The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. Gottschalk compared to Sam Pride or Charley Rhoades, is as a Dashaway cocktail to a hot whisky punch. When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!
– “Enthusiastic Eloquence,” San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, 23 June 1865
I glued the fingerboard to the neck blank for the salad bowl banjo this morning, and later glued the heel/dowel stick section to the neck. I hope to find a few hours tomorrow to get going on shaping the neck.
I had planned to overlay some zebra wood on the peghead and on the neck behind the fingerboard – simply because I had it and it’s really nice looking wood. I’ve been rethinking that idea, though. I don’t think the banjo needs it.
I’ve rough-cut the wood I’ll be using for the banjo neck. Next step is to laminate the pieces and then start the shaping.
For the second photo I’ve laid out the pieces pre-shaping but you can imagine from the layout how the banjo will look when completed. The heel will go through the bowl and out the other side…for the photo I simply laid the bowl on top of the heel piece. Lots of work ahead shaping the neck.
The neck and heel piece are ash. The fingerboard is rosewood, and I’m putting a zebrawood overylay on the peghead and on the neck behind the fingerboard. The bowl, made by Jamie, is maple and the tailpiece is antler. I was going to use bone for the nut, but I’ve cut a piece of ebony and I might use that instead, or perhaps a piece of bone with a bit of ebony behind it as a decorative element.
My friend Jamie and I are working together on two salad bowl banjos, one for each of us. Jamie started by turning the first bowl.
It’s going to be a pretty big pot – about 12 inches. He’s also fashioned a nice tailpiece from antler. Jamie dropped those elements over here the other day. I’m starting the neck this week. It’s going to be ash with an ebony fingerboard. I also have the piece of wood to the left in the photo. I’m not sure what it is. It comes from the offcuts bin at Exotic Woods in Burlington Ontario. I bought it because I thought it would be good for making banjo bridges. Now I’m thinking I might also face the peg-head with this too.
The construction will be similar to a gourd banjo. The neck will have a “dowel stick” that will extend through the salad bowl. Shaping the neck is a good deal of work but but fairly straightforward as it is not highly intricate. The challenge I think will be getting the holes in the salad bowl just right so the neck fits in at exactly the correct angle. The nut will be bone (I have some for the purpose) and the pegs will be ebony violin pegs. I have a bunch of those on hand.
The head of the banjo will be goat skin. It will be stretched over the bowl in a similar manner to gourd banjos, using upholstery nails. I sourced the ones we want today and will pick them up this week.
We don’t know if the bowl will need sound holes or not. I suspect the answer is likely yes, but we don’t have to commit to them just yet. First there is lots of work to do on the neck. We also have to decide on a peg-head shape. That decision will have to happen soon.
I’ll post progress reports as this project comes together.
This is me, practicing an Old Time standard known as Lost Indian. There are lots of different versions of this one, and even some very different tunes that use the same title.
I’m playing my Bart Reiter Standard banjo in open G tuning, with a capo on the second fret – playing in the key of A.
I thought tonight I would feature Joe Newberry here on 27th Street. I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Newberry at the Midwest Banjo Camp. I took one of his classes, all about a maneuver called the Galax Lick, along with its applications.
Joe Newberry is a fine teacher. There were perhaps 15-18 people in the class and in the first 5 minutes he learned everyone’s name. “I hate teaching from a name tag”, he said. He teaches by ear. He demonstrates it, talks about it, demonstrates it, talks and demonstrates some more and then he plays it and you play it and he plays it and you play it and again, and he walks the class and if anyone isn’t getting it, he plays it close up and you play it. In less than an hours and a half I had learned a technique and it’s application in a tune, which I also learned. Great teaching. “Watch mother”, he’d say, “watch mother”. It was impressive.
Mr. Newberry is a fine player too, on banjo and on guitar. Here’s one of his performances I found on the YouTube machine – Rocky Island.
Here’s the group photo from Midwest Banjo Camp 2014. I’m in there somewhere. That is one big stringband. If you click on the photo, you’ll see it at a more reasonable size. Faculty are to the front. This was my first banjo camp experience and it was fantastic!
My experience at the Mid-west Banjo camp kick-started my learning and since I returned home I’ve wanted to play and play and play. With that kind of immersion experience you get exposed to a lot of ideas, but most of them require plenty of practice to make those ideas part of your playing.
I’ve been learning clawhammer in isolation and suddenly I was exposed to jamming. Wow, was that ever fun! It really changed my whole experience of the music. I’d love to play with other people more often. Meanwhile, I’ve been working on adding some new tunes and ideas (to me at least) to my little repertoire.
I love learning new things, and when I take on a new challenge I like to jump into it with a lot of effort and enthusiasm. I started playing music – button accordion – in my early 40s, and now over the past year and a half I’ve jumped into playing clawhammer banjo. I’m encouraged that I can hear my playing improve and the more I improve the more I want to learn.
I’ve been writing a bit about banjo camp – let’s go back a bit. You see the Detroit skyline from the Windsor side – I took that shot Wednesday night. Thursday morning, I proceeded through the tunnel to America. Not so fast. First I had to get into the country.
Where are you going Sir?
What’s the purpose of your visit?
Attending the Mid-West Banjo Camp
What is a banjo camp sir?
It’s a gathering of folk musicians in which experienced and well-known players help others improve their skills.
Where did you hear about this banjo camp?
It’s not that big a community. I read about it on a website.
When was the last time you were arrested sir?
Apparently I failed to convince the Customs guy I was a clean-cut kid, because he asked for my keys, and searched my bags, went through my clothes. Another guy came and he was doing something around my fenders, I guess trying to detect contraband. I should note that they didn’t bother to search my banjo case. I guess they couldn’t bear the thought of seeing an honest to goodness banjo up close.
Eventually they let me take off on my merry way. I immediately missed my cut-off to highway. I stopped to ask a City worker for directions.
You want to go to Lansing?
Well, the good expressway is closed.
Is there another way?
It’s not as good.
I’m not choosy…I’ll take what I can get.
He gave me directions but I didn’t do a great job following them because I soon encountered signs telling my my highway was about to close. However, there was a detour and there were lots of signs. It was like going on an automotive scavenger hunt. Find the next sign. Follow instructions. Hope for the best.
Eventually, I made it to Lansing, and made a beeline for Elderly Instruments.
Elderly is holy ground for folk music freaks, and especially for those who play stringed instruments. They have a huge selection and they also have a huge repair shop (this isn’t to say I couldn’t have found a great banjo at home – I bought my other banjo at The 12th Fret and it is an excellent store. However, the timing was right and I was going to be in Michigan and I wanted to visit Elderly, and…..). I was interested in checking out some banjos. There were 3 or 4 in particular I was interested in playing, and two in particular. I didn’t see those two out on the floor, so I asked a friendly Elderly employee.
They’re gone to banjo camp…
Oh I see, you’re setting up a store at the camp.
Oh yeah, a big one.
OK, I guess I can play those instruments at camp, because I’m on my way there.
Yes, you can do that, but wait here a minute….
She wandered off and came back a few minutes later.
Come with me.
We trundled downstairs and into the repair shop.
You’re not allowed in here.
She introduced me to a couple of the repair guys. We continued on into the basement.
You’re not allowed down here.
She pulls out a box containing a Bart Reiter Standard, one of the instruments I was interested in.
You’re not allowed to play this until we set it up, ok?
She handed me the instrument.
I’ll get you a tuner.
It’s OK, I happen to have one in my pocket, along with my capo.
I played this banjo for a while, then my new friend at Elderly handed me another instrument, a Bart Reiter Round Peak model, a banjo with a bigger head. I messed around with both of them and told her I liked the Standard model quite a bit.
I’ll get the guys to set it up for you. Meantime, we also have the Pisgah you’re interested in. That one needs set-up as well.
She sent me off to have lunch at a near-by cafe. By the time I got back, both banjos were set up for me. I had earlier played a few other banjos, but I really liked these two. The Pisgah Rambler is a gorgeous instrument with a spunover metal rim and a fingerboard made of Richlite, a paper-based, resin-infused material used in countertops.
The Pisgah is made in North Carolina, while Reiter makes his banjos in Lansing Michigan. I really loved both banjos, and in fact I liked both of them better than some of the much higher-priced banjos in the store. I’m not all that fascinated with fancy inlay-work or anything like that. I’m more interested in a banjo that has a sound I really like that I really love to play.
The Reiter has what you might call a plunkier sound, or some people might say a more “old-timey” sound, and the Pisgah is a little bit brighter – it has a 12″ pot (compared to the 11″ pot on the Reiter) and that gives the sound a different character as well. Both are excellent banjos. As it happens I needed another banjo. I’ve learned recently there is a formula for the number of banjos you need. It’s all mathematical. The formula can be expressed two ways. The first is X+1, where X=the number of banjos you currently own. The second is S-1, where S=the number of banjos that finally cause your significant other to declare, I’ve had enough, and toss you out onto the street. It’s a delicate balance.
Let me cut to the chase – I bought the Bart Reiter Standard. Tough choice, as I really loved both. I asked the folks at Elderly if they would install a railroad spike in the 7th fret for me – this is very small bit of hardware that allows you to use it to fret the fifth string when you capo the first 4 strings. Many people add a few spikes – I have that on my other banjo – but I only ever use the one on the 7th, so that’s all I asked for on the Reiter. They did it up for me right away in the repair shop at no additional charge.
With my new banjo loaded in the car, I headed for Olivet. Finding the camp was easy enough. The college is just past the main drag in town. I checked in, brought my stuff up to my room and found my way over to the cafeteria for dinner.