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.