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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.
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.
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.
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?
Being 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 and 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.
Suddenly 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.
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.
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.