Many may know that I do all of the maintenance, repair and the restoration to Jim Mill’s personal vintage banjo and guitar collection. Some of the instruments he buys and sells get my loving touch before they are passed on to their new owners as well. Handling a musical instrument worth in excess of $100,000.00 can be intimidating and should be taken with the utmost respect and care. Did you also know that I work with Jim, the owner of the largest privately held collection of Pre War Gibson original flathead 5-string banjos in the world, twice a year in his house helping to host the Jim Mills Pre War Banjo Seminar? It’s like Banjothon only condensed into one awesome day of pre-war banjo overload. All the information, education and hands-on exposure you could ever want condensed into one awesome, once-in-a-lifetime experience!
If you would like to get a glimpse into that world I can’t think of a better synopsis in written form than the June 2014 issue of the Banjo Newsletter… even if I did write it myself.
Are you curious yet? Read this article that covers the entire experience written from the perspective of an attendee. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think:
April 12, 2014 marked the fifth Jim Mills Pre War Gibson Banjo Seminar. The first was held on October 9th, 2010, and it, like the ones that followed, was at capacity. This gathering of pre-World War II Gibson banjo enthusiasts, owners, truth seekers, the curious, the novice historians, is like no other the banjo world has ever seen.
So much speculation, assumption, and frankly, voodoo, has surrounded these banjos, especially the rare, pre-war flathead five-string variety made famous by people like Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, J.D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne and Jim Mills, to name a few. These are the most desirable of the pre-war Gibson banjos, and in the banjo world could be compared to Stradivarius violins in rarity, tone and playability. Jim Mills is the owner/caretaker of the largest privately held collection of these banjos on the planet. On the surface, one might assume that the purpose of the seminar is to get to play one of these banjos and experience it in the magical setting that is Jim Mills’ banjo showroom…and you would be partially correct. But there is much more to this seminar than getting to play these powerful old banjos.
From the onset of the meet and greet (held the evening prior to every seminar) to the last handshake and hug goodbye, attendees are immersed in the history of these banjos. That history goes far beyond the vague catalog descriptions that Gibson published between the 1920s and the onset of World War II, which are all examined in detail throughout the course of the day. Jim’s collection extends to nearly every conceivable part of these banjos—tailpieces, armrests, tuners, flanges, tone rings, tension hoops, wood rims, necks, etc. etc. Enrolled members get to hold and examine the variations of all the parts made throughout that period. Participants can actually see which parts typically came on which models and learn to tell the difference between the real thing and the modern reproduction parts that have been manufactured for many years now. Variations in stain color and inlay patterns throughout the years on things like wood rims and even the types of screws, binding and “L” brackets used during different time periods are examined. When you leave the seminar, you will have experienced nearly every aspect of the pre-war Gibson banjo. Extensive hands-on study of different model designations such as TB, PB, RB, GB, MB, style 00, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 18, Granada, etc. are discussed, as well as the different wood types, tuning machines, other metal components and even plating that the Gibson factory utilized during the pre-war years.
The day of the seminar begins with coffee, water, muffins and a relaxed stroll around the 1,000 square foot banjo showroom at your own pace, where you’re free to soak in the huge collection of banjos, parts, a few transient and experimental banjos produced by Gibson, an impressive collection of early bluegrass memorabilia—including hundreds of photographs, handbills, posters, and even some of the original templates used to make these banjos. It is always exhilarating to witness the hush that falls over the first-time attendee as he or she begins to soak in the thousands of well-organized bits of historically significant pieces in the room. For some, the stop along the wall dedicated to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs that contains some of Earl’s own personal contributions to the showroom leaves the most powerful first impression. For others, it’s getting an up close look at Jim’s workbench where there are always a couple of banjos awaiting set-up and assembly, or perhaps a tenor banjo that’s being converted to 5-string. And for others, the parts display case, or the wall containing approximately 200 Gibson tenor, plectrum, guitar banjo and mandolin banjo necks, holds their fascination longest. Whatever the reason, the showroom itself speaks to everyone differently. The plethora of pre-war Gibsons and thousands of related pieces are priceless to the onlooker and historian alike.
Jim’s presentation eventually gives way to questions. Even though Jim always plans to present a set curriculum, every seminar varies depending on the interaction of the participants. One of the most fascinating departures is a discussion of the many anomalies Gibson produced during this period, many of which are still being discovered. Jim’s collection contains many Gibson odditys, and I’m always surprised at the responses to some of the unusual inlay combinations and materials that Gibson occasionally mixed together. One of the oddest, recently added to Jim’s collection, is a Gibson tenor banjo neck designated for a style 11. The style 11 banjos were painted blue so usually their necks were plain, straight grained maple, but occasionally you find these necks built from the other woods that Gibson used for the majority of their banjos, such as mahogany or walnut. This neck was made from a beautiful piece of Brazilian rosewood! The neck had been stripped of finish some time ago, revealing the rare secret after more than 70 years.
Time is also dedicated to the study of accessories, such as the cases that these banjos came in, and the Rogers calfskin heads that came standard—and the fact that up until 1959, our favorite 5-string players were recorded using these heads.
Every participant is treated to a catered lunch of North Carolina-style pork barbecue and chicken with all the fixin’s provided by a local eatery located a few miles up the road. Jim’s beautifully landscaped backyard and Charleston-style back porch serves as the perfect location to enjoy lunch while getting to know some of the other folks attending the seminar.
There is no other place in existence more dedicated to the preservation, education and knowledge of the most copied banjos on earth, and Jim is one of the foremost authorities on the subject. Many people consider these the best sounding, best balanced and most powerful banjos in existence, but you don’t have to rely on someone else’s hearsay. After attending a Jim Mills seminar you’ll leave with your own opinion, having studied and even played some of the greatest pre-war Gibsons ever assembled in one location!
Boy, that’s a subject that every one of us had to struggle with. I was fortunate that my first instrument, a Savoy (very inexpensive 5-string banjo made in Japan) was playable. It sounded like hammered dog sh**, but I was able to play it and learn to play it well enough that my father purchased a much nicer one only a year later before I went on the road with Larry Fuller back in the early 1980’s. The upgrade, another Japanese banjo, was a Fender Leo Deluxe. That banjo isn’t something I would be happy with today, but when you consider that stepping up to a mid-grade banjo with a tone ring and a multi ply wood rim and a curly maple neck and resonator from a pot metal unicast pot and mystery wood for a neck and resonator gave me much more power and tone and flexibility. I went from a 1/2” bridge to a 5/8” (Standard today) and I could finally project.
There was an advantage to learning to play on a piece of junk… you had to work hard to pull tone and to perfect your pull-offs and chokes. I didn’t realize what a challenge that was until the upgrade… and the “upgrade” was a far cry from the next banjo, my first pre war Gibson conversion with an old Steve Ryan tone ring in it and a super nice neck. I don’t know that I would have it any other way, but that’s just the way it worked out for me.
The sad truth is that most entry level, get in the game banjos are pure junk that may or may not live long enough for someone to actually learn to play. Most of the ones that I see come across my workbench need a massive setup. The action at the nut is awful on 95% of them and nothing is optimized. I get this all the time: “They said it was ‘set up’ when I bought it.” and they’d be right, but let me explain something about the definition of the term “set up.” An instrument that has been set up has, on a rudimentary level, been strung, the bridge was in the right place when it left the manufacturer and it held tune. That is about all you get with the Korean or Taiwanese instruments in today’s market. Think about this for a second… they must be manufactured, strung and then shipped 8,000 miles (or thereabouts) then marked up and sold from the importing warehouse to a store somewhere in the US or other banjer-lovin’ country, then marked up again and sold to you, future banjo player. So, if you have paid, let’s say $400.00 (US) for your first banjo (and that’s about right for entry level in 2016) then you can expect that banjo to be maintenance and set up need free for exactly 0 seconds. That’s as honest as I can be. That doesn’t mean that the banjo can’t be optimized for better tone and playability because it usually can… but a professional set up by a person who knows how to to that… to a banjo… and is good at it, ain’t cheap. If you take your banjo into a chain store that starts with the word “Guitar” you will be getting Pimples the Clerk who may never have seen a banjo anywhere other than a Beverly Hillbillies rerun doing what little he or she knows about a truss rod adjustment, charging you $75.00 and you will still have a cheap banjo that sounds and plays poorly. They just don’t know… and will never know. Period!
That being said, I think that starting off on a banjo that is affordable isn’t a bad idea, but don’t expect to re-coop your money… unless you buy second-hand, and that can be a little tricky as well. Try either taking someone with you who knows what he or she is looking at or let the seller know that you need to let your luthier take a look at it on the condition that you can return it if anything comes up that can’t be lived with. The luthier consultation will run you somewhere between $0.00 to $20.00 depending on your relationship with the luthier.
Buying new usually comes with a manufactures warrantee that covers defective parts and workmanship on the instrument. It doesn’t cover the bad setup that most of them come with. Some of these warranties are lifetime… that’s right kids… lifetime! Would you like to know why?… I’ll tell ya why… because 98% of the el-cheapo instruments sold will never see anything but the inside or a closet behind the winter jackets or the sports equipment after the first 30 days of ownership until they meet their next owner after Johnney or Susie realize that a musical instrument doesn’t come equipped with a bottle of instant gratification hidden inside the gig bag (gig bag is an old Cherokee work meaning “instrument killer”, but that’s a whole other blog entry)… at any rate, these instruments are out there. They may smell like gym bags and moth balls, but they can be had at a discounted price and you can, and should, take advantage of them. Kind of like when you bought that tread mill that you hang your delicates on to dry… and they you have saved enough to have the banjo guru near you to perform the proper setup magic on it so that your fingers will not hurt any more than is necessary and the banjo will sound as close to a banjo as is possible under the equipment circumstances.
If, when you do buy your first banjo, you buy as much banjo as you can afford within reason, and are able to buy used, and have it set up by a BANJO person, not pimples the clerk at Guitar World in the strip mall, then you meed to absolutely fall in love with the banjo… unless you started with that step, then all the better! You see, if you are obsessed with the instrument then nothing will stop you from learning to play it! Not the lack of instant gratification, not the banjo, not even your sister who thinks banjos are the least desirable instrument outside of planet Kentucky!
What are you waiting for? Go get a banjo, have it properly setup and then play…
If you are doing luthier work for a hobby you can hand cut templates (and everything else) all the live-long day because it doesn’t matter if you get it right or wrong or even if you ever use it. If you are doing this for a living you will rely on the precision of lasers and CNC machines when producing things in your shop (or purchase them from a reliable source) because you don’t have the luxury of spending 25 times as much labor doing everything by hand. That is the romantic notion of a lot of outsiders looking in.
I’ve even had armchair luthiers who’ve chastised me for not making more of my own tools like clamps, etc. … really? LOL… It just doesn’t make economic sense if that tool is available for purchase and it makes things impossible to keep up with and it damn sure prevents you from making a living wage if you are attempting to shop build everything. So, this pile of templates (as are most things in my shop) are a mix old and new, hand made and laser/CNC made.
If you work for people like myself who handle and own old prewar Gibson banjos (not conversions, but RB’s) then you will get corrected along the way when you make mistakes in your templates, headstock shapes, nuts, neck profiles, etc. Most people who want a banjo neck built for their conversion don’t know what a pre war RB (5-string) Gibson banjo sounds like, feels like or looks like when it comes to the 100s of details that make them up and to make things even more complicated, different years of production between 1925 and 1944 changed things, sometime subtle things that you need to know. Bottom line … you don’t copy a copy, you get your hands on the real thing/s and you pay very close attention to details and you can’t get any more precise than a laser and a CNC when it comes to scanning original factory templates and banjo necks.
I farm out some inlay work now but I am about to start doing all of that in-house because I KNOW what I need an inlay pattern to look like. I work with my current inlay guy and he works with me. The confusion usually comes in when someone other than a pre war person starts complaining about his work not looking the way they THINK it should look. As a result I have a file containing my pattern requirements and the only way to produce that consistently and in a way that makes it affordable to me so that I don’t have to charge my customers $3,200.00 for a banjo neck is to rely on modern technology. It’s a good thing. 🙂
When I hear someone complain that a neck don’t feel right or a particular inlay pattern isn’t right (especially when I know it is a dead on reproduction) it is hard for me to keep my filter working… sometimes it is real hard, LOL. I think if people have an opinion, it shouldn’t be presented in such a way that it convinces other people who are even less knowledgeable than they are that they are right. Some folks get a really mean attitude and are so passionate about what they believe is right that they just go on and on about what is “wrong” with something… and the problem is that everyone is right, just ask ‘em.
As a professional luthier and a banjo player who has been playing since I was 9 years old, I have done a lot of things to banjos. I have replaced tone rings, wood rims, tailpieces, bridges, necks, tuning machines and the list goes on and on. The overwhelming majority of requests to modify a banjo are for reasons of tone or aesthetics. On occasion, I’ll get an unusual request or someone will ask me a question that makes me think of something that I did years ago in an attempt to improve the tone of a banjo I owned that didn’t sound so good.
When I arrived at my first duty station in January of 1986 I didn’t bring my banjo with me, so I needed to purchase one for use aboard my ship, the USS Lawrence. I soon discovered a music store in Norfolk, Virginia called Ramblin’ Conrad’s where I purchased a Saga banjo kit, assembled it in the floor of the music store, purchased a case and off I went. I used that banjo for about a year until I brought one of my better banjos aboard with me.
In about 1991, a couple of years after my enlistment with the US Navy had ended, I was conversing with a friend of mine who built banjos in Chesapeake, Virginia. He always fascinated me with all of his ideas even if some of them were a little odd in retrospect. One of our conversations got the better of my curiosity one day when I was playing my Saga kit banjo. I remember him saying that he would heat tone rings up in the oven, then quench them in cold water to make them sound better. He spoke of packing them in mud and other things that I thought equally bizarre as well.
After getting my better banjos in my hands, the old Saga sounded muddy and unresponsive. It lacked clarity, tone, volume and a ton of other things that all of my other banjos had, so I started thinking about that heating and quenching technique that my friend mentioned… then I though, what do I have to lose? I quickly dismantled the banjo …
Once I fired up the gas oven in my one bedroom apartment up the the highest setting, I slid the tone ring onto the middle rack, closed the oven door, grabbed a cold beverage and tuned on the Red Green Show (look for it on YouTube if you don’t know the show … most of you will love it!) until it was throughly heated.
After about 35 minutes I made the sink next to the stove ready with ice water and slipped on my heavy work gloves in preparation for the quick transfer into the ice water bath when I turned on the oven light and took a look inside… What in the world? What I was seeing looked like a strange optical illusion. Perhaps it was the heat of the oven or the reflection of the light onto the chrome plated tone ring? It didn’t look right … it looked… strange to say the least. It looked like aluminum foil that had been slightly crinkled then had been smoothed out by someone, never to be smooth again. But why? Then, I opened the oven door…
Before me lay what was left of the once bad, but now totally useless tone ring. What I saw through the oven door was what was left of the chrome plating – the microns thin shell that once adhered to and surrounded the metal that was the heart of the tone ring. In the bottom of the oven, in a shiny pool, was the apparently very soft metal that made up the tone ring. it must have had a mighty low melting point for a household oven with a maximum output of about 550°F to melt it. The oven didn’t get hot enough to melt the chrome plating, but the rest of it went away… a way down to the bottom of the oven!
Besides satisfying a curiosity, I learned a lesson that day as well as losing a cheap tone ring. You truly can not turn a mediocre instrument into something that sounds vintage (or substantially better, for that matter) by changing the tone ring, let alone going through what I did in my failed attempt to alter the molecular alignment by tempering it. The lesson is that you get what you pay for, period! If you would like a good banjo but can’t afford one, get the most banjo you can afford and milk it until you can afford a better one. Don’t buy the next, slightly less junky instrument as a “step up”, go for it! You will never spend money on vintage and or quality that you won’t enjoy and reap true benefits from. Benefits like playability, tone, power, volume, clarity and in the case of vintage, a monetary investment that will pay returns in time.
So, don’t fall into the “this is just as good as a “________” trap. Settle at first on an affordable, but good playing instrument in order to learn to play, but then start setting aside your money for your real axe!
This is a 100% true story and I still laugh at myself over it. I have no idea what kind of metal could melt at such a low temperature or if my oven was truly that wicked hot, but this really happened to me. I hope you have enjoyed my recollection of the “Tone Ring Meltdown”.
There are lots of different banjos out there and all of their manufacturers throughout the years have slightly different ideas as to what makes a good banjo. Two truths stand out as far as I am concerned. 1, all bluegrass resonator banjos are basically a copy of a Gibson banjo and 2, through an audio processing device (i.e. microphone and amplifier) with even a modest amount of compression and equalization, almost any banjo can be made to sound balanced and nice … in the hands of a good player.
Gibson banjos made from between 1929 and 1943 are my favorite banjos. I have worked on them, played them, and had the rare privilege of owning them and have maintaining some of the rarest of them for people for years now. I am very proud of that. These banjos, whether converted from tenor, plectrum or whether they are an original 5-string (RB) are uniquely powerful, especially in the higher register. They are balanced and don’t lose power as you play in keys like Bb and B.
That being said, it does take someone with a certain level of skill to bring out the best in these banjos, but that is absolutely true of any banjo. The fact is that I have heard top notch players pick up a banjo that I know to be an inferior instrument and make it sound like a great banjo should … or as close at it will ever sound. In other words, I have heard a professional level player pick up a banjo that should have sounded … well … like crap, and made it sound awesome. On the other side of that coin I have heard people who were in the beginning stages of developing their playing technique pick up a $150,000.00 Pre War Gibson RB-3 flathead, all original cannon of a banjo and make it sound like a $250.00 imported piece of soon to be trash.
If I could convey what I consider the most important influence on the tone, balance and volume of any banjo, whatever level you are able to achieve where an instrument is concerned, it wouldn’t be a brand, a tone ring, a particular make, year or model … it would be your right hand. Those who have honed the skill of pulling tone and playing with a solid powerful tone and with practiced precision can make even a mediocre banjo sound far more expensive.
They say you can’t buy happiness, but the truth is that you can’t by tone and clarity by spending more on your banjo. Don’t get me wrong … I think you should get the best banjo that you can afford because it will make you want to play more and it will be something that you want to pick up as often as you can. You should also have it set up professionally for optimum tone and playability. For everything else, you must earn that by spending the time necessary to develop the skill of pulling tone. Then, when your ear gains a more sophisticated sensitivity for finer tone you will hear the difference in the banjos that cost a whole lot more.
I will warn you, though… once you are able to hear it you won’t be satisfied until you have obtained it.
Never Stop Growing … have you listened to yourself lately?
I love playing music, and I don’t consider myself a great player, but I am always reaching for more. I am always looking within in order to improve myself as a musician. I spent a lot of time in my youth collecting licks and tunes. Anything I could get my ears and brain around I would then attempt to train my fingers to do. I had a problem, though … one that I didn’t even know I had. I had never trained my internal metronome so that I could play the things I was learning to play in time. Whatever wild or complicated lick or tune I was learning was a grab and clutch at the notes themselves without me considering them being evenly divisible by 2 or 3 in respect to their time signature. In other words, even though I could play music on a reasonable level, I had not yet focused on the one thing that would change what I was doing from a series of notes into music. I could play with reasonable timing – I wasn’t awful, I just wasn’t very refined.
I’m the type of person who is perfectly content in my little bubble. I don’t often consider what is going on around me until I catch something either by way of something someone said or by me actually stepping back far enough to listen to what I am doing, or both. I had sent a friend of mine a few songs from a live recording I was a part of a number of years ago. He said he loved it. He went on to say that he liked how I was playing right on the front edge of the beat. After I listened to the recording, really listening to it this time, I realized that he was not only right, but that I was more often just past that front edge! Not good, I thought.
I had taken for granted that my timing was good and that there wasn’t anything to work on, but I was very wrong! The more I listened to other recordings I was a part of the more I was horrified at my proclivity for really pushing the beat … I was a speeder-upper, and I was a good one! I must correct this I thought, so off I went, but into an unexpected direction that allowed me as a banjo player to move very far forward when I thought I was going to be taking a step back.
Until that point I was not only in love with melodic banjo, I wanted to play everything like by friend, Bill Keith. I wanted to be the next Bobby Thompson or Tony Trischka or Bela Fleck. I wanted complicated strings of chromatic things to spring forth from my banjo and wow people, because that is what wowed me. Unbeknownst to me, I had started building my musical house by putting the windows and trim on without having first built a good foundation on which to place the structure. After this epiphany I decided to go back and to work on that foundation. So, back to Scruggs and Crowe I went and I invited the arch nemesis of many an aspiring musician along… the metronome.
I thought at first that I would check off this whole forward roll, alternating thumb pattern, Cripple Creek, bla, bla, bla thing in a few minutes and be back in the chromatic saddle by lunch … that is certainly not what happened! I quickly realized that listening also involved feeling and even synchronizing myself with the little time-keeper that I wanted to smash soon after our introduction to each other. I couldn’t play with it … this should be simple, right? Just turn the little beeping, ticking, flashing or upside-down pendulum thingy on and start playing, right? … wrong! It must be broken, I thought. It can’t be right, can it? Well, it was.
After my initial shock, I was able to slow things down and eventually, with focused and regular practice, play right in time with the metronome. I was able to pull off some of the licks that I loved in perfect timing without leaping over the next 8th note while getting there. Oh, the joy … and oh, the improvement I discovered in my playing. I started getting compliments on how my playing sounded so professional. I started to really listen to my musical heroes in a whole new way. J.D. Crowe and his incredible ability not only to nail the timing, but after going back to revisit my foundational skills I discovered that I was totally missing some of the melody in my Scruggs style playing … Listening to how these two masters handled the melody was amazing to me. I started getting it, really getting it! I started singing the melody that I needed my banjo to “sing” and I got better. I got a lot better. I started really enjoying the whole Scruggs and Crowe approach to things and realized that they weren’t basic at all. They were at the top of their game. Timing plus control of the melody equals beautiful and professional sounding music.
Some of my musical heroes and friends over the years since my discovery of good timing have done nothing but reinforce this for me. Bill Evans and I have done several banjo workshops together throughout the years. He does a great demonstration on timing. I have seen Ron Block play with a metronome slowly and mythically one 8th note at a time. Tony Trischka asked me just before one of his performances after a workshop if he could have a room to himself so he could sit and play with a metronome for 30 minutes before his solo act. Perhaps the moment that stands out in my mind the most was the explanation I received during an after workshop session when Megan Lynch (Lori Morgan and Pam Tillis’ awesome fiddle player and instructor in Nashville) when she said: “Everyone has an internal metronome, but you have to periodically synchronize it with something that is actually in time.”
I have since learned to love good timing, but I tend to avoid jam sessions now …
Making a Living as a Professional Luthier. Some thoughts on building banjo necks…
I can either take the time to make everything and never finish anything or know what to farm out in order to save me tons of time. Labor is expensive, even mine. If you are building banjos or banjo necks for a hobby, no problem, take all the time in the world and it doesn’t matter because you are building purely for the love of creating something.
I do this for a living and I have to be quick (depending on how many times I have to answer the phone for my increasingly demanding but not so lucrative free consultant services … but that is for another topic) and I have to do things over and over the exact same way each time in order to save time and material and therefore make it profitable. Waiting on neck blanks is time that I can’t afford any longer, so I process all my necks now from start to finish.