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Archive for 'Banjo Players'

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!
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
Nechville booth at SPBGMA.

James McKinney and I…

Being in-person at these shows gives us a chance to show off the versatility of our product line. Our booth always displays something that raises questions from the curious pickers looming about. This year we had a tempered fret scale neck mounted on an open back Moonshine EX. We got constant questions about the weird crooked frets on that banjo.

Another curiosity was another Excelsior Heli-mount pot with a nice traditional looking neck and a wild Cocobolo Turbo module installed. That monster was tuned a full fifth low to open C tuning and vibrated the entire room when turned on. Sometimes we get tire kickers who sneak a pick on a Nechville and escape before learning how to tailor the tone to their liking. It is just as common however to have someone return a year or two later, pick up a similar banjo and be completely blown away because they never suspected the tone they were looking for could be hidden in there.

We congratulate our Friend Barry Waldrep as the new banjo guru at Banjo.com for picking up Nechville’s Vintage line. Congratulations also to Capo’s Music’s Gill Braswell and Emory Carty for adopting the Saturn line. We are excited to see the Banjo Revolution gaining ground.
We were happy to have spent the evening with Sonny Smith, super picker from Pigeon Forge. We outfitted Sonny with his latest “Diamond Joe” model now with fancier outlined binding, visible Turquoise side dots and nickel hardware.
SPBGMA weekend also gives us a chance to yuck it up with our friendly banjo rivals. Since it is all in good fun, we like to go visit each other’s displays and play each other’s banjos. Huber had a neighboring suite to our room and was a handy place to go for borrowing screw drivers. Ha ha. A trip to Arthur Hatfield’s Room is almost like a trip to his living room. You always feel welcome and a great jam is always imminent. Arthur played lots of guitar for all the drooling banjo players. I was one of them. We drool when we play because his ‘joes sound so sweet!

The best part of any festival is the good times with friends. Of course it is awesome to see my old friends Ian Perry, Jack Hatfield, and Tim Carter. It is also a treat to get better acquainted with friends and associates like John Lawless and Sean Dysinger from Bluegrass Today. We love having the entire banjo spectrum covered between the Nechville booth, the fine selection from Paul and David Hopkins and the forest of banjos displayed by Mitch Meadors and Dan Garrett.

Congratulations also to Katie Keller from the Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro KY. She took on the challenge of learning the banjo with her new Moonshine and help from Todd Fink of the Giving Tree Band.
Well it is time to go home and pack up for Wintergrass where we will be participating with Al Price for the 22nd time. We will again be a sponsor at Merlefest and we are participating in Banjo camp North in May. In June I will be traveling and doing workshops with monster picker from Toulouse France, Fred Simon. We have a demo June 11th at Down Home Guitars in Frankfort Illinois, an informal presence during the first weekend of Bean Blossom, A demo/jam at Brewskis in St Charles MO on June 15th, the same at Tejon Street Music on June 16th before we spend the weekend at Telluride Bluegrass Fest.

I was in a conversation with Sonny Smith the other day. He said the bluegrass banjo sound is changing and that the Nechville banjo fit that change perfectly. I thought that was interesting. I don’t know if I would say it the same way however. There is a complicated web of factors that influence what sound you might consider to be best. Let me say this at the risk of raising an argument. My view is that with the development of more varied styles and genres, it benefited the music to make modifications to the traditional set up in order to smooth and refine the sound. I think people are finding that the influence of jazz and other music on the banjo has indeed resulted in the banjo becoming a little more musical. Evidence of this long term trend can be heard during any bluegrass radio show that spans the 30’s to today. Players of traditional Bluegrass today are mostly aware that the “old banjo” is not the only sound that works. In fact, our obligation to honor the essence of Bluegrass does not mean we should use 1940’s technology to produce music that will thrive into the future.

I have succeeded for 30 years as a builder only because I have found customers with discerning ears. They have taken time to figure out why helical-mounting leads to enhanced tonal purity. I didn’t invent the modern banjo sound, but I initiated several sound design enhancements when I wasn’t getting what I needed from my old Mastertone. I realized in the early 80’s that for Bluegrass and acoustic to grow as it has, the banjo needed some refinement and variety, so that is what I dedicated my life to. (I sometimes wonder about myself)

Sonny is right. Banjo makers and set up specialists have learned to improve traditionally made banjos, with better tone and balance, which indeed has helped the Bluegrass sound evolve. Lucky for me, the even, pure tone inherent to all helical mounted designs fits in all musical situations and is adaptable as musical needs change. . . I’d simply say, Bluegrass continues to get better as musicians discover banjos that enhance but don’t distract, and blend but can still stand out when you want them to. What is holding you back from learning more about Nechville?

tb11cBeing a banjo player you are like me in certain respects, especially concerning the banjo. We can’t tolerate anything being out of sorts for the most enjoyable and  confident playing. Even the look and feel of the instrument needs to be right for the experience to be its best. It’s my job to fulfill banjo dreams.  Whether that means fixing those irritating problems through a professional tune-up or providing a whole new banjo, we can agree that it’s more fun to play with the right equipment.

When I dream, the banjo often recreates itself in my mind. Nothing about the instrument need be held as sacred in the fantasy world of recreational invention. But assuming we are bluegrass musicians, let’s start dreaming on the iconic image of “banjo” that for many of us may be a 1934 Gibson flathead five string. The old flat heads that have withstood the test of time, still sing with a timeless voice that defines the classic sound of the instrument.

In your dream let’s say you pick up this imaginary instrument a garage sale for $100 tb11band you are thrilled. After playing it for a little while you notice that its weight begins to drag you down. Your dream instantly provides you with a lighter weight flat head of the same vintage with the similar character of sound. Your playing commences only to be interrupted by the thought that the neck was profoundly narrow for your style and hand shape.  Poof! The neck widens into a shape that makes chokes and slides effortless.

The shape of the fingerboard raises up slightly down the center of the fingerboard almost to meet the strings. Your left hand is now more comfortable than ever, but you notice that the old bridge is saggy and certain notes don’t ring with the same pure sound.  Poof! The bridge grows taller, especially in the middle and you find clarity of every note until you find the third string going sharp. Poof! The bridge reshapes to provide correct compensation and all is well again.

tb11ASuddenly one of the strings pops out of the bridge slot because the tailpiece is was apparently originally designed for a narrower 4 string banjo.  Poof! The tailpiece widens so that each string has the ideal straight line break angle over the bridge, and your dream goes on until dark when the dew appears on the wildflowers.

In the moist air the fingerboard swells causing low action and string buzz, the one way truss rod suddenly becomes a dual action rod solving yet one more problem. Your dream calls you to fly to a foreign land to play. Poof! With one twist of a tool, the neck pops off and you carry your banjo through customs nestled safely in your suitcase. Upon reassembly you find that the neck has a range of adjustment adaptable to any height bridge or string height and you quickly find the perfect neck angle for buttery action, and the party begins.

Your dream is interrupted by a smart phone alarm. It is Al Price with some great news from Nechville. An all-original 1934 TB-11 one- piece flange pot was recently decked out with a matching new Nechville neck. This is a Pre-war flathead without all the weight of a full tone ring. The brass top on the 11’s old 3 ply maple rim is about 3 pounds lighter than other banjos in the Mastertone family. The wide radiused frets and compensated bridge remind you of your dream. You realize that your dream has come true when you hear about the flux-mounted neck and comfort bevel armrest provided on this dreamy hybrid of a banjo.

It’s here, It’s real, It’s a dream come true for one lucky picker. Now available from tb11dNechville for the honest value price of $4999.99. Let’s add one penny for shipping to make a round figure.

Please note that the same banjo with lesser necks have been sold for 3 to five times the price with the simple modification of adding a pre-war style tone ring. Nechville builds authentic pre-war spec tone rings and professionally installs them in our custom shop. Personally, I think it is better to keep this pot original but we have the know-how and the best tone rings to take it to that next level if you want.

If this banjo or one that pops into YOUR dreams tickles your fancy, please contact me or Al.

 

This story brought to you by the Banjo Revolution.

Contact Tom@nechville.com

or Call 612-275-6602

See and hear and learn more at www.nechville.com

The comedy of entertainer Steve Martin has been a part of American life for 4 decades. We all know his hilarious movies and abilities as master of ceremonies at the award shows. He’s more than a comedian, actor and writer; he’s a true American icon and musician. Who would have thought that this untouchable star would descend to Earth and start hanging out with us banjo players?

As a player and specifically a builder, I run into the world’s best players from time to time. I am friends with several superior players. While these players represent my own personal stars, you might see the greatest banjo player in the world walking around in public without worrying about the paparazzi. The world of great banjo players exists at very much a grassroots level. The banjoist’s world represents the antithesis to glitzy Hollywood fanfare. All the players I know display an earthy and honest approach to life.

As an average Joe, my view of Hollywood is limited to supermarket pop tabloids and magazine covers. It’s an imaginary world so far from home that I don’t want to know too much about it. Thankfully there are those in the limelight of fame who are unafraid to become known to a wider grassroots populace. Steve Martin has shown us a passion for banjo music that is making a huge difference in how bluegrass and acoustic music is perceived and appreciated.

Martin has spent a lot of time touring the last several years with The Steep Canyon Rangers, a talented North Carolina bluegrass band. If you have not yet experienced their show, you are missing some great entertainment. Being dubbed Entertainer of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association is a fitting honor.  Not because Steve Martin is actually bringing anything new to the genre. His love of the music shines through in his well-arranged performances.

It’s this same joy of playing that has hooked thousands of bluegrass and acoustic players worldwide that he shares with the rest of us. Audience members attracted by Martin who may not have otherwise been in attendance likewise begin to catch the spirit of this joyful artform. To be sure, Steve’s sense of humor and jokes make the show extra entertaining, but his biggest impact is opening the eyes and ears of a much wider group of people. (Not that bluegrass fans aren’t wide enough.)

Martin’s belief that bluegrass, oldtime and new-age banjo playing, is underappreciated in the world led him to further the cause by sponsoring an unprecedented annual banjo excellence award. A panel of a few of the world’s best players help determine the most deserving candidates. In 2010 Noam Pikelney received the $50,000 prize for being a great technical player and a blossoming example of what the future may bring to the music. In 2011 Sammy Shelor, a veteran traditional player got his well-deserved recognition for his contributions to bluegrass. And in 2012 Mark Johnson, innovative clawhammer stylist combining the old-time techniques with more contemporary material led to his award. Not only does the financial award inspire and encourage the musicians, but it delivers well-deserved national attention through exposure to millions on the Letterman show and elsewhere.

On behalf of all banjo players across the globe, I’d like to heartily thank Mr. Martin for his love of the music, and his willingness to support players of this wonderful instrument in such a generous and meaningful way.  Here is an example of one Hollywood star who follows his passions and is making a difference in a “real world” way.

The general impression of what I have seen in my travels the past few years is that Acoustic music is flourishing in many parts of the world. While recorded music sales have undergone a huge change with the advent of digital music, handmade acoustic music has grown through presentation at live festival events, along with a widening of participation as “jammers” and hobby musicians.

Music has proven to be a fulfilling and fun social event for all ages and such acoustic music including folk and traditional continues to spread at the Grass roots level. While mainstream media does not highlight this music much, increasing awareness of folk and acoustic alternatives has a positive effect upon acoustic instrument sales. In particular, the banjo has been on an upswing, and sales of Nechville banjos have been strong through the slow economy of the last few years. Sales statistics show all fretted string instruments on the rise.

The vast majority of banjos are relatively low quality imports from the far east, and many players that stick with banjo are now in the market for a better banjo. Nechville is becoming a clearer choice due to their unique and sensible high quality designs. I see plenty evidence that participatory social music of Bluegrass, Folk and Oldtime is here to stay. As more and more people discover the enjoyment and challenge of learning to play, our jamming circle will soon extend around the world.