Monday, June 14, 2010
Today, friend Bob Curell (otd86866 on here) was in town from Arizona and, after two years of trying to hook up, we finally got together. An hour and a half later I am still goose bumps. He has a Pre War Gibson banjo. This prewar has an original 5 string neck. This banjo is a flathead. This banjo has been in his family since 1935. It is a Style 5. Perhaps the ONLY ONE IN EXISTENCE. It was in my lap…
I owned a 1927 TB-3 archtop conversion, so I was accustomed to the feel of a pre-wwII Gibson, but to say that I was in any way prepared for this would be a lie. Folks can go on all day about the differences between flatheads and archtops, 1 piece flanges and tube and plate, and these all absolutely contribute to different sounds, so I had a pretty open mind on what to expect. But to hold the real deal in my hand - the holy grail of banjos – well... I was a bit surprised to feel my hands shaking. I was nervous, if not from the anticipation, simply from the fact that I was holding a pretty good sized home mortgage in my lap. I hit a few notes. I have a habit when I play a new instrument of leaning my head over the pot to catch as much of the sound as I can. On most banjos made by mere human hands, the sound can be loud, but not overwhelming. I was OK until I happened to hit a good solid 1st and 5th pinch. My ear is still ringing. I’m not talking about volume, although there was tons of it, but clarity – precision, the sound of the most piercing bell ring you can imagine. No harsh overtones, no buzzy, ringy after tones or harmonics. Just unbridled, get the hell out of my way, pure, pulsing 5 string banjo.
One of the things I remember about my ’27 TB-3 was the petite nature of the finish. Once, I’d taken my tenor neck down to dust it using a damp paper towel and was horrified to see deep red finish come off on the paper. Curtis McPeake assured me this was OK, and that these finishes were typical of instruments from that period. Today, in the days of absolutely perfect deep gloss finishes, the thought of making a new instrument where you can actually feel the boundary between the binding and the wood is unthinkable. I remember also looking at the Mastertone block, obviously hand cut, with small scratches where the grave had overshot the mark. Heavens, a CNC machine would be returned to manufacturer if it put out such shoddy work.
This banjo, from its wear worn neck, friction 5th string peg, crackled finish on the resonator (where the finish is so thin, you can actually see the grain lines when held against the light just right), hand chalked serial number in the resonator, gaudy rhinestoned peg head overlay just screamed art deco from the ‘30s. And it could not have been more beautiful. I could “see” the luthier. I could see the work on his hands.
Bob told me the history, as best he knew it. It was owned by an L. K. Miller for a fairly short period of time before his father bought it in 1935. One owner, for the most part, for the entire life of the instrument. This is like finding a ’63 split window Corvette in someone’s garage with the price sticker still on it. Bob is a gracious, magnanimous owner. His goal is to get as many pickers to see this piece and play it. It’s not meant to be in a vault somewhere, he says. And I agree. And now I’m lucky to have been chosen to be one of these pickers.
I played a few tunes and marveled at the balanced tone from top to bottom. The neck intonates perfectly as high on the fret board as you choose to play. My hands were unaccustomed to the feel (I play a Doug Dillard type super high head tension, thin bridge, light string archtop) and stumbled to “get” the instrument for a while. Bob has it setup with a thicker bridge, medium strings, fairly high action and medium head tension to get a more primitive tone from it. The banjo was patient with me, though, and simply lay there as if it was saying “I’m ready to do more anytime you are.” One of the things that really struck me was that usually banjos setup like this don’t respond to soft playing. Not here. This responded with the lightest touch, but never “overrode” the sound when played hard. By the end, I was pretty sure the banjo was capable of doing far more than I was able to plug into it, but it tolerated me.
I want to thank Bob for this opportunity, and have posted a set of pages on my site to document the occasion photographically. Bob, thanks a million. I will remember this day on my last day.