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Second to None: Ken LeVan

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

There’s a file on my computer that’s 180 pages long containing 41 MB of text and photos. It’s named “Alex Construction,” and it consists of the aggregated emails Ken LeVan thoughtfully sent me, beginning last summer, that detail the process of building the wonderful longneck banjo I picked up at his home a couple of days ago. 

I first met Ken and Hope LeVan last spring, when I visited the marvelous home they built themselves, deep in the forest of Sullivan County, PA, to discuss a delicate dowel-stick reset that needed to be done in order to precisely mate a 1960s ODE neck to a contemporaneous ODE pot.  Ken did a terrific job at an incredibly minimal cost, but more importantly, we became instant friends who enjoy each others’ company tremendously. Ken and Hope make that easy; they are enormously interesting, witty, warm and delightful people to be around. My little pea brain began hatching a plan that would ensure a lot of ongoing contact and discourse with Ken. 

I’m an old folkie who plays longneck, open-back banjos. I have three (four now), including two 1960s ODEs and a Vega/Seeger style instrument built for me on a 1920s Tubaphone pot by one of the most highly respected banjo luthiers in the US. All three banjos are laid out in the traditional Seeger format, with the 5th string peg at the eighth fret (the fifth fret on a 22-fret banjo). Once I began playing out again after a brief four-decade hiatus, I suspected I’d be better off for several reasons with a neck formatted according to Erik Darling’s layout, which has the 5th peg one fret closer to the pot. Vega took Erik’s design and offered it as the Excel Custom model. And, while Vega’s production records were sketchy, it is certainly clear that far fewer of them were made than standard Pete Seeger models. The odds of finding one, let alone one I could afford, were miniscule.  Besides, what fun would just buying one be? 

Ken and I already had been corresponding about the original Xcel, speculating about Darling’s rationale for the layout. He had been thinking it might be fun to build one, I had been thinking it would be cool to own one, and one day, we decided to pull the trigger. After several weeks of email exchanges that resulted in a working list of features, Ken, Hope, my wife, Pam, and I met halfway for a picnic and nailed down the remaining specifics. For that purpose, Ken had finished three (yes, I said three) standard-scale prototypes so that I could compare rims and necks made from various woods, alternative tone ring configurations, and neck profiles. I brought my Tubaphone longneck to the picnic and we did an A-B-C-D shootout. Both of Ken’s tone ring designs not only were louder than the 80-year old Tubaphone, they were also warmer and more stable in tone. Louder but warmer. Hmmm. 

I also brought to the picnic a graphic that I very much wanted to serve as a peghead inlay. It is the insignia of the 305th Infantry regiment, a unit of New York draftees, among them my late Uncle Fred Wolf, that saw courageous service in the Pacific as part of the 77th (Statue of Liberty) Division. Ken quickly embraced the idea, and suggested that we add the 305th’s motto, Second to None, as a fingerboard inlay. Ken’s eager willingness to do this immediately lifted the project from a commissioned banjo to family heirloom status. Driving home from the picnic, discussing the events of the day with Pam, I have to admit that I got a little emotional at the realization. 

It’s a four-hour drive from our home to the LeVans’ home, so it wasn’t feasible for me to drop by from time to time, enter his workshop with a “Hey, Mr. Wizard, what are we going to do today?,” and revel in the progress he was making. Knowing how important it was to me, Ken meticulously detailed what he had done, each and every day, and sent me clear photos and text that enabled me to feel part of the process. I can’t imagine how much time that added to Ken’s workday, but that’s how Ken thinks. 

When we get a nice day with enough warm ambient light to do justice to the banjo, I will post photos of my own on my Hangout homepage. Meanwhile, please check out the Hangout thread ( that Ken just started, which shows some of the in-progress photos and contains explanations of some of the processes he used in building my banjo. 

Sharing the experience of Ken building this banjo has been one of the neatest experiences of my life, and that says nothing about the banjo itself, which not only is a work of art, but a mind-blowingly fantastic-sounding and -playing banjo to boot. “Second to None,” that’s Ken LeVan. If you don’t already know him, you’re missing a great deal.




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Playing Since: 1960
Experience Level: Purty Good

[Jamming] [Socializing] [Helping]

Gender: Male
My Instruments:
"Alex" (Xcel-format longneck whose neck and pot were entirely custom built by Ken LeVan)
"Johnny Stew" (1926 Tubaphone w/neck by Wyatt Fawley)

"Esta" (1964 ODE paddle-style long neck w/D-tuners);
"Salad Bowl" (frailer I built on a 3 1/2" Pennington maple rim)

Favorite Bands/Musicians:
Pete Seeger, Dave Guard, John Stewart, Bob Gibson, Tommy Makem, Happy & Artie, Don & Phil, Arlo, Derroll Adams, Pete Curry, Alex Hassilev, Hedy West, Arkansas Red, the Folksmen, Luke Kelly, Blind Luzkaslav Rumplschnitz

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Visible to: Public
Created 12/3/2008
Last Visit 6/23/2022

(Encapsulated by my mentor, Jonas Cord): "Now you get so you can do that with either hand, when you're half-drunk, or half-awake, or inside of a dark room, off the back of a running horse, you might stand a chance. A small chance."

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