Category Archives: Banjo News

Fame Alert- Steve Martin Boosting the Banjo’s Profile

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 Growth of Acoustic Music

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 Revolution

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.

More information on Nechville products and ideas is available at www.nechville.com and at www.banjorev.com

A Checklist for Choosing a New Banjo

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?)