Thursday, May 14, 2009

Keying a Paramount

28-29 January 2008

During the summer of 2003 I met Will Keys following one of his performances at the annual Smithsonian folk festival held on the mall in Washington, D.C. These are pretty informal sessions, so I strolled up to the stage when I saw him cradling his banjo, preparing to sheath it in its case, and told him that I though he did great music. I asked whether the banjo he had in hand was the plectrum he had converted into a 5 string, famed in song and story. Indeed it was, he told me, as he lifted it out the case, and handed it over to me in a supreme act of banjo generosity.

I cradled this banjo, inspected the fifth string peg he had fixed to the side of an old Paramount plectrum neck, admired the intriguing architecture of the Paramount pot, and gave it another once over with my eyes. I don't recall whether I strummed it or banged at the strings. I was less interested in the sound than the excavation on the side of the neck that accommodated a simple metal tuner. Unfortunately I don't recall much about the pip, though photos now mounted on BANJO HANGOUT homepage site belonging to Bill Keys, Will's son, show some perspective on both the fifth string peg and pip, and offer some views of the pot and the peghead, too.

Bill has posted some notes and recollections about his Dad that are readily available on his homepage, and are worth reading. Also worth reading is another web page labor of love by some friends of Will's:

In separate email correspondence in mid-2007, Bill told me that Will purchased his Paramount in 1971 at a music store in Bellflower, California while he was visiting his daughter, whose husband was stationed at the USN base in Long Beach. Will's daughter appears to have accompanied him to the music store. Imitating a modification he had seen on a banjo belonging to Carl McConnell, Will reconfigured the Paramount to accommodate the fifth string. Bill told me that his sister has the banjo, and that it remains at a family home in Gray, Tennesee.

It would be about 5 years before I developed a full blown case of Paramount banjo obsession, to the point of stockpiling parts and pieces, buying hulks off of eBay and keeping an inventory of projects, investing in some of the media and memorabilia and historical documentation about William Lange, amassing photos of banjos, seeking out like minded devotees, attempting to track serial numbers, and accumulating a record of his patents.

And it wasn't until late January 2008, about the time of my own 56th birthday, that I felt I knew Paramounts well enough to try this modification myself, and that I owed myself a birthday present.

Paramounts intrigued me first as architecturally unique banjos. The rims represent an evolution of innovations from the minds of William L. Lange and William P. Rettburg, patented acoustical experiments and shapes that emerged in the period from 1920 to late 1930. The tailpieces were uniquely cammed inventions themselves, and also emerged in an evolution of ideas from the late 1910 to the early 1930 period. The rims are weighty, sturdy structures built as archtops, configured so that metal pieces run in intervals across the top of the rim toward the metal tone ring, forming compartments that must have represented some great theoretical design intended to make clever use of space, air and the juncture of metal and wood to produce a unique sound.

I confess to having little of an engineers' or designer's understanding of what Lange and Rettburg intended in structural and scientific terms when they organized their thoughts and applied for their patent. If anything, I have more of an intuitive sense of what emerged from their experiments: an extremely bright sound that lends itself well to all sorts of playing styles, especially up picking, in my opinion.

So, after several practice runs on old maple necks that I keep around the shop for precisely such eventualities,, I took the simple Style One Paramount I won in auction, detached the copy plectrum neck, mounted it in the fangs of a well padded portable vice, squared it up with a level, secured it to the platform of my drill press, selected the right and pre-tested bit, and slowly cut into the neck to excavate the hole for the fifth string peg, right where the 4th fret meets the fifth, as close enough to the photo of Will's own work as possible.

I pre-tested seating several different kinds of fifth string pegs, looking to find something that might match the original Page tuners (not from the Style One, but painstakingly accumulated in my search for Paramount artifacts). I eventually settled on the simplest all metal peg, resembling what Will selected for his project, possibly because the part of the peg that would anchor into the neck was shaped cylindrically, could be seated by screwing the mechanism straight down into the neck instead of cutting a hole for a modern generic fifth string peg, wider at the mouth and narrower at the bottom of the shaft, which I thought would likely be harder to accomplish on a narrow plectrum neck.

I selected an old ivoroid pip, possibly off of an old Fairbanks, large enough to exceed the height of the fret alongside of which it would be anchored, mimicking what I could figure out was the specs for Will's banjo. I had to cant it slightly to the left side of the fingerboard, and drill the hole close to the purfling, always a risky proposition, but the stem was thin enough so that I was able to seat the thing securely without doing structural damage to the fingerboard. The fifth string runs a bit close to the 4th, far enough away to allow good clawhammering and accurate downstroking in up-piacking patterns, but close enough to have to concentrate on getting finger positions right the first time.

This turned out to be a surprisingly playable banjo. There's basically enough room for right and left hand fingers to find their way around the flight deck without bumping into important things. The scale is right. I might experiment with a slightly lighter gauge, slap a calf skin on the thing. I've been reluctant to do so because the clear skin allows visual access to a very squared away interior, with all sorts of intriguing angles and structural contrasts between distinguished old bolts and rim wood, the gleam of the nickel plated tone rim and the metal pieces that create those air chambers that characterize the Paramount rim.

I suppose I attempted these modifications largely to see whether they were possible, and would yield a playable, serviceable banjo. I did not have to engage in prolonged agonizing over whether to cannibalize an antique, since the banjo came with both the original neck and a very reasonable facsimile of the plectrum neck that the original owner had apparently duplicated for a reason that is long buried in the recesses of banjo memory. I had thought about doing the job, and tossing it on eBay as a target of opportunity, but I think I'm going to be playing it for a while before it goes anywhere, if it goes anywhere.

It's given me the Will to play, so to speak.

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