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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.