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BLOG # 1: That Tiny Fretless

Posted by Marc Nerenberg on Friday, March 5, 2010

(Having somehow erased this Blog by accident, I've managed to reconstruct it because I still had the original emails that were quoted herein. Phew!)


Banjo hangout member Tom Collins (AKA Fretless Fury) sent me a query about the picture of me that appears at the front of Ken Perlman’s book “Clawhammer Style Banjo” or more particularly, about the tiny fretless banjo I’m playing in the picture. His message read, in part:

“I started playing banjo under Ken Perlman's direction and have always been curious about that strange fretless banjo with the small pot that is pictured with you in his Clawhammer Style banjo book.  What's the deal with that thing??”

I wrote him a fairly long answer, and then I thought, “Blog! ... This could be a blog!”

So here it is, my first Banjo Hangout Blog:


Hi Tom,

Here's the story of that tiny fretless.

Chapter I:

A friend of mine, a guitar player by the name of Stuart Wooley, was given a banjo-mandolin that had belonged to a relative of his who had died overseas in the World War I. Apparently, the instrument had been sitting in an attic, untouched, for many years, when someone was cleaning out the attic and thought, "Well, Stuart plays music, so we should give this to him." Stuart then thought, "Well, Marc plays banjo, so I should give it to him." And he showed up at my door one day, with the instrument in hand. I thought, "We should really give this to a mandolin player"...but I didn't!

Instead, I tried to make a fretless banjo out of it by removing all the frets and gluing a piece of formica on the fingerboard, and only stringing 5 of the 8 pegs.

It didn't really work...the neck was too small and narrow, and I could never manage to actually play anything on it that was worth playing.

The now mangled instrument went back into storage.

Chapter II:

A fellow from Lichtenstein named Martin Halaam decided to spend a year hitch-hiking around North America, seeing as much as he could. Near the end of that year, he drifted into Montreal, and I think I met him at the Yellow Door Coffeehouse (then relatively new, now Canada's oldest coffeehouse). Over a period of a few weeks he became a member of my circle of friends, many of whom were in the habit of dropping by my well-located very cool downtown apartment...for music, dope, coffee...whatever. I seemed to have a never-ending stream of people dropping by in those days (I guess I was a good host).

One day Martin asked to closely examine my banjos. He said that since he was returning to Lichtenstein soon, he had decided to make himself a banjo to bring back with him as a souvenir of his trip, because he felt that the banjo was the most quintessentially American thing he had encountered.

A few weeks later, he showed up again, with the same request to study my instruments, saying now he wanted to figure out where to put the frets. He had, in tow, the banjo that he had made. I was astonished at the instrument he produced.

He had used the bottom of an old ornate pewter coffee pot as the "pot" (with around an 8" or 9" diameter) for his instrument , and made a beautiful fretless neck, modeled on the neck of my 1909 Fairbanks...scaled down to fit the pot. It looked just like a home-made fretless that could have been from the 1800s...not unlike the picture of a Frank Profitt banjo in Pete Seeger's book. And the pot even had a floral/vine pattern running around it.

I played the banjo and declared it perfect as it was, and told him not to put frets on it...and asked him if he could make me a neck just like that one for my orphan banjo/mandolin pot. He agreed in exchange for me teaching him how to play a bit on the instrument he had made for himself. I taught him the basic clawhammer motion and a couple of simple tunes that can be played with one finger on the left hand. He made me a neck that was even nicer than his own (for the "master's" banjo, he said).

The banjo he made for me (I call it my "Halaam" fretless) is the one I took with me to West Africa, in 1981, trying to find out how the African antecedents were played. My discovery of the "kona" among the Dogon people in Mali, and the fact that is is played clawhammer style, is a whole other story.

My very best regards,



My second Blog, “Dogon Clawhammer” is now up, wherein the story continues ...






9 comments on “BLOG # 1: That Tiny Fretless”

Giles Says:
Sunday, March 28, 2010 @12:58:14 PM

Great story.
I've always loved those pictures at the beginning of the Ken Perlman book, and have often wondered about that banjo with the tiny pot!
I'm really looking forward to the next one (Dogon Clawhammer)

Bart Veerman Says:
Sunday, August 15, 2010 @6:16:59 PM

Nice story Marc!

Sorearm Says:
Wednesday, November 3, 2010 @7:01:34 PM

Yes a nice story indeed. I have a real nice little Gold Tone banjolele, and have been thinking of converting it with a 5 string neck. (As it is, I have installed mini Grovers on it because the friction tuners were not holding at all, I really dislike those mechanical fretless tuners.) Maybe one of these days I'll make it into a 5 string fretless.

Sorearm Says:
Wednesday, November 3, 2010 @7:03:19 PM


Little_Cowgirl Says:
Wednesday, September 28, 2011 @8:08:37 PM

Just ran across this and love the story.

BrittDLD1 Says:
Wednesday, October 5, 2011 @5:24:14 PM

I'm waiting for the Next chapter, Marc. My memory of Ken's article
is a bit fuzzy at this point.

But I remember having a great discussion about your findings, with
Ken, over some coffee and tea. (I'm the coffee drinker - Ken usually
prefers tea.)

fabriziobezzini Says:
Tuesday, October 25, 2011 @4:05:54 PM

Very interesting story!
...I'm very courious to read soon the "kona" story!!!

Marc Nerenberg Says:
Saturday, November 12, 2011 @9:06:21 PM

Thanks for all the positive comments, folks. Blog #2 "Clawhammer Kona" is finally up!

Grumpy1 Says:
Saturday, November 12, 2011 @10:04:29 PM

Great story Marc. Any way you can do a minstrel thing and put it to music, being the wonderful storyteller you are ?

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