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Some Info on Heartland Banjo

Monday, August 4, 2014

It's more than a banjo you're seeking, it's a passion for something unique and special. We understand that passion. As you browse through the features that make up a Heartland Banjo, you will notice a common thread - a complete understanding of your playing needs.

That means quality in the details you see, feel and hear. Like the quality of the hand selected wood for the necks, the flawless finish work, the inlay detail, the comfort of the neck and the full range of tone. Also, there is the quality of the things you don't see. Like the fit of the tone ring and flange to the wood rim, the hand selected wood used in the rims, the precision fit of the neck to the pot assembly and the classic design of the inside of the resonator. All these details add up to an instrument that will fit your every need.

Heartland Banjo has led the way in custom banjo building for many years. In the 1980's and 1990's, while living in Pennsylvania, I spent years studying and restoring vintage Basses, Banjos and Guitars to learn all the details of traditional instrument materials and construction. In the mid 1990's after moving to the Nashville, Tennesee area, I worked at the Nashville Guitar Company where I learned much more from one of the country's master builders, Marty Lanham.

Around this time the banjo world started changing because a new generation of players were wanting a different sound and a different feel to a banjo. Wider necks, radius fretboards, tunneled 5th string, non-traditional peghead shapes, Mahogany or Walnut 3-ply rims and new tone ring designs and alloys.

In the late 1990's I started building the Stealth banjo for Scott Vestal. Since Scott was one of those new generation players, it was a great time for a young Heartland Banjo Company. We needed to let the banjo world know that custom banjos were our main focus. We were pushing the limits of the traditional banjo and believed that changing the old designs and improving new designs for future players was the way to go.

In 2001, I started building the Timeless Timber banjos for Texas based Bill Stokes Showcase. Again, Heartland Banjo was on the leading edge of the banjo world with the use of the Timeless Timber (old wood) 3-ply rims. This venture brought some major pro's to my shop. Alison Brown, Bela Fleck and many others wanted banjos with the Timeless Timber rims. (See Banjo Newsletter and Bluegrass Unlimited articles June 2003.) The Timeless rim was a little too bluegrass sounding for Bela, so we started trying different tone rings and different setups. But we still couldn't get the sound Bela was wanting. Finally Bela said, maybe we could try a different type of rim. So I made up a 3-ply Mahogany Rim for Bela's banjo. This gave him a whole new sound and he really like it. This opened another door for me with the new generation of younger players, a darker, warmer tone with more depth.

In 2002 I decided to venture into the tonering market. I had some castings made using the same alloy as the prized pre-war tone rings, but had them machined to a lighter weight (47 ounces) to help give the banjo an even deeper tone. I also chose to not drill the standard 20 holes. This seems to give the banjo better note separation and clarity up the neck. It also adds depth and warmth to the overall tone.

In 2004 I was contacted by Tom Mirisola to build a couple necks for him. During this same time frame, Tom acquired the trademark and copyrights for the Kel Kroydon banjos. After many emails and phone calls, Tom and I came to an agreement that I would build all the banjos for the newly formed American Made Banjo Company. Having a company named American Made Banjo, it only seemed proper to have all the banjo hardware to be Made in America. After checking with all the hardware suppliers, we found that not very many banjo parts are Made in America. With all of Tom's business background and his association with the scientists at MIT, we decided to venture into having all our banjo hardware Made In America.

We started with the Dannick tone ring, which has become a huge success and has set the standard for all the new tone rings on the market. Then it was the "pot metal" tension hoop, a mold for the die-cast "pot metal" one-piece flange, exact reproductions of the hooks and nuts, thumb screws, "L" brackets, resonator wall lugs, newly designed tailpiece and armrest.

Not stopping there, Tom came out with the AMB Max banjo head. It's a Remo Weather King head with a slightly thicker factory installed frosting. The final piece of the banjo puzzle was the strings. So Tom investigated the process of "cryogenically" treating banjo strings. This process improved the sound and durability of banjo strings. The "Cryogenic" strings have been a huge improvement for the banjo world.

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Heartland Banjo - Robin Smith

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