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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Banjo Builder Interviews - My 60th Birthday Present.

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Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 09/12/2011:  03:04:08



Banjo-focused civility, and the relationships that emerge from a life involved in music, do create enduring ties and enrich what’s left of one’s soul after working in the real world. 


That’s the message imparted by Craig’s videos, and underscored by the acts of kindness committed by people involved in this discussion aimed at supporting Craig’s enterprise.


Permit me a digression.  Fell free to vote with your delete button.


I learned Appalachian style clawhammer the hard way: late in life and from Appalachian style down picking players. 


In the sixties I was swept up in the enthusiasm of the folk revival, embraced Pete Seeger’s infectious commitment to music, got a long neck banjo -- a Baker Belmont -- as a graduation gift from my parents from junior high school in the mid-1960s. 


I later came under the spell of Earl Scruggs’ compelling bluegrass sound, eventually migrated toward the guitar.  I hauled that banjo with me to Southeast Asia in the mid-1980s and when I came back to northern Virginia, field stripped it with the goal of rebuilding it, but soon lost interest.


I offered it on BHO’s predecessor, BANJO-L, to anyone who might want it.  By then, the early 1990s, it was in parts and pieces and sitting in a garbage bag. 


Bates Littlehales, a clawhammer player with ties to West Virginia and a talented banjo builder, who was then in his seventies, and just hit his mid-80s a few months ago, offered to take it and insisted on giving me “one clawhammer lesson” in return for the banjo.  I agreed. 


Bates came to my home in Arlington VA every Saturday morning for about 2 years, and would spend 2 hours or so drilling me in clawhammer, teaching me technique and tunes, and talking about the art form and the artists, especially WVA banjo players.  When he got ready to “retire” back to his mountain in WVA, I reminded him that he had signed up to do one lesson.  Bates replied that it was one lesson, only it took two years ‘cause I’m a slow learner. 


Over the years Bates engendered an interest in banjo repair and building, and taught me the basics of cutting wood, caring for machines, solving banjo problems, catastrophic neck repair, and so on. 


I visited him in WVA about 5 or 6 or so years ago, and he handed me a paper bag filled with a banjo, my Bacon Belmont, and told me to make it right again. 


I did, and pretty quickly after fixing it up I sold it. 


I don’t really pine away for it because I have this great story in its place, and an enduring relationship that – in the midst of a 30 year career in the federal government – reminded me of the life lessons Bill and Bart and others here have been talking about.





bricklifter1 - Posted - 09/12/2011:  05:36:22

great story

exactly what i was saying.....civility


frailin - Posted - 09/12/2011:  05:37:09

Terrific stories!  Thank you for sharing, you guys!  It's satisfying to me to hear others experience what Chris was talking about.  BTW - I'm going to use this quote with my marketing students.  I'd not see/read it before, but it's spot-on. 

In life, create civility...most people crave it and they don't even know it.  With civility comes substance, charity, empathy and honesty.  With empathy and honesty comes ethics.



And this is something our banjo builders represent in spades. 

Edited by - frailin on 09/12/2011 05:37:37

srrobertsiii - Posted - 09/12/2011:  06:37:35

Bill, Chris and Lew,

Thanks much for the insights and stories. I'm sure I, and others, will have recourse to draw on them repeatedly. For me, they are reminders that I am a part, albeit a small part, of a blessed community, without which my days would be much longer and far drearier.

Sam R

Shawn Hoover - Posted - 09/12/2011:  07:38:37


Originally posted by banjobart

I took my tools, bench and gear to give free workshops at several local acoustic music festivals and national Luthier Conventions to demo fret slotting, heel carving and pearl inlay. Plus I cooked up a pile of free hot dogs. I hosted two MI Woodworkers Guild meetings with hands on demos. I volunteered an inlay and engraving seminar at the Galloup Guitar Hospital in Big Rapids. I hosted our local Cub Scout troop and had all of the boys trying their hand at engraving pearl inlay. They were naturals! The moms gave me a hug and a few tins of popcorn. I use the empty tins to store banjo parts and recall this every day everytime I grab some banjo parts.

Ok, cutting pearl after work is about the opposite of breathing fresh air, but that's fantastic. My comment was based on what you said in the interview about walking in the woods and riding motorcycles. Either way, I applaud the expert optimization of your business. A work life set up to enable those choices is something the rest of us only dream of.

Watching the DVDs, previously only familiar with the Gibson/Martin/Fender/Taylor part of the industry, I was lamenting to myself how the one person or husband/wife business must evaporate once they hang up the spokeshave, if you will. With no apprentices, all that hard-earned knowledge and experience goes poof. Wrong! In light of the workshops these guys put on and the countless phone calls and emails to one another and to wannabes like me, I can now see how the spark carries on. It actually multiplies and the work goes on under new shingles and new brand names.

Edited by - Shawn Hoover on 09/12/2011 07:42:37

frailin - Posted - 09/12/2011:  07:52:33

I can tell you for a FACT, Bart is concerned that there will soon be no more $1,000 North American banjo makers of the quality/level he's now building. We all know Bart's  banjos are UNDER priced for what you get, but that was a conscientious decision on his part.  He WANTS people to afford a GREAT ax.  It's a proven fact, better instruments build and encourage better playing.  

As Shawn is pointing out, Bart's "active sharing" of his knowledge demonstrates just how much he wants to make sure beginner through professional banjo players have affordable, quality banjos available in the future... after he retires.  

Here's a thought...  

I don't think Bart is the "blogging" type, but who knows... if enough of you future builders want to learn at the feet of one of the masters, I'll bet he'd organize a series of online (mebbe even on-location) workshops.  Let's consider online first.  They could even happen here at BHO.  Offering him $25 a session or so would make it worth his while, too.  

What say you folks?  Anyone interested in this proposition?  Let me know before I report back to Bart.  

The decision to hold them is still up to him.  Best I could do would be to convince him he could hold them anywhere.  He'd just have to find a computer with a videocam somewhere at the end of his ride that day.  smiley



sugarinthegourd - Posted - 09/12/2011:  08:10:42

Originally posted by frailin

I can tell you for a FACT, Bart is concerned that there will soon be no more $1,000 North American banjo makers of the quality/level he's now building.

Oh I think that's true for sure. I have long felt that both he and Mike Ramsey price their goods too low. But who am I to tell that to a couple of guys who have built 6000 more banjos than I have!

banjobart - Posted - 09/12/2011:  08:25:48

Actually there is a medium for banjo building workshops in place. Bryan Galloup's Guitar Hospital in Big Rapids, MI is the most extensive and professional guitar making and repair school I have ever entered. It is a fabulous facility. I have not talked to Bryan and Susan about this but I would imagine that they would host a banjo making workshop if I got off my butt and drove up there for a week or two every summer. I could get Mike Ramsey to tag along, too. He will work for beer and I will work for next to nothing. The school has on site dorms for the students. There are outdoor activities available in the extensive forests in the area. This would not transpire for several years as I have 500 banjos to build in the meantime. I have sent out feelers to Bryan and Susan.

Mike used to give banjo building classes when he lived in VA. 

If you think our prices are low, remember we sell at a wholesale price and the players see the retail price!

Edited by - banjobart on 09/12/2011 08:29:07

frailin - Posted - 09/12/2011:  08:27:55

Ok, Bart.  I don't care how many years it is in the future, I KNOW that workshop WILL BOOK UP!  Therefore...


pjxndvm - Posted - 09/12/2011:  08:49:38

Sign me up also.

bricklifter1 - Posted - 09/12/2011:  13:05:47




banjobart - Posted - 09/12/2011:  14:34:45

Everyone would come home with a high quality banjo that they made. Some prep work would have to be done beforehand to do it in a week. Two weeks might be better but harder for folks to take the time off. The cost would have to be more that $1,000, more like $1,500 to cover all costs, including wood and hardware. Free lodging may be included.

Edited by - banjobart on 09/12/2011 14:35:22

manomusic - Posted - 09/12/2011:  22:17:10

I'll fly over for that one, put me on the list as well please Bart.

StraitsBlueGal - Posted - 09/13/2011:  07:51:21

I'm in metro Detroit and I'd drive over...

banjobart - Posted - 09/13/2011:  10:48:36

I just talked to Bryan Galloup and a banjo making week can happen at his school most any August. I am thinking it will begin in 2013 or 2014, once I am freed up from banjo production. The class would return each year as demand allows. Housing in nice log homes complete with two baths and a kitchen each would be included. The price will be more like $2,000 total for everything except transportation and food. Students will go home with a banjo that would cost almost that much in a music store. Limited to 8 students per session. There would also be carving, inlay and engraving seminars of two or three days during other months. Visit Bryan's website and click on "School" at the top of the homepage. It is an extensive facility, an incredible resource. Visit:

PS: Bryan intends to manufacture Vega necks in the white in the future, for all the folks that cannot find someone to make one now.

Edited by - banjobart on 09/13/2011 10:49:40

frailin - Posted - 09/13/2011:  14:29:53



The wonderful folks at Smithsonian Folkways just placed their first order for Conversations with North American Banjo Builders - Volume 1.  big  


It will also be available shortly from our good friends at Elderly Instruments.  


And thank you to all of you that have been ordering online at   I've now sold over 100 copies globally.  

Onward to Volume 2!

bricklifter1 - Posted - 09/13/2011:  14:34:38

Volume 3: Banjo Builders of Europe ?

(why stop at 2?)



Ho C Ying - Posted - 09/13/2011:  18:39:59


Originally posted by bricklifter

Volume 3: Banjo Builders of Europe ?

(why stop at 2?)



 Good idea!



frailin - Posted - 09/13/2011:  20:55:01

I could see a Volume 3.  

Would take a bit more planning... and at least one more grant to pull it off.  smiley  

Need to finish Volume 2 first.  Focus... focus... focus.  

pjxndvm - Posted - 09/14/2011:  04:50:41

Shame on me for saying this in a clawhammer forum, but some of us do go both ways, banjoistically speaking. How about resonator makers like Sullivan, Huber, Stelling, Arthur Hatfield, etc. There may be some good stories there.

mrphysics55 - Posted - 09/18/2011:  07:57:17

Yes ... "Shame on you" ......   big

banjered - Posted - 09/18/2011:  08:24:29

Craig, when are you going to put a way to order your video for non-computer types like me. I haven't ordered so far because I don't do pay pal or other computer type of ordering. I would have ordered a long time back if that had been available. I like Elderly but I'd rather see you get as much $ on this one. Thanks. Banjered

frailin - Posted - 09/18/2011:  09:35:33


You're absolutely right... I'm sure there are some great stories around BG banjos.  That's actually what I played first, so it's still a soft spot of interest with me as well... but not as much as open-back.  So I chose MY 60th BD present based on highest interest.  You're a youngin' yet.  Mebbe that's a series of programs for your big journey.  As an adventure, I recommend it highly!   approve

And like Tom, I know some of you don't like using Paypal.  That's fine.  Email me your desire to send a check for the Series and we can go from there.

26 days to the first Western Swing.  I can't wait!  big big big


bricklifter1 - Posted - 09/18/2011:  16:45:39

26 days till the western swing.......great.

I will expect my dvd's in 36 days then !


You're dealing with the public here....we have high expectations.  Heck, I'll be reasonable.....lets make it an even 40 days.


Just kidding.....can't wait--if they are 1/2 as good as the 1st, it'll be worth every $.01


chris....btw what # of dvd's are you at at this point for vol 1?

Edited by - bricklifter1 on 09/18/2011 16:46:31

frailin - Posted - 09/18/2011:  18:04:11


This is the first of TWO western swings.  There will be 7 interviews this trip.  The second and final western swing (3-5 interviews) will be in the early part of 2012.  

Not sure of the number of DVDs.  Anticipate the same (3).  There are a few more "extras" I'd like to capture, if I can.  Although I intend to start ending the new shows once I'm home, I won't be actually finalizing/pressing the western swing DVDs (Volume 2) until closer to late spring.  Sorry.  smiley


bricklifter1 - Posted - 09/18/2011:  18:46:57

I knew that......can't fault a guy for trying......

What do you need to do:  work?       eat?       have shelter?

C'mon man.......true artists suffer for their crafts.  Do you think Werner Hertzog takes breaks!  Heck, he even got SHOT during an interview.


...........I know: it's a lead balloon: I'll get off your back.  Pa gets REALLY dark in winter, and I'm desperate for good entertainment over the next 4 mo. ..........

Have fun in 26 days!!!!!




ps: when I asked about dvd #, I meant: how many have you shipped of vol 1 at this point?


Edited by - bricklifter1 on 09/18/2011 18:49:42

frailin - Posted - 09/18/2011:  20:06:55


ps: when I asked about dvd #, I meant: how many have you shipped of vol 1 at this point?



Oops.  Guess I was doing too many things at once.  Didn't read this thoroughly (sorry).  

Sold and shipped 114 to date.  Still a ways from break even but more than enough to fund the NW part of the Western Swing.  smiley

Edited by - frailin on 09/18/2011 20:08:33

frailin - Posted - 09/19/2011:  16:07:50

Grant Update


Everything was submitted, all prim and proper back on 9/9 (deadline was 9/14).  Next I'll hear anything is January where they invite me in to listen to their review of my application.  They'll let me know if I get it sometime in March.  If it comes through, I'll have enough to cover all my actual and anticipated costs for both Volumes.  That'd be nice.  approve

But like so many of the banjo builders, I'd do this anyway... because it's both fun and interesting.  Thanks to you folks for appreciating this project.  Makes it even more rewarding.  

One nice thing about growing old is being able to choose where you like to spend your time.  big

pernicketylad - Posted - 09/19/2011:  17:33:41

Hey Craig......I know Elkins WV isn't very western but would you consider Bob Smakula as another possible subject? I know he does mostly repair work on old banjos but I'd say he'd be an interesting candidate. He really does great work.

frailin - Posted - 09/19/2011:  17:43:38

If I do another round, Bob is already on the list.  As builders, the Smakulas have great historic value.  

Ho C Ying - Posted - 09/20/2011:  03:04:51


Originally posted by banjobart

I just talked to Bryan Galloup and a banjo making week can happen at his school most any August. I am thinking it will begin in 2013 or 2014, once I am freed up from banjo production. The class would return each year as demand allows. Housing in nice log homes complete with two baths and a kitchen each would be included. The price will be more like $2,000 total for everything except transportation and food. Students will go home with a banjo that would cost almost that much in a music store. Limited to 8 students per session. There would also be carving, inlay and engraving seminars of two or three days during other months. Visit Bryan's website and click on "School" at the top of the homepage. It is an extensive facility, an incredible resource. Visit:

PS: Bryan intends to manufacture Vega necks in the white in the future, for all the folks that cannot find someone to make one now.

 Wonderful news!!!



neillconnor - Posted - 09/23/2011:  04:29:48

Craig, received the videos today thanks and put the 1st one on at half ten at night, finally got to bed at 2.30am! Absolutly brilliant, beat 3 hours viewing I've ever had. Downside is I woke up for work late this morning. Going to watch them again when I get home. This is a work of international importance for the banjo......a snapshot in time.
You've got to continue this outside of the USA/Canada and cover Europe as well!! I salute you.

lazlototh - Posted - 09/23/2011:  04:34:48

Been watching the disks for several nights. Usually only watch two builders a night since I don't want it to end.

Makes me want to get more banjos.

What nice people!

Let's add Jimmy Cox to the next round! You need to be in Maine, Craig!!

Resonator banjos are banjos too!!


Tom in Maine

frailin - Posted - 09/23/2011:  06:43:33



I totally understand those of you that get started on one Program... then watch the whole series in one setting.  big  Being compulsive by nature (I never could read a chapter... I had to finish the book), I was CONSTANTLY trying NOT to spend ENDLESS hours in front of my computer editing (aka: AGONIZING!) over what to include in each Builder's show.  Keep in mind, you're watching the final, edited 20 minutes... that's out of 120 minutes of raw footage.  Arrrgh!!

Each Builder had personal, touching, inspiring, AMAZING stories.  Which story was worth including? What about the "silent" moments... like when the Builder, holding one of his banjos stopped talking to more closely examine a bump or blemish in a neck he was showing? Do you include that because it shows their amazing attention to detail?  Or how about the cat that literally laid on top of a Builder's hands while he was attempting some meticulous work?  The fact that he could not push the cat away was a testament to the companionship he felt with the animal.  And what about ALL THOSE ANIMALS?  They were everywhere!  Do I include an "extras" on just roosters?  Or cats?  What about all the "shop dogs"?  What about the pictures on the wall?  Sculptures in the dining room... or the yard?  What about the eyeglasses caked with sawdust?  OMG!  So many little - yet important things!

Where you are watching the best of what I could group into a meager 20 minutes, I'm still HAUNTED by the split second moments I could not include that speak VOLUMES about the person. I have to admit... editing these Programs down is one of the MOST difficult tasks I've ever undertaken. I FIND THESE PEOPLE THAT FASCINATING!   

So Neill... as you're groggy at work from no sleep, my poor wife had to endure me for almost 30 STRAIGHT days, after 12-14 hours A DAY at the computer, totally enraptured in visual memories of people I want the world to know.  I couldn't sleep.  I couldn't eat.  My head was constantly full of what COULD be (beyond what I had). Dang.  Here I go again.  disapprove

There comes a time when one has to be FINISHED FINISHING.  I guess that's a trait I share (aka: struggle with) with the majority of these Builders.  You love something so much, you can't make it good enough.  

Yes, these people ARE important to banjo building.  But their messages are broader... worthy of remembering for more than just their final product.  Their PASSION is inspiring.  I hope artists of all ages and mediums get to see this level of dedication.  

I feel truly blessed that I got to witness first-hand, the experiences and routines of those COMPELLED to dedicate their lives to building their dreams.  I'm delighted you too are moved by them.  And aren't we lucky they're all building banjos!  

What a great time to be a banjo PLAYER!  big big

frailin - Posted - 09/23/2011:  08:42:14

Teaser video - "Roosters"


Got to thinking about something memorable that happened along the way... also took a considerable amount of editing to work around. 

I prepared this "teaser" for a presentation to a group of artists up here in MN.  It's an overview of the Banjo Builder Series.  So for those of you that already have seen the DVDs, it will be familiar.  But I added a few scenes you haven't seen.  Think you'll figger out why they ended up getting cut.  smiley,0,40,0" data="">" />" quality="high" src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash">

Double-click on this image to see a larger version (encouraged!). 


Also can be seen  here:

Edited by - frailin on 09/23/2011 08:58:13

BNJOMAKR - Posted - 09/23/2011:  14:29:55

I loved the crowing! big

frailin - Posted - 09/26/2011:  06:21:10

Subplot followup


Yesterday was a treat.  You might recall my "pilot" show on guitar maker Lloyd LaPlant of Grand Rapids, MN (see page 2 of this thread.  And here's a link to that Program).  

Well after pursuing him for literally 3 years - he was only 80 at the time... he wants to make sure you REALLY want one.  Yesterday I finally took deliver of my new J-45 LaPlant guitar.  

And she SOUNDS as good as she LOOKS!  Wow.  Lucky me.  I found my "destination" guitar and I'm only 59!  Woo-hoo!!


DANG, there's some AMAZING instrument builders out there!

pjxndvm - Posted - 09/28/2011:  08:39:28


That guitar looks drop dead gorgeous. I love the finish!

frailin - Posted - 09/28/2011:  09:30:03

My fingers hurt so bad.  But I can't STOP PLAYING IT!!  big

frailin - Posted - 10/04/2011:  05:18:31

Ya just never know who'll show up.


Last weekend I was playing at the Afton Apple Orchard with Mary DuShane, the fiddler from a Prairie Home Companion's original Powdermilk Biscuit Band.  All of a sudden I saw this long-necked thing coming toward the tent and - low and behold - it's Maine John from BHO!  

Well he whipped that bad boy out on the spot and scared up a few folk tunes for the crowd.  What fun!  

Ya just never know who might come walkin' by.  smiley

ScottK - Posted - 10/04/2011:  08:01:37

Hi Craig,

If your October NW swing brings you near Portland on Sunday, October 16, turns out I'll be hosting a picking party and house square dance that afternoon on account of a friend from Olympia passing through town. If you're in town that weekend and want to join us, let me know and I'll send you the particulars.

Thanks again for letting us all in on your grand adventure!


frailin - Posted - 10/04/2011:  09:58:26

Wow, Scott.  That might work.

What time and where in Portland is your picking party?  I'll be finishing up with Brooks around noon, then heading to Port Angeles, WA to see Jason Mogi.  


ScottK - Posted - 10/04/2011:  11:47:47

We were planning to start around 4pm, but I haven't sent out an announcement yet.  If that's too late for you, I can start it around noon.  I'm in SE Portland, probably just a few miles from Brooks' place.


frailin - Posted - 10/05/2011:  05:07:49

Yay!  Par-TAAA at Scott's!  smiley

Edited by - frailin on 10/05/2011 05:08:41

frailin - Posted - 10/05/2011:  14:44:19

Bill Rickard Update


Bill has been discovered by the folks at 16:9 "The Bigger Picture" - a Canadian investigative newsmagazine television program which airs on Global.  He called today to tell me they were filming him ALL DAY at his shop. Pretty sure they were harder on him than I was.  approve   Arnie Naiman was there, too.  

Not sure when his segment will air (Bill is keeping me in the loop) but you north of the border folks will soon be seeing one of the banjo builders on your national news!!  

Yay Bill!  smiley

Yay Banjo Builders!  big

frailin - Posted - 10/05/2011:  15:13:30

BTW - Bill's show is still running (for free) at if you want to see what The Bigger Picture folks found inspiring.  



How can you NOT find this guy inspiring? 

BNJOMAKR - Posted - 10/05/2011:  16:53:03

Way to go Bill! I hope that there will be some way that I will be able to watch the program.

howseth - Posted - 10/05/2011:  17:10:07

Great to see this Bill Rickard interview. A impressive man - and those banjos look excellent.

frailin - Posted - 10/06/2011:  12:19:08

Steven Jobs




I'm not just an Apple fan... I'm an Apple zealot. On an HOURLY basis, Steven's products help me do MANY things. The Banjo Builder Documentary Series is one more in a long line of projects whose creation would NOT have been possible without Apple's assistance.  I'm deeply grateful I live in this time, in this place.  And I'm deeply grateful to have shared air with this driven one... Steven.

The following commercial speaks volumes about Apple, the people Apple computer serves (facilitates) and Steven Jobs personal philosophy.  

"Here's to the crazy ones.  Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.",0,40,0" data="">" />" quality="high" src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash">

Steven Jobs personified those that bring positive change to the human race. 

If all this seem vaguely familiar, it should.  Our banjo builders are people such as these.  

Edited by - frailin on 10/06/2011 12:30:00

neillconnor - Posted - 10/06/2011:  13:36:51

Well said craig

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