This week I thought I'd write a short biography of my Buckeye banjo - my favorite object on the planet and definitely the one thing I'd save if my house was on fire (after my wife and cat, of course!). This is, after all, a banjo blog, and though I've talked a lot about playing banjos so far, I have yet to talk the actual instruments themselves. My Buckeye (like all Buckeyes) was a custom-made banjo and I had a huge amount of input into the building process; making design decisions on an expensive instrument can definitely be a little stressful so hopefully dissecting my choices here will be informative for somebody reading this!
So - lets start with the builder. Buckeye banjos (www.buckeyebanjos.com) is run by Greg Galbreath, an incredible luthier (and artist!) from Eggleston in Southwest VA. I met Greg while I was in grad school at Virginia Tech and I've always been impressed not only with what a nice guy he is but also what a great player he is. Over the years I got to play a few Buckeyes and definitely wanted one of my own one day. However, I was in grad school and thought that I'd better stay on budget banjos for the time being and I never put myself on the custom list (which would have required forking over a deposit). One day I read that Greg was no longer taking custom orders and I had to accept the possibility that I would never have custom a Buckeye of my own; my only consolation was the thought that perhaps one of Greg's post-custom-list-one-off's (which are likely to be amazing...) would find its way into my hands one day.
Some time in 2015, I was emailing Greg about a banjo setup question (nice to be friends with an expert!) and he let it slip that he had a spare neck sitting around. He was deep into the custom list and had just completed a tastefully-adorned 12" banjo (Buckeye #153). Unfortunately for Greg (but fortunately for me!) the customer had originally asked for a Dobson style heel on the neck (the more rounded-off variety) and Greg therefore had to make a new neck for banjo #153. I quickly said I'd be interested in taking the neck (affixed to a new pot) off his hands and he sent a picture of the banjo (in its original configuration), shown below:
Buckeye #153, with its original neck, which now lives on my banjo (#159).
Pretty stunning tiger maple huh? (pics by Greg Galbreath)
Greg mentioned that the banjo had one slightly unusual feature - the neck-to-pot joint was placed to shift the bridge ~1/2" closer to the tailpiece than would be the norm for a 12" pot. Apparently, the would-be owner was a classic banjo player who chose this feature to give the banjo a little more pop than your standard 12". I will say that until this point, it had never occurred to me to specify bridge position on a custom banjo. For the most part, it seems like many 5 string banjo necks are designed to meet the pot at the 22nd fret regardless of pot size - the bridge is therefore always the same distance away from this joint for a given scale length and ends up falling towards the middle of the pot on a 12" but closer to the tailpiece on an 11". In conjunction with physical pot size (i.e. the size of the air chamber behind the pot), this difference in bridge placement likely contributes to some of the sound differences people associate with 11" and 12" pots.
I almost committed right off the bat, mostly based off of aesthetics (and because I've never played a bad Buckeye) - I tend to like very little inlay and the figuring on the tiger maple neck nearly floored me! However, I calmed myself down and made sure I asked a few more questions first: 1) What is the scale length?; 2) Does it have a truss rod?; 3) What size are the frets?
1) Scale length - The scale length of the neck (the distance between the nut and bridge when its placed in the correct place) was 25". Most resonator banjos and many open back banjos have a scale length of ~26.25 but scale length was a little more variable early on in banjo history. Plenty of modern open back makers have settled somewhere around 25.5" for their standard models (I believe this scale length was often used by Kyle Creed). Though these differences sound slight, a shorter scale (24.5-25.5") give you some advantages: You can "tune up" to A/D with a little less tension on the neck than a standard scale banjo (assuming you use the same gauge strings for both). Also, you have just a little bit less reach between notes, particularly on the low frets, where I spend most of my time; this is particularly appealing to me given my reliance on left hand positions (post about that here). A 25" scale banjo neck sounded perfect to me!
2) Truss rod - The neck did have a two way adjustable truss rod. Proper neck relief is crucial to proper setup and truss rods give you the ability to adjust neck relief. However, many banjos do not have truss rods (they are simply solid wood) and many simply have a non-adjustable steel or carbon fiber rod inlayed where the truss rod would otherwise be. Interestingly, I have heard that both of these non-adjustable options provide perfect relief (just from string tension pulling the neck) and are quite stable. Furthermore, some people say that the installation of a truss rod actually creates the very problem it was designed to solve through replacing wood in the neck with something inherently flexible (i.e. the adjustable truss rod). All of this being said, I was used to having a truss rod and was therefore glad that the neck had one.
3) Fret size - The banjo had large frets. Many open back builders have moved towards using small "mandolin" frets and actually these are the norm for Greg - he had gone with large frets for this particular neck (perhaps at the request of the customer, or due to considerations associated with nylon strings - I'm not sure). Which size you like is a matter of personal preference. I feel that I have to push down just a bit harder to get a crisp note from mandolin frets, but many people of frets as little "speed bumps" for slides and therefore prefer smaller frets. The fact that the banjo had large frets (which I prefer) despite the fact that Greg doesn't normally use them sealed the deal for me - this neck seemed destined to find its way into my life : )
So, after hearing a little more about the neck, (and after consulting with my wife about our finances : ) I pulled the trigger! Given the fact that the neck was already done, I was in for a fairly short wait - probably the record between ordering and receiving a Buckeye! So...I had to decide on the pot specs. There are several decisions in here - I'll continue the numbering scheme above throughout this post (so I'll start at #4 here). Since Greg is a custom builder, pretty much everything was up to me. However, one thing I didn't really put much thought to was wood choice. Greg said he always matches neck and pot wood (though some builders do not); since the neck was maple, he suggested that the pot should be too. Easy enough - I decided to trust the expert here! Obviously, the pot diameter (12") was already determined by the heel-cut on the neck as well, but I definitely wanted a 12". However, I did have to decide on: 4) the rim depth; 5) the rim thickness; 6) the number of hooks; 7) the head type; and 8) the tone ring. Here we go:
4) Rim depth - I picked 3.5". This is far from a normal decision - most banjos fall in the 2-3" range from the top to the bottom of the pot and many people don't really think about this feature all that much. However, I am a huge fan of a banjo with a growling low end (I like the open 4th string to rattle my chest!) and I'd heard a couple of "deep pot" banjos played by A.D. Norcross on the Light and Hitch album and J.P. Harris on the Flat Iron Stringband album (both must-have recordings if you don't have them already!) that really blew my mind. A deep pot banjo is something most people don't make as a standard model so I decided this was my opportunity to have one!
5) Rim thickness - I went with 3/8". My thoughts on this were as follows: since the outer diameter is set at 12", the thinner the rim, the bigger the air chamber, (and in theory) the more the bass notes ring! You can go too thin from a pot-stability standpoint, but Greg said he'd had a lot of success with this size so once again I deferred to the master. Also, Greg was including an ebony rim cap on the back of the rim to prevent warping so I was sold.
6) The number of hooks - I initially asked for 12 hooks, mostly because I liked the sparse look of a banjo with few hooks. Most people (online) also seemed to think that this was plenty from a head stability standpoint. Greg actually had templates set up for drilling either 18 or 26 hooks on a 12" pot since these were the options available in a notched tension hoop (of course, we'd be using a grooved tension hoop). He asked if I would be okay with 14 hooks since he could use his 26 hook template and skip every other hook - totally fine with me, and this later turned out to be a bit of a life-saver decision....(keep reading). It should be noted that I picked "blued" hardware to match the tuners (and because it just looked amazing on that original banjo!)
7) The head type - I picked a renaissance head. This isn't a "big decision" because heads can easily be changed but I thought I'd elaborate a little bit. There is a lot of renaissance-head animosity out in the world, but I find that (in comparison to other synthetic heads) a renaissance head can really boom out the low notes with the right tension! Skin heads, of course, sound great too but I'm such a setup freak that I've always been a little terrified to commit to a head that can change tension due to humidity etc. Still...I may try one on the Buckeye one day.
8) The tone ring - I picked a rosewood tone ring. This is also fairly atypical decision since the "rolled brass" tone ring seems to be the default choice for many builders and plenty of people drift towards the more-powerful sounds associated with tuba phones and electric/white lady tone rings. Furthermore, the mid-heavy sound of the dobson ring is currently fairly popular as well (heard a bunch of great ones at clifftop!). It turns out that this decision would be rethought at a later date...(once again, keep reading).
I did make a couple of edits to the neck as well: I had Greg remove the plate that extended over the neck mostly from a practicality stand point (mostly because I've seen a couple of those extensions "bent up" away from the head - seems like a bit of a hazard). Also, I had him extend the existing scoop up 2 frets (to the 15th fret). This is a bit of a higher scoop than normal but I really like the ease it gives in hitting the "cluck harmonic" at the 19th fret with my middle/ring fingers, which always felt a little cramped on banjos scooped to the 17th fret. Also, my left hand rarely makes its way above the 9th fret or so.
So, we were off to the races! Greg was really cool about showing me progress pics like this one while the build was progressing....needless to say I was beyond excited!
Buckeye #159 in progress - look at that friggin pot....(pic by Greg Galbreath)
Buckeye #159 Phase 1: (14 hooks and rosewood tone ring)
When I got my banjo, it had 14 hooks and a rosewood tone ring. Needless to say it was jaw-droppingly gorgeous! When he posted pics on his website, Greg got email offers to buy it immediately. I believe this is the reason he added the "the following banjos are with their new owners..." statement on his "latest banjos" page. Here's how it looked:
Buckeye #159 phase 1 - 14 brackets/hooks, rosewood towering (pics by Greg Galbreath)
It was incredibly light, with a really sweet sound! Amazingly, though there was plenty of bass, the combination of bridge placement and pot size/depth resulted in a wonderfully balanced banjo. However, I suspected that a head tension adjustment could give it a bit more cut in a jam, so I got out the trusty drum dial and found that the tension was at ~84 (probably since the head was still stretching). I have found that most banjos really "open up" at the 88-92 range, so I got to cranking. At this point, one of the hooks near the tailpiece slipped right off the grooved tension hoop and took a chunk of it with it! I chalk this incident up to a clash between my aesthetic preference for a low number of hooks and my sonic preference for a tight head (in other words, this was definitely not the builder's fault).
I talked with Greg about what to do. At a minimum we'd have to replace the tension hoop (which once again, was now missing a big chunk of the "groove" where one of the hooks sits), but I was scared that the same would happen again. In the end, we thought that the best decision would be to increase the number of hooks (sound and functionality always outweigh aesthetics in my mind). Luckily it was easy enough to add in the "missing hooks" back in from Greg's 26 hook template and I figured I'd go ahead and get the associated notched tension hoop as well. So the banjo spent a bit more time in Greg's workshop before I got to play it again.
Buckeye #159 Phase 2: (26 hooks and a rosewood tone ring)
Buckeye #159 phase 3: (26 hooks and a brass tone hoop)
In the end we settled on a brass tone hoop; essentially a flat brass rod with a rounded top bent around the rim and set into the outside edge (i.e. not the standard rolled brass round rod that is a round ring which sits on top of the wooden rim). I had played several banjos with this configuration, and thought that the sound was like a more-powerful wood ring banjo; there wasn't a lot of additional coloring added (as would be the case for many other tone rings). Furthermore, the fact that the tone hoop hugs the outside diameter of the rim makes the vibrating surface of the head as large as possible (...bass!).
I don't have any additional pics because the change is beneath the surface (i.e. under the head) and doesn't make a big aesthetic difference, but I will say that the banjo sounds just great in its current, and final, configuration! I played it all through Clifftop to widespread praise (people say its "bubbly" sounding), and I'm just thrilled with the result. Its kept its core unique tonal character, but definitely has a bit more "bite" with the added tone ring (and a bit more growl in the bass notes!). Buckeye #159 is unique in so many ways and I'm definitely looking forward to spending the rest of my days with it. Furthermore, Greg was a lot of fun to work with and extremely patient through the hook and tone ring additions - I got to know him better through this process and I really can't imagine anyone not liking the guy!
Of course - I've always said it pays to have at least 1 banjo per tuning to place around the house and maybe a fretless to boot! Even with the Buckeye in my stable, I've still got my eyes on a couple of the banjos on the wall at Elderly....
To conclude - a quick recap from Montreal:
On Wednesday night, I went to a great Irish session at "Fiddler's Green" pub - I was solely a spectator since I don't really know the ITM repertoire all that well, but I had a great time listening! This is a weekly event and I highly recommend it. Unfortunately, I didn't get to hear any Quebecois fiddling since the local Quebecois jam takes summers off.
However, on Thursday I brought my banjo to a bar called "Grumpy's" for the weekly Old time/Bluegrass jam. I got there at 9:30 and didn't leave until after last call (nearly 3 am). It was phenomenal - the jam has a microphone in the center and is thereby amplified throughout the bar; amazingly, the patrons were really in to it! The level of musicianship was quite high - tunes were played fast, the rhythm was dead on, and some obscure titles came out. There was a also lot of singing and definitely some Bluegrass crossover as aforementioned but driving fiddle tunes weren't scarce either (you can cover a lot of territory in 5-6 hours!). I wouldn't really characterize this jam as beginner-oriented, but if find yourself at Grumpy's on a Thursday night and you've got some chops, jump into the fray and you'll have a blast! Whether or not you play, I highly recommend this as a stop on a trip to Montreal; probably the highlight of my visit!