Category Archives: Tom Nechville

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.

Remembering Liz Meyer

Liz Meyer will live on in her music , in her friends, and in the mark she left on the world. Liz never gave up hope during her long battles with cancer. She never stopped working and she con-tinued to correspond with all who reached out until the end.

 

I was fortunate to have gotten help from Liz several times when planning trips to Europe. She was central to the European Bluegrass scene and was a great connector of people. Even while bedridden, she would do her work that she was passionate about. She didn’t say “Why Me?” She simply forged on despite the pain and cancer. We all face mortality, but I don’t know anyone who faced it with such courage and strength. She was in no shape to appear in per-son at the EWOB festival last June, but she did. It was amazing. Even her obvious pain would not diminish her smile.

Liz, an awesome musician and song-writer was loved by so many Interna-tionally, and was such a valuable and central link between thousands in Bluegrass worldwide. When people like Liz are taken from us, it charges us with a new directive; to live on with-out fear but to face our challenges head on.

 

Thanks to Liz for all she has done and for her inspiration. Finally a bit of a rest for another hero. Thanks also to Pieter who stood by her side always, and went through these battles in nearly as painful of a way. Thanks Pieter for all you did to prolong her life so long. And thanks for having me in your home twice when I was last in Europe, The time I spent with Liz could not have been any better. Tom Nechville

 

 

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?)

Advanced Banjo Setup for the Picky Player

The Nechville Helimount acoustic banjo is a breeze to set up and adjust to your liking, but I recently realized that there is a great need for more precise instructions for the more advanced players and those with very specific tone ideas in mind. When I am working in person, I always help people understand their banjo a little better, but I can’t do that with everybody, so here is my best shot at walking you through all the set up steps and adjustments that you can do on a Nechville banjo.

Let’s start with by making sure the head is set for the right sound and playability. Like any part of a banjo, The type of head is an important set-up choice. Something to think about before changing heads is what will the head do to the level of the playing surface of your head? For example, If you are going for the warmer sound of a relaxed head, you’ll benefit from using a high crown head, especially if you prefer to use a smaller bridge. The high crown allows the tone ring to push the head up higher in relation to the tension hoop so you can use a shorter bridge. If you go too tight with the high crown, the playing surface might get as high as the top of the tension hoop, which is not recommended.

Please don’t use low crown heads in a Helimount, unless you use it with an archtop tone ring. The low crown with a flat head tone ring may not give you enough room to thoroughly engage the thread of the flange ring with the thread of the Helimount, and it could become cross threaded. When replacing heads, always spin the flange ring in by hand and be sure it is level and nothing is preventing full mating of the threads.

I would also avoid certain specialty heads like Kevlar, and thick reflective heads: they usually don’t sound right, and their stiffness makes them difficult to use for the same reason as the low crown, unless they have been previously stretched out in another banjo. 5 Star and Lugwig white frosted on top plastic heads will work, but you’ll find the sound bright but one dimensional. I prefer the Remo standard heads for a bit more depth and full ranging response. The Renaissance translucent heads give a more organic or warm effect. Continue tightening your head to playing tension, place the bridge and tune it up.

There is a window of perfect tension for every banjo and it occurs when the head is around 90 on a drum dial. This corresponds to a head ringing when tapped with a G# note. You may need to add considerably more tension than you would expect to reach this optimum point. However it is possible to over-shoot the ideal tension. Beware if the sound gets sharp, cold and one dimensional. For more information on heads, see the Nechville News archive and look for anarticle, “Heading for Great Sound.”

Once you think the head is tight enough, Check  the neck bow. Hold down a tightened string at both ends of the fingerboard, and there should be a small distance from that string to the middle frets. I mean less than .01 or 1/100 of an inch of bow. That’s only a thick sheet of paper.  A 1/4″ nut driver is the tool of choice for adjusting the truss rod. Be sure you have one that is small enough to fit into the access hole on the peghead, (call Nechville if you need one).

With the proper neck Bow and tight head, now it’s time to install your favorite height bridge and check the action (my favorite is a 3/4″ radiused bridge). If you are satisfied with the action after reaching this step, great , it is time to skip to the next paragraph below.  If however the action is too low, you have a choice. Either install a higher bridge, tighten the head more, move the neck up to decrease neck angle, or do any combination of these 3 things to arrive at the best action. Consider how each adjustment affects the overall tone and whether it will take you closer or farther from your goal. When I mention these effects, note that the converse is also true (go the other way to remedy high action).

Taller bridge usually means more mass, increasing sustain, raising action, and giving the banjo the capability of being played with more volume, as long as the mass of the bridge is not muting too much. Keep the bridge under 3 grams and you should be OK. It is great to have an assortment of bridges, especially if you have several banjos.  Changing bridges at this point in the set up process is a good idea, because you can learn more about what size and weight bridge your banjo likes with the particular head tension and neck angle that you are starting out at.  Tighter Head means higher action, brighter and louder sound to a point, and generally a more focused and stable sound. If head barely yields to finger pressure, and reads over 92 on the drum dial, it might be too tight, in which case the bass response and body sound of the instrument can be lacking.Neck Angle is adjustable via the set screw on the bottom of the Heel. Loosening this screw loosens the neck, and the strings’ tension will pull the action higher.  Retighten the set screw firmly when you reach the proper action. Note, lowering action is best done with strings loosened, and the banjo placed face down in your lap while seated. You may need to re-lower and re-raise the neck angle a couple times to arrive at the perfect action. Be sure Allen screw is all the way tight and neck will not move when twisted.

Now that you have the head and action at playable levels, how does it sound? Perhaps it isperfect, but the point of this article is that as a picky player, you, like me will not be satisfied with perfect. We want special, magic, extraordinary. This lofty aspiration is what keeps my interest and is my continual aim. My builders are fantastic craftsmen who produce perfectly set up works of art. Part of my job is to give each banjo a personality of its own.  It is not an easy thing to teach, because every instrument is different and it is hard to predict what might make the instrument come alive. The following is a list of ideas, not a sequence asset out previously, but are optional techniques mentioned here for discovery.

The fun of this is that there is still room for surprises, Most of the adjustments I do have predictable results, But there are still times when I am surprised at how certain combinations of set up factors react. Are you looking for a gut rattling bass? Maybe the answer lies in finding the right bridge. conventional thinking would dictate a heavier bridge for enhanced bass, but maybe your ear is longing to hear the bright side of the banjo’s lower register. Perhaps a well crafted lighter bridge with a looser head would do the trick.

Do you want the overtones to enhance the experience of playing, not detract from it? Try moving the tailpiece forward and back, making the distance from the end of the tailpiece to the bridge different. Try Playing the strings on the wrong side of the bridge. Are they tuned to a common interval of the open string? I like the interval to match the second harmonic, or the 5th note of that string’s scale, but tuning it to other notes is possible with a Nechville tailpiece. First use thesmallest Allen wrench and back out the small setscrews until the tailpiece almost touches the frame. You’ll also have to loosen the lower set screw, but you can re tighten the lower set screw later if you want the strings to have the highest break angle over the bridge and add extra down pressure on the tailpiece. At this point, the tone should be sharp and snappy, but perhaps not full bodied enough for your liking. Now try exactly the opposite. Loosen the strings and tighten the small top tailpiece set screws. This moves the tailpiece back, decreases Break angle and lowersthe pitch of the sympathetic notes behind the tailpiece. As you move the tailpiece in and out, monitor the notes you hear when plucking behind the bridge. Try it with the larger bottom set screw barely snug, and have a friend help you monitor the sound as one of you tightens it. A piece of leather or felt between the strings behind the bridge would mute some of the high sympathetic vibration, perhaps yielding a “drier” tone.

Do you want the strings to jump to life with a mere touch? Try a Renaissance Head, and tighten it up a lot. Use a relatively light, but tall bridge, ie, 3/4″ 2.3 gram and moderate, (not too low) string action. Let the tailpiece tension off except for only slight down pressure. Then go aheadand try the down pressure by tightening the large Allen screw on the tailpiece, Try to find where you like it best.

Are you seeking easy, fast and clean playability ? That requires perfect fret level and perfect neck bow and perfectly shaped bridge. Given that there is an ideal neck bow shape, (not straight, but with perhaps .008 ” of bow) there is an optimum height for each string from the fingerboard as defined by the bridge’s shape. Of course with a radiused fingerboard, The bridge will need to have a similar shape, but too often people ignore the importance of the proper action of individual strings. The heaviest strings tend to get struck hard by the thumb, and so the 3rd and 4th strings need a bit more room to vibrate without hitting the frets. This means making the bridge higher in the middle than may be simply dictated by the neck’s radius. On a flat board, this would mean that a slightly radiused bridge would work better, allowing lower action on your 1st, second and 5th strings. However if you simply radius your bridge, you will be compounding the problem thatis already so common in banjos, and that is the 3rd string being sharp up on the higher frets. Make sure the 3rd string especially is compensated with a longer scale, and particularly if you have followed my advice and radiused the bridge more than the curve of the frets. The amount of compensation needed varies whether the bridge is sagging or higher on the 3rd string, but with the medium strings I use, (10,12,14,22,10), and a healthy radius, the 3rd string is set back about .080 from the other strings.

Do you want a banjo with perfect rich tone? Call Nechville for an assortment of heavy bridges. We will sell you several Enterprise bridges at a discounted price if you want to buy 3 or more. Start with a big bridge, and you can play with it by cutting deeper slots, and taking more ebony off the top. That will lower strings and perhaps change the harmonic content of the tone. You can spend time rounding the corners of your bridge, and thereby reducing the weight a little. Most of my best sounding banjos have bridges weighing between 2.4 and 2.8 grams.

The type of head and head tension are huge factors in controlling sound. A heavier, frosted head like a 5 star head tends to dry up the sound for less ringing and sustain. I have noticed the clear heads and black heads do have a bit of ringiness. When adjusting or installing a head, monitor how it sounds after every few twists of the Helimount wrenches. You might find a special tension that works even if it’s looser, but it is probable that you’d need to also raise action for play at looser head tension.

Once you find an ideal head tension for your banjo, mark the turning flange ring inside the banjo with a small piece of tape near the middle of the neck, And you will be able to return to that exact spot any time you choose. Your ideal tone may be different than mine, but given the ease of adjustment and armed with a little knowledge as to how to go about it, you will be ready to meet your next musical adventure.

Passionate Players

What keeps me interested in banjos is the passion of great players who hear a sound and remember it. Those people who play hundreds of banjos and try to understand what makes one sound better than another. One such player is Gabe Hircshfeld who shares my passion for great sounding instruments. Gabe has only been playing for a couple years, but he has an amazing ear and already outplays nearly everyone I know. I am honored that he recently chose to purchase a Nechville Banjo and we are currently working together to arrive at the optimal setup and options for his style and technique. We share a taste for high bridges, Wide necks, Mahogany wood, Radiused fingerboards and penetrating warmth in banjo tone.

Inspired by a recent conversation with Gabe, I decided to build a Mahogany Galaxy Phantom that would represent my favorite options and set-up parameters. Since Nechville banjos can be easily set up for high bridges with low action, That’s what I did.

The 3 gram bridge is 7/8″ tall. It has wide spacing and it is perfectly compensated for the string gauges. I chose to put on a custom set of strings. I use .010’s on the first and fifth and 12’s on the 2nd, but this time I lightened up the 4th string to a .020, and the 3rd to a .013. I think the slightly lighter pull on the tailpiece due to lighter strings lends to the mellowness without detracting too much from volume.

The wide neck also has wide frets that I believe helps hold the string in place solidly and lends to purity of tone. The radiused ebony fingerboard is done with Galaxy Abalone and Pearl inlay, and a tunneled 5th string adds convenience, playability and solidity of tone. I did the Snuffy Smith trick with a higher crown Remo head and the thicker frosting darkens the sound just slightly.

In combination with the head at medium tightness and the tall bridge, the notes roll off the instrument like giant pillow-y balls of sound. I removed the down pressure completely from the tailpiece and in fact raised the tailpiece up to the top of the bridge. My tailpiece lets the natural pull of the strings create the break angle for a nice open sound, but in this case I wanted less break angle than normal so I jacked the tailpiece up with the banjo’s built in pickup jack mounting bracket. Whenever possible I try to kill 2 birds with one stone like this. The high bridge and steep neck setback provides just enough break angle over the bridge for the sound to open up and allow a nice blend of subtle harmonics.

The energy can be felt through the resonator as sound processes through the unimpeded acoustical chamber of the Heli-Mount body. I can not imagine a better sound, but the Heli-Mount gives more choices of tonal character than any other banjo I know of. As for comfort, The tunnel is terrific the compound radius is perfect for the left hand, and makes picking easier for my right hand. The armrest is beveled exotic wood and helps make your body merge with the instrument in comfort. I can play it for hours in total comfort and the low action is as smooth as silk.

I have made similar banjos for people like Alison Brown, Noam Pickelney, Bela Fleck, Leon Hunt, Jake Schepps, and Adam Larrabee, who happen to be my favorite players.

If you can imagine yourself expressively and effortlessly making music this instrument, well it’s your lucky day. This banjo is my pick of the week, and it could be yours. Have total confidence in your purchase. I stand behind it with a 100% money back guarantee. This banjo is set up for a rich contemporary sound.

Alternate heads, tone ring options bridge heights and other components are interchangable, making this Nechville an enduring high value investment for you and your legacy. Interested parties may call me personally to arrange shipment and payment.

Tom Nechville