Detail from John Cohen's iconic photo of Roscoe Holcomb. The distinctive asymetrical peghead identifies the banjo as a 1930s or '40s "Old Kraftsman" or "Kay Kraft" model -- made somettime after 1931, when the Stromberg-Voisinet Co. changed its name to "Kay". The flange is the same type used on the earlier Stromberg-Voisinet banjos, of the 1920s.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008 @9:59:42 PM
Hi Ed, Wow--just checked the picture on my LP, and this is the same kind of banjo Omer Forster played. His 1970s LP on Davis Unlimted, Flowery Girls, was reissued a couple of years ago on Springfed & I've been enjoying it immensely. He had his own gorgeous 2-finger style somewhere between Will Keys & Oscar Jenkins. On the recordings the banjo sounds like something from another planet--shimmery & otherworldly. Did those Stromberg-Voisinet Kay banjos have some kind of tone ring or was it just the magical touch of a genius? G
Sunday, August 10, 2008 @6:45:24 PM
Sorry we didn't get a chance to get together, and play a few tunes, at Clifftop.
I remember vividly hearing Will Keys for the first time, at the Tennessee Banjo Institute. THE most riveting aspect of of his playing was EXACTLY that ethereal, shimmering, sustained sound -- which would feed on itself, and swell -- until it surrounded you entirely.
It's very similar to what happens with a Caribbean steel drum. The sound surrounds you -- and if you can't actually see the steel drum -- it's difficult to tell which direction the music is coming from.
At Clifftop, I had a great discussion with Chip and Tish about some modifications that Will had made to his Paramount -- which would have emphasized that quality of extra sustain. The principle he uses was VERY similar to the the tone ring of a late VanEps banjo.
As for the KAY banjos... they were mostly inexpensive banjos, often private-labeled and sold mail order. EXACTLY the type of instrument your expect to find in a rural and poorer economic environment.
All that most of them had was a steel rod sitting on top of a 1/2" thick light-weight birch or poplar rim. But they did have a massive cast pot-metal flange which was MUCH thicker, heavier, and solid, than a Gibson flange.
It was probably the MASS and weight of that flange, which gave the banjo extra sustain. (I think I still have the rim and some parts of an old Stromberg-Voisinet/Kay buried in an old box in the basement...)
Never thought about that aspect of the Kays... Interesting observation, Gail.
But... I also think that (like Will Keys) Forster probably knew exactly where the "sweet-spot" was -- which would emphasize that shimmering quality of tone. It's obvious to me that Will *wanted* that specific sound. And I wouldn't be surprised if other regional players sought a similar sound.
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'Calton Banjo Case' 11 min