Posted by dpgetman on Tuesday, September 22, 2015
After playing exclusively Scruggs style on a Deering Hartford for many years, I took up clawhammer in 2008 and picked up a used Gold Tone CC-OT to learn on. At the time, I was playing in jams and on stage periodically, so I knew I eventually wanted an instrument that could provide enough volume to be heard without losing all the subtle tonal qualities I liked in the openback instruments I’d heard other folks play.
I found Ron Grimsley’s description of the tone of his White Mountain Sholo banjo as “filling a room without being in your face” an interesting one for an openback. I started an email exchange with him with a description of the sound I was looking for and Ron got in touch over the phone shortly after that. We talked a good deal about my playing, other folks I liked to listen to, other banjos I had played and either liked or didn’t, how I had my Hartford set up, where and with what instrumentation I would be playing, etc. Ron guided me through a variety of models and options, describing how various wood types combined with tone ring types would shift the tone here or there, but I ultimately settled on the instrument he suggested early on: an all walnut Sholo with rosewood tone ring and internal resonator. The initial build schedule was set at 6 months. However, when an opportunity opened up for me to travel to Phoenix on business and pick the instrument up personally, Ron very accommodatingly shuffled his projects to move mine to the front of the line and had it ready in a little less than three months.
I visited Ron and his lovely wife Dorlea at their home in Phoenix, where Ron had every model of White Mountain banjo set up in a playing room for me to hear alongside the Sholo he had built for me. He told me to play them all and that I wouldn’t hurt his feelings if I fell in love with something other than the Sholo. This was actually a relief for me in that, since I placed the down payment on the Sholo, I had continued to read up on the different styles of openback and began to question whether I wanted a Whyte Laydie or a Tubaphone instead. Ron had both on-hand, and they sounded very nice, but he was spot on in recommending the Sholo for my style. As I played banjo after banjo, Ron sat there and listened. He asked me what I liked or didn’t about each banjo as I put them down and went into drawers gathering various bridges and tailpieces and swapping pieces as we talked and I played. When I picked up the Sholo again, he had achieved a tone and a set up that was a spot on match for my playing style. Nevertheless, when he packed up the instrument, he threw in an alternate bridge and tailpiece and explained how each would steer the tone, just in case I wanted more options once everything settled in. Then we talked a bit about building banjos. I let him know I was experimenting with building instruments and he gave me a nice primer on the basics of his approach and noted down a few very helpful repositories of information on the topic for me, such as the websites of Mark Hickler and Bluestem Banjos.
A few months down the road, I began applying myself to building a banjo in earnest, starting with a pot. When the pot was done, I sent a picture to Ron to follow up on our conversation. Ron was back in touch directly and gave me good advice on hardware, mating a rim with a tone ring, and other guidance I found very helpful. After discussing the next steps with neck making, Ron advised me on what tools I would need to get there and, in the meantime, offered a beautiful and more than fairly priced unfinished ‘shop second’ neck to complete on my own and mate with the rim I’d made. As I have continued to learn as a builder, Ron has continued to respond (with generosity of time and know how) to questions or ideas I have sent him. I am at a point now where I can make both necks and rims, but I have three banjos assembled from pieces I’ve built myself mated with some contribution from Ron’s work bench (usually something that didn’t come out quite right enough for his production product that he has passed along to me at a discount and I’ve modified) that I pick up nearly every time I play.
I would buy another banjo from Ron Grimsley, or recommend him and his work to a friend, in a heartbeat. He is a consummate craftsman with rigid standards and he stands behind his product. He also seems to view the exchange as a relationship meant to go a ways further than the transaction iteself, which I have discovered to my benefit as a player and a builder.
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