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The banjo has a captivating sound and is fun to strum even without knowing the first thing about music. That is partly because it is normally tuned to an open chord. Plucking or strumming the strings makes a harmonious chiming sound that makes us happy. Just a few minutes of experimenting will often lead to a real experience of making music. It is not hard to play banjo. The strings are light and easy on the fingers. The chord positions are relatively easy, with only 4 strings to worry about.
I encourage beginning students to start with a focus on learning the basic chord shapes and first get comfortable with playing the changes in time to some favorite or familiar songs. You don’t need to worry about picking at first. That comes gradually and naturally when you are ready to add interest to your rhythmic playing to the chord structure. I think you can have fun with simple strumming until you just cannot resist the urge to put on the picks and incorporate those roll patterns.
I won’t say that the banjo is better than any other instrument, but I will say that there is is room in this world for a whole lot more banjo players. The sounds produced by banjos can be low and growly, bright and cheerful, deep and resonant, slow and mournful, or quick and lively. I believe there are techniques still to be discovered in playing and that the banjo is an excellent vehicle to express oneself.
What about the downside of banjo? People joke about the banjo, giving it the reputation of being hard to tune. Banjos can be very heavy; banjos are expensive; banjos can only play bluegrass. Lucky for the banjo, there are innovators of current times solving the problems that have been voiced about the instrument for decades.
Modern banjo construction, especially from Nechville minimizes tuning problems through innovations like the in-line tailpiece, finer tuners, compensated bridges, built in capos, and the teaching of techniques for proper string installation. Nechville also has openback and bluegrass banjos starting under five pounds in weight. While the Nechville brand is a premium, professional level instrument, you can still contact us for the very best deal on lesser expensive options like used instruments, and import models sold by some of our suppliers. We want to help you get started, and even help you acquire an affordable alternate brand starter instrument. After almost three decades in the business, the Nechville brand has become so established that there are always options available with used Nechvilles as well. This is great news for the majority of aspirants who recognize the advantages of high quality and easy playability on their progress.
If you have been thinking about becoming part of the fun of being a player, I encourage you to pick up the phone and call us at either 747-222-6567 or 952-888-9710. We are ready to be your personal banjo consultant in taking the “Nech” step into the world of banjo fun!

Jack, James and Bela

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I wrote the following reflections on the way home from SPBGMA 2017. This Bluegrass showcase and award show attracts bands and fans from the heartland of America.  Music City Sheraton in Nashville has been the home for this annual pilgrimage for many years. Having lost its leader, Chuck Stearman last year, the event continues to offer opportunities to jam with great players, try out instruments and reunite with old friends.
For me, it has been a great place to meet and help people with setup and repair which led to my role as official workshop presenter this year with Jack Hatfield’s SPBGMA banjo clinic. Jack has organized the SPBGMA workshops for years and always provides a great value by bringing in the top teachers and talented players to share their skills with the rest of us. 2017 marked a banner year for the  SPBGMA workshops; the world’s most renowned banjo player came and graciously delivered well thought out ideas tailored especially for the Bluegrass participants.

As a musician dedicated to improving the status of our beloved instrument, my hat goes off to anyone who goes out of their way to do the same. That basically means I am thanking guys like Jack; festival and workshop coordinators, teachers, performers, jam hosts, philanthropists, our banjo customers and students. As small as the banjo world is, it is filled with a huge percentage of passionate friends who are helping the raise the awareness and stature of America’s instrument. 
I care about this partly because it is good for business to spread awareness of the banjo, but mostly because banjo is fun, cool and healthy for people. Famous people who comment on the banjo either perpetuate the instrument’s backward stereotype or they can educate the public on its merits. Listen to Steve Martin’s interview with Johnny Bair from the banjo museum for example. Steve articulately describes his reasons for playing and loving the banjo.  We can use more advocates with the recognition power of Steve Martin telling the benefits of banjo to our world. We all can imagine the implications if the masses started playing music, and particularly banjos.
So in the spirit of expansion of banjo awareness, I am thanking everyone in the banjo world for your support and participation.  The more recognized you are in your sphere of influence, the more potent is your message.  Here I focus my accolade to the banjo community by singling out three respected individuals who each have very different stories, but came together at that moment SPBGMA workshop in the spirit of advancing universal banjo camaraderie.  
As mentioned, Jack is a tireless advocate of the banjo and probably the worlds most prolific author of banjo instructional books. His mind is always fixed on ways he can help students of the banjo improve themselves. Jack lives to play and works hard just so he can facilitate the sharing of banjo knowledge and skill. I was heart broken to see and hear of the fire that stole Jack’s business and life’s possessions. His inventory of instruments, storehouse of books and accessories were completely lost during the recent wildfires that swept through Pigeon Forge Tennessee. As workshop coordinator, Jack’s misfortune did not diminish his effectiveness this year. Quite the contrary. Jack pulled together a world class teaching roster and prepared a day of banjo learning that I will not forget. His own teaching style is straightforward and always emphasizes the right sequence of learning which I think is of utmost importance.
I first encountered James McKinney at Nashville’s Station Inn in 1990.  He was the banjo king of the Sunday night Bluegrass jam. As a newcomer hearing the power of James’s exuberant playing pretty much froze me into an amazed stupor. It was a year later and I was practicing in my IBMA hotel room when I was challenged by the familiar strum of Dueling Banjos from the balcony above my room. I cautiously replied, “strum-strum-strum-strum-strum“. When we reached the fast part, I recognized the insanely brilliant flurry of notes that James is famous for.  Over the years since, we have judged banjo contests, taught side by side and even followed each other on the stage of Jack’s Smoky Mountain Banjo Academy concert.
James is chock full of musical and technical knowledge relating to banjo and is a great instructor. I personally have benefited from James’s clear teaching, jamming and great stories told when relaxing. As Jack tells me, James is the one banjo teacher that everybody can learn from. James is dedicated to advancing the state of banjo playing and expanding the voice of the banjo in bluegrass and acoustic music. Hats off to James who teaches that hard work in the spirit of fun and self improvement really pays off.
The music of the 5 string banjo is rooted in the hills of Appalachia where both James and Jack come from. Both are passionate about Bluegrass and at the same time share the vision of an expanding role for the banjo in all kinds of music. This is our common thread. It runs to Minnesota where instruments are made with an eye on the future and to New York where the passion of hearing “that sound” across a spectrum of music describes an individual whom this article is about.
Bela, having dedicated his life to a vision we all share, continually remembers and respects the roots of the music and the musicians growing from them. What deeper gesture of respect is there  than to take time to come to the most traditionally minded music event in the country to reinforce that bridge between tradition and creativity?  Bela Fleck was way cool in his approach of treating the primarily traditional Scruggs based players as we are all in the same boat, (although we really know who the captain is).
Bela used simple Scruggs rolls and basic fingerings to unravel some very characteristic aspects of his Bluegrass playing. He gave us all insight about his own musical journey and showed examples of how he might practice as to make it not so boring. He revealed ideas and thoughts and little discoveries that inspired him along the way, and explained them all without the need for fancy chord names or technical terminology. He was prepared with worksheets and it was evident that he had given the challenge of teaching his style to intermediate players a lot of thought. As Bela’s legacy continues to unfold, I am so gratified to see him delivering such an inclusive and welcoming presentation to the Bluegrass banjo community. In addition to, his role as world-class composer and virtuoso, it is so great to know that we share the same love of the instrument and the players sprouting form its roots.
Well done workshop Jack. Thanks to all my setup participants. Bluegrass is definitely better off because of Jack, James, Bela and you. Hats off all you guys and gals!

The 2017 Banjo Quiz

20160824_165255How many of the following statements do you agree with?

As soon as you come to a question you doubt strongly or disagree with, you are finished and free to move along.

Based on my experience in the music business, I’d say you have less than a .01% chance of getting to the bottom of the list. If you happen to be one of the chosen ones that makes it all the way, congratulations!
You may have just discovered one of life’s keys to happiness.

Musical Survey- Do you agree with the following?

1. Music is important in life.(If you are already a musician, skip to question 7)

2. Human beings are wired to play music.

3. Participation in musical activities is healthy and fun.

4. I imagine that playing an instrument might be fun for me too.

5. Learning is not easy, but I am up for a new challenge

6. Music challenges the brain and keeps you growing mentally.

7. I prefer folk and acoustic music over commercial pop.

img_01238. Acoustic instruments can be played anywhere, any time.

9. Groups composed of guitars, mandolins, fiddles and banjos can make nice sounds.

10. I know of at least one other musician in my area that I might interact with musically.

11. It is easier to learn a second instrument after knowing one.

12. The banjo is a great in good hands, dangerous in others.

13. For the most part, banjo and guitar are related.

14. The banjo has 4, 5, or 6 strings.

15. Good banjos are easier to play than cheap ones.

16. Banjo players sometimes spend too much time tuning and adjusting.

17. Having consistent even tension on a banjo is important for best sound.

18. Getting the best banjo for the money aids in learning progress.

19. Nechville has updated the banjo’s playability, comfort and reliability.

20. There is such a thing as a versatile banjo tone.

21. Nechville banjos are the most versatile as to range of tonalities.

22. No other banjo is as easy and foolproof to adjust and service.

23. If a Nechville sounded right and was priced right, I’d want one.

24. I should learn more about Nechville 4-5 and 6 string banjo offerings.

25. Tom, Al and Brett are waiting to help me find the right instrument.

26. Getting exactly what I want in a banjo means a worthy investment over a lifetime.

If you made it this far, Congratulations! You are one in a million.

Please click here to receive your no obligation quote, or simply pick up the phone and call. We love it when a new Nechville picker is born!

Meet Merry- A Holiday Celebration

In his quest for perfect banjos, Tom Nechville doesn’t stop with mediocrity. Especially in his more ornamented creations, like Merry, there must be a magic combination that inspires musical power the hands of a musician.  In Tom’s words, “It is relatively easy to create good sound, but in the world of pro banjo, good is not good enough. This is where the mixture of art and science meet folklore and faith.”

Here Nechville has combined his now famous Helical Tone chamber mounting, or Heli-Mount construction, with specially selected old-growth woods and spared no expense in adding the festive details that make this banjo so happily cohesive as an instrument.
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Merry, the holiday banjo was originally inspired by a gift of sparkly Christmas tree binding made by noted banjo artist, Greg Rich. Since Tom liked playing Christmas music, he decided to make a banjo that would depict Holly and Ivy rather than candy canes and Santa Clauses to create a flowing natural design. He hired inlay design by Ken Bennett to create the fingerboard and headstock artwork. The level of detail on the inlay gave rise to the need for some modest carving and color on the neck and resonator, so Tom called upon his old friend, Ron Chacey to do that handy-work.

13221429_10153441181966751_5829368171201242214_oThe process of building this banjo spanned more than 7 years. Tom Nechville painstakingly digitized and programmed the artwork for production on Nechville’s CNC router and handled all aspects of building and assembly. One particular challenge he overcame is his use of sparkle around the sides of the peghead that matches the binding.

Finally in early 2016 she was done except for the finishing touch of finding the perfect bridge, a critical component that often gets overlooked by banjo builders. Tom’s 2016 trip to Israel with his wife and church group afforded him the chance to find some special bridge wood from the Holy Land. Tom’s group was granted special 13346609_10153473357596751_5090884424890148411_npermission to enter the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane.  The main feature of the garden is its grove of 2000-year- old Olive trees. Upon noticing a small stack of branch trimmings under one fenced off tree, Tom turned his thoughts to whether Olive wood would work in a banjo bridge.  Just before exiting the garden, Tom turned around to take a look behind his bench. There, bigger than life was a 3-foot long stick with interesting patterns on the surface of the wood just barely wide enough for making bridges.

Upon returning to the shop, he found that natural Olive wood did not suit the tonal characteristics he was after for Merry, but that baking the wood somehow gave the perfect result.

13217592_10153441182026751_5713998421096330342_oMerry is a masterpiece to behold and a delight to play. It is on temporary loan at the American Banjo Museum and is currently for sale. Inquiries can be directed to tom@nechville.com. Additional Information about innovative Nechville instruments can be found at www.nechville.com.

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First I thank my travel mates Al Price, Rick Sampson, Tedd Williams and Lawrence Levine. What a fun crew to hang with. We stayed at the main hotel connected to the convention center. Since the World of Bluegrass moved to Raleigh, the city itself has extended the atmosphere of Bluegrass into the streets. So that even on our occasional walks outside for coffee or meals, we were constantly breathing air filled with Bluegrass.

The immersion experience reminded me of our stays at the Executive Inn in Owensboro, Kentucky more than 2 decades ago. Problems and realities of everyday life were temporarily suspended for a week while we lived in a compimg_0092letely different world of music. Not just any music, but the kind that is hand-made on the spot between good friends from all around the world.

Of particular joy to me as a supplier of instruments was hearing the results of my labor. I saw and heard how more and more musicians are noticeably refining their sound with instruments that I have built or set up. Ryan Murphy with Old Salt Union sounded great on his Phantom. Matt Menefee rocked with David Greer. Tim Carter his Bang Bang Band showed their stuff. It was great hanging and jamming with Eric Yates from Hot Buttered Rum, a very entertaining San Francisco group. I also met another young band called the Plate Scrapers with Derek Kreitzer on his newly set up Classic.

Other notable highlights included Molly Tuttle with Wes Corbett on banjo and Mile 12 with Catherine BB Bowness and her tasty style. Silvio Ferretti and his group Red Wine has a fantastic new CD that they were promoting, just one of a growing number of International bands appearing at IBMA. The Carivick Sisters from the U.K. were there with Charlotte’s new banjo playing husband John Breeze. John is an old friend, active in the British Bluegrass scene.

img_0123It is a week worth trying to attend if you have never experienced it. Agents, promoters and professional musicians can’t miss the early week business conference and trade show networking opportunities. The jammers and fans have plenty of chances through the weekend to participate in some spirited live music all around the town of Raleigh.

Enterprise Bridge

Nechville Enterprise Bridge

THE BANJO BRIDGE…

is at the heart of making your banjo work and it is the real key to your banjo’s sound. No doubt you are aware of the vast differences that different bridges can make. Through my thirty plus years of building bridges, I still marvel at that fact.

Nechville makes bridges to the highest standard of care and professionalism. We consider every aspect of bridges imaginable, such as mass, shape, grain orientation, density and chemistry to arrive at the absolute best answers for most banjo players.  While it is not always an easy or obvious choice, consultation with a Nechville rep often leads to a relatively inexpensive overhaul of your banjo’s sound and playability. It may be that something as simple as a bridge customized to your banjo is the best thing you can do for your money.
Before ordering any bridges from Nechville, you are advised to learn all you can about bridge selection and banjo setup. Through the storehouse of knowledge available through our website, you increase your chances of selecting the right bridge. You may learn just enough to finally make the perfect decision on what kind of whole new banjo might be in your future. Watch Nechville postings and website events calendar for upcoming events where our knowledgeable reps can help you in person.
THE ENTERPRISE BRIDGE…
is the result of many years of research and experimentation. When starting out, I had no clue how difficult it was to create a great banjo bridge. Happily, I persevered in my quest and today the compensated Enterprise Bridge has worked its way onto many of the world’s best banjos. Made from hand selected and properly dried Maple and ebony, it’s the only bridge made available in so many various weights and heights between 9/16 and 7/8″ and from 2-3 grams. Let’s take a close look at the bridge’s function and break down all the important features that we consider in making the Enterprise bridges for optimal performance.
HOW BRIDGES WORK
A bridge placed between vibrating strings and a banjo head transmits small pressure variations at the frequency of the note being played. If you imagine the movement of a string during just one cycle of vibration (which normally occurs hundreds of times a second), the down and forward pulling pressure of the bridge on the head is greatest as the string’s fundamental main swinging arc reaches its greatest distance away from the string’s still position. At the peak amplitude of the string, the head is pushed in and the air in front of the banjo is slightly stretched out.
We will call the string’s resting position zero. As the string passes by zero, the downward and forward pressure on the head is temporarily reduced, allowing it to raise slightly causing a compression wave in the air. The string swings to the other side to once again increase the pressure on the bridge, resulting in perpetuating waves of compressed and decompressed air that our ears hear as sound.   When you consider that the bridge  also rocks back and forth as well as riding up and down in reaction to a vibrating string, the motion of the head becomes more complex and is able to communicate much more sonic complexity.
All strings vibrate in the fundamental way mentioned, but simultaneously also in harmonic sections of 1/2. 1/3. 1/4. 1/5th and so on of the string’s length. You can actually find all the notes of a chord built from the main note of the string when you listen the harmonic content of a string’s vibration.
COMPOSITION
Obviously, a bridge can be made out of anything but through experience we have learned that medium density woods with a good stiffness ratio tend to work the best. The top edge of the bridge is normally made from ebony for creating a durable surface for the strings to rest upon. Too much ebony will increase weight and stiffness of a bridge, which tends to mute some of the high overtones,  decrease volume, and add sustain.
In my opinion, weight of banjo bridges should always be between two and three grams. At the two gram end, you will find a “Grassy” tone with a quick staccato attack and swift decay. You will be able to hear a lot of harmonic content to the notes, and the sound will be bright to your ears. At the three gram end, the sound will be much richer, because of muted high harmonics less punchy attack but more sustain. The right weight for you will likely fall in the 2.5 area. The most common bridge wood is medium density maple. The wood must be well dried, and of sufficient density to arrive at the target weight without having to thin the bridge down too much.
WOOD GRAIN ORIENTATION
All wood has annual growth rings that affect the wood’s stiffness and also the resulting sound from a bridge. The first and probably most obvious specification is that the entire length of the bridge needs to run with the direction of the wood grain. That means that end grain will appear at each end of a bridge. When viewed from the end, you should be able to see the faint lines of growth rings.
The number of growth lines in not as important as their orientation in the finished bridge. These annual growth lines must run as closely as possible to parallel to the banjo head surface. You might imagine correctly that the resistance to a sagging motion might be optimized by having the growth rings in vertical (perpendicular) orientation to the head. This may be true, but the banjo likes the bridge to have some degree of flexibility across its length. The sound is noticeably better from a bridge with flat-sawn (parallel) grain orientation.
SHAPE IS CRITICAL
In my experience, I’ve learned that the size and shape of the bridge will greatly affect the resulting sound as well as playability.
bridge2Thin bridges are normally not ideal. They often sag and cause playability issues. Thin bridges will also dig into the head more, sit lower than a bridge with a wider footprint and generally have a harsher tone.   I like having 1/4″ or so of width contacting the head. The bridge should taper up very gradually as to have a sufficiently sturdy top thickness.
Most bridges are exactly flat across the top and flat across the feet. You may notice that guitar bridges are made to allow a bit higher action on the bigger strings to avoid buzzing strings. For this reason, we can keep playability lowest on the strings that we often do lead playing on.
The resulting shape for ideal action on every string is a bridge top that bows upward toward the center, leaving the third and fourth strings a tad higher. For every change in height or thickness, you must remember the overall target weight between 2-3 grams and choose density of materials accordingly.
CORRECT FOR INTONATION
The next concern that crops up is the intonation issue. When you install a bridge with the previously mentioned arched top edge, the higher third string will gain noticeably extra sharpness since it must travel farther when being pushed down to the fret. Without a compensated scale on the 3rd string, it is impossible to find a spot on the head where every string frets in tune with its harmonic chime at the 12th and 19th fret. Even without the arched top shape, the third string is still prone to go sharp when fretted compared to the other strings due to its thickness.
The simple answer is compensation. A longer scale for just the third string needs to be shaped into the bridge by design, creating the compensated and radiused shape of the Enterprise bridge.  The wound fourth string needs less help due to its thinner core.
SMILEY BRIDGES?
There is some talk about shaping the feet of the bridge to fit a along parabolic curve so that the down pressure on the bridge will cause less sagging. It is my finding that an optimally tightened head requires no such radius, but very slight relief sanded toward the outer parts of the feet is routinely done to even out the pressure on all three feet of the bridge.
What can and does happen with too much curvature of bridge feet is that it temporarily concentrates the pressure on the center foot, but does nothing to prevent further sagging and eventually causes a permanent sag in the head where the bridge sits which can diminish the potential amplitude of the banjo.
IN SUMMARY
I’d like to suggest that you use this information in your own bridge making adventure. We have successfully made bridges out of different woods and in totally different shapes with success. My recent experiments with wood roasting and use of rare exotics have produced some exciting new material possibilities, inspiring me to write this comprehensive article. We at Nechville continue to be there to serve your every banjo need.
Stay Tuned! Tom
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Nechville Acoustic Harness Pickup System

At Nechville Musical Products, we are happy to see the banjo reaching far beyond its original bluegrass roots. With added stage volume and new (sometimes electric) instruments being introduced into the mix, the challenge of providing banjo amplification solutions is also growing. We are currently and continually experimenting with solutions that meet today’s current challenges.

Our goal when electrifying banjos is simple- plug and play. We want no issues with feedback or strange sound, no matter how big the stage is or how many drums and guitars you have to compete with. We also want the acoustic sound to be easily retained or brought back for acoustic and studio sessions.

The signal from a banjo outfitted with a pickup is typically sent to a house PA system through a direct input (DI) box. The DI provides a low impedance signal via XLR cable so that the signal isn’t lost or degraded on the way to the engineer’s board. This can also be accomplished by plugging into an amplifier with the ability to send the sound to the house PA. This allows direct control over the tone and volume of the your amp, which acts as a monitor. However, it may complicate the feedback issue, depending on the features of your particular amp.

Amplifying acoustic banjos introduces a new set of challenges. There are many factors to consider. Will you need an expert repairman or luthier to install it? For most players, they would prefer to limit the time and expense and do the installation themselves.

Current solutions battle ease of installation with loss of acoustic sound. If your acoustic tone is lost or altered it is not a great solution. Mounting a magnetic pickup to the coordinator rods, or in the case of a Nechville banjo to a removable brace, is less intrusive to the acoustic tone. This does, however, often produces an amplified tone with too much of an electric guitar flavor.

A piezo pickup produces a signal with an amazing ability to create a natural, airy tone. It does a great job of capturing the essence of the banjo sound. A piezoelectric pickup carries a very high impedance signal and is most effective when properly buffered by a circuit placed as close to the signal as possible.

A piezo operates differently pressed up against the head of a banjo as opposed to under the bridge on an acoustic guitar. It can fail to capture the rich low-mids associated with the fullness of a banjo, and end of sounding thin or “tinny”.

mtrbodySM

Nechville Meteor Electric Banjo

The Meteor Electric banjo was designed in the 1990s with the aid of Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, Eddie Adcock and others. It is truly a plug and play instrument. It allows the user to blend the best of the magnetic and piezo sound. The smaller head on the Meteor allows for an authentic banjo tone but limits the surface area of the vibrating membrane to reduce the chance of feedback.

Recent research and development at Nechville has currently led to an acoustic banjo pickup that utilizes the same dual pickup technology designed for the Meteor electric banjos. The combination of the warmth and balanced magnetic signal with the articulate and bright piezo signal is the solution that Nechville has built into their state-of-the-art dual pickup called the Acoustic Harness.

Special electronics have been pioneered that allow the vastly different signals from the piezo and magnetic pickups to be blended on board the instrument. Once an ideal balance is achieved at the source, there is no need to continually adjust it. You can be confident you are getting the source sound you’ve dialed in every time. Fine tuning, volume and EQ adjustments can be made by the sound engineer or through your own preamp or personal amp.

Installation of the Acoustic Harness is easy. There are at least two ways to mount it in a Nechville banjo. After optionally adhering one or two thin metal inductors to the head, the Harness drops into place and is held securely by the wedge fitting action of telescopic legs that rest in the gap between the tone ring and head. The pickup adjusts up and down and is fixable anywhere along the mounting legs. A jack body and bracket is provided that securely mounts to the outside of the Heli-Mount frame which can stay there even if the pickup is removed.

Contact Nechville to stay up to date on our latest offerings. We also provide custom installations ranging from MIDI/synth pickups to simple piezo or magnetic installations for many stringed instruments.

What Is a Banjo Bar?

This article was sent to us from renowned French banjoist Fred Simon

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fredsimonThe other day, when my old friend CC from Nashville asked why I couldn’t hang around, I said “Banjo Bar.”  He said “What’s a Banjo Bar?” and I knew I should’ve kept my mouth shut. A Banjo Bar at Fred’s puts a serious smile on your face and gets your feet tapping, but it’s a challenge to describe properly, plus CC wasn’t invited, so lacking an elevator pitch, I just said “I’ll tell you when you’re a little older, Son” grabbed my hat and skedaddled before he grabbed me.  But on the long drive over to Fred’s, I tried to figure out how to describe it to CC or anybody else, especially if they’re not invited.

It starts with the place. As you get there late afternoon, you go around the corner from a castle; follow the guys with gig bags over their shoulders down a winding narrow street, kind of shadowy, to a house with light green shutters and a light green door, almost hidden under vines reaching up to the second story. If you get close and squint, you can see the name under the bell: “Fred Simon.” Once inside the main room, the view immediately dazzles as you look out onto the deck, like the bow of a ship headed south over a sea of sunflowers, the far shore being the watershed line of this particular continent, where the propellers of a wind farm spin slowly in the distance. At that point, most of the action will be taking place between the countertop island in the main room – loaded with bottles and glasses and nibbles– and the deck – garnished with gig bags – where a couple of banjos, guitars and a fiddle will be going. Someone will be singing oldies like “You Are my Sunshine” or “Downtown” while others lean on the railing, or relax on chairs, enjoying the good sound. But the concert hasn’t started yet. Far from it! Here at Fred’s, folks customarily greet each other with a song and some picking. This is just the appetizer. Fred’s place has a down-to-earth aspect where first things come first: namely the food. Fred worked in his family’s restaurant in his younger days, and this man knows how to feed his friends – heartily and efficiently – and then kick off the concert on time. But you’ll eat what everybody else does, pretty much extended family style, maybe sitting down at one of the tables, standing by the fireboard, leaning on the countertop or perched on the landing of the hardwood staircase – lined with a dozen stringed instruments – leading up to the studio.

Once folks are fed, no dawdling, Fred coaxes everyone downstairs to the concert level, which merits a description. At the bottom of the stairs the floor space is the same as the main room. On the left (street side), no windows, because the house leans up against a hill, so a couple of stone arches keep the hillside out of the house, and form a backdrop for the stage area. On the right, you’ll find another deck with a pool built into it. You’ve got basically the same view to the south, but by this time, it’ll be dusk and the lights of the wind farm will be blinking on the horizon. Below the deck, a garage opens to another street. So if you get the picture, this house on a hill, between an upper and a lower street, has three levels: concert/pool level, jam session/food & drink level, studio/bedroom level.

Meanwhile back at concert level: around 9 pm, forty or fifty people settle onto chairs, benches, couches and cushions to take in the concert. Of course that dang post in the middle of the room is a little tricky to see around, but as it holds up the rest of the house, folks tolerate it. Anyway this is the Banjo Bar, in a friend’s house, not some fancy-dancy, thousand-seat auditorium. And here, folks share music, and sometimes so many are playing at once that the musicians overlap into the audience area. In this homey, welcoming, relaxed and generous atmosphere everybody chips in to cover the cost of food and drink and to remunerate the performers – all top-notch and literally within arm’s reach of the listeners.

And though all good things must end, the close of the concert simply means the start of the jam session, usually with a migration up to the kitchen level for some refreshment. Now anything can happen, for example in November last year Russ Barenberg was there for the concert, along with his wife Susan Kevra, vocals, and their friend Rachel Bell, accordion. After the concert, up at the kitchen level again, I was sitting in the middle of the main room on a straight back chair facing the deck where Nasser and some others got started on percussion with a North African feel to it – relaxed, but energetic – and feet started to tap. Flap got the stand-up bass thumping just behind my left ear; Rachel was seated to the right of me and felt inspired to fire up the accordion; Susan brought out a clarinet from somewhere and bluesed a B-flat from it that floated over my head and latched onto my ear whiskers; Patrick started clacking the spoons just in front of me and my feet were a-jiggle. Then Fred went to picking his banjo just to my left. My feet felt like tapping, but there was no point, as my chair was keeping the beat all on its own, and I just hung on and found myself surrounded by a jam session. It must’ve been Remy’s fiddle that tipped the balance, because that music just lifted me and the chair about three inches off the floor. Fred noticed me hovering, and picked up the tempo. Everyone followed, raising the chair another foot, and they all kept me bouncing and airborne for about twelve minutes, before they let me land. Then Susan got a contra dance going and started calling out the figures for a sure enough shindig.

That evening’s Banjo Bar, like many others, continued until the predawn brought a hint of color back to the surrounding fields. Neighbors wandered home, while visitors from afar bedded down right there at Fred’s. And of course, some Banjo Bars are followed by master classes with, for example Russ did one the next day.

So I guess I can tell CC all that about the Banjo Bar, plus Nasser Soltani’s comment that for him it’s playing at a professional level, but with the feeling of being at home, close to an audience made up of friends. Now old CC just has to meet Fred and get an invite.

THE CONCERTS – Fred has organized 35 Banjo Bars since 2010. In every concert, Fred is sure to play, either in the first thirty-minute session, along with friends from his groups Camel Ride and Joey’s Band or other opening acts. Or, thanks to his versatility, he may play with the headliner in the second session, usually lasting about ninety minutes. Themes range from bluegrass to modern jazz, from time-tested oldies to original compositions, in an international context, with musicians such as Russ Barenberg from the US, Lluis Gomez from Spain, Papa Banjo Redon from France, Ben Somers and the Absentees from the UK, and Nasser Soltani from Marseille. Fred’s often joined by his good friends Bernard Minari on mandolin, and the Portalès brothers: Daniel on mandolin and Patrick on guitar.

 

TOM NECHVILLE & FRED SIMON – Fred had tried out one of Tom’s acoustic banjos thanks to Papa Banjo Redon, and liked the fret board. Fred then contacted Tom via the web, and ended up ordering a Nechville Cosmos Electric Midi banjo. During a European tour, Tom brought the banjo to Fred. They stayed in contact, and met again in 2014 at the La Roche Bluegrass festival in the Alps. At Tom’s stand, Fred’s demos drew crowds, so Tom invited him to do the same at the Telluride and Bean Blossom festivals this year. So if you haven’t been invited to a Banjo Bar yet, but you happen to be at the festival, here’s a chance to meet Fred and hear his music and Tom Nechville’s banjos. In the meantime, check him out on the web.

– Tim-Billy Bow, May 2015

 

Why A Good Banjo Sounds Like A Nechville

574 This seems like a pompous question, right? Well, my purpose here is not to demean any other brands but to point out as clearly as possible how Nechville’s construction eliminates many potential problems.

Since choice of tone and playability is to varying degrees adjustable on most banjos, it is worth understanding as much as possible about how they work in order to satisfy your perception of musical tone and reach your goals as a musician.

What I want to address are the design limitations common to standard banjos that I find unacceptable, given the solution is now at hand.  Let me give you my simple understanding with straight facts.

If you pick up a banjo and the strings are too far away from the fingerboard to easily play, you would put it back down and look for another. Or if the strings are so low that they rattle on the frets. Either scenario is unacceptable for anyone seeking enjoyment from the instrument.

In my role as repairman, I commonly deal with playability problems. The simple truth is that all these problems would not exist with a property functioning two way truss rod system in combination with a means for setting the angle of the neck up and down.

Unfortunately for owners of traditional non-Nechville banjos, you are out of luck. No means of angle adjustment exists on a traditional banjo. That means that only one size bridge can ever work on the instrument and it severely limits your tonal choices and ability to customize your playability.  The problem is especially bad if if you are forced to use too small of a bridge.

At Nechville we have done away with the antiquated non adjustable neck to rim attachments. The Quick-Cam system, standard on all helical mount and Flux capacitor equipped Flex-tones solves such problems and creates several additional benefits.

All Nechville made instruments are not only infinitely adjustable throughout a wide range of action and bridge height choices, but are also instantly separable for transport or travel. Nechville modular design also means that trading or upgrading necks and other parts on Nechville’s is practical, quick, easy and fun.

Let’s consider some other scenarios involving problems with a traditional banjo body. Let’s say that one of your hooks or nuts is rusty or impeded in some mechanical way. In that case it would be impossible to judge if you had achieved even tension on the banjo head.

It is well known that even tension leads to balanced tone. With the numerous fasteners to equalize around the banjo body it is nearly impossible to achieve even tension on the head. We might all agree that a much more acceptable thing would be to have an automatically controlled head tension system.

Another common problem is restriction of the natural tone of the acoustic chamber of the instrument from the mechanical fastening of rods and other metal parts. The whole instrument works together to produce its own sound, therefore the best banjos have been adjusted to minimize the negative effects of metallic connections. The rim, head and tone ring should be allowed to act as “tone components” while parts like the neck and hardware should provide structural integrity without limiting the effectiveness of the tone components.

At Nechville, every effort has been dedicated to streamlining the banjo’s design. Our sound is automatically balanced because of our freely mounted tone ring system that is completely free from sound altering or restricting forces from coordinator rods or other metal parts. One part turns which places automatic even tension on the head. This results in unrestricted beautiful tone whether you want deep and dark or bright and snappy.

Let’s consider a couple more unacceptable but easily remedied situations. With the advent of carefully sculpted  bridges that account for the varying scale lengths of different string sizes, why to so many players still play with noticeable  intonation problems?  The easy solution is our Enterprise Bridge; made to correct intonation and to enhance playability.

Perhaps the most frequent complaint is the banjo’s weight. While it is commonly assumed that the heavier banjos sound better, Nechville has proven otherwise. Many much lighter options are available for the Heli-Mount system that open up new frontiers in sound performance.

hm1If that is not enough, consider another common complaint from banjo players, the discomfort that comes from your arm pressing against a hard metal edge on traditional banjos. All Nechvilles are equipped with Comfort Bevel wooden armrests that encourage long periods of practice and improvement. The Comfort Bevel armrest and Enterprise bridge are available from Nechville for any banjo.

The physics of sound in a banjo is complex, but by simplifying the design without detracting from its potentials, Nechville has made it easier and much more possible to control the resulting tone to your liking. We are dedicated to your success in music and are here to help whether it be in improving your existing instrument or building your custom creation.

Stay Tuned! Tom Nechville.

 

Tone Rings and Banjo Sound

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Hey you are either a banjo geek or a wannabe banjo geek, or you wouldn’t be reading this, right? Well coming from a lifelong banjo addict, I want to remove the top of Pandora’s banjo for a moment.

A single magical element that causes wonderful tone in a banjo does not exist. What makes for a wonderful tone in reality is the musicianship and skill of the player along with an acoustic tone chamber that generates a pleasant musical resonance.

The secret to an inspiring musical tonality is a combination of all the following factors.

  1.  A proper fingerboard with the right geometry and playing action.
  2. An instrument with structural integrity and adequate mass
  3. Head tension that is even and adequately tight
  4. A good bridge between 2.3 and 2.8 grams

The ring of dense material upon which the head is stretched is called the tone ring. Traditionally in most Bluegrass banjos, this component is made from bronze. The ideal formula for the tone ring is debated in banjo circles, but any formula containing copper, tin lead and zinc will work.

The magic depends on the proper execution of the 4 requirements above and mounting the tone ring solidly upon its base. The character of the sound differs slightly from instrument to instrument. But with years of experience in building and setting up instruments, one gets better at control- ling the sound quality.

The general myth that lives on in banjo circles is the one of the “Pre-war” banjo. The tone rings from these old banjos is most often cited as the magic component, while in reality the old seasoned wood of the rim is responsible for most of the pleasant resonance that comes from them.

All these facts aside, The tone ring is still a link in the chain of good tone. So if you are building an in- strument or just want to know more about them, here is a short tone ring crash course.

Bronze tone rings are cast in foundries and are machined to final shape on a lathe. As a major tone ring manufacturer, Nechville obtains cast billets and machines them to close tolerance in their CNC lathe.

Generally speaking, alloys with a 5% or higher lead content create rings with a good bass response. Lower lead alloys tend to encourage a wider range of harmonic con- tent which may cause a brighter perceived tone.

The pursuit of the ideal reproduction of the best sounding tone rings has resulted in clever marketing campaigns that add confusion to the well-known business of tone ring manufacture and have fostered false hopes in prospective buyers.

The tone ring is a part of a system that needs to work together in order to fulfill your musical desires. You can trust that Nechville is one company that will reveal the clearest path to achieving the sound that you are after.

Please take a look at our 30 year track record of producing world class custom instruments. No other company will give you the benefit of choice between classic design and helical mount banjos. No other banjo company is as vertically integrated and dedicated to providing tailored customer service. Whether you need tone ring advice, or want to upgrade your whole instrument, we are here to help.