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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.
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?
Functional design, comfort and playability make Nechvilles stand apart. and that’s why we are so popular with experienced players who usually already own nice regular banjos. Many have heard about Nechville, but they get more interesting the closer you look.
Originating in the mid 1980s, Nechville Musical Products has blossomed into a world leader of banjo innovation and design. As a fully integrated manufacturer of several styles of banjos, Nechville holds patents on Helical mounted or Heli-mount banjos. Nechville is also responsible for the newest trend in banjos known as Flex-Tones. This gives traditionally made hook and nut style banjo bodies a chance to live on, mounted to an adjustable Nechville neck via the patented “Flux Capacitor” neck connection. Nechville has not only advanced the modern banjo, but introduced new improvements to the Bluegrass, Old-time and Traditional worlds. FLUX-Mounted necks have given openback and traditional bluegrass players infinitely more control over their set up and playing style while adding the benefit of portability. With Nechville’s neck system, the action is easily adjustable and the neck pops off for easy packing and travel.
Every component of the banjo has been evaluated and optimized for top performance by Nechville. For example, The Enterprise Bridge is uniquely shaped, weighted and measured for repeatable in-tune performance. The Nechville Inline Tailpiece offers more efficient string vector pull with fewer parts and no need for fasteners. Nechville re-engineered the armrest for beveled comfort in gorgeous figured woods. Nechville necks are optimized for glitch free performance with perfect conical radius fingerboard and perfectly dressed frets. The many conveniences and sound freeing aspects of “Heli-mount-ing ” the tone ring and head as opposed to a banjo held together with 80 or more extra parts are truly “revolutionary” to anyone familiar with the old, heavy, standard banjos. Nechville’s Top-of-the-line offers his own patented “Capo-bility” system. A complete built-in capo that is always there and goes to every fret including the zero fret without retuning.
Nechville designed accessories are also available such as the all new dual pickup, three control, banjo amplification system called the Crescendo Acoustic Harness. The Nechville factory is now equipped with state-of -the-art turning and machining facilities for producing the world’s best precision tone rings. Distributor and builder inquiries are invited. Straps, caps, shirts, capos, expert service and parts, as well as Tom’s book, The Dynamics of Banjo Sound are all a part of Nechville’s offerings. If you are a collector of Gibsons or some other traditional name banjo, you may also want to inquire with Tom about his Vintage Collection.
Nechville fulfills the needs of all performers from the grass roots all the way to top entertainers with their high quality, thought-out and trouble-free designs. Steve Martin continues to expand the profile of the banjo with his custom Nechville Orion resonator banjo. New solutions developed by Nechville originally for Bela Fleck, Alison Brown and the Dixie Chicks have helped open doors to banjo popularity. Nechville has custom designed banjos for the hit Broadway musical, “Once”. The Meteor Electric Banjo continues to project the banjo’s sound into millions of ears through top country groups like Lady Antebellum, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Springsteen’s band, Zac Brown, The Hollies, Big & Rich and others.
Nechville started in Tom’s home garage shop in the 1980’s. Early prototypes of the Heli-mount banjo were introduced in Nashville in 1989 and sales began slowly in the 90’s. Tom moved into an office/shop headquarters converted from a 1930’s farmhouse in 2001. The location served them well for a few years until the city purchased the Nechville building due to street widening in 2005, paving the way for an expansion into a more productive factory/warehouse and office.
The current home of Nechville Musical Products is a 13,000 sq foot industrial / office / retail building located at 9700 Humboldt Ave. S., Bloomington, MN 55431.
The latest Nechville expansion was the acquisition of Woodhaven Industries, The nation’s top tone ring producer. Now NMP is geared for OEM Tone ring production giving Nechville a firm vertical integration in the growing banjo market.
The goal of Nechville Musical Products is to innovate to meet the changing needs of modern musicians. Reducing nearly seventy parts of a traditional banjo to two has benefited thousands of Heli-Mount players with time saving and purer banjo sound. Tom’s electric banjos and pickups continue to find solutions and feed the evolution of the banjo. Nechville is eager to build the instrument you’ve been dreaming about.
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.
The banjo of Earl Scruggs survives nicely in the unchanging world of traditional Bluegrass, but has not been a big part of the pop scene until recent groups like Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons have given it some popular attention.
While coolness has recently adopted banjos, the challenge I see for players is to continually find new ways for the original Americana instrument to fit into today’s live performances. The old banjo is a bucket of nuts, bolts, hoops and rods, something like a tambourine on a stick. Just what the doctor ordered for a jingle-jangling old time jam, or in the context of an intense jam band crescendo, to produce the acoustic substitute for a fuzzy distorted electric guitar.
Lou Meyers, executive director of the Folk Alliance conference, reports that a new banjo is emerging within the quickly expanding world of roots, acoustic and jam bands music. Nechville has been quietly building their brand of re-engineered banjos for over 20 years.
Tom Nechville has been trying to let the banjo out of its cage ever since the 70’s when he first heard Earl do the boggie-woogie on the banjo. Nechville has always felt that the banjo needed a new thicker voice to gain acceptance in more popular music. His designs facilitate a wider range of tonalities and choice for banjo playing artists. His “Banjo Revolution” is more than a slogan that hints at his original patented designs. It is the Nechville sponsored format by which more players can connect within the exploding world of Folk, Americana and Country music through membership in these trade associations. Nechville’s Revolution encourages growth of musical connections by facilitating membership to one of the major folk or roots associations with purchase of a banjo from their factory.
Working musicians can become associates of the Banjo Revolution to receive discounts on Nechville products and gain rights to represent and distribute them while on tour.
Nechville instruments have been built since 1986 and have received exposure in the hands of players like Bela Fleck, Alison Brown and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks. Country music has embraced Nechville designs, especially his new class of electric banjos for guitarists. Keith Urban and crew have their own model called the Urban Meteor. Its look is unmistakable for a banjo, but has power to rock the house.
Jam band veteran Mike Gordon, young bands like Chicago Cornmeal and SanFrancisco’s Hot Buttered Rum and even dead-head icon, Bob Weir were early adopters of Nechville’s cutting edge instruments. Now country/roots superstar Zac Brown is jumping on stage with his own co-branded Nechville Turbo-Charged Heli-Mount 6 string.
The future of the banjo is clearly here. We will continue to see and hear the nostalgic, primitive old charm of tradition through collectors and reproducers of music from former times. All other forms of music will benefit from the lingering charm of America’s instrument as long as the instrument itself can rise to the challenge.
Progressive playing techniques coming from players like Alison Brown and Bela Fleck and Noam Pickelny challenged Nechville to supply a banjo tone that better fit their “New Acoustic” music. Early recordings from these masters ring with a familiar shrillness that is lacking in their more recently adopted “modern” sound. Fleck, Brown, and more recently even Tony Trischka have undergone transformations in tone, lending a fuller, rounder edge to their notes. They have arrived at their jazz-friendly tone by a variety of means, which Nechville explains as a combination of setup factors like bigger bridges, and tasteful playing technique. Tony’s sound seemed to transform most dramatically when he first tried Nechville’s 3/4″ Enterprise compensated bridge. Little things in banjo set up can make a big difference in tone.
Players are generally willing to experiment with bridges, heads, even tone rings and rims sometimes, but to change the whole concept of how a banjo works is a different story….
Tom Nechville takes pride in saying his company is the world’s leader in innovative banjo design. Nechville has 2 patents on his Heli-Mount banjo and adjustable neck connection.
The Nechville banjo replaces a combination of seventy odd pieces of hardware with an innovative one-piece cast metal frame. You tighten or loosen the head of the Heli-mount by rotating a threaded flange ring encircling the banjo’s drum pot. A pair of geared T wrenches similar to a chuck key on a drill, moves the flange ring around until you reach hide-busting tension. It’s a little like operating a lid of a jar. The Heli-Mount system perfectly produces an even tension across the head of the banjo. Moreover, the patented Helimount frame stands to be the chief structural component, rigidly attaching the neck while still allowing adjustment. This eliminates the need to have sound-choking coordinator rods inside the resonating chamber of the banjo.
Nechville’s patented solid neck connection to the frame allows for easy raising and lowering of string height and interchangeability among necks and bodies.
The sound quality from a Nechville banjo has been called “musical”, “balanced” and “thick” due to the absence of dozens of metallic parts and coordinator rods that are normally clamping the whole thing together. The tone ring and rim assembly, most commonly made from bell brass and 3 ply hard maple, is literally suspended inside the framework of the Helimount insuring the most purity to the banjo sound.
Nechville’s Phantom banjo combines contemporary engineering with the old English tunneled fifth string idea. The absence of the fifth peg on the Phantom allows unobstructed left hand maneuvering, particularly when using your thumb to fret the fifth string. Because no hole is drilled in the middle of the neck, it is stiffer, lending a dense woodiness to the tone. The neck profile is a bit wider, but with a slim feel for great playability.
Even more radical, but useful, is Nechville’s patented Nuvo neck. The neck is more guitar-like and all 5 strings are playable to the nut. A sliding 5th string capo can be placed anywhere from the zero fret to the top of the neck, and a main rolling capo is built right into the neck for rapid key changes without the need to retune between settings. Innovations from Nechville seem to never cease. He has pioneered synthesizer banjos, electric/ acoustic banjos and guitars, and a new class of Hybrid instruments he calls “Flux-tones”.
Nechville uses his recently patented “Flux capacitor” to marry an old style banjo pot to his modern, comfortable engineered necks, lending better tone, easy adjustability and portability to the old banjo. Look for more to come from Nechville. This is one little company working behind the scenes that has the determination to change music for the better.
Making music is a great hobby. It’s a fun and creative outlet, It can be expensive if you collect expensive instruments. But compared to Cable TV, Golf, Boating, skiing, and driving, hunting, raising pets, or sky diving, it’s cheap. Especially if you are wise and purchase good instruments with high resale value.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to buy the best instrument you can afford. I know many people who have wasted money on banjos that looked good, and even sounded pretty good for a while. Then the instrument starts needing continual adjustment, and unfortunately never delivers top-tier performance. Then people lose money on a trade for a slightly better instrument which still doesn’t measure up over time. Even after a player has lost money several times over on inferior banjos and settled on one he thought would be his last, invariably a picky player’s ear begins to seek alternate sounds.
Please don’t just go out and buy a banjo just because somebody said it was the best. Make your best choice by learning what really makes a banjo great. Here’s a practical checklist for those of you looking.
The following is a list ofthings that I find important as a player and a builder. You’ll have your own priorities however, like how it sounds and looks, but the following are banjo luthiers’ details that may not be obvious to you but are worth considering when looking for a banjo.
* Smooth dressed frets (wider frets wear slower)
* Ergonomically contoured playing surface (compound radius retains neck integrity while improving playability)
* No excessive weight (professional banjos can be 7 pounds or less)
* Neck angle adjustability (don’t expect coordinator rods to give you much if any adjustment)
* Evenly tensioned head (Helical mounting guarantees even-ness)
* Low enough string height with high enough bridge (taller bridges increase power and sustain)
* Beveled non-metal armrest (metal armrests cut down circulation in your arm)
* Bridge properly compensated for intonation and optimal action on each string (bridge should be custom fitted to each banjo)
* Easy head changing (Save time for more practice)
* Wide and generous Neck to body interface (for tuning stability and solid sound)
* Dual point anchoring for tail piece (tailpiece shouldn’t move from side to side)
* Easy string changes (avoid tailpieces with covers for quickest changes)
* Straight-line tailpiece design (keeps string energy directed straight into head)
* Flexibility of options (does it have adaptability for alternative tone components or necks?)