjo players elsewhere.

Brett Riggs (Maryville, Tennessee, recently moved to Carrboro, NC-banjo and banjo uke with the New Dixie Entertainers) also grew up in the South. He still plays one of the simple old attic-type banjos he first got, never "graduating" to one of the Boston aristocrats or to a new hand made old-time banjo:

"Although I like the big, fat, bass-y banjo sound that’s now popular with players working the new, custom-made banjos, I still prefer the edge that comes from some of those old turn-of-the-century instruments with light, spun-over rims. My favorite banjos are Dobsons, although they’re a mixed lot. I play on an old lightweight Dobson that I found in derelict condition in a music store and then reconditioned as a fretless. It is set up with very high action (5/8" over the fingerboard at the rim) and is very lively and punchy. In its early days of reincarnation, it was blessed by Saint Thomas of Toast (AKA Tommy Jarrell) who performed with it at the 1982 World‘s Fair in Knoxville. Its geared tuners were a special Christmas present from Andy Cahan, who was frustrated over my incessant tweaking of its old Champion pegs. I’ve looked for years for its match in a fretted banjo, but I guess that’s asking too much."

The other banjo Brett loves to play illustrates another type common in the South and in backwater, poor areas: the low-end resonator model. Here Brett talks about his guilty pleasure, a Depression era Kalamazoo:

"I think that few banjo players are ever happy with the way their own instrument’s sound—banjos, though subtle as spike hammers, are incredibly moody, and their owners more so. I see lots of banjo jockeying, folks looking for the elusive sound that’s just right. I’ve got an old Kalamazoo with a flat-backed resonator that I bought here in Tennessee from a co-worker of Mike Bryant’s. We were just hanging out, playing tunes, when this guy walks up with the banjo and asked if anyone wanted to buy it. It had belonged to his father but he said that the family was keeping the Martin D-28 to remember their dad by. The price was right, so I snatched it up before it fell into the wrong hands. It turned out to be a ringer for the banjo that Benton Flippen plays. Paul Brown got interested in it and we made a deal. Later, when I was unhappy with my current fretted banjo (another Dobson), Paul sold it back to me. So, just like a dollar goes from hand to hand, a banjo goes from man to man. I really like the Kalamazoo because it is so ugly that it is cool. It is very loud, with a really round sound that is very old-time. I love to pull it out in a conclave of old Tubaphones and Silver Bells."

Sarah Peterson, who plays with several string bands in the Greensboro, North Carolina area, lived out in California while she was learning to play the banjo. She now plays a banjo hand-made by Mike Ramsey, but like Brett she was originally caught up in the spell of a Dobson banjo-one that had somehow found its way out west:

"While I was living in California, I’d been to Marc Silber’s shop in Berkeley a few times and each time I was there I grew more attracted to an old Dobson hanging on the wall. Next to it was inscribed a nick-name, The Great Echo. Since it was in my price range, I found myself writing a check and walking out of the store with my first banjo.

"[That] Dobson was the banjo that I learned to play on. I remember holding it while listening to old records and trying to figure out tunes and I’d often play it to unwind before going to bed. Even though it was no Whyte Laydie, I grew fond of the Great Echo."

Allen Hart (Seattle, Washington-banjo with Hart and Blech) grew up out west in California and had the good fortune to be born into a musical family. The first banjo with which he became intimately acquainted belonged to his father—a decent quality turn-of-the-century instrument, similar to the Dobsons described by Brett and Sarah:

"The year was 1957 and there was always old-time music around the house for my dad played the banjo and the guitar. One day that summer I was left alone for a while and finished playing outside with my BB rifle and had come in to sit down on the couch to rest. As I sat there I looked across the room at the Washburn banjo my dad had at the time and thought how neat it would be to bounce a BB off the head of it. I proceeded to explore. The first shot hit the middle of the skin head, bounced around the strings a few times and off to the wall, glass door and finally to rest ending up on the coffee table in front of me. Cool! After two or three shots of this experiment in physics and geometry, to my horror, one of the BBs went through the skin head between the first and second string and left a hole about the size of a dime. Vivid to this day is what my dad said as he examined the damage. When I told him that my finger had made the hole while playing it, he said ‘Well, go ahead and keep playing.’ So, I have been, ever since."

 

Home-Made Banjos of the South

Before I move to people who started playing the banjo in other parts of the country and to a few who learned to play with high quality banjos from the famous Boston makers, I need to talk a little about home-made or custom-made banjos. Banjos are of African ancestry, and before commercial companies came along in the 19th century, were originally home made out of local woods and animal hides. In the South especially, there were still folks making them this way in the ’60s and ’70s when a lot of us were out looking for banjos. Some were plain and rustic, such as the folksy walnut and groundhog hide instruments made by Frank Profitt and others in northwestern North Carolina, while others sported modern amenities like plastic heads, metal rims and brackets, such as those made by Kyle Creed who lived outside Galax, Virginia. The Creed banjos, associated as they were with a player of great skill and influence, became highly sought after by young clawhammer banjo players in the ’70s and deserve a few stories. His banjos also inspired a crop of younger banjo makers who began manufacturing them in the late ’70s and ’80s. Using Creed’s pot specifications, some makers like David Forbes, Mike Ramsey, and Kevin Enoch even combined the best of both worlds—melding a Southern clawhammer pot with its simple tone ring and large head with the fine fit, finish, and fancy inlay of the gorgeous northern-made banjos of the turn of the century.

Rafe Stefanini, who began to play the banjo in the 1970s in Italy, had first bought an Arthur Smith banjo in a Brooklyn pawn shop, but after a trip to southwestern Virginia, ended up with a Kyle Creed banjo:

"I swapped the Smith banjo for a 12-inch-pot Kyle Creed, from which I’ll never part. It’s particularly dear to me because, of course, Kyle Creed made it. I think it really did shape my sound. It’s exactly what I was looking for at the time, when I was listening almost exclusively to Kyle, Fred Cockerham, and Tommy Jarrell. They were and still are my banjo heroes and I wanted that big bass-y sound that I heard from Blanton Owen, who played a Creed banjo."

Paula Bradley (Lee, Massachusetts—guitar and banjo uke with the Rhythm Rats), lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, but spent a lot of time at southern fiddlers conventions while she was learning to play old-time music. She also lucked into a Kyle Creed banjo:

" I don’t remember the exact year I got it, but banjo was the first instrument on which I played old-time music, and like many folks, I was particularly drawn to Round Peak music and the wonderfully percussive sound of that banjo style. I was fortunate while learning to have a couple of people lend me banjos, but the time had come to get my own. Whitt Mead, one of my early banjo influences and teachers, had a [fretless] Kyle Creed banjo that I loved, [and] I wanted one too. I was able to purchase one locally in Cincinnati from someone who had one and didn’t particularly like it. As it turned out, it had an 11-inch pot and absolutely no tone ring and after a while, I realized that I wasn’t thrilled with the sound. Then [around] 1985, while at the West Virginia Folk Festival in Glenville, I heard that Woody Simmons, the West Virginia fiddler, had a Kyle Creed banjo for sale. The following fall, during a visit with my mother, who was living in West Virginia, I called Woody to see if he still had it. He did! My mom and I went to see him, I played that banjo (fretted, with a 12-inch pot and a tone ring), loved it and it became mine. The funny thing was that Whitt had been trying to teach me to play tunes that he played on the fiddle so we could play together. One that he liked was "Fisher’s Hornpipe," but it was not one of my favorites on the fretless banjo, and I had tried to avoid playing it at all costs. After Woody and I finished our banjo business, we sat down to play some music. He reached for his fiddle, I tuned my new banjo expectantly, and he said "How about that Fisher’s Hornpipe?

"This Kyle Creed banjo has definitely influenced the way I play. It is set up with high action, and is best played over the fretboard as opposed to over the pot. In fact, I can’t play any other style on it but Round Peak . . . it just doesn’t feel or sound right."

There’s another style of banjo made by Kyle Creed that has also been influential on contemporary banjo players and makers. For his friend Fred Cockerham, Kyle made a fretless banjo using a very archaic, slotted peghead style, one of his trademark Formica fingerboards but most importantly, an unusually deep pot with no tone ring. This is the banjo Fred played on the Jenkins, Jarrell and Cockerham County Record series in the late ’60s that was so inspirational to so many of us. In recent years, North Carolina banjo player Riley Baugus has been making banjos based upon this model. Marianne Kovatch, of Greensboro, North Carolina plays a fine fretless banjo of this deep-rimmed type with an ebony fingerboard and tobacco leaf inlay. Tolly Tollefson, fiddler, bass, and guitar player with Old Blue and the New Southern Broadcasters has a similar fretted banjo also made by Riley Baugus. Both of these banjos have the desirable deep, booming sound—it’s a big fat lush sound with a percussive, quick decay that lends itself magnificently to clawhammer playing both for solo or group settings.

 

Folk-Era Banjos

Regardless of where we were living at the time the banjo bug struck, quite a lot of us began playing on banjos that had their origin during the folk music revival of the late ’50s and ’60s. Pete Seeger’s long-necked Vega banjo was the inspiration for banjo players of popular groups such as the Kingston Trio, Brothers Four, and Limeliters. Soon, other musical instrument companies like Gibson as well as those producing budget brands such as Kay, Silvertone, and Framus began to make banjos with elongated necks. Ode, an innovative new company out in Colorado, also made wonderful sounding long-necked banjos with aluminum rims. Bill Dillof (Lee, Massachusetts-banjo, fiddle, guitar with the Canebrake Rattlers and Dave Rice) described his first banjo, which seems to have been one of these holdovers from the ‘60s folk music revival:

"Mine was a Gibson RB-0 long neck, which I received as a gift in 1971. It was my only banjo for about six years and I played everything on it that I was later to play on more traditional banjos. I only set it aside when I joined the Canebrake Rattlers. Though I still have it and it has great sound, it just didn’t have that vintage look to match our music. Kevin Enoch is currently building me a replacement neck for it based on a custom RB-0 played by Uncle Dave Macon."

Bob Carlin (Lexington, North Carolina) also started with one of these extended neck folk era banjos. Bob grew up in the New York City area and started playing the banjo in the ’70s. Bob wrote that he only owned a few banjos but the one he learned on was a Framus long-neck.

 

Resonator Banjos

Kenny Jackson (Fayetteville, North Carolina-fiddle, banjo, guitar with the Rhythm Rats and Big Medicine) began his old-time music career in Bloomington, Indiana a decade or so after Reed Martin. By that time banjos in all price ranges were easier to get. Kenny began his relationship with the banjo with a flirtation with bluegrass in the ’70s. This decade was considered the "dark years" of Gibson and many companies began to copy their banjos, some with more success than others. This era also produced an abundance of foreign made Gibson knock off banjos that were affordable for people just starting to play the banjo. Kenny wrote:

"The first banjo I ever owned was a Japanese-made Vega resonator model that I bought from David Molk in Bloomington, Indiana in 1976. I think I chose it because 1. it was cheap; 2. it sounded and played reasonably well, and 3. I wanted it for Scruggs style playing."

Another banjo player who was originally taken by the lure of bluegrass and banjos with resonators was California old-time banjo player Steve Goldfield. Steve grew up near New York City:

"I bought my first banjo in 1963 from my local music store. I was determined to get a banjo after I heard Earl Scruggs on a Newport Folk Festival LP (incidentally, the first LP I ever bought). I was 16 years old and had tuned my ukelele up like a banjo, and except for a New Lost City Ramblers concert, I had never seen anyone play a banjo in person. My first banjo was a Gibson RB-100 that had a resonator. I knew I wanted a Gibson because that was what Earl Scruggs played and the RB-100 was their cheapest model. My brother took me to Roger Sprung’s apartment in New York, where Roger had the various Gibson models sitting around on stuffed chairs. The reason I wound up going to the store was because I felt that Roger charged too much for the case! He wanted $195 for the banjo and case and I was able to get everything for about 30 dollars less at the music store. That was certainly a lot of money for a teenager in 1963—practically my entire earnings from a summer job."

Resonator banjos were not just the choice of people who wanted to play bluegrass like Earl Scruggs. Many Southern old-time banjo players have preferred them, both for playing in string bands or for solo work. Gilmer Woodruff (who used to play with Benton Flippen and Smokey Valley Boys and with Ernest East and the Pine Ridge Boys) and Will Keys, of Gray, Tennessee, legendary solo finger-style old-time picker, like the sound of a banjo with a resonator. Woodruff played a plain, low-end Style 1 Gibson and Will has always played a Paramount. The Paramount is not a common choice, because they were almost exclusively made as four-string banjos Will’s Paramounts were made in the 1920s, when plectrum and tenor banjos outnumbered five-string banjos by about ten to one. On the banjo for which he is best known, Will simply installed a fifth string peg along the neck in the proper position rather than make a new neck for it. In the early ’90s, he made a neck from scratch for a second Paramount but then removed it when he found an original plectrum neck, to which he added a fifth string as he had done with his first Paramount. He’s gotten used to the thin neck and it just didn’t seem right to have all that space below the fifth string peg. Will has really bonded with these banjos is a way that no one else has. Though they make loud jazz and Dixieland banjos and are highly prized as such, Paramounts don’t project well as clawhammer banjos. Will, however, playing in a unique two-finger style, makes his sing with a rich bell-like tone that recalls the celluloid label inside his banjo’s pot: "Paramount: Piano Volume - Harp Quality Tone."

Others have gravitated to resonator banjos more recently. Kirk Sutphin, of Walkertown, North Carolina, who is equally adept at clawhammer and fingerpicking styles, came by his current main banjo in an interesting way. Kirk has long favored the music and repertoire of his family and home region, the Carolina-Virginia western Piedmont sound, and two of his favorite bands are local groups that recorded in the late ’20s and ’30s: DaCosta Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters and Frank Jenkins Pilot Mountaineers. In the first band, Frank Jenkins of Dobson, NC played banjo; in the second, his son Oscar Jenkins was the banjoist. Kirk collects a lot of things-antique cars, banjos, guitars, recordings, and photographs. In one photograph of Oscar Jenkins that he saw, Kirk noticed that instead of the usual 1950s RB-250, Oscar was holding an older banjo, one that had belonged to his father Frank. For some reason, this banjo, a late ’20s resonator Gibson RB-1, had been sent back to the company in Kalamazoo for repairs and in the process Gibson had replaced its original curlicue silk-screened "The Gibson" with the more modern 1950s style squared-off "Gibson" logo. It looked a little strange and out of place on the old-style fiddle-shaped peghead of the RB-1 and Kirk never forgot it. A few years ago, Kirk heard that H.O. Jenkins of Dobson, NC, who is Oscar’s son, was selling two banjos, one of which turned out to be a 1950s style "flyswatter" peghead RB-250-the nice Mastertone banjo that Oscar Jenkins is shown with on the covers and liner notes of the series of recordings with Fred Cockerham and Tommy Jarrell. Opening up the other beat-up case Kirk found a simple old, non-Mastertone RB-1. He was overjoyed when he saw that its "The Gibson" logo had been removed and replaced with the rectilinear style "Gibson" popular in the 1950s. This, then, was one of the banjos Frank Jenkins had played with the Southern Broadcasters and the very banjo that Oscar Jenkins had played with Jenkins Pilot Mountaineers. Of course, Kirk bought that banjo on the spot and has been playing it for a few years now. It’s easy to get goosebumps as Kirk brings it back to life on the old Jenkins tunes like "Baptist Shout" and "Home Sweet Home" and he’s become so bonded to it that he uses it for everything from parties to dances and fiddlers conventions.

 

Cole, Fairbanks, and Vega: Tubaphones and Whyte Ladies

Folks that lived in the urban East as well as the West Coast sometimes had the good fortune to find quite elegant "Boston" banjos made by the Cole, Fairbanks and Vega companies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These gilded lilies, decorated with fancy wood marquetry, mother of pearl and ivory, were the physical embodiment of a movement to elevate the banjo beyond its humble roots in the rural South. Sometime in the 1960s or ’70s, these beautifully crafted instruments, made with elaborate, ever improving and patented tone rings, came to be the Holy Grail of old-time banjos. Though people like Reed Martin were buying such banjos a few years earlier, Art Rosenbaum’s 1968 book on old-time banjo playing, Old-Time Mountain Banjo was influential. In the second appendix, "What Kind of Banjo Should You Have?," Rosenbaum recommended buying a good old instrument rather a new one. While $50 could purchase a modern mass-produced banjo, he wrote, $200 could net a "really superb old Stewart," and still a little more an early Fairbanks, Cole, or Paramount. Though he discouraged buying a banjo for its appearance alone, he felt that such banjos that have superb sound and "are both beautiful works in both detail and overall lines" were a joy to own and play. Though he felt that decoration could be carried too far he maintained that it is "decidedly inspiring to own and play a handsome instrument."

One banjo player so inspired was Hank Schwartz, a fine clawhammer banjo player now living in California. Hank first heard banjo playing in New York City as a teenager in the late ’50s. There he met Woody Wachtel, a mellow character, who played an ancient fretless five-string in a style he’d learned from Rufus Crisp of Allen, Kentucky. After hearing Woody play, Hank left for college in Baltimore desperately wanting his own banjo. Hank describes how he got that first instrument:

"Woody gave me the names of some good Baltimore friends of his and I soon was a regular at the old-time music gatherings in the little carriage house of Myron Edelman and Lisa Chiera. [At that time] I found a banjo that had belonged to the owner of a shoe store who’d played classical music on it. It was a pristine Fairbanks #2, still strung with gut when I purchased it from the shoe store owner’s estate for $75. They had been asking $90 but I was a relatively poor student and they graciously took pity on me. When I asked Mike Seeger, who was at that time a regular at Baltimore music gatherings, whether that was a good instrument, he said he figured that it would do fine."

Allen Hart wound up with another Boston-made beauty of the gilded age, a Whyte Laydie, one of the most sought-after banjos among old-time banjo players all over the country.

"I have played many banjos over the years, but for the power, tone and quick response, my all time favorite banjo is my Whyte Laydie #7. Even after three banjo cases, two skin heads and a relationship of 25 years with this banjo I still love it."

Banjo player Chris Battis, who lives in northern California and who spent many years in Colorado, found a refined Yankee banjo in a western city:

"I’ve always been a serial monogamist as far as instruments are concerned and have rarely owned more than one banjo at a time. For the longest time, however, my main banjo was a gorgeous 1923 Vega #3 Tubaphone that I found in Denver in unused condition for about $300. Later, in 1973, I sold it for $500 when I was living in Nashville and needed the money so that I could move back to Colorado. Guess it seemed like a good idea at the time."

Not everyone who lived in the urban Northeast immediately came across superior quality banjos at bargain prices. Ken Perlman, the well-known and highly skilled melodic banjo picker began his musical career with a funky imported instrument before finding his way to a hybrid of higher quality:

"I managed to do pretty well with a Japanese cheapie, though I do remember feeling embarrassed when I began to go around to sessions because it seemed as though everyone else had Whyte Laydies, Tubaphones, Orpheums and such while I had this nasty no-name thing. But, I held to it for several years until the tension hoop actually stretched out so that putting tension on it actually caused plastic heads to break immediately. My next move was to get a pseudo Whyte Laydie conversion. It was actually a Little Wonder pot with a modern Whyte Laydie style tone ring from Mike Allison in Providence, Rhode Island. I played it for a number of years and it was actually the banjo I played on the Melodic Clawhammer recording that Bob Carlin produced."

Another northeasterner, Rusty Neithammer, who lives in the Philadelphia area, also began with a low-end instrument before gravitating to a banjo of more aristocratic lineage:

"My first banjo was actually a birthday present from my mother to my father, sometime in the ’60s. It had a resonator, bluegrass style, and I think it came from Sears-Roebuck and it appeared to be of Asian manufacture. My mother must have thought that he was inspired enough by hearing the theme for the Beverly Hillbillies TV show to want to learn bluegrass banjo. Of course, he never touched it. I dragged it out of the basement when I started to play in the mid-’70s, yanked the plywood resonator off the back, stuffed a sock in there, made a case out of 3/8 inch plywood that looked like a coffin for a small animal and I was in business. I took that thing everywhere for a few years, and wore deep ruts in the fingerboard behind the first and second frets.

"After a few years, I decided that ‘real’ banjos had pegs that went straight back, not out of the side of the peghead as they did on the Sears banjo. After college and having saved up some money, I ran into my next banjo at a music shop in Zionsville, Pennsylvania. It was made by Paul King and was supposed to be a (loose) copy of a Fairbanks Electric. It has a nice sweet sound, a properly shaped peghead and nice Planet pegs that went straight back. After a few years with this banjo, I decided that my fingers were too fat for the narrow neck and fingerboard and that I needed something with a wide neck and board."

About seven or eight years ago, Rusty’s next banjo came to him by way of Greg Hooven. Though Greg grew up in Galax, Virginia, for years people like Roger Sprung had been trucking in fancy banjos from the New York area to sell at his booth at the Galax Fiddlers Convention. Perhaps Rusty’s next banjo was one of these. Rusty describes it:

"My next banjo was a 1914 or so Fairbanks No. 2 Special, mostly all original parts, and the neck is nice and wide, and of course the pegs go straight back. The fifth string is also not a Planet. It is the banjo I play today and I’m really happy with it, although at times I feel the third and fourth strings can be a bit weak sounding. My only tone adjustment devices to modify the banjo’s sound are a custom bridge made by Jim deCava and a dirty paper towel stuffed in the edge of the neck where it joins the rim, as I was wearing away the wood so that the ends of the frets stuck out and were beating up my thumb."

For some of us a particular banjo has made an indelible mark on our playing, shaping the kind of tone we want to hear. Though today she mostly plays a beautiful looking and sounding new banjo made by Kevin Enoch, Molly Tenenbaum, of Seattle, Washington had the following to say about her old Tubaphone:

"My Tubaphone has a 1927 ‘Vegaphone’ pot with a reproduction neck made in the early 1970s, I think, by Doug Unger. The flower pot inlay on the peghead is the loveliest I have ever seen The large round piece of shell has a pinkish-gold glow to it. There’s a star inlaid in the heel that only I ever see. I love having such a pretty secret.

"My Tubaphone taught me how to play. It was the first banjo I ever had that cared how I hit its strings. It didn’t respond easily at all. I had to push hard, at particular angles. I had to find ways to make the strings pop out from under my fingers. I’ve always felt that this banjo wasn’t loud enough. I’ve envied all the loud banjo players I’ve heard—the ones that splink and splank like popcorn over the top of everything even in large sessions. I’ve tried everything to make my banjo louder—-heads, strings, bridges, tail pieces. But I’m not a banjo set-up expert and I gave up. I do know that the strings have to be just so: 11, 23, 16, 20, 13. It’s still not very loud but, boy, do I have control over the tone. I realize that the tone cuts through the other instruments in a subtle way. It’s deep and rich and no other instrument has a tonal quality that competes with it. So maybe volume isn’t as necessary as I once thought it was. No other banjo has evoked such strong feeling for me. It was the Tubaphone that made me a banjo player."

Reed Martin has played a number of banjos over the years but always returns to a Vega Tubaphone, on which he has kept the resonator. This banjo story is also a reminder of how banjo necks and pots can be separated and reunited.

"In 1971 a local older musician, Joe Winn, gave me his old #9 Vega Tubaphone 5-string. I had bought a "Vegaphone Artist" tenor that was gold but with no engraving back in 1964 for $25. When I tried to give Joe Winn the tenor in trade, he said, "I don’t like the yellow color," so we traded necks. I got the 1923 original neck and I stuck it into my 1923 original gold shell. I was playing a lot of dances, so the resonator stayed on to increase the volume and I got used to having it on. Mostly these days I play the Vega Tubaphone when I want to play with power and clear notes. That’s my preference. I love to hear Dan Gellert play the fretless banjo and I love to hear Ken Perlman play intricate chromatic tunes, but I knew Pete Steele and Dorothy Rorrick and somehow I think of my style as an attempt at blending both strength and speed. This Vega #9 and I have reached a mutual respect. It speaks best for me."

 

Downward Mobility

As Bobby Smakula noted in his article "Are We Not Banjo Players?" that appeared in the last OTH, some banjo players have taken another path in the search for tone . . . you might call it a downward path. Like the music of Devo, their route has been de-volutionary. Instead of taking the onward and upward evolutionary course towards the acquisition of more finely made and more expensive instruments, devolutionary banjoists are on the lookout for simpler and more primitive banjos. Such people are no longer completely enamored of a lush ringing tone but have developed a taste for what Karen Linn has called that "half barbaric twang." The right banjos to get a staccato plunk are often spartan looking contraptions—low end and budget commercial instruments as well as catch as catch can home made banjos made out of various handy objects like ham cans and cigar boxes. Chris Battis describes his current favorite banjo, a Kalamazoo hybrid made from the pot of a Depression-era budget brand instrument. Like Brett Riggs, Chris admires both its straightforward looks and sound:

"My present banjo and my all-time favorite is a Gibson/Kalamazoo, their bottom-of-the line instrument that they made between 1935 and 1941. I’m not sure why I bought it sight unseen on the Internet since I had a very nice Tubaphone. This Kalamazoo is a very homely child compared to one of hose New York or Boston ‘uptown’ jobs, but I love it more than any instrument I have ever owned. I used to spend hours setting up my fancier banjos to get an approximation of the old-time sound I was looking for, but the "Kazoo sounded like an old record the very first time I heard it. I now have it set up with fairly high action, medium strings, and without its original resonator. To imagine the sound, think Clarence Ashley. There’s that same ‘pop’ to its sound. It takes a bit more work to play than a Tubaphone, but for the tone I do get, I could never go back to one of those ‘nice sounding’ banjos. In all fairness, my style used to be more ornamented and playing the Kalamazoo has brought me back to a more unadorned sound."

In the end, whether they like a finely crafted classy banjo, a plain and humble instrument; an old mail-order banjo, or one made by a contemporary craftsman; a banjo with a resonator or a banjo with a groundhog hide head-many people emphasized the feeling that it really isn’t the banjo itself that is responsible for the tone but something within the player. While he was working at the Smithsonian Institution Reed Martin had an experience that illustrated this truth. Somehow or other he had stumbled into a storage area and come across a battered banjo case with a dusty derby hat sitting on top of it. Inside was a funky Depression era Gibson RB-11 with a stenciled "pearloid" neck and resonator. Excitedly, Reed lifted the banjo out of its case, tuned it up, and tried it out. It was a real shock for him to discover that it sounded terrible-thin and whangy. He didn’t sound at all like Wade Ward even playing Uncle Wade’s very banjo. Reed concluded that it’s not really the banjo that makes the beautiful sound, but rather the process of the player and the instrument together reaching a mutual respect:

"When I found Wade Ward’s Gibson—it was indeed a Gibson, but the cheapest one they made, with a tone ring similar to a Kay, I tried to play it. It was horrible. For Wade Ward, that banjo sounded sublime, but for me, it just would not make music."

In a similar vein, Steve Senderoff made the following observation about banjos, players, and tone that I think makes a nice conclusion to this collection of banjo stories. His remarks nicely summarize the most important thing about banjos, or for any instrument, for that matter. Even though a banjo is like a machine with its cold, mute, metal parts, the sound it makes really comes from the heart of the player:

"I have concluded that a banjo’s characteristic tone will appear only if you brush the strings gently with your bare fingers perpendicular to the plane of the head-and defining a 90 degree angle to the strings and move parallel to the plane of the head on a downstroke. When you play the damn thing, however, all hell breaks loose, and it is the skill of the musician that determines the tone, not the banjo. I have found that I can get any tone and volume out of a banjo that the musical setting requires or that I feel like contributing after about two times through the tune on any strange banjo. I use this time to adapt my body to the banjo, but whatever tone I obtain, people will tell me is still recognizable as me playing and not someone else. So, ask yourselves this question: ‘why did I buy that stupid moon bridge when the most important hardware was my ear and my heart?’"

Gail Gillespie is a musician living in Carrboro, NC. She plays in many groups including the Herald Angels and the New Southern Broadcasters.

<<<Return to 8-1 Index

The Old Time Herald PO Box 61679• Durham, NC • 27715-1679
Phone (919) 286-2041
info@oldtimeherald.org webmaster@oldtimeherald.org
•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••