Saturday, August 30, 2014

Milwaukee Irishfest: Banjo and Mandolin

Milwaukee is my backyard and as such Irishfest is a don't-miss for me.  This year was no exception as our band, the Drowsy Maggies, played two gigs in harp tent and I was a volunteer for the festival.  I also went to the Summer School in order to take a banjo class with Enda Scahill and a mandolin class with Martin Howley.
I took these classes last year and reported on them in this blog but you can never get enough schooling from such great players and teachers.
But first, I saw a great band, Dallahan, that I want to share with you.

And it's not because  they are playing one of my banjos.  This is a hot band with lots of new material.

WeBanjo3, Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny, John and Maggie Carty, Alasdair Fraser, Tony McManus, Carlos Nunez, and Different Drums of Ireland were just a few of the great acts present.It was a great festival, as usual. If you ever get a chance to go, take it and try to get to the Summer School as you get a lot of perks including free access to the festival.

Here is Martin Howley playing the slip jig "The Good Wife."

Martin has been studying a number of the great mandolin players out there and adapted a lot of the techniques he has learned to the specific needs of Irish Trad.  He has been trying to get away from playing the mandolin like a tiny banjo and let the instrument shine on its own.  If you are a banjo player who plays mandolin too, there is a lot to learn here.

Enda Scahill also taught the banjo, something he doesn't do as much as he would like because of the hectic schedule of WeBanjo3.  Here he is teaching a favorite tune, Dinny O'Brien's Reel.  This is actually from last year - my video this year was screwed up - but it is good stuff.

Both Martin and Enda did an interesting thing, they taught one or two tunes and focused on listening to the tune and learning how to create variation using your skills and ear.  Each person is different, both of them have extensive skill sets but they emphasize using what you have and making it musical, not technical.

Here is Martin playing the Vincent Broderick tune "The Rookery", a tune he has played since he was twelve.

Here Martin plays it slowly so we can learn it and then adds variations.

There was plenty more to learn at the Irishfest.  John Carty was terrific, all the music from new and old groups was inspiring.  I can't wait until next year.

Mike Keyes
30 August 2014

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Making Your Best Banjo

There is a Firestone ad out in which an owner of a vintage car happily passes up car dealerships because his vehicle has been taken care of by the Firestone store.  The gist of the ad is that the best car is the one you have.
So it is with Irish Tenor Banjo. For whatever reason, an obsessive desire to sound like Barney McKenna has never erupted amongst Irish banjo players.  Any banjo that sounds decent (a relative term according to fiddle players) will do as long as it is playable and loud enough to be heard in sessions.  Oh, there is a Holy Grail - the Essex Paragon - but only because BMc played one (with a Gibson style tone ring) for a while and because it is a quality banjo.  Almost any good banjo will do subject to the tastes of the owner.  Which brings me to my main point.
I've gone through a lot of banjos since I started playing Irish music.  This is due to a combination of Banjo Acquisition Syndrome (BAS) and a curious mind about banjos.  I played the five string banjo for years and only had two banjos the entire time, both Gibson Mastertones of some sort.  Since then I have either owned or played a variety of banjos including Epiphone Recording As, Paramount A-C, various Lange built, Vega built (including Style M), B&D/Bacon and Gibsons of all sorts.  I have settled on what I call Gibsonoid banjos as my day to day players.
The obvious rhetorical question is: "Why Gibson?" It's not because it is the best sounding banjo (doesn't exist since it is a matter of taste) nor is it because I fell totally in love with the banjo.  The main reason is that more is known about the Gibson style banjo than any other thanks to Earl Scruggs and if you want a good banjo that will not break the bank, you can actually make them up from parts that are easily obtained.  Hence I have a number of banjos made from the Gibson pattern.
The vast majority of banjos sold in the past 50 years have been five string banjos.  Of those a huge number have been built on the Gibson pattern that started in the late 1920s, the one piece flange (OPF) double coordinator rod eleven inch head banjo.  Almost every modern banjo is a variation of this model including a few that look as if they have dowel sticks but really have a coordinator rod imbedded in a dowel stick.
Throw in the American desire to sound like Earl and you have a number of converted banjos (from tenor to  five string) resulting in a surplus of tenor banjo necks designed to go on a one piece flange patterned pot.  Basically the tenor neck was taken off and a five string neck attached.
Of course it is not as simple as that, the neck has to be fitted to the pot, but it is almost as simple as swapping out parts.
Once I realized this, I decided to try my hand at building a Gibsonoid banjo - I say Gibsonoid because rarely are there original Gibson pots involved - with a TB-7 neck given to me by a friend.  I used a vintage Gibson rim, top of the line parts and a lot of money with the resultant banjo being a killer.  Ironically I don't travel with this banjo anymore because the parts alone are worth a lot of money and it looks just like an original TB-7 which go for nearly $80K these days.  Too many people have tried to take the banjo from me.

My next step was to try and find a way to make a similar banjo for less money.  I needed a travel banjo that would not break the bank to replace and if it was broken by the airlines would not break my heart.  One of the virtues of the Gibson system is that you can take the banjo apart by removing the neck and put it in your luggage surrounded by clothes and bubble wrap.  It has a much better chance of surviving than even in a Calton case.  Plus, it is probably cheaper to fly on Frontier that way.
I went to the Banjothon several years ago where I discussed this issue with a few of my five string friends. (The Banjothon is a private gathering of original pre-war Gibson five string banjo owners.) It was pointed out to me that First Quality in Louisville, KY has a huge collection of tenor necks obtained during conversions and that they would be glad to sell me some of them.  I called Eric Sullivan about my project and ended up with several of the lower end TB-0. TB-00 and TB 100 necks that they had.  Every neck was at least fifty years old and made from very good wood.  They also fit the Recording King  OPF rims I found at
I made a very nice banjo from a 1954 TB 100 neck and an RK pot but then a funny thing happened. RK banjos became so popular that the parts became scarce due to demand.  There were no spare rims left.

As you may know, it is more expensive to buy almost anything part by part than to buy the object itself, but the RK pots were a bargain at just a little over $600 unfinished and undrilled.  I was able to do all of drilling, staining, finishing and aligning in my shop but it did take time and some tooling.  Nonetheless the result was a significantly better banjo than could be bought at that price point.
It turns out that the five string banjo made from the RK pot, the RK-R35, can be bought used for slightly more than the parts on ebay if you look.  I bought one and swapped out the necks.  Instant (ish) tenor banjo.  And I have a banjo case I can use for the tenor banjo at no extra cost so the overall cost is actually less.
Here is a video showing you how to take apart the RK-R35 and add a tenor neck. Warning, it is long:

The trick is to learn how to adjust the neck with shims or if you are really bold by changing the neck angle with a jig and a sander.  The banjo comes with all the parts needed including a set of Chinese tuners and an adequate but not great tailpiece.  These latter two parts are always cheaply made in Chinese banjos but they work, more or less.  One thing you have to do with some of these old necks is to enlarge the tuner holes to 3/8" to fit the tuners.  I also had to add a washer to the tuners to make them fit properly but that was an easy thing to do.  Enlarging the holes takes a little work but if you are meticulous, there is no problem.

Here is how to do it:
1) Buy a plumber's reamer and a 3/8" drill
2) Ream the holes from both ends until the hole just accepts the tuner.  You can eyeball this and when you work the other end of the hole there will be sawdust on the reamer that shows you where to stop.
3) The hole will still have some material that has to be drilled out to make sure there are parallel walls.  There are two ways to accomplish this: hand turn the drill or put your electric drill in reverse and slowly let the drill take away the wood.  I mean SLOWLY or you will chip out wood or otherwise screw up.

Setting up your banjo is a little bit voodoo, a little bit science, and a lot of musical feeling.  While there are well known algorithms for this kind of setup (Here is an excellent version), they are all geared towards sounding like Earl and you may not like that sound for Irish music.  Here is a video showing how to set up the banjo and how to shim the neck.

The overall cost for doing it this way, if you figure in paying for the drilling and your hourly rate is  less than getting the raw parts and putting it together yourself.  And you also have a five string banjo that is fairly decent if you reverse the process.

Mike Keyes
3 August 2014