Saturday, January 11, 2014

My Banjos, My Banjo Collection, and My Banjo Playing

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My banjo playing has changed over the years.  It’s always been brash and loud, using a “sledgehammer” approach – as Ken Perlman once described Dwight Diller’s playing.

Dwight has talked to me of the way his own playing has changed, largely referring to the manner in which age transforms capabilities, alters the flexibility of digits, and begins requiring some accommodation with physical realities. 

I feel and see some of those changes.  Well. OK, I feel and see a lot of that in the changes I’m discerning.  But I’m also sensing some real changes in sound preferences. 

Moreover, I’m now aware that I play different banjos in different ways.  I prefer nylon strings on some of the banjos, though I keep one equipped with steel and prefer the way that one sounds with metal strings.  But I find myself shifting my right hand angle of attack and my left hand work with each of my four remaining banjos, something I thought was the result of the different string types but now believe  results from a very different sense of how each banjo needs to be cradled and responds to touch in unique, individual ways. 

This whole experience of shifting and drifting from one preference in banjo configuration to a completely different model prompted me to take stock of my thirty-year drift through modern and vintage banjos. 

The result was an 8,000 word essay that looked at each banjo I could remember; recalled something about when, where and why I acquired that instrument; how I used it; and how long it lingered in my arsenal before being moved back into circulation in a sale or a trade. 

I’m not going to pile all those words into this blog.  I’ll attach the entire essay to my Banjo Hangout web page as an article.

Here, in this little blog, I’d like to trace out my odd trajectory through the universe of banjos, and suggest that this was, for me, a useful, cathartic writing exercise.  It was probably possible for me to undertake this exercise because my collecting was confined to a ten year period, because I did not amass a major arsenal of banjos, and because I kept notes, documents and references from which I was able to assemble this recollection. 

My first 5 string banjo, in the 1960s, was a long neck Bacon Belmont.  My Mom and Dad surprised me with that gift on the occasion of my Junior High School graduation.  I played that banjo hard until the 1970s when I drifted toward guitar.  I hauled that banjo with me to Southeast Asia in the mid-1980s and when I came back to northern Virginia, field stripped it with the goal of rebuilding it, but soon lost interest.  I told this banjo’s story at:   http://www.littlebearbanjo.com/about.html

So, I launched into the banjo world with an interest in playing, in banjo repair and elements of banjo building, and soon acquired a taste for collecting.

Sometime in the mid-1990s I purchased a Mike Ramsey Standard open back, which started me out on a thirty-year odyssey of buying and selling and collecting and trading modern and vintage open back banjos.

By the mid-1990s, I had joined the Capital Area Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association, CABOMA, met John Huerta and Don Rusnak, two great old time musicians and serious vintage banjo collectors.  We constituted the Arlington VA Banjo Lobby, and together traveled to Clifftop, local concerts and festivals, and the annual Banjo Collectors Gathering where these two friends impressed upon me the miracle of resurrected vintage instruments, the playing marvel that they represented, the musical (and market) value they carried with them, and the joy they imparted as collectables (“big costume jewelry”). 

I took the Ramsey with me on my first trip to the annual August Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia in 1995.  There I met many great banjo builders – including Lo Gordon, Mike Ramsey, and George Wunderlich – and many, many banjo collectors – including Ed Haggard, Phil Gura, Jim Bollman, Larry Marcus and others.  And I got the chance to wade through the banjo inventory of venders such as Bob Smakula, Ed Haggard, Steve Shelton. 

At Clifftop, I met and played many of Lo Gordon’s banjos, and eventually engineered a deal for a custom Cedar Mountain Dwight Diller banjo – trading in the Deering Sierra as partial payment.  I asked Lo to build it out of cherry.  That project took a year.  I picked it up at the next Clifftop string band festival.  I sold that banjo to a friend sometime in the early 2000s.  I know he still plays it.  I also know the cherry wood has aged elegantly.

In the late 1990s/early 2000s I began collecting British banjos.  I selected British banjos as my quarry for very basic economic reasons: they were cheaper, fewer, and indisputably less interesting (at the time) to the majority of American banjo collectors meaning that I had a virtually clear and open field uncluttered by the high rollers who dominated the American vintage banjo market during my ten or so years of active collecting.

I accumulated about ten British banjos, including five patent banjos, from the 1870 – 1890 period. 

Sometime between late 2005 and the end of 2006 I began disaggregating the British collection.  I recall one evening having the feeling sweep over me that as nice as these banjos were, and as unique as they were, sitting on their racks in my basement banjo room they were little more than large pieces of costume jewelry.

Sometime in 2006 or so I played one or two banjos build by Jeff Kramer that were designed specifically for Dwight Diller.  Dwight wanted a travel banjo, a banjo that would break down easily and assemble with little trouble.  I remember playing that one.

I contacted Jeff Kramer and, on the basis of a one day opportunity during the winter of 2006 to play Dwight Diller's Cloverlick banjo, I asked Jeff to work with me to come up with an equation for an open back banjo with a slightly shorter scale than "normal."  He did all the hard stuff, like talking me out of eccentric scales, guiding me through his thinking about wood choices, explaining his clever tone ring alternatives, and laying out for me the engineering behind his approach to building necks that fit Tony Pass rims.  

In  2009 while we were still living in northern Virginia I purchased a banjo from a student who had gotten his hands on an unnumbered prototype by custom builder Jason Burns of Alabama.  I was really drawn to the prototype from the moment I saw it.  Jason’s banjo was responsive to a variety of touches.  Sometime during 2009/2010, I laid out an idea for an A scale banjo that I wanted to get for myself upon my retirement in 2010, and Jason jumped on the idea, offered cogent comments on design and setup, scale and neck/pot construction. I received my second Jason Burns banjo around July 2011.  I featured the retirement banjo on my blog:

The long and short of it is that I spent a lot of time playing 11 inch open back rims.  And I spent a lot of time playing 12 inch rims.  About a year ago I drifted away from 12 inch rims back to the more compact sound of the 11 inch rim, and then recently stumbled into the smaller rims of these two Vegas. 

In July 2013, Glenn Carson, an old friend, traded me a Vega Little Wonder pot with excellent Wyatt Fawley maple A scale neck for a Nate Calkins fretless. 

In November 2013 I purchased a Vega Little Wonder with a Wyatt Fawley neck.  Nice piece of work. 

The A scale rim measures 10 inches in diameter, and the G scale banjo measures 10.5 inches in diameter. 

I feel more comfortable with these slightly smaller rims, and the sound seems much more manageable to me.  In fact, I get the sense that the sound I hear in the driver’s seat is the same sound that is projected forward to whoever might be listening.  I know that there’s no science to this, but to me the smaller rims seem to give off a more honest sound, a sound that registers the same whether you are in front of the banjo or in the back in the operator’s shoes.   

*** 

Tracing my trajectory through banjo time and space was a useful way for me to order my thoughts about the kind of sound I was looking for, and what I needed to do to get to that sound.  I suppose I could say, now that I’ve sorted through this (in writing), and shaken the cobwebs out of my memory about each of these banjos, I can clarify my goals and start collecting again.  However, the reality is I’m happier now with my few go-to banjos than I was when surrounded with two or three dozen instruments at the height of my banjo accumulating phase.

So what’s left in my arsenal?  My Cloverlick, the Bart Reiter Tubaphine, and the two Vega Little Wonder/Fawley Necked Hybrid mystery banjos. 

A good friend, Norm Peterson from Wyoming, once said that we never really “own” our banjos. 

We just “rent” them for varying lengths of time.

See pics of a sampling of banjos that have moved into and out of my arsenal over the last 30 years, below.

Play hard,

Lew










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