With all of the new folks discovering Daily Frail I have been getting a lot of mail asking about what banjo I play. With that in mind I am updating and reposting this little essay about the banjos I play.
Before you ask about the last paragraphs, yes, I really do want to go electric!
I started out playing a Bakelite Harmony. It was the 1970′s and the banjos wasn’t that old at the time. Dear Old Dad and I shared the Harmony during the short time we took bluegrass lessons.
Once we discovered frailing banjo Dear Old Dad got tricked into buying some crappy banjos. First it was a horrible imported tenor banjo and then somebody he trusted conned him into buying an old (we figure it was made between 1890 and 1900) no-name instrument that was junk back when it was new.
It’s easy to say that everybody runs across a bad banjo or two when they are starting out, but that doesn’t make it any easier to take when it happens to you. Dear Old Dad was so thrown by the two junk banjos he decided to get some good instruments.
First we had Lowell Jacobs build a 5-string neck for an old Vega Little Wonder pot. While the Vega was being made he picked up a Wildwood Troubadour.
We wound up with two more Jacobs banjos. The first was a mountain-style banjo and the second was a piccolo banjo Lowell made using a small piece of steel pipe for a pot. They were both amazing instruments. Dad kept the two small banjos in his truck and played them everywhere he went. At some point over the years we wound up sharing both of the small banjos with people who needed them more than us.
By this point my dad was getting serious about frailing banjo. I tried to take a lesson with him but I was at the age where kids just get along with their parents. The lesson ended with my dad tearing up the instruction book, tossing the bits into the air and stomping away.
In his defense, I probably deserved it.
Before Dear old Dad stomped off he bet me his new Wildwood that I couldn’t teach myself to play. I picked up the Vega and one page from the book. In a few months I was playing a handful of songs.
I wound up playing the Vega for a few years. It had a short scale and the neck Lowell made was perfect for my kid-sized hands. As I got older and started growing I wound up playing the Wildwood.
Dad still has the Vega. He has offered it to my many times, but that is his banjo.
The Wildwood stayed in my hands until I played it to death. it was an early model with a super-thin neck. I loved it and took it with me everywhere – even to Ireland where it wound up getting blessed by a Catholic priest on the streets of Galway – but that just is one in a long list of stories attached to that old gutbucket.
I was still playing that Wildwood when we recorded Old Time Banjo with Pat & Patrick.
When my dad bought the Wildwood it came with a lifetime warranty so when the pot started de-laminating and the neck warped we called Wildwood to get it fixed . . . but the guy at Wildwood couldn’t have cared less.
Word got out that my old Wildwood died and somebody sent me a new Wildwood long neck Heirloom. I was still trying to get Wildwood to honor the warranty, but the only thing he was willing to do was sell me an unfinished Troubadour neck. It wasn’t even drilled out for the lag bolts.
I was mad as hell but I needed a banjo. I cobbled the unfinished neck together with the Heirloom pot and managed to make a great little banjo for myself. It played like a dream, but by now I was making videos for The Daily Frail and I realized that I was giving a company that had done me wrong free advertising every time I played that banjo on camera.
I was wondering what to do when a Bart Reiter banjo arrived on my front porch. A friend who had decided he didn’t want to keep playing had sent it to me. So I started playing the Reiter and gave the FrankenWildwood to a friend.
When we started Somerset County Banjos I decided that it would be greedy to hang onto the Reiter. So I gave the Reiter to another friend and started playing a Somerset S1P.
The S1P was my custom version of the Somerset S1. The whole idea behind the S1 series was to create an open-back banjo with as much volume and sustain as possible. We blended Gibson and Vega designs and wound up with a three-ply rim banjo with old-school bolt-on bracket shoes, a high-end Mastertone tone ring and dual coordinator rods. S1 necks were carved from one piece of walnut or maple with a carbon fiber truss rod. The standard S1 had a Vega style headstock while the S1P was paddle shaped. They were, in my opinion, some of the best frailing banjos ever built.
I played my S1P up until we needed capitol to launch a project. It was weird to let that one go because I had come up with the design when I was a kid. I played the S1 the day my Baha implant was activated. I played it on my wedding day as Amy walked up the aisle and into my arms. It was practically a part of me, but in the end I wanted to kick off one more adventure with my dad, so it had to go.
After the S1p was gone I saw the Madison was in the office and started using it. Playing it has been fun because people are usually shocked to see me playing a simple banjo with no tone ring.
The Somerset S1P ended up getting some special decoration when Amy and I met the cast of Cinematic Titanic.
My latest banjo came from Dear old Dad. I had given him an old Vega tubaphone tenor banjo with a twelve inch pot a long time ago, and he decided to have it converted to a five-string. The neck was built – and the banjo constructed – by Gary Warren.
6301 Mesa View Drive
Citrus Heights CA 95621
We call the banjo Gary created The Katana and I love it.
What is next? Well, I really want to go electric!
I have brought a lot of new techniques and concepts into frailing banjo, so it only makes sense for me to continue pushing the envelope and bring frailing into an electric setting. Someday I hope to find or build a solid-body electric banjo. Not some banjo-guitar hybrid, but a real solid-body electric five-string banjo that isn’t trying to be anything but what it is. I have the design, I just need somebody to make it!
Ah, but there is time for that. Right now I have my S1P and The Katana. My cup runneth over.
Someday I’ll have to tell you about my guitars . . .