Category: Banjo

Teaching, Learning and Reality…

I used to teach a lot of Bluegrass banjo workshops and I’ve had the pleasure of working with some really great professional players over the years and I can honestly say that I have enjoyed all of my time teaching and that the overwhelming majority of my experiences have been positive. I think it’s funny that the ONLY time I have ever received a complaint was from the “free” (actually included with an event) workshop I helped teach. I really let that bother me quite a bit at the time, but have since let it go. I showed up completely prepared and with a plan, printed material as well as a link to my website where the information presented could be reviewed in the form of a video. I really prepare for these things and I want to give the attendees of my portion of the workshop the best opportunity to understand the material as possible.

I get the impression that some folks think that if you set through a 2 hour (minus the chit chat) workshop that you will walk away with all the instant gratification you will ever need to ascend to the level of (if not surpass) the likes of Earl, J.D., Sonny, etc., etc. Having taught professionally I can tell you that the “I just purchased a banjo… how hard could this be” group of folks actually do exist… Thank God their numbers are minuscule compared to the majority who know that you must start at the beginning and not the middle… or at the top, depending on their allotment of raw albeit slightly misguided ambition.

The truth is that if you want to learn to play any musical instrument well, you will be putting in an inordinate about of time to make that happen. I have witnessed (time and time again) people taking months to master a task like shifting between 3 closed chord shapes in order to be able to start learning accompaniment (backup banjo). I’ve seen others take to those same closed shapes so naturally that I would swear they had been playing for over 6 months before coming to me for lessons. I’ve taught some brilliant engineers the same techniques, shapes, rolls, phrases, etc. over and over… and over… to no avail. For some reason the majority of people who have an extreme type “A” personality have a very difficult time turning off their frontal lobes long enough to just play. Daring to not do what they are doing well or without having the luxury of analyzing every note, pull-off right and left hand digit creates more of a list of things that can be checked off. This makes the timing nonexistent and therefor what they are doing, even though the notes are 100% present and accounted for, non-musical. Daring to suck until they get it doesn’t always work for them. Others are a rare blend of type “A” and “B” personalities who will generally excel at music and then understand it completely when they have gone through an exercise, then happily go beyond the assignment to apply what they have learned to something else. These are the people who only need a gently push in the right direction for they will teach themselves. Give them a good teacher and they will surpass all expectations!

I have taught young people who’s parents were living vicariously through little Johnney or Susie and who would almost predictably ask, at some point, “Why is it they haven’t learned to play well yet?” What’s wrong, dad?… Junior doesn’t want to be the next Earl Scruggs and it’s my fault? Oh, how I could see those coming from a mile away. 5 minutes of practice 30 minutes before lesson time to meet the obligatory trip with mom or dad so their prodigy could blossom before their very eyes while all the time they were no more interested in learning to play the banjo than they were participating in on the job training as a rodeo clown. They had no conviction, passion or desire.

Thankfully most people are somewhere in the middle. Some people want to learn for their own personal entertainment while others are aiming for a professional level of musicianship. Adults do learn at a different pace than an impassioned 10 year old with a proclivity for music and the tenacity to make it happen… it also helps that there isn’t a job or college in the way. Working adults come with responsibilities that take priority. Family comes before banjo, and it should! The amount of time you want to put into something and the amount of time you can put into something are often at odds with each other. This thing, no matter how fun it is, takes time and dedication and work. A lot of work…

Putting in the work sounds like such drudgery, doesn’t it? The truth is if you have fallen in love with the banjo there is nothing that will stand between you and learning to play it… period! You will sacrifice social time, sleep, love, money (boy, that latter one is true ha, ha…) to make your dream of playing banjo a reality. The time you spend learning to play it and mastering every little piece in that very large puzzle in order to start putting large enough clumps of those pieces together to make it sound like you can actually play won’t seem like a chore at all.

Most (I’d say way over 90%) of the musical instruments that are sold to beginners today will never actually be played. They will live out their inexpensive little Taiwan born lives behind a closet door after a couple of weeks of being noodled with and even with the free help of YouTube the instant gratification doesn’t come. That’s because most people fall in love with the idea of being a musician instead of with the music and the journey of learning to play it. That’s why some of what are in my opinion junky, Asian import guitar, banjo and mandolin manufacturers today can offer a lifetime warrantee to the original owner. Beginners are usually infatuated with the idea, not out right in love with it and willing to put up with what equates to a masters degree’s worth of time actually leaning to play.

It isn’t realistic to show up to a banjo workshop, free or otherwise, and expect to walk away with skills you didn’t possess before you walked in. You can however, assuming the instructor is a good one, walk away with a bit of solid knowledge that you can develop. It’s the same if you are taking professional lessons… a good teacher will help you avoid developing bad habits, he or she will gently coach you and lead you in the right direction at your pace. You see, it is you who is learning, not the instructor. It is you who are teaching your hands, mind and ears how to listen and to make your banjo sound like it knows the song you are learning.

A good instructor who not only plays on a professional level but who can convey ideas to persons who all learn at a different level and do it well will absolutely help, but you are the first person in the learning chain. Teaching a group lesson is one of the most difficult things that even the best instructor can do because there are too many targets and all of them are in a different spot on the board. So, if you are attending a group workshop, ask questions, talk one-on-one to the teacher before and after the workshop if possible. Try to see where you are and what level you are really on… I know most people who are still deep in the thicket that is the beginner level fancy themselves an intermediate player as soon as they can kinda pull off a couple of tunes… sorta… oh, and they know how to hold 2 or 3 chord shapes. The fact is most professional level instructors consider a person who can actually hang in a jam session without too much difficulty on standard 2, 3 and 4 chord standards to be on an intermediate level.

So, get out your banjo and play instead of looking for the instant gratification that doesn’t exist. Don’t buy do-dads in hopes of improving your playing when working on your timing and your right hand skills will do you way more good than that set of picks that “Marketing Mike” recommends. Truly evaluate where you are in your playing ability. Go play with other musicians and try to hang around with people who are better than you because you can’t learn anything from someone who sucks. Stay off public forums because those people are a collective of differing opinions all of whom are right… just ask them. Attend all the free or professionally taught workshops you want, but pay attention to your level and what level of material that is being taught and try to align yourself with an instructor who is teaching as close to your ability level as is possible. But above all, play.

Buying Your First Banjo (or helping someone else buy their’s)

Your First Instrument

     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…

Richie Dotson

Oct. 29, 2016

Laser and CNC thoughts: Hand work vs. Machine Work

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.

I say this in love. Rant over. 🙂 (more…)

Tone Ring Meltdown

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”.

Richie Dotson


Pulling Tone Vs. Spending more on a Banjo for Tone

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.

Richie Dotson

December 28, 2015

Thoughts on Building Banjo Necks

Making a Living as a Professional Luthier.  Some thoughts on building banjo necks…

Banjo Neck BlanksI 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.

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