Walking into music stores is a financially-dangerous, yet irresistable, pastime for me....which makes my banjo-testing gig (here) at Elderly instruments (here) a bit of a risky endeavor : ). While stores like Elderly (...of which there are exceedingly few....) are definitely my kryptonite, I make time to go into less banjo-centric shops as well since there's always the chance that I'll find something great. The story typcially starts like this: I'm wandering around a new city and I spy an unassuming music shop and think to myself....well I've got a few minutes to browse. In my experience, independent instrument stores (i.e. not Guitar Centers) are mostly of two types: those that cater to school band orchestra students, and those that are jam-packed with imported electric guitars. While I can have fun wasting a few minutes around any pile of instruments, I usually end up back on the street after a quick lap around the showroom.
There's also the elusive 3rd type of independent non-Elderly-caliber type of shop: the type with waaay too many instruments for the space (some of which are hidden in piles of cases) that caters to would-be treasure hunters like myself : ) I've never asked, but I have to imagine, that most of these shops started when the owner's personal instrument collection got out of hand...one look around my apartment makes me think that this fate lies in my future as well. Needless to say, I can spend hours in a shop like this. However, most non-Elderly-caliber shops, regaurdless of type, don't really know what to do when an interesting antique or custom-made acoustic instrument falls into their hands.....but every once in a while I come across one that I'm glad to provide with a fine home : )
To give an example: at a friend's wedding in Minnessota a couple years back I found a music shop that is probably best described as a "band instrument/treasure hunting" hybrid - while taking my customary lap I almost walked right past the banjo I would end up buying that day. The tag said "Bobby Flesher banjo: $399.99." Yup - that Bob Flesher (who's highly ornate banjos typcially run in the $2000-3000 range new)....don't know if he ever actually goes by "Bobby." Though the headstock shape was a design fairly unique to his work, there were no marks identifying the builder on there - if this was a "Bobby Flesher" banjo, it was likely an early model (maybe a prototype?) - it was also pretty plain-Jane in comparison to what he normally produces. I asked the shop owner a bit more about the banjo and he, I kid you not, uttered: "we're not sure what happened to the back of it" (presumably in reference to the "missing" resonator). I talked him down to $300.00 and left Minnesota with quite the souvenier - pics below.
Left - Pic of the "Bobby Flesher" banjo I bought in MN....never actually found out what happened to the back of it : ) Right - Closeup of the headstock; note the shape, which Bob Flesher still uses on many banjos. Pretty nice inlay, but be sure and peruse his site to see how far he's come....
To cap this story off: I showed the above pics to the masses on banjohangout and everyone agreed I'd likely found a Flesher (I tried emailing Bob to confirm this but never got a response). However, I was after a short-scale 12" banjo at the time so I did some bartering: first for a Ramsey, then a Reiter....which I later sold to buy a Pisgah...which I later sold to fund my Buckeye (here). In short, this banjo got me in to the custom banjo market at a time (in Grad school) where I couldn't have afforded it otherwise.
I've had some other spur of the moment instrument purchases in the past few years as well: I bought a cheap tenor banjo for $60 in an antique shop on my honeymoon and I bought an imported octave mando for $250 (in Canadian dollars) in Montreal this summer; you can hear the latter instrument here. However, I only came across my second true "diamond in the rough" find this past week while visiting my wife's family in New Hampshire. I pulled into a shop I've been to a couple times before, which has quickly become a must-drop-in "treasure hunting" favorite of mine: there are piles of funky old guitars, a wall of weird ukulele's, and cases full of possibility on the edges of the floor. In past visits I've found some interesting stuff (mostly in the banjolele department), but I've never felt compelled to pull the trigger and buy anything. However, this all changed when I saw a Bacon oval-hole mandolin hanging on the wall!
Pics of my new find - a 1924(ish) Bacon Mandolin!
Check out the grain of that back wood (which the internet tells me is likely birch).
I didn't have too much interest in mandolin until I heard some really great players at Clifftop, most of who played Gibson oval-holes. Ever since, I've tried out every one of those I've come across and had yet to find that sweet sound in the low register that these players seemed to bring out of their instruments. However, I havent spent a lot of time training myself to coax great tone out of a mandolin, which I assumed may have been part of the problem - but when I pulled that Bacon off the wall and plucked a few notes on the G string....well I kinda had to have it. I knew Bacon as a great turn of the century banjo brand (which is probably why the mandolin caught my eye), but a little online sleuthing showed that they indeed made carved-top mandolins for ~2-3 years in the 1920's. While their higher-end models, which have pretty bizarre body shapes, were probably made in house, the construction of the more conventionally-shaped "Amateur" model (above) may have been farmed out to Gretsch - no slouch of a brand in its own right!
This particular mandolin has had some upgrades: new tuners were installed (perhaps incorrectly as one side works in reverse), a new bridge was added, and the neck was replaned and refretted. These things likely decrease the "collectability" of the instrument....but I have no complaint as it plays like a dream. And the sound....I don't think I have much of an ear for mandolins, but it really sticks out. I made sure to play a couple other mandolins in the store to make sure that the room wasn't just "magically resonant" in some way - no dice....this guy had some gravitas! Perhaps it has something to do with the birch back and sides? This seemingly-peculiar wood choice was also common in the small bodied budget guitars from the 20s and 30s favored by some fingerstyle blues players - those things can have quite the bark! I talked $50 off the price (which was already quite reasonable - I actually feel a tad guilty about this). Knowing that music shops struggle to survive these days, I added $10 back to my final offer to offset the credit card fees associated with my purchase.
Enough talking about the mando's sound - let's hear the thing:
Me playing "Sally in the Garden" on my new (yet old) Bacon Mandolin. "Warts and all" recording complete with background noise, excessive pick "scraping," and a melodic fumble to cap off the 2nd B part. Recorded in my In laws' living room using a Yeti microphone, Garage Band, and my own underwhelming mandolin skills : ) Hopefully I'll improve in this department in coming months.
Anyways, the inital stop-by that sparked this purchase was a momentary diversion from a Christmas shopping expidition. I didn't walk in expecting to find a Christmas present for myself but luckily Santa had other plans : ) Speaking of Christmas, I'm posting a day early to give myself time to kick back and enjoy the day with my in laws in New Hampshire. Hope that anyone reading this has a great holiday season as well, whatever you may celebrate! Between Christmas and New Years, I'm getting together with my newfound Clifftop crew (most of whom live in and around Boston) - these guys are fantastic musicians with a deep tune list....hopefully a few easy tunes come up so I can try my new toy out in a jam setting!