Author: Martin, George

Is that a cannon in your banjo case or are you just happy to see me?
 

It is the curse of the banjo player that they come apart so easily.

You buy a guitar, you are pretty much stuck with it. You can change the strings, maybe get the action adjusted. I think there are some luthiers who can go in through the sound hole and shave the top braces if you really want to get crazy. But basically, the guitar is the guitar is the guitar.

Ah, but a banjo is part instrument, part machine. Nuts and bolts, chunks of metal, castings, a wood rim and wooden neck. All can be taken off and swapped for something else. I guess the tailpiece is the easiest thing. You might install D-tuners so you can play “Earl’s Breakdown” and the other G to D-tuning tunes.

A few steps up the seriousness ladder are the tone ring and the wood rim -- the source, so I read, of most of a banjo’s tone. The wood of the neck affects it some: mahogany, maple and walnut seem to be the best woods to use, but each has its own effect on tone.

When I bought my Gibson banjo back in 1969 I had been playing an English Clifford Essex openback, not a bad instrument but the wrong one for an aspiring bluegrasser. I didn’t have the money for a Mastertone, so I sold my 1958 Fender Telecaster for about $300. This was before “vintage” Fenders were any kind of a big deal. I just looked on Ebay and that guitar is worth somewhere north of $20,000 today. I console myself that I have had a bunch more fun with the banjo than I would have had with the Tele in my closet all these years.

The Gibson banjo I bought, from a fellow in San Francisco, was what they call a “bow tie” Masterone, meaning the peghead looks kind of like a scaled down Les Paul guitar. The Gibson logo is in a modern script.

I knew nothing of such things at the time, but it turns out Gibson was not much focused on banjos in 1964 when mine was made. Quality had pretty much gone in the toilet. The rim was thin and the tone ring just hung out over empty space in the inside of the pot.

I was happy with it because the action was good and it was so much better for learning bluegrass. But after a few years I got the hankering for a banjo that looked like the one Earl Scruggs plays.

A friend introduced me to Richard Johnston and Frank Ford, co-owners of Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto. They already were partners in a little instrument building and repair business but hadn’t opened their store yet. Richard lived in Berkeley and Frank somewhere on the Peninsula. We started talking about redoing my banjo.

I originally just wanted a new neck, but Richard pointed out the deficiencies of my wood rim and suggested a new Stewart-McDonald pot. And they had a tone ring that Keith Little had traded in on some banjo-swap deal. I was already a Keith Little fan and thought it would be cool to have his ex-tone ring in my banjo, so the deal was struck.

I believe my neck set a world record for construction delays. I ordered it in 1973 and I got it in 1975. It wasn’t all Richard and Frank’s fault. Richard told me later that he carved out the neck and it began to warp. “So I tossed it up in the back window of my car and I drove around with it about a year or so, summer and winter, and when it finally settled in the shape it wanted to be, I planed the fingerboard flat and finished it.” The neck has been totally stable ever since.

The neck is a joy to play and the tone and volume were much improved over the factory version. Also the neck is a beautiful piece of flamed maple.

Flash forward 25 years or so to an elevator at the Galt House hotel in Louisville during IBMA. I happened to be riding with Keith Little, and in making small talk I remarked that my banjo had his old tone ring in it.

“You should hang onto that,” he said. “It’s an old Kel Kroyden.”

That didn’t mean much to me, but a few years later “Kel Kroyden” banjos began to appear on the market, and in reading about them I discovered that Gibson made less expensive banjos under that name for Montgomery Ward during the Depression and into the war years.

Turned out when Montgomery Ward declared bankruptcy and folded, the KK name became available, and it is now used on a line of Asian-made banjos built to look like the old “Monkey Wards” versions.

But -- and it was a big but -- supposedly the original KKs had only wood rims, or sometimes a brass hoop under the head. The old ones, I was told, never had tone rings.

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time (too much, really) at banjohangout.org, where there are endless strings of discussion about tone rings and bridges, and tailpieces and strings, etc. etc. Insidiously, the idea of doing something to my banjo began to sneak into my brain. I really should be content with my banjo. It’s a good banjo. But it always has bugged me that it doesn’t sound as good as Mark Hogan’s banjo, which is pretty much my benchmark for the perfect banjo.

But where to go? Really the only options were a new tone ring, or a new rim. I decided to seek out the provenance of my tone ring, and e-mailed Keith Little. He remembered it well, and said he had obtained it in a deal with Steve DeHass, who was either the first or second president of the CBA.

Mark Hogan helped me track down DeHass, who is now a professor at Sacramento State University. He remembered the original banjo, and said it was definitely a 1940s Kel Kroyden. You’d never mistake an old KK for any other banjo since they had “mother of toilet seat” fingerboards and pegheads with painted “inlay” and the resonator backs were usually painted in cream and blue with red and other colors in the designs.

Then I read about the concept of “floor sweep” banjos. During World War II brass for tone rings was unobtainable and Gibson (which was making wooden kids toys in its Kalamazoo, Mich., factory at the time) scoured its factory for any parts they could assemble into banjos. That is why there are some odd-bird 1940s banjos out there that do not appear in any catalog.

I think that’s how the Kel Kroyden got out the door with a tone ring.

And that tone ring, I fervently hope, was one of the Holy Grails of banjo players, the “pre-war Gibson” tone ring. I can’t prove it, but it seems likely.

So, sez I, maybe I should try a new wood rim. I thought about the ones Tony Pass makes out of old submerged wood that sank in the Great Lakes during the logging days. It’s so cold and lacking in oxygen down there that the wood doesn’t decay. For the past ten years or so divers have been bringing up the big logs, carefully drying them and using them for fine furniture and banjo rims.

But I settled on an Old Factory Floor rim from First Quality Musical Supply in Louisville. These rims are made from heavy maple floor boards taken from a New England textile mill that was built in 1880 and torn down a few years ago. The trees were maybe 200 years old when they were cut down, which means they grew in the “Little Ice Age”. That means the growth rings were very tiny and close together and the wood was dense and resonant.

So a few weeks ago I packed up the banjo and shipped it off to Kentucky. As I write this yesterday, the UPS truck has just dropped it off. I unpacked it and as soon as I started to tune it up (First Quality had shipped it tuned down a few steps) I could hear that the instrument was much louder than before. (I’m sure all my band mates and picking friends will be delighted to hear that.)

When I got it tuned and went into my banjo testing laboratory, otherwise known as the bathroom, wow, the notes were clearer and more bell-like, and they didn't “fuzz out” high on the neck like they used to. I would be still in there picking, but this column is due tonight and I don’t want tobrave the Wrath of Rick Cornish.

I think I now have what banjo players call, “a cannon.”

Life is good.


And now for something completely different and not bluegrass-related

I’ve been cleaning out my mother’s house in recent weeks, since she went into an assist
 
Posted:  11/12/2009



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