Béla Fleck has teamed up with Gold Tone president Wayne Rogers to produce the Missing Link—a baritone five-string, and the first-ever Béla Fleck signature banjo. How Béla and Wayne carried their inspiration from vision to production, and why, is the story of the Missing Link, a big-voiced banjo that Béla says, “gives players a wider palette to choose from, in expressing their musical desires.” The tuning is cGCGE, a fifth below normal banjos. With a capo on the 7th fret of the Missing Link, it’s in unison with a G-tuned banjo.
“Béla approached us at Nashville NAMM 2013 and said he had an idea for new banjo,” said Wayne Rogers. “He said he’d be touring with Abigail and wanted a counterpoint instrument, so we began bouncing ideas about possible components. The name was Béla’s idea—the missing link between a cello banjo and the regular five-string. When it was done we both knew it was a winner. Within a month, Béla had used it to record four of the tracks on Abigail and Béla’s duet album, which debuted at number one on Billboard Magazine’s bluegrass chart. Béla then showed the Missing Link to Steve Martin, who was so intrigued with its sonic possibilities that he ordered one immediately, and, it looks like it will appear on Steve’s next album.”
Béla credits John Hartford for his inspiration to explore the baritone banjo. Hartford tuned from a third to a fifth below standard and he had a collection of old twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-inch pot banjos he used for low tunings. Hartford inaugurated his trademark low-tuned banjo sound in 1972 on his “Morning Bugle” album, in which this intriguing verse appears at the end of Old Joe Clark:
Now I need an old Orpheum five string
With a twelve inch open back pot
So the next time you go to the attic
Look and see what you’ve got
Or a twelve inch Farland open back
Twenty-eight three-eighths inch scale
I wish you’d write and let me know
If you’ve got one for sale
The key advantage of using a 12” pot for a low-tuned banjo is its ability to reproduce the mids and bass frequencies with even coverage. Hartford’s interest in low-tuned banjos didn’t set off a big rush on 12” pots, however, among old-time banjo players, through the influence of Kyle Creed, the 12” pot gained favor for its full, mellow sound.
Gold Tone began using 12” pots in 2004 with their Bob Carlin open-back models, and has since incorporated it into other models. “I designed a BT-2000 banjitar for guitarists with a 12” rim,” says Wayne. “It’s in my opinion our best sounding banjitar. The frequencies of the baritone banjo are similar to the heavier (wound) strings on guitar. On the Missing Link we kept to a normal scale, as that moved the bridge closer to the center, which Béla and I both agreed would increase low frequencies. The Missing Link’s pot is distinguished by its use of a bronze tone ring.”
Béla is known for liking his necks wide and his fretboards radiused. The hard rock maple neck has a compound radiused ebony fingerboard, jumbo frets and zero fret nut. We asked Wayne how that would feel to someone who plays a normal Gibson-size neck. Wayne said, “The ML neck’s width is 1 3/8’’ at the nut, and since we use all wound strings it really feels just right. Along with the wider neck, the radiused fretboard and jumbo frets really enhance fingering.”
“The Missing Link was designed for bluegrass,” admits Wayne Rogers, “but I suspected, if we made it convertible, it might sound pretty impressive as an open back. I play both styles, and enjoy the ML open back for old-time.”
The resonator is attached with four removable mounting brackets. The 3-ply Canadian maple rim has a bar bronze tone ring; the 7/8” bridge is radiused. The resonator is mahogany and the banjo fits in a regular-sized case. The neck is finished in a deep brown mahogany stain and is inlayed in an art nouveau design.
BNL: Béla, you and Abigail perform and record with an extended family of banjos. Why did you choose Gold Tone for this project?
BF: Abby’s been playing a cello banjo for quite a while and she integrated it deeply into her “City of Refuge” CD and band. She played it on 3 songs on our new CD. I’ve also have a cello banjo, which was recently set up with steel strings, giving it a lot of power. I play it in our show and on the album. I also play the soprano uke banjo on a song in the set, and sometimes two. I really dig that little banjo.
Our new Gold Tone is the baritone banjo, aka The Missing Link, which was created as a collaboration between Gold Tone and myself. I needed a banjo to get below Abby’s main banjo, but not as low and floppy as the cello banjo. All these banjos fill in a gap, in that no one else has been making these sizes and versions. They are highly useful for us, and I also think it’s cool that they are not elite, super expensive banjos. Most anyone could afford these, but they sound very good, and no one else makes them.
BNL: What was your inspiration to design a baritone?
BF: I’ve always loved the low tuned banjo sound, a la John Hartford. But whenever I tried to tune a standard 11-inch head banjo down, the low notes were super soft and the banjo just didn’t kick. When I got Wayne to put a 12-inch pot on a larger, Béla sized, 5-string bluegrass neck, the low notes had the space to resonate and make some noise. When my banjo playing friends try it, they get excited, because they love finally being down in that register, but with projection.
BNL: What was the collaborative process you and Wayne went through to evolve the prototype?
BF: We went through several stages, actually. We tried the graphite neck—I wasn’t feeling the funk with that one. We tried different tone rings, ending up with a thin bronze one. We tried different necks, rims, bridges, tailpieces, and arm-rests. But I must admit, even the first one sounded very good. That’s why I was willing to continue the process. That first one is the one you’ll hear on the Abby/Béla CD. I now have a couple that are significantly improved from that prototype, and those are the ones that are on the market.
Wayne was always very deferential, and said that I heard things that he didn’t hear. But my view was that if he couldn’t hear the difference, then it probably was not worth pursuing. I felt like we made a lot of small improvements, that we both agreed were worthwhile, that added together to make a significant ‘big’ improvement to an already good instrument.
BNL: The strings are all wound. How did you arrive at .018w, .022w, 028w, .038w, 018w?
BF: This is an area where I felt that I made a breakthrough contribution. I always remembered John Hartford telling me to get a wound third string, any time I tuned down a banjo. So I did on this one. And it sounded so much better, I decided to try a wound second string, too. And that sounded so good, I went to a wound 1st and 5th. When I went to all wound, the sound of the banjo came into focus. Don’t waste time with unwound strings on this banjo. 1st string is a wound 17 or 18, and we go up from there. Trust me on this!
BNL: Down what musical pathways do you traverse with this new banjo?
BF: It allows me to do idiomatic playing in keys that I couldn’t do that in before. I can now play out of G position now in keys from C up to F#. I can play in drop C in keys from F up to B. And I can be the low guy, under Abby’s banjo. Plus, as a composing tool, you just find yourself playing new stuff when you are down so low. The cello banjo used to kick start some tune creation, and this one does too. It’s now part of my arsenal, and I expect to use it from now on.
BNL: In what ways might this baritone banjo help to enrich music? Could a baritone banjo cross musical genres?
BF: I wouldn’t make any claims of that sort. It gives banjo players a wider palette to choose from in expressing their musical desires. Let’s just start there and see what happens.
BNL: How does it sit in the mix from Abigail’s perspective?
BF: She likes the fullness it gives our duo. She’s just received her own clawhammer ML and from first blush, it looks like it’s going to stimulate some songwriting.
BNL: What does Juno (Béla and Abigail’s two year-old son) think about it?
BF: He likes rocks the best. Banjos are a strong second.
BNL: How are audiences responding to it?
BF: I find the audiences love the idea and sound of a wide variety of banjos on stage. In our duo, every song has its own combination, and that makes the whole set more intriguing.
BNL: It seems that this instrument is an extension of what you give people musically: an open door to the imagination. Hearing you play it, in the context of the music you play with Abigail, it feels like an unexplored tonal landscape for the 5-string has opened up.
BF: I suspect you’ll really enjoy it. I sure do.
It’s interesting to note that the Missing Link harkens back to the 19th century when banjos were generally tuned a fourth below today’s standard. In the 1890s the standard went from dGDF#A up to gCGBD. Pete Seeger descended back down the scale in 1943, when he lengthened the neck of his banjo, in order to play in lower tunings to match his vocal range. His longneck banjo was tuned down a third (three frets), and it was popularized by Pete, Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio, Alex Hassilev of the Limelighters, Bob Gibson and others.
John Hartford dropped down even lower, while still using a standard neck.
Gold Tone’s reintroduction of the cello banjo brought the banjo down a full octave.
So, in terms of pitch, the Missing Link takes the banjo back to where it once belonged. Béla plays it on Railroad, What’cha Gonna Do, Pretty Polly and For Children: No 3 Quasi adagio, No 10 Allegro molto—Children’s Dance.
What further music will bubble up from the depths of this new baritone voice? If, as Béla says, “you just find yourself playing new stuff when you are down so low,” things could get really interesting. We’ll start there and see what happens.
Paul Roberts is a multi-instrumental concert performer, music therapist and composer. Paul has been a Gold Tone retailer since 2008. His website is http://banjocrazy.com