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Bill Keith and Great Lakes top tension banjos

Tuesday, September 6, 2011 @11:01:28 PM

  In 1975 and 1976 I worked with Mark Zimmerman at The Great Lakes Banjo Company in Ann Arbor, MI. The company name had absolutely nothing to do with the "Great Lakes" It was because the founder Denis Lake had a great sense of humor and was really" The Great Lake(')s Banjo Company. It was down to the two of us by then and times were a little tough. Bill Keith was then playing a real top tension Gibson made from a converted tenor. Being a machinist type I was responsible for getting a hold of a pretty ragged metal cutting lathe to replace the use of a pretty inefficient wood lathe (shop smith) and that really sped up making rims and fitting tone rings. The lathe was an old flat belt machine with ungraduated dials that I sent to a shop and had numbers engraved on the dials. Still it was a big improvement when it was done and Wayne Fairchild bought the lathe and still might have it. I think the top tension parts were originally purchased as a one shot deal of 25 sets so when they were used up the well was dry. But quite a few sets got destroyed by being caught in buffers some @ GL and more at the platers who could really destroy them. For the last two years the resonator contour was copied from Bill's top tension which has a contour that  goes from convex in the middle with a portion that is concave at the outer edge. I was using Bill Kieth's resonator in a setup with a lot of flat steel bars to measure the curve just so and a piece of steel got dropped on the outside edge of his resonator putting a nasty nick in it. When I told Bill what happened he was totally cool about it like "no big deal". So if he still has his old Gibson you can see the nasty nick in the binding. We got hit with several years worth of bad lacquer and spent a lot of time refinishing those instruments and I believe Deering had the same problem but he found out it was caused by a change in the lacquer formulation and sued and won so he got payed for his pains. Someplace along the line we bought another antique hand screw machine to make miscellaneous turned parts like tension rods. For several months the machine was setting because I didn't have the time to install a new flat leather belt on the machine. The salesman that represented the shop that made our screw machine parts came in a saw the machine and in about five minutes he gave us a new price on our parts based on them competing with the new old machine that was a real money saver. Eventually the machine turned into a real blessing because we could make parts on it but didn't have to buy hundreds at a time which bought us some more time. I also remember there was an almost doubling of prices of banjo parts due to inflation which made everything including prices to double in one year. Bill Keith got two Great Lakes Top Tension Banjos for being shown in advertisements playing our banjos which was still basically a favor to us. Once there was a party and at the house where we had it was a Harmony five string and Bill was jamming with some modern jazz on the radio and I am sure he knew he was playing a piece of junk but as a listener it sounded pretty good (he had recently gone through the Mickey Baker Jazz books for guitar to further develop his playing. It was for me a very interesting time but I decided that there was no future in building banjos and got a real job running a lathe. Mark kept on for another year after I left eventually working out of a garage that was formerly the MC5's (John Sinclair's) practice space on Hill Street.

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