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Historical Perspective.

Posted by nechville on Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I recently returned from Jack Hatfield's Smoky Mountain Banjo Camp. It is always a treat to be there. Jack treats me like Jens Kruger, and I appreciate it, I even got a round of applause for my concert performance where I got up the courage to do an original song.

A highlight of the weekend for me was when Dave Ball brought in a couple old banjos from his collection. We had a nice discussion about how the inventive pickers  over a hundred years ago were trying to solve the same problems we are still addressing today with our instruments. Banjo invention was rampant around the turn of the last century, and 2 of Daves banjos in particular hint at the premonition of the idea of the Helimount banjo. You might have heard that the mason jar was the original inspiration for the Helimount. Well, a guy in the 1890's made a banjo with a screw on tension hoop, much like the cap of a mason jar.  He was certainly motivated by the need for a more even and simple head tightening system. But a threaded tension hoop offered all kinds of problems such as needing to move the tailpiece and armrest when ever you had to adjust the head. And the large tension hoop interfered with the neck connection. If only he had gone one little step further and attached the neck to the tension hoop, We'd all be playing Helimounts today.

Coming from a different angle, the designer of Dave's 13" openback had the idea of isolating the banjo's drum head from the neck through an elaborate horseshoe type clamp that attached the neck to the outside bracket hardware without a direct neck to body connection. Again we have a hauntingly similar thought processes to that which devised the Helimount banjo a hundred years later.  The designer wanted the drum structure to resonate freely. Undoubtedly he wanted a banjo sound that was less restricted by the tight mechanical neck connections that can impede the fullness of a banjo's tone. Now what is really interesting is that if these 2 designers came together and perfectly combined their ideas, it would have resulted in exactly what the  Helimount banjo is.  I don't know why it took a hundred years to discover, but for me it says one thing about us as banjo players. We are too damn traditional and we are afraid to do what designers a hundred years ago were doing with a passion and love for their music. Let's rediscover that passion for inventive play, and the quest for new and better sounds. We can make the our music and the world a little better.  Tom


3 comments on “Historical Perspective.”

Yellowhouseroad Says:
Thursday, May 13, 2010 @2:44:33 PM

That is really interesting Tom, and I agree that most banjo players are focusing more on the past. I believe we should hold on to the past, like playing the old-time music and playing the old-time banjos, while we go forward with the future. Which includes trying and combining other types of music, and building new and improved instruments.

Take care Tom.

Gareth Banjoland Says:
Thursday, May 13, 2010 @3:22:12 PM

Here here!

Wills Creek Says:
Friday, May 14, 2010 @6:14:56 AM

I'm glad that the spirit of Edison lives on in somone like you Tom. Now if if a car could run on water ? Here's to you Tom!

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