My 5-String Banjos
One's banjo is an essential part of the enjoyment of making music. Beginning with my most current banjo I'll reveal some of the features that make each one unique and special. My tastes in banjo sometimes vary. A nice thing is that you can sell and replace it -- one banjo doesn't have to be a lifetime commitment. But banjo players still joke about BAS, Banjo Acquisition Syndrome!
The features I look for are playability, looks, tone, and weight. A playable banjo for me has low action (close strings to the fret) and has a neck that's not too long. Its tone is clear and bright, but also mellow and records well. It's beautiful to see and feels good to hold -- well-balanced and not too heavy. With each of the following descriptions I've tried to share what is special about each banjo.
The first custom banjo I've ever had made is also an artistic masterpiece. I asked Ryan Navey of Carolina Banjos to make a short-scale, hookless rim banjo with custom carvings. It has a hide head and nylgut strings. The wood is cherry from his native region and the tone ring is rosewood. It's beautiful and fun to play.
It may seem silly, but my banjos have a name. "Adah" was given its name by the luthier's daughter, meaning "Beautiful Addition" in Hebrew. Adah is a Doc's Banjo and the work Doc Pat Huff puts into his banjos makes them heirlooms. Here are the specs. He brought woods from Africa and harvested oak from his Oregon home. This video shows the possibility of playing both styles I like -- 3-finger picking and clawhammer. When I broke my shoulder bone Adah was the short scale banjo that let me keep playing during recuperation.
This banjo was built by Mac Traynham of Willis, Virginia, who I met at a jam. He trained under Kyle Creed and this 25 1/2" openback with hide head and nylgut strings is ideal for old-time clawhammer. It uses a Whyte Laydie metal tone ring, known for its brightness. In this video I'm playing a tune Mac himself might play, as it came from Albert Hash, a fiddler from Mac's locale. And here's a video with an original tune about a special place in my neck of the woods. You can hear the banjo's lovely tone and see the elegant simplicity and solid work by Mac. He used walnut and mahogany wood and the inlays show off abalone's beauty.
The Gold Tone cello banjo is unique with its deep bass and sustaining tone. Because I played cello in school orchestra, I was drawn to having a cello banjo. It provides nice harmony and accompaniment with my Mac banjo and plays solo pieces, too, as in the MP3s Across the Plains and Dick's Handspike, as well as in the videos.
After seeing and hearing Adam Hurt in his Earth Tones CD I wanted to try a gourd banjo. I found a small scale oak model made by Robert Browder of Virginia. Its tone is as earthy and comforting as I'd hoped. The fretless neck offers interesting slides. The history associated with it is fascinating. From West Africa to the West Indies and now to me in the western part of the United States, the gourd banjo is still going strong. Listen and look at my little Gordo.
The Wunder Banjo
George Wunderlich is known for his precise techniques of copying the method a luthier would have built a minstrel banjo in the 1800's. I was lucky to acquire the banjo he built for Debbie McClatchy, who portrayed Lotta Crabtree professionally. Coincidentally when I got the banjo I was also portraying Lotta at Pioneer Day, so it was destiny that the banjo would come to me.
The tone is deep and mellow. The strings are actual gut strings and the friction pegs work well. I can't help but be a part of this old history when I play the Wunder Banjo. It resembles the Bouchet banjo in the famous painting of a called The Banjo Player by William Sydney Mount.
I have since sold this banjo to someone who will use it for educational presentations.
A mini-banjo is handy for traveling and this Gold Tone "Plucky" model has good tone. The wood is maple, known for its brightness. It rings like a bell, especially when using picks. The tuning is usually at open C or D or double F or G to correspond with standard banjo tunings, raised four steps. It's often an octave higher than my cello banjo.
Bart Reiter banjos are known for consistent quality. The looks and tone are sought by many and I was lucky to get this maple Whyte Laydie openback. It's used as my main performance banjo because it's loud enough and has a bright tone. The detailed gryphon inlay is a historic design, over one hundred years old. Funny, but I got Cookie at Gryphon Music. It was a rare find and has had hours and hours of use, but is still a beautiful and great-sounding banjo.