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Playing Since: 1976
Experience Level: Expert/Professional
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Last Visit 10/13/2021
BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED magazine... March 2009 The Grundy - A fine Australian banjo. by Jan Dale The banjos that Laurie Grundy builds are excellent. Many people have been able to admire them over the past few years when he has exhibited as part of the Australian luthiers booth at the International Bluegrass Music Association's "World of Bluegrass" and Fanfest. However, he says he really got into the business of making and repairing instruments by default and this was in part due to the isolated environment in which he lives. Laurie's very first experience of music was at his grandfather's home in the early fifties. There was no electricity but they had a battery operated AC/DC radio. In the evenings they listened to the old country shows broadcast from 2AY out of Albury in the nearby state of New South Wales, with musicians like Tex Morton, Buddy Williams and Slim Dusty. He says: "It was quite late - well after my bedtime - but I could hear it clearly from my bedroom and I loved it. Although I didn't understand how they were doing it, I could hear the chord changes on the guitars and started being able to second guess when they were going to move to the next chord. It seemed to come naturally to me and that made it much easier when I started to play myself." In the sixties he played electric bass with various rock bands in the Victorian city of Melbourne and in country areas. It wasn't until a decade later when he was looking around for something different to do musically, that he accidentally discovered Bluegrass when listening to the "Will the Circle be Unbroken" album. "For the first time I heard Earl Scruggs playing Flint Hill Special using those tuners, the winders. That snared me. In fact I had probably heard him many times before on the Beverley Hillbillies but didn't realise who he was." Laurie immediately rushed out and bought a banjo but it was a four string and when he couldn't get anywhere near the effect that Earl produced he looked more closely at the record cover and noticed the fifth string pegged halfway up the neck. "So off I rushed again and traded it back in for a five string and that was the start of it. Of course, I've been influenced by many other Bluegrass banjo players since then." That was back in the mid seventies and Laurie had never seen anybody playing Bluegrass banjo. In fact, he didn't even know of anyone else in Australia who was playing that kind of music. There were some players then of course but mainly in the cities and Laurie lives in a fairly isolated area of country Victoria. So, like a lot of musicians, he learnt by listening carefully to recordings, often slowing them down to be able to pick out the riffs. Much later he discovered that two outstanding musicians from Sydney , multi-instrumentalist Chris Duffy and guitarist John Kane, occasionally came through his area on tour on their way to Melbourne or Adelaide and he started booking them for a venue in the nearby town of Bright. "Although Chris didn't play the kind of Bluegrass I preferred, I learnt a lot from him because he is a very good player. He played a lot of chromatic or melodic style banjo which I then started to play. I learnt a lot just from watching and listening to him." That first five string banjo Laurie bought was a Gibson. It was good but after a while it needed some re-setting and minor repairs. Because of the distance and remoteness of Australia, it really wasn't possible to send instruments overseas to makers like Gibson for repairs and adjustments. Musicians had to learn to do it themselves. He says he simply pulled it to pieces and made lots of mistakes before successfully getting it back together again. But Laurie was particularly skilled and that led to others bringing their instruments to him for repair and, ultimately, to the building of whole instruments. "I started by building just a neck or a rim, or I might just adjust somebody's banjo. One thing led to another and I began to get a reputation for this work and also started to sell used banjos. Eventually I decided to try making the whole instrument." Initially, Laurie found making banjos in Australia quite difficult because relevant information was not always easy to get. Eventually he realised that even in the United States most banjo players haven't any idea what is in their banjos. "They know they have a Gibson tone ring or a Huber tone ring, etc. but they really have no idea of the specific formulas." Laurie speaks highly of the help and support he has received from the many people he has met during his visits to the United States, in particular Paul Hopkins and Lonnie and Charlene Hoppers: "They are wonderful people and I have the utmost respect for the knowledge and experience that they have freely imparted to me and consider myself fortunate to have met them." Unlike some Australian luthiers who use local woods he prefers maple. Because it is such a close grained timber it transfers vibrations through the instrument more quickly and more efficiently than many other woods and of course, there is a long history of the use of maple, right back to the Stradivarius. Often Laurie likes to use a really light stain so that more of the beautiful natural grain shows through. The instruments' hardware, including the larger parts like the tone ring, flange and tension hoop, is cast in Queensland to Laurie's special formula. It's a bronze alloy formula which has more lead in it than most of the other tone rings on the market today. This is because when he first started to investigate tone rings he met a bell maker, Bill Jacobs, who explained that to sweeten the sound of a bell you must add a lot of lead. Laurie decided to try to discover the exact formula of Earl Scrugg's tone ring. This turned into quite a project! "We thought we'd never be able to find out! But Bill Jacobs had contacts at Queensland University who went to work with all their technical equipment, using methods of radio frequency modulation. They actually ascertained the quantities of tin, lead, zinc and copper in the alloy just by listening to Scrugg's recordings. Each element has its own resonant frequency. I didn't really believe this because I thought it was a bit of a hit & miss way of doing it. However, I was really surprised to find out from Paul Hopkins of the LouZee Banjo Company, that he has independently done spectrometer tests on a tone ring from a banjo which he owns but which was formerly owned by Earl Scruggs. His results were identical to mine! This was extraordinary. It was a good discovery." Incidentally, that banjo, an RB4, is the very same one Earl used to record the classic version of "Ground Speed" on the Foggy Mountain Banjo album! In the F34 Grundy banjo this special formula is used for the tone ring, hoop and one piece flange. All of these parts are sand cast then milled and machined. In the other Grundy banjo - the Lonnie Hoppers signature model - the tone ring has the F34 formula sand cast and machined ring, but a pot metal flange is used. Laurie's policy is to ensure his instruments will put out as much energy as possible in terms of volume and tone with minimal input by the player. Over the years he has observed that when there is a problem it's often because parts are not fitted properly together, including the tone ring, flange and, most importantly, the neck. "Because this small area where the neck joins the pot is the point where the vibrations are transmitted it's important to ensure there is 100% contact." To achieve this he uses the same method dental mechanics use when taking impressions to fit dentures. This allows him to read the surface and see exactly where it is making contact and where it isn't. This attention to detail is one reason why, apart from their beautiful appearance, the Grundy banjos are known for their excellent projection of volume and tone. The beautiful inlay work on the Grundy banjos is done by Dennis Eastmure from East Laverton in Melbourne. Laurie says that Dennis is a master craftsman and makes his banjos look good. They are a good team. Laurie's career was as a country policeman in the nearby town of Bright. Some years ago he retired from that job and is concentrating full time on his instrument making and repair work and other things associated with music. His workshop is beautifully situated on his six acre property near the small town of Porepunkah in north eastern Victoria with views of the Australian Alps. He works there alone, except for occasional help from his son Josh, and usually makes three banjos simultaneously, taking about five weeks. Around fifteen or sixteen in a year. He says "I don't want to be turning banjos out like sausages. I like to take my time and make really good instruments." Some of Australia's top Bluegrass musicians play Grundy banjos including Trev Warner, Hamish Davidson, Wendy Holman and Gary Brown. In the United States they are used by Ben Link of the very popular Link Family Gospel Group and, of course, former Bluegrass Boy Lonnie Hoppers who also acts as Grundy Banjos representative in the United States. Most of these banjos were made to order. Laurie recently spent some time touring with the Davidson Brothers Band which included his son Josh who is a fine mandolin player. They performed at Jerusalem Ridge and IBMA's World of Bluegrass in 2004 which Laurie says was the highlight of his Bluegrass career - except that he was playing bass, and electric bass at that! It was especially gratifying to him because he originally taught Hamish Davidson banjo when Hamish was about eleven years old. "I think I can take the credit for starting the Bluegrass fire in the Davidson household." Alongside Nick and Janet Dear who he considers the backbone of Bluegrass music in Australia, Laurie can also take credit for helping to start what has become the largest Bluegrass festival in Australia - the Bluegrass & Traditional Country Music Convention held each November in Harrietville, Victoria, not far from Laurie's home. It has just celebrated it's twentieth year and brought its first overseas musicians (Lynn Morris & Marshall Wilbourne) to Australia in 1993. One of Laurie's dreams is to be able to set up in the United States, in the heart of Bluegrass banjo land. To this end he recently applied for a United States working visa so that he can build, promote and sell his banjos there and stay longer than the usual three months allowed on a regular visa. His ideal would be to spend half of the year there and the other half in Australia. "I've been really pleased the way things developed for me in Australia and, naturally, I would want to keep that going, but it would be wonderful to work in an environment which is not so isolated from the mainstream Bluegrass scene and where there is so much more festival activity." If things go according to plan, he hopes to be based in Lancaster, Kentucky, where he has become friendly with Jim Long and his family who he says are enormously supportive and have helped to pave the way. Laurie would not be content with just making a run of the mill banjo. Right from the start he wanted the challenge and stimulation of producing top of the range models. "My idea of making a banjo is to make it as good as I possibly can. I've been fortunate enough to be able to observe Steven Gilchrist (Gilchrist Mandolins played by Ronnie McCoury, Martino Coppo etc.) in his studio in Warrnambool, Victoria. He has impressed me no end with his attitude to quality control so I try to fit my banjos as good as they can possibly be fitted and to finish them as well as I can. If they are not fitted properly they just don't go out the door." Grundy banjos can be bought directly from Laurie in Australia or from Lonnie Hoppers. Photos and details on www.grundybanjos.com. . . . . . . . . . Jan Dale is a radio presenter and freelance journalist from Melbourne, Australia. Her program, Southern Style, can be heard weekly on PBS FM 106.7 and on www.pbsfm.org.au.
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