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Noel, if you're unaware of him, makes really nice banjos in Western North Carolina (Waynesville--Old Fiddle Road Banjos), including some really interesting and experimental stuff as well as some pretty great conventional modern open backs and civil war era tackheads... And now, having taken a couple banjos to him last month to have a bunch of stuff done, I see that he also does awesome lutherie work at a fair, very reasonable price, and at least in this case, with a really fast turnaround.
Over the years, I have had a lot of work done to a lot of different instruments. My experience with Noel Booth is only the second time ever that I've had such great lutherie work done that it was like getting whole new, radically improved instruments back. It's just such a nice thing to have your stringed instruments worked on in such a masterful way.
The more conventional stuff that I had done included an overall light fret dressing, but with cleaning up a few quite uneven frets (apparently a couple sorta loose ones, too), filing their rough-even-in-summer edges, rounding off the upper edge of a frailing scoop on the neck (so the thumb isn't hitting a sharp corner), removing the railroad spike and filling the hole, and putting on a skin head. Beautiful, beautiful job all around. The head sounds and looks beautiful, was artfully done, no scratch marks on tension hoop from trimming its edges (which seemingly a lot of people will leave--why do they do that?) So after spending a couple weeks with this one, I can say that overall, Noel has taken a sloppy Ramsey banjo that at times had seemed like a curse, and made it a great and rather more lovable thing.
Then there was the Deering bluegrass banjo. I do love that banjo, but don't play three-finger much anymore. I had found that when played above the neck, and with the right head and bridge, it also has an enjoyable clawhammer sound, but that was hardly doable (for me) without any room for my thumb. So Noel made a mini little cutaway only under the fifth string. Beautiful job. It is this very perfect-looking micro, one-string frailing scoop that he worked very neatly around the inlays and within the binding. The way he did it, it really seems to be in keeping with the style of this banjo, which was surprising. It is a pretty darn strange thing to do, I think, to that banjo, but the way he did it, it just looks very... "right." He also put the fifth string up on a nut, but he put that nut up at the sixth fret, so the string could remain under the fifth-fret railroad spike that these Deerings come with. My objective there is that this banjo can relatively easily be put back into three-finger set-up in case I want to sell it or, heck--even play that way again. He put that nut in exactly the right place so that the fifth string is on the same plane as the other strings, and spaced the same as the rest of the strings. I've seen too many people NOT bother to put that fifth string exactly where it should be. And he also raised the action slightly. So... what I love about this one is Noel was really willing to be creative and unconventional and work with me to do this unusual, and I'm sure some would say kind of perverse thing to this valuable bluegrass banjo. And this is now a much more usable and versatile instrument, and more interesting. And very playable. I love it.
I also got the feeling that in general, maybe Noel was trying to perceive what my style and tastes are, and exactly what these particular banjos are about, so that his work would be in harmony with all that. In any case, I think he accomplished that.
This dude knows what he's doin'. And he cares to do it right.
Overall Rating: 10