A Site Dedicated to all enthusiasts of Classic Style Banjo
I was selected to be on the faculty this year for the Smoky Mountain Banjo Academy (SMBA), acting as "Banjo Historian" and teacher of just about everything other than Bluegrass. The Academy ran from Thursday evening thru Sunday afternoon and although the size was low (less than 30 students for the full 4 days, though there were more 'walk ins' for individual days) I was busy the entire time. Turns out that the old time styles are getting some interest so I was kept hopping.
I basically got to "open the show" Friday morning with a 45-minute "Banjo History" lecture, including demo tunes. The students are free to ask questions throughout and they were interested enough that we got into following a few side tracks off into history. I really enjoyed that.
Friday afternoon I taught an "Introduction To Classic Style" and played "A Banjo Oddity", "Sunflower Dance" and "Whistling Rufus" for the students...both of them. They thought it was simply the coolest thing they ever heard (or so they said) but word must have gotten out because I spent a lot of my free time demoing the style for other people. "A Banjo Oddity" always gets a smile...and they want to hear that "Pop Goes The Weasel" tune again!
Tom Nechville (banjo inventor, maker, etc.) always has a room there to sell banjos, work on banjos and to simply hang out. This year he has gotten into exploring his "basser instincts" and has created his own take on the Cello-Banjo. Basically, this is a large-pot openback with a 26" scale and very heavy nylon strings...tuned an octave below standard. Tom is a bluegrass guy but since hearing some of the stroke-style stuff on low-tuned banjos, he wanted to explore it. I believe the pot is 13" but I think he has done a more successful job of getting good sound out of the banjo than Gold Tone has done with their CB. I played it a good bit and really enjoyed it.
Friday evening after supper, I was tagged to be a judge for the student banjo contest. It was a very interesting experience for me. All of the other judges were professional musicians, including Jack Hicks (former Bill Monroe banjo player), James McKinney (former national champ and current Winfield judge), John Lawless (owner of Accutab), Tom Nechville and Leroy Troy (an entire entertainment committee in himself). We were instructed on "how to be a banjo contest judge" by James McKinney and I found out that the process is excruciating...next time I meet a music judge, I'm buying him/her a beer!
Satuday's highlight was talking to Dave Ball. Dave is a Knoxville area banjo maker/collector with a tendency to collect the strange and weird. He makes some of the most beautiful oldtime banjos and his collection is primarily centered around the 1870-1920 period. I've met Dave before but never really had time to sit and talk with him. We really hit it off well and I spent a very enjoyable hour or so during lunch (and another during dinner) talking about many of the things we both enjoy. Dave has done a lot of primary research on old banjo patents and tries to find manufactured examples of them. He brought in one on Sunday that is simply a marvel of, "what was the inventor thinking?"
I also spent a good bit of time talking with James McKinney about Classic banjo technique. James is kind of hard to describe. Imagine if (name a classical prodigy…Mozart will do) were to have been born into a banjo-picking family... James' mother was a banjo player and actually broke her ankle during her pregnancy with him and thus was forced to sit and play the banjo...a lot. So, James always claims he was playing the banjo before he was born. ;-) He started winning banjo contests at 14 and has been onstage playing professionally for 40 yrs. If he were a kid today, he'd be diagnosed with ADHD...his playing style is incredible and his knowledge of music encyclopedic. He sat with me at breakfast on Saturday and said, "Marc, one of my hero's has always been Fred Van Eps..." I don't think I ever got to eat those eggs on my plate and I nearly missed my first class. ;-)
I had brought some original period sheet music in as examples and one of the sheets was A.A. Farland’s transcription of the William Tell Overture…which is, of course, simply black with notes. I think that if James didn’t have classes to teach, he would have started working on it right then and there!
On Sunday, Dave Ball brought in two crazy vintage banjos, a “Gordon” and a “Middlebrook”. The Gordon is unique in that the tension hoop is screwed onto the body of the banjo much like the top on a Mason Jar. The banjo is quite heavy, I assume to have sufficient material in it to create screw threads. There are a number of odd machine-made features which we sat around and discussed, including a set of bicycle spokes mounted in the back of the banjo (much like a bicycle, there is a circular “hub” and the spokes run out radially to the bottom edge of the banjo pot. We think it was probably done to help keep the banjo perfectly round so that the screw threads for the tension hoop wouldn’t bind if the head pulled the body of the banjo out-of-round. This banjo features the tiniest tailpiece I’ve ever seen. I didn’t measure it but it cannot be more than ½” at its widest. It looks sort of like a “no-knot” but crazily small. It actually has an upside-down J-hook that bears on the underside of the tension hoop…which is around ¾” tall, so the whole tailpiece (J-hook and all) looks like a piece of jewelry (albeit brass).
The Middlebrook banjo looks just as goofy (is there a word for “elegantly goofy”?). Middlebrook produced banjos for only one year, 1893. They were sold out of southern California and production numbers are unknown. Dave Ball has quite a few of them and in sizes from piccolo to cello. They have two claims to fame, one being that Middlebrook held the US patent on the scalloped fingerboard (such that Fred Van Eps couldn’t get his fingerboard patented) and the other being a very interesting neck angle adjuster. The neck angle adjuster is both beautifully made and completely whacko. Picture a banjo head floating in a half-gimbaled mount, that is, the neck has a half-circle set of arms (lovingly cast in smooth, graceful curves) that run out from the heel and encompass the banjo pot out to the east/west poles, only touching the pot at the east/west poles. A screw in a slotted knob on each end of the gimbaled mount allows controls the angle of the neck, which pivots on two leveling screws (top and bottom) between the heel of the neck and the outer pot surface. There is no dowelstick (and no need for one). I found a picture of one here: http://www.frets.com/FRETSPages/Museum/Banjo/Antique/Cantilever/can...
The scalloped fingerboard is a true delight to play on. Slides are just like butter and you get that fretless glissando quite easily. Crazily, the scallops are not pure radii. Viewed from the edge, the scoops are like sawteeth, that is, the scoop drops sharply from the fret and climbs gently to the next. Dave said that Middlebrook craftily knew that most banjo players performed slides from low-pitch-to-high, so he created his fingerboards to be most comfortable in that direction. Conversely, Van Eps scallops are symmetrical or true radii.
Dave had to go teach a class, so I had an hour or so to mess about with the Middlebrook. The one he brought was a monster, 28” scale and 13” (maybe 14” pot). It had a huge bass voice and as I said, the neck was simply a joy to work with. I want one!!!
Saturday night, I was required to play in the faculty concert. I chose tunes I knew by heart (smart move) and tried to not be nervous…but it was my first time to play in a formal concert. Since the bulk of the faculty is professional musicians, the stage was set up just like a concert, lighting, PA system, etc., we even sat in a ‘green room’ to be called onstage. Long-time Nashville MC, Russ Jeffers introduced everyone before they came onstage…and I heard him describing me in glowing words as my heart started to overclock…
I played two Stroke style tunes (Beegum Reel and Rumsey’s Jig) on the Ashborn before picking up Tom Nechville’s new Cello Banjo. I had been playing it a lot over the past day or so and thought a slow, romantic, MacKillop-rubato-enhanced waltz might sound really neat…so I trotted out Weidt’s “Cupid’s Victory” (kindly given to me by Ray Jones some years ago) for them. Wow! They loved it! Thank you Ray for the gift of the music and thank you Rob for the rubato lessons!
Sunday I spent teaching and simply enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Smoky Mountains. I was tickled to have two students ask to be taught one of the tunes I’d played in the concert (Rumsey’s Jig, an excellent and simple stroke style tune) and I received a gift (a small box of chocolates and a nice card) from a woman who had travelled all the way from Alaska to learn to play the banjo. She had been gifted an S.S. Stewart Special Thoroughbred (from a friend who had suffered a hand injury and could no longer play). She had gone online and done some minor research but basically knew nothing else about it. Between myself and Dave Ball, she now has a head full of information, a set of Aquila Nylgut strings (my backup set) and Dave made her a copy of the Stewart Catalog page showing her banjo. She was in tears with joy!
After this weekend, my heart & brains are full and my fingers are worn right thru. Hard to beat that!
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