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An Evening with John Balch

Posted by dbrooks on Friday, November 9, 2007

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to spend an evening with John Balch and talk banjos and music. John visits Louisville on business several times a year, and I had been wanting to visit with him for some time. I have enjoyed John's CDs (Carry On, John and Hot Biscuit Jam) and always find his comments on the Hangout to be informative.

Earlier this year, I bought an old Bay State banjo on Ebay, and it needed some neck work. At John's suggestion, I arranged to have this work done by Dan Knowles of Paris, TN.  The banjo turned out great, though it has a quiet voice, and I was looking for ways to improve both its tone and volume. John agreed to meet me at the Bluegrass Brewing Company, a local brew pub, where the Louisville Bluegrass Anonymous group hosts a Wednesday-night jam.

I had a delightful time talking to John about the banjos he owns and has owned.  I find John to be very positive and quietly appreciative of the music and musicians he has encountered.  I brought both of my old Bay State banjos for him to take a look at.  I was gratified that he liked them both quite a bit.  He told me that the "newer" Bay State that I was trying to improve sounded very good to him and didn't need anything other than a possible upgrade to a brighter bridge.

John handles an instrument with care and attention, showing the respect he obviously feels for the craftsmen who created it.  He noted that he has mostly newer instruments and does not consider himself a specialist of older, vintage instruments.  Yet, he later told a story of buying a vintage instrument to keep a friend from drilling new holes in the headstock to accommodate modern tuners. "I just hated to see that happen," he said.

There were a few musicians jamming at BBC, though the turnout was unusually low. One cheerful fellow repeatedly asked us to grab our banjos and join in with him and a fiddler and a mandolin player. We did play for a while, though John ultimately played guitar while I struggled through some clawhammer versions of tunes I didn't know very well.  I prefer to call it improvisation, but John was there to see that I was actually fumbling around a good bit.  But we all wore honest smiles as we shared a little music.

Later, as I walked John to his car, I got a look at his gorgeous Wayne Sagmoen banjo.  (This banjo is discussed in this article: )  It was too chilly and too late to try to play it, but I hope to have a chance when John visits Louisville in the future.

2 comments on “An Evening with John Balch”

Stev187 Says:
Sunday, November 11, 2007 @2:45:27 PM

I love John's playing but have never met him.  Thanks for posting this!  Oh, and thanks for your comments on my blog about the Carlin lesson.  I posted about 6 minutes of it on my music page.

jbalch Says:
Monday, November 12, 2007 @9:31:57 AM


Thanks again for the invitation to join you at the jam session.  I'll look forward to doing so again anytime I'm in Louisville.  I had a great time.

As you know...I genuinely feel that both of your Bay State banjos are real keepers.  They are in fantastic (almost completely original) condition. Frankly, I think they both sound great just as they are.  Dan did very nice work on the neck-reset (no surprise there).

As for your did a really fine job with those guys at the jam session.  They were nice folks too.  It was all very enjoyable. I'm not much of a jam session player myself.  I just don't know enough popular tunes...and nobody knows any of mine to play along with me. time I'll bring a banjo set up for standard tuning so I can really join in.

I'm impresses with the Louisville music scene.  I look forward to seeing more the next time I visit.  Thanks again for your hospitality!

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