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Advanced Banjo Design

This article  goes beyond basic banjo setup and seeks to explain the difference between standard banjos and Nechville’s helically mounted banjos.  If we want to judge sound differences between the two types, we must determine what effect the mechanical differences impart upon the sound. Being very subjective, each players’ opinion as to what constitutes “best” may vary.

While it is difficult to define the positive tonal aspects of the best banjos that truly tug at our emotional heartstrings, it is obvious to most players when a negative sound such as sonic dissonance or a mechanical buzz is present.  Likewise bad intonation caused by imperfect fret or bridge position is measurable attribute that we can minimize with good building and set-up practices.

String vibration is a natural phenomenon that delivers a fundamental note plus  sub vibrations of the string called harmonics.  It is the job of the bridge,  head and tone chamber, or  “banjo pot” to transduce the string’s vibration into the sound that we hear. Complex variations in the pressure applied upon the stretched membrane through the bridge, defined by the string’s harmonic signature, compress and stretch the air on both sides of the head.  This causes sound waves, which are further processed by the instrument’s body. 

It is the intent of this article to consider just what are the sources of unwanted frequencies or dissonance that can interfere with the purest sound that a banjo can make. 

The tradition of simply using our ears and a long process of trial and error has given us the banjo we use today.  What if we wanted to design a banjo of pure sound, without distractions from unwanted resonances? A quick look back into banjo building history may shed some light on this.  

The mechanical hardware in a common bluegrass banjo consists of 24 hooks, nuts, metal flange, metal tension hoop, two metal rods acting as bolts and stabilizers for the neck and body connection, plus the hardware needed to anchor strings to the body. All these metal connections were not particularly designed to affect the acoustical tone but they can and do impart a metallic nuance to the regular banjo’s sound. 

In our ideal virtual design of the banjo pot, we run into a complication when we bolt the neck to the tone ring and pot. Scientifically as well as intuitively, we want to find a design that separates and frees the acoustical components from the mechanical/structural ones. 

An advancement in banjo design in the 1920’s allowed the tone chamber to nest into a one or two piece flange that allowed for fewer metal hardware attachments directly to the cylinder of the tone chamber. Fewer mechanical attachments to the tone chamber must be a factor in generating a better tone, since banjos based on the Mastertone of the 1930’s continue to dominate even in the bluegrass of today. The Gibson design, however, still depends on the neck being bolted directly to the tone chamber with a dual coordinator rod system. 

It was not until the mid 1980’s that Tom Nechville brought us Helically mounted banjos, or Heli-Mounts. In the world of Nechville, the neck bolts to the integrated hardware of the Heli-Mount frame.  This allows for insertion of the tone chamber from the back of the frame and is compressed in place without any metallic stress or unwanted resonances. The Heli-Mount yields automatically even head tension while extending the rationale of the Mastertone design to its ultimate fulfillment. 

More information on Nechville and banjo design is available at www.nechville.com

Andre Dal’s Banjo Journey

The favorite part of my job is getting to travel and meet new pickers. I met Andre Dal several years ago at the European world of Bluegrass in the Netherlands and continue to run into him at La Roche France festival and other banjo related events in Europe. I am particularly impressed with his love for the music and his perseverance through a number of setbacks in his playing career.

Andre Dal first got mesmerized by bluegrass banjo after listening to the Deliverance soundtrack, featuring Eric Weissberg. Like many banjo players today, Andre got hooked by the fun, hard driving sounds of Bluegrass.

After starting on the guitar, the banjo quickly became his obsession. Andre started to learn the banjo when he was studying in London, in 1997. In the following years after initial lessons from a Portuguese musician he met Gerry Rolph in southern Portugal. He was a pioneering bluegrasser in England, back in the 1960s and, fortunately for Andre, he moved to Portugal. He took lessons with him and eventually bought one of his banjos, a Gibson RB-75 J.D. Crowe, mahogany model. Gerry set Andre on the lifelong course of studying and playing banjo.

In 2007, Andre began a yearly pilgrimage to the European World Of Bluegrass (EWOB) festival in Holland (now it’s called Voorthuizen Bluegrass Festival) and became the only Portuguese member of the European Bluegrass Music Association. In 2009, he gave up his geological engineering job and went to work for his family’s restaurant giving him more freedom to play. His band (Stonebones & Bad Spaghetti) was formed that same year and they started to play at festivals around Europe and England. Over the years, Andre shared venues with such great names as Tony Trischka, Bill Keith, Ross Nickerson, Pete Wernick, Jens Kruger and others but still aspires to perform in the United States.

After years of intense practicing, Andre developed a physical condition known as Focal Hand Dystonia. That condition nearly forced him to quit playing but in 2011, he decided to change fingers and started to use his 2 middle fingers and thumb for 3 finger picking. He invented a device to prevent his index finger from moving and after repeated attempts to return to using the usual fingers, he perseveres with his new approach and continues to improve. His ability to play is not the same as it used to be but he compensates with lots of energy and clever adaptation. For Andre, the joy of playing overshadows the need for perfection.

When coming to Portugal on vacation, various bluegrass players have made their way to André’s family restaurant to be welcomed with a jam. During a visit by American musician, Dave Badgade, a song was recorded for his debut album, History in My Hands. Andre also spreads the bluegrass spirit with a monthly bluegrass session in Lisbon.

In May of 2018, Andre’s maple Deering Tenbrooks Saratoga Star banjo, purchased in 2014, was stolen. He’s been looking for it locally and on the internet but until now, no luck.

Being without a banjo resulted in further degeneration of his condition until he decided to buy a maple Galaxy Phantom from Nechville. Having developed an earlier friendship with me, Andre was familiar with the Nechville features of easy set up, safer travel, great sound and wonderful looks. That helped make it an easy choice for replacing his Tenbrooks.

Now, in Andre’s words, “I’m really happy I went for a Nechville banjo. On the first day, I took the neck off and set it back together. Never before in 20 years I did that on my other banjos.” As Andre likes a bright banjo sound, he is able to pull that off easily with Nechville’s even head tensioning system. He says “It’s easy to change the action too, anyone can do it.”

Right in-line with Nechville’s desire to unite the planet in musical friendships, the Phantom won Andre’s heart. “I’ll be playing it for years to come at festivals, jams and concerts,” he boasts.

Nechville spreads the Banjo Revolution online at www.nechville.com and through worldwide travels at festivals and workshops.


The Walnut Valley string instrument competitions in Winfield Kansas attract the world’s best pickers. The winner of the banjo contest will have his or her pick of banjos from three American builders. The first place winner’s choice will signify another competition between the banjo builders themselves, as the winning contestant chooses what he/she considers to be the best banjo of the bunch.

For their first year of sponsorship at Winfield, Nechville has created an irresistible prize banjo including all the features most commonly sought after in a modern made professional instrument. The result surprised even the makers.

The Renaissance Vintage restates the classic beauty of the “Golden Era” of banjos with refinements that have come to predominance only in recent times. Maintaining the essential ingredients of genuine old growth mahogany neck, authentic antique rosewood fingerboard, classic looks, pre-war formula tone ring and combining many of the advancements popularized by Nechville over the past 30 years, has given the world a new standard by which to judge banjo excellence.

The resulting combination is an example of refinement and aesthetics. The full width five string compound radius neck and Comfort Beveled armrest give effortless playability. The fifth string peg is repositioned on the peghead, so the neck is more sleek with better stability. The tonal character is complex, with warmth and volume attributed partly to the block style mahogany rim.  The intonation is perfected by Nechville’s Enterprise radiused compensated bridge. The fullness and depth are characteristics of Nechville’s Helical Mounting construction. In every respect, and in every detail, the Renaissance Vintage welcomes the challenge.

Good luck in the competition!

Tom Nechville

The Helical Mounting System Explained

One way to explain Nechville’s dramatic redesign of the banjo is to think of parts of the banjo as either serving a primarily mechanical/structural purpose or a tone-creation purpose.
Certainly the rigidity of the construction will affect the sound, so different woods and materials within the structure can affect tone. But for this explanation we will think of the neck, coordinator rods, flange, hooks, nuts, and tension hoop and tailpiece as serving primarily a mechanical/structural purpose.
The tone ring and rim in a Mastertone pot also serves as a primary structural member being firmly bolted to the neck yet it is also supposed to define the tone parameters of the instrument.  The strings, bridge, head and resonator serve strictly acoustic purposes.

The Nechville design distinctly separates the structural members from the tonal members, allowing the tone ring and rim to enter fully into the tone component category. Since the Heli-Mount to neck connection rigidly provides the structural requirement to carry the string tension, the tone ring and rim are freed from their structural job and can be designed for purely acoustical purposes.

This new way of building a banjo almost turns the instrument inside out, allowing the tonal possibilities of the tone ring and rim to be more resonant and contributive to the overall sound.
Helical mounting of the tone chamber (head, tone ring and rim) isolates it from neck and hardware stresses and resulting resonances from structural metal parts.

 

Helical mounting opens new avenues of sound exploration for musicians as alternatives to the heavy traditional banjo design are being discovered. Stay tuned to www.nechville.com for the latest in banjo making history.

This Is Banjo Camp Year!

In 2018 I’ll return to two great Ken Perlman events, Midwest Banjo Camp and American Banjo Camp. These are wonderful opportunities to get out of a rut and gain new inspiration as a beginner or intermediate player from some of the best teachers around. Also I’ll be around to help supercharge your banjo and let you try the latest and hottest creations.

 

NEW CAMPS!
As a player myself for over 45 years, I am very excited to see two brand new banjo camps emerge that offer more opportunities for advanced learning.

They are also represent rare chances to become friends with lots of other players. This is why we do the banjo, isn’t it? To engage musically with like-minded musicians and share our abilities in our ongoing quest to improve ourselves. This can best be done in the context of a new kind of music camp.

The Banjo Summit– I have long had the wish to hold an event like this. Professionals need to invest in themselves for continuing education and professional development. I cannot think of a better environment for professionals and aspirants to come to teach, learn, play and network with others in the spirit of expanding the banjo’s role in music. Jake Schepps is hosting this event, accompanied by lots of progressive super musicians who are really re-defining the banjo. If you believe the banjo has a place in a variety of musical genres, YOU need to be in Boulder this March! We will play a lot and learn a lot and have a lot of fun. I’ll bring Summit Beer from St Paul. And if you act before Feb 15, you can take advantage of a 20% discount. Just plug in the code Student20Summit into the enrollment form where it says “How did you hear about Banjo Summit?” and the discount will appear as you check out.

Blue Ridge Banjo Camp – The name “Bela Fleck” gets most banjo players’ attention and when I heard that Bela himself will be sharing his secrets and insights at his very own camp, I immediately went nuts. Like the Banjo Summit, I would expect the focus of a camp featuring Bela, Tony Trischka, and Mike Munford to be slanted towards the progressive side of the banjo. In addition to that obvious benefit, the event itself is held in the heart of Appalachian Bluegrass country where we can expect to soak up a healthy dose of the region’s finest music from Bluegrass banjo player of the year, Kirsten Scott Benson. Bela is not excluding any eager banjophiles to this beautiful venue. As I understand it, the organizers want to know as much as they can about every participant so they can truly customize the curriculum for those that come. It sounds like you are surely going to open the road for expanded vision for the banjo this summer. If you are as serious about expanding your banjo skill as I am, you’ll be there to enjoy the beautiful place, great food and musical friendship.

I personally want these camps to succeed and grow, so I am personally inviting you to go. I have a passion for hearing new things on the instrument. There is a huge need for camps that widen the focus to the development, growth and potential of our instrument. I imagine that there will be scheduled classes to help people organize their time, but I think the real meaningful content of these new camps will be in the jams and personal sharing between like-minded banjo nerds who have left their egos at home. See you this summer!  Tom Nechville

P.S. Please share this with your picking friends. Thanks!

Thanks To You In 2018

Friends,

Last year was another good one where we celebrated 30 years of banjo building. Jane and I got a chance to travel a bit and spend a little more time together.  Business-wise, we delivered banjos to more pros like Paddy Kiernan, Rich Stillman, Steve Martin, Caroline Jones, Rex McGee, Rick Sampson, Dave Kiputh and others.

I always wonder if I am doing enough of the right things to promote myself and my business. Probably not, but nevertheless, I am lucky to be working in this happy business, exactly because of you.

I am writing this with my friends in mind, and it is you that I want to thank for your friendship and continuing support. Please keep in touch since we will no doubt have banjo projects to discuss soon.

All the best wishes for 2018!

Tom Nechville

While the benefits of our banjos have been presented in a variety of ways over the years, there are still those who are not aware. Some players are inspired to purchase a new instrument because of the beautiful sound that it makes. Others are motivated by popularity of certain brands.

A decision to purchase the best banjo involves more than its sound or its current popularity. In today’s banjo marketplace, there is one essential decision to ponder. Yet unfortunately, the vast majority of banjo buyers do not even know that this choice exists.

If you were to purchase an adding machine without knowledge of a calculator, or a typewriter without knowledge of a printer and computer, you would not be happy when you discovered the new way of doing things. It is our challenge to inform those of you banjo lovers what you have been missing for quite a few years now.

As a player, can you imagine a dream world where your sound is refined, your notes are articulate, distinct and yet full and saturated with tone? Maybe you play different styles of banjo and have several instruments set up accordingly. In our dream world, your perfect banjo can quickly adapt to different player preferences and will disassemble for easy transport and travel.

You may never have asked for your banjo to be constructed differently; to have one tone-harnessing helical thread that perfectly nests your tone chamber for perfect resonance. Your dream tone is even on every fret with your head automatically tightened perfectly evenly.

Set up is no longer a hassle. It becomes fun to modify your playing options and resulting sound.

We made this dream a reality. Were you aware that there are 60-80 fewer parts required in a Nechville banjo? The construction is permanent and foolproof.

Whatever sound your traditional banjo makes, it does so with its tone bell and mounting rim firmly fixed to the neck with metal hardware. Additionally you have dozens of hooks and nuts, lugs, hoops and other metal parts attached to the body that we would like to refer to as the “Tone Chamber”. What tone do you get from the tone ring and rim that is attached to all those metal parts? It is no surprise why the banjo is often called “tinny” , “brash” or “metallic”.

Did you know that Nechville makes a banjo whose neck is attached to a one-piece hardware frame that holds your tone chamber without any interference from metal connections at all? Were you aware that there is only a single thread that presses the tone chamber up from behind to deliver you a palate of sound from dark and warm to excitingly brilliant?

If you have not been aware of these things, you are now. We invite you to become a member of the family of Nechville players by simply contacting us or inquiring with one of our dealers. We wish to assist you in finding the ultimate instrument for a lifetime of enjoyment.

Visit us at www.nechville.com to learn more. Or better yet, give us a call.

Having played a lot of banjos in my day, when I have an instrument like this, I have to write about it.  Well actually, there are no other banjos like this. Let me explain.
The Nashville flood of 2010 marked the end of the Gibson banjo era. Not only did Gibson lose their banjo shop, but countless instruments were caught underwater and lost. One such casualty was a nice Greg Rich replica of a pre-war RB3. When received as a down payment on a new banjo, I thought it was a total loss. But after scraping off the mud and wiping it down I found that the pot was salvageable. The neck connection was degraded badly by water damage and the neck angle was unsuitable.

 Flux Capacitor comes to the rescue. It is possible to re-cut an existing banjo neck to accommodate the patented Flux connection. That’s what we did. Within a few hours with a bit of fret dressing and cleaning up, the banjo was back in playing shape again with perfect action.  The swelling and subsequent drying of the rim did not hurt the tone. In fact I was surprised from the outset how nice it sounded. Besides the addition of the Flux Capacitor, I decided to keep all the original parts including the bridge that came with it, until recently.  I expected the RB 3 to sell quickly in a consignment shop but after a year or two of not selling, I got it back and brought it to Rockygrass this year.
What a great festival to meet with and jam with top level pros. The Nechville demo session display is a natural gathering place for the festival’s finest pickers. That is where a banjo that looks and sounds like a pre-war Gibson gets plenty of attention. I admit it was fun on two occasions telling the player that it was an original flathead, to which both players responded, “Yup, you can tell, it has that special pop when you hit it.”
I eventually told the truth and offered the banjo at my quick sale price, only to pop the bubble they were floating in.
With all the attention that banjo was getting, I began wondering how good it might sound with a compensated Enterprise Bridge. Let me tell you, no matter how good you think your banjo sounds, you owe it to yourself to try a well crafted compensated bridge like this on your banjo. Before the Gibson sounded traditionally great with that slight gnarly sound typical of Gibson Banjos. No one would complain but I much prefer the purity of sound offered by the Helical mount banjos.
The bridge changed everything.  With a tad more mass and slightly higher third and fourth strings and perfect compensation on each fret, the tone seemed to clarify instantly. All the twang and snarly sound disappeared. It sounded pure like a Heli-Mount with a slight sparkle and lots of depth.
This got me thinking about what I really had in my hands. I realized that this is a banjo with a story that you could write a book or movie about. Once belonging to Nashville Picker Billy Robertson, you can only imagine the pre-flood scenes that banjo has experienced. The resurrected version of this banjo came back as a pre-war clone. The perfect finish aging marks on the peghead, the finish cracks and missing lacquer on the rim, the perfectly shaped comfy neck, the rosewood fingerboard and antique style pearl inlay all spoke from antiquity of its desire to play again. And the voice of this banjo is the real convincing element. Of the numerous Flux conversions we have done at Nechville, this one ranks as the most dramatic and I think my favorite as to sound.
As a side note for those unfamiliar with the Flux system, this modification gives the neck a much more stable anchor point, increases the surface area of the connection and provides an easy way to adjust the angle of the neck for successful use of any height bridge or any string action preference without causing undue stress to the pot. This stabilizes the pot and allows a fuller tone. Another big advantage is that the Flux makes the neck instantly removable for travel or easy transport.
The only banjo of its kind to have been resurrected from the 1000 year flood of 2010 symbolizes a historic convergence of Nechville technology (Nechtology) with the tine honored role of the traditional banjo.
Inquiries about ownership of this collector piece can be directed to me tom@nechville.com or call 612-275-6602. The banjo comes in an antique case and written certification as an official historic Nechville re-creation.

Nechville has coined the term Banjo Revolution as a slogan to bring attention to our revolutionary designs. It is now time to think of the Banjo Revolution as a recent historical accomplishment.

The term “revolution” implies a conflict of some sort, but the Banjo Revolution has taken place without bloodshed or conflict whatsoever. In fact it has taken place without adversely affecting the former regime at all. Now the traditional banjo players are playing right alongside the happy rebels who have taken the “Nech” step. While their ranks are growing, no one is finding fault with their pure tone that works like musical glue in any jam setting.

The Nechville Heli-Mount

As a thirty year effort we can now pronounce victory, but no one is the loser. The music world now has another voice with the Helically mounted sound of the new banjo. It is a subtle change sonically but immediately noticed by experienced players. The new banjo tone is pure and even with as much brilliance and volume as you would like and vastly more controllable than its predecessor. For a traveling entertainer like Steve Martin, it is a road warrior that is always stable under the demands of the tour.

 

I believe humankind is entering a new era of truth-seeking, and I predict we will find it. We will understand and practice the secret of pure thought in creating our own futures. Time, money and resources will become more universally available as we wisely employ our technology and know-how. This means improved quality of life and the opportunity for more music to be played by everyone.

This takes me to the title of this essay. The Banjo Renaissance has arrived as a result of the Banjo Revolution. You may still go through a Revolution of sorts in your mind as you go about understanding and digesting the new paradigm of Nechville, but our ship has come in. Nechville technology has made it to the Olympics, Country Music Awards, Hollywood Movies and into the hands of worldwide celebrities. It is time we all celebrate the new era of the Banjo Renaissance.

For more information on Nechville call us or visit nechville.com
747-222-6567 (Sales Office)
952-888-9710 (Shop)

Viva La Banjo Revolution

The past few years, although I have not been a regular band member, I have been playing a little more often on my own. The benefits of a regular set aside practice time are potentially great. If you are like me though, it’s tough to stick to such a schedule for long. Regardless of how regular your playing time is, I’ll just repeat my most common bit of advice; Play until you are well warmed up and then go a little longer. The extra time you commit is when you’ll actually improve. The next time you play, do it again and you’ll start noticing new things appearing in your playing.

Beyond the obvious benefit of impressing your picking pals, Your quest for improvement will certainly train your ear to be a better judge of sound. As you continue to play you will continually fine tune your sense of pitch so that tuning becomes easier. You may however find that as your ear develops pitch sensitivity, you are tuning more often or requesting that others recheck their tuning more frequently.

As a player of almost 50 years and a builder of more than 30, I still need to spend some serious time playing my creations, so that every nuance of the sound and feel becomes noticed, and ideas form about ways to improve it. I wonder how builders that don’t play are able to decipher the level of professionalism that it takes in today’s banjo world. I am impressed with the playing of banjo building buddies Rob Bishline, Jaroslav Prucha and Glenn Nelson. Geoff Stelling and Steve Huber have also long been been known as good pickers. Deep down I consider myself a player ahead of being a builder, but the building pays the bills for me in this universe. My obvious point is that the best players tend to build the best instruments due to their years of study of the sound of the instrument through playing in various settings. My intention is not to question anyone’s talents as player, listener or critic, but rather to stimulate awareness during your own playing that can refine your ears in the quest for sound perfection, and the perfect playing experience.

In an effort to make sense of this, let’s talk about the concept of satisfaction. Musical satisfaction is first and foremost dependent on the concept of perfect pitch. Each note of your instrument, both fretted and open must be aligned perfectly with the corresponding notes played and sung by the other musicians in the group. It takes considerable effort and time to achieve harmonious tuning in just one instrument, let alone a whole band. The instrument must be built with particular attention to its ability to come in tune with its own harmonics. In other words, the fret scale must be accurate, the bridge and nut must be placed precisely and compensated for discrepancies, the string heights and gauges must be taken into consideration, and the general construction of the instrument must be stable. You likely have experienced the satisfaction of a well- tuned instrument, and you know the amazing potentials that can be reached when 2 or more great instruments achieve matching pitches and are held by great players.

If satisfaction were only as simple as reaching perfect tuning, I think we would hear a lot more great music than we do now. It also requires a great deal of skill from the player to maintain cohesive tuning throughout a performance. Even slight variations or finger position or holding pressure can throw an instrument out of tune. Therefore we buy the best instruments we can afford, and practice until we have mastered the art and skill of perfect pitch, (also sometimes called tonality).

To complicate the picture a bit more I now introduce the concept of tone. Being completely different from tonality, our ears are so amazing that we can hear extremely minute changes not only on the pitch of notes but in the character of sound (tone) produced by an instrument. Yes, satisfaction first depends on great pitch tonality, but assuming we have fulfilled that challenge, we now must look toward our aesthetic sense to discover just what we imagine our perfect tone to be.

I think it is safe to say that most Bluegrass players, for example have developed their sense of tone by listening to their role models. The masters who inspired us to play are quite normally dictating to us what our tone should be like. With the vast popularity of Scruggs, his iconic banjo sound still echoes as the tone many of us want coming from our banjos. Likewise, you may have noticed that the general tone of much of Bela Fleck’s playing has a different and perhaps darker tone that his followers may wish to emulate.

If the total purpose of the banjo were to preserve and protect a pure form of music such as bluegrass, we would need nothing but old Mastertone copies set-up to sound just like Earl. We all know however, that is not the banjo’s purpose. It is a modern musical instrument known for its distinctive voice and suitability for playing complex fingerstyle melodies and patterns. Its sound is highly evocative and creatively inspiring for musicians in widely diverse forms of music. Happily for us creative types, the banjo exhibits a unique ability to produce an infinite number of subtle changes in tone. This touches on the greatest benefit of my own Nechville instruments. With just a small amount of training, you can learn to alter and transform your Heli-Mount sound to fit whatever artistic visions you carry in your head. It might be Scruggs, Fleck or Kruger. But more importantly, it might be you!

Please continue your exploration into the world of personalized banjo tone by exploring the Nechville website. Our site is undergoing some major changes, so you will want to check back often. There is always something new and interesting to discover and we invite you to subscribe to our free banjo info hotline with insider deals and special opportunities.