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I recently received a banjo that I had commissioned from Carl Arcand. This is the second banjo that Carl has made for me. The first one was a refurbished Tubaphone Vega (Vegaphone) pot from about 1926, to which he added a custom made neck that suits my three-finger playing style. I have reviewed this banjo in an earlier posting. The Vega is an amazing banjo that plays and sounds amazing and that looks extraordinary - with lovely inlays. Carl also helped me by properly setting up a Will Fielding fretless banjo that I acquired in North Carolina - I have reviewed that banjo and Carl's help in earlier postings as well. The Fielding is a beautiful instrument. The Fielding inspired me to ask Carl to build me a fretless banjo that would capitalize on the qualities of banjos made in the latter half of the 1800s and that would suit my three-finger picking style. Carl used the rim and pot hardware from a Banjeaurine made by Lyon and Healy under their more prestigious Washburn label in about 1895. He did a lot of work to restore the metal parts - stripping the plating from the brass brackets, shoes, bracket and tension band; and he repaired the wood rim. He added a brass tonering to increase the depth of the pot to 2 & 1/2 inches. The result is a 12 & 1/2 inch diameter pot that has deep tonality and clarity. He built a custom neck of bird's-eye/tiger maple dyed a rich deep red, with an ebony fretless fingerboard with a 14 inch radius. The neck has a hidden truss rod, which is adjusted from inside the pot at the heel end. No indication of the truss rod can be seen at the base of the peghead. (This hidden trussrod approach was also used for the refurbished Vega Tubaphone. The approach allows for a more traditional look to the banjo.) The radius neck with its natural curvature combined with a neck engineered for Scrugg's-style picking makes this one fast-playing banjo! The banjo is strung with Aquila 7B Minstrel Nylgut. These imitation gut strings lend the instrument an amazing old-time sound with enough tension and deep tonal quality to ensure volume and precision. The tail-piece is carved ebony. The inlays are mother-of-pearl W.A. Cole peghead man-in-the-moon with stars and comet on ebony, and the fingerboard W.A. Cole traditional fret markers, which had to be re-etched after Carl put the radius on the neck. I asked for very small dots on the side of the neck to indicate some of the actual fret positions to help me with intonation. The heel plate is a Paua abalone fleur-de-lis on ebony (which I asked for to indicate the Quebec location of Carl's studio), and the backplate in a Paua abalone Nude-with-Moon-Disc. The ebony tail piece has a mother-of-pearl star. All inlays were done with extreme care and precision. The pegs are traditional violin-peg style with no mechanical parts. Strings are set-up with a very low action, over a crescent bridge, on a calf-skin head. I will also review the banjo as an instrument, but I felt it was necessary to describe the banjo in this luthier review in order to give proper credit to someone I consider to be a master. Carl took a lot of time to work with me at the inception of the project to ensure that I got exactly the instrument I asked for. He set a fair price and kept to that price. The only exception to this was an added cost for inlays that I requested half-way through the project - an increase I regarded as quite fair! Carl was consistently responsive to my questions and was very thoughtful when it came to ensuring that the banjo was shipped to me when I would be able to receive it. It was delivered in a very padded box. The banjo was sent in a Superior-brand Hard Case. I highly recommend Carl Arcand and I hope that other banjo players who want the finest instruments will contact him. Wonderful luthier - Carl Arcand!
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: Directly from Second Life Banjo
The banjo was made with particular specifications. I wanted an old-time sound with extra volume, clarity and a deep rich tonality. I also prefer a bright sustained sound that nevertheless has that decay that you hear with great banjos. I play three-finger picking style with this old-style banjo. Such a style was quite popular in the latter half of the 1800s - called "guitar-style" back then, and considered by many to b the forerunner of 20th century finger-picking. The head is calf-skin. The sound on this Carl Arcand special refurb is extraordinary. It has a unique deep rich tonality, with a lively hard-edged plucking quality. The upper notes at higher levels of the fingerboard are clear and bell-like in tone. The lower notes are rick and sustained. Huge variety - great response with sliding notes and pull-offs. A wild ride - with a great repertoire!
Sound Rating: 10
Banjo was set up perfectly to specifications that I worked out with Carl Arcand. Low action fretless neck, with a 14 inch diameter radius fingerboard. Fast-playing neck specially set up for finger-picking. Pegs used were traditional violin-style, with no mechanisms - as requested by me. Easy to use pegs after a few days of getting used to them- and I love the traditional effect. Aquila 7B Minstrel Nylgut strings, over a crescent bridge on a calf-skin head. I would make no changes to the set-up..
Setup Rating: 10
It is beautiful. Pot is a refurbished 12 & 1/2 inch diameter Banjeaurine from 1895 (Washburn). Carl took off the damaged plating and exposed the brass brackets and shoes, bracket ring and tension ring. The brass is beautiful, with a tarnished-brass patina and a few good-looking minor dents to give a sense of the age of the parts. The custom neck is bird's-eye/tiger maple dyed a deep red, in three parts with an ebony strip up the middle. Fingerboard, peghead, backplate and heelplate are ebony. The hidden truss rod is serviced from the heel end from inside the pot. The inlays are beautifully done - MOP W.A. Cole man-in-the-moon and stars and comet peghead; W.A. Cole traditional fret markers re-etched by Carl after he put the radius on the fingerboard. The tail-piece is carved ebony with an MOP star. The heel plate is ebony inlaid with a Paua abalone fleur-de-lis. The backplate is ebony with a Paua Nude-with-Moon-Disc.
Appearance Rating: 10
This instrument will last for another 100 years at the very least. Solid and beautiful.
Reliability Rating: 10
This is the second banjo made for me by Carl Arcand of Second Life Banjos. Carl also helped me by properly settng up a Will Fielding fretless I bought in North Carolina. He is very thoughtful, friendly and crearive. He listens to my questions and always gives the best advice. He is amazingly knowledgeable. Great to work with!
Customer Service: 10
All the parts are exceptional. I describe above the elements. There are no cheap parts at all. This is an amazing banjo and is well worth the cost. It is also a unique instrument.
Components Rating: 10
This Carl Arcand Second Life Banjo is a unique instrument that will allow me to explore three-finger picking with a traditional old-time banjo. At the moment I am enjoying cross-fingering and sliding notes - along with vibrato on the deeper notes that could only be played on a fretless instrument as finely made as this one. I just can't say enough positive things about this banjo - and I discover new aspects every day I play it. I also urge the reader to look up my review of Carl Arcand in the luthier section. There, I describe the banjo from the perspective of the work done by Carl. This is one amazing banjo!
Overall Rating: 10
I posted a review (9/25/2014) on the fabulous Vegaphone that Carl Arcand put together with a neck designed for my needs. It's continues to develop and it is an outstanding instrument. Thank you Carl!
On 10/25/2014, I posted another review, this time about a Will Fielding fretless banjo that I had bought at Zepp's Country Music Store in Wendell, North Carolina. In that second review I mentioned that the Fielding's action appeared to be a little too high and that I was worried that it should not have been strung with steel strings. (It had medium-weight steel strings when I bought it). In that review, I also mentioned that I had had advice from a serious banjo store in Toronto that the banjo could be strung with either steel or nylon. The advice I received at that time pointed out the the Fielding neck was "overbuilt" and that the steel strings (even medium-weight strings) could not have a demonstrably negative impact on the bow of the neck. I can appreciate that a quick cursory review of the instrument in a store setting could easily result in this conclusion, given the general playability of the banjo.
Still, at that time I couldn't help thinking that there was something not quite right about the instrument! I continued to find the action too high and I couldn't get the upper register to respond to my need for rapid note shifting. So I decided to send the banjo to Mr. Arcand in Quebec for a more thorough analysis. After his initial review, he said he would work out how to correct the height of the action. Carl adjusted the neck to body relationship with some minor adjustments to the dowel stick positioning. Most importantly, however, he observed that the Fielding had undoubtedly been built for nylon strings. He replaced the steel strings with Nylgut and found that the bow of the neck relaxed into a more normal to-be-expected curve. (It has no truss rod.) The result is a fretless Fielding banjo that plays extremely easily and that has a fabulous round, sweet sound. I play it three-finger style. Sliding into the notes and using a lot of pull-offs and rhythm shifts to enhance the spooky tonal strength of the instrument, I am finding new depths that were not there when I first bought it last fall. The simple changes made by Carl were the result of a Master's analysis and expert decision-making on the proper set-up for this particular banjo. I recommend Carl Arcand without reservation and encourage other players to consider his services when thinking about their banjos. I intend to discuss with Carl other banjos I would like to commission from him in the future.
Thank you again, Carl!
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: Zepp's Country Music Store in Wendell North Carolina
Year Purchased: 2014
Price Paid: 1895 ($US) (bought USED)
This is a Fielding Banjo - Wiley model - fretless - made by Will Fielding - Marlboro Vermont - Serial Number 0539. Sold to me by Zepp's Country Music Store, on consignment. It was obviously designed for clawhammer or likes styles. However, as I like to play three finger Bluegrass picking style, that's what I tried out on the banjo. It suited me very well, especially on the lower half of the fingerboard - but I'm working on the upper half! Sliding the notes a lot suits the fretlessness. It has a lovely woody tone. The upper notes are bright with considerable sustain while the lower tones are rich and dark.
Has spooky hollow sound when played in the scooped out area, and a sharp plunky old time sound close to the bridge.
It will develop.
Sound Rating: 9
Not set up particularly well for my purposes when purchased. Still, it played well. For my purposes the action was just a little high in the upper register. I installed a slightly lower bridge. (It had a Will Fielding bridge.) It also had steel strings that were old and a little dull. The 1st and 2nd strings appeared to be cutting into the bridge a little from the tension, I think. (The steel strings seemed to me to have been put on after the original purchase - I seem to remember original date of purchase was estimated around 2005 by Donald Zepp. However, a subsequent look by Grant at The Twelfth Fret in Toronto confirmed that the banjo can be strung with either steel or gut\nylon.) I am currently trying out Newtone strings (medium) on the banjo.
Setup Rating: 4
Beautiful! Simple. Flawless birds-eye maple fingerboard and front piece on peg head. No inlays or markings of any kind. It would have spoiled the fabulous appearance of the wood. A stepped scoop in gentle curve above high G on the upper D-string. Simple square peghead. Birds-eye maple heel cap and rim cap. Three piece cherry neck, and half-inch cherry rim, three inches deep (including rim cap) and tapering to the head. No other tone ring. Heavy 9/16 inch deep X 5/32 inch thick heavy brass tension band. Twelve relatively heavy brass brackets with nicely figured attachment shoes attached three quarters of the way down the cheery wood rim. Brass tail-piece bracket, and brass Fielding tailpiece. All brass has developed a nice patina, with some areas more marked than others. Cherry wood is ageing nicely. Calf-skin head - a little worn - showing darkening from playing. Overall appearance - lovely.
Appearance Rating: 8
Five Star Planet tuners with ebony tuning pegs. A little stiff. Could probably use replacements. Otherwise, the instrument as a whole is built solidly - built to last! Weighs only five pounds, by the way - still with great sound.
Reliability Rating: 7
Zepp's Country Music Store is fabulous, although Donald Zepp is closing up shop in 67 days. I did not deal directly with Will Fielding
Customer Service: 10
Overall, the banjo is a piece of art. The sound is rich with an old time feel- lots of depth and brightness if the notes are played quickly. Slow slides are very beautiful though! The birds-eye fingerboard is obviously the main selling point, apart from the fabulous sound. It is easy to play up and down the neck - obviously made by a master. It needs to have nylon or gut strings, I think - I suspect it was made for them anyway. New tuners would be helpful.
Components Rating: 9
This is a special instrument that I will play and cherish forever. It is a piece of art. When I bought it, last Friday on October 17, 2014, Donald Zepp told me that Will Fielding was very ill. This past Wednesday, October 22, 2014, Donald Zepp wrote to tell me that Will Fielding had died that morning. I had wanted to tell him how much I appreciated the banjo, but did not get the chance. I am sorry for that.
Overall Rating: 10
Carl Arcand - Second Life Banjos
Open-backed Vegaphone (Tubaphone) five string banjo.
Original pot from mid 1920s (Vega no. 74150) – all original including dowel piece, with neck constructed by Carl Arcand.
Banjo pot is in excellent condition - some wear.
Three piece neck done in figured maple and ebony – maple stained to match mahogany of the pot. Ebony fingerboard and head plate, back plate, and heel cap. Fingerboard has tortoiseshell binding to match the binding on the pot. Fairbanks/Vega style Flowerpot mother of pearl inlay on head plate, Griffon on back plate, flower on heel cap, and dots, leaves (1st fret) and star (5th fret) on fingerboard. Calfskin head. Original Vega wire armrest. Gomer Patent Presto tailpiece taken from a 1940s Gibson. Moon bridge. Fitted with railroad spikes. Gotoh tuners with ebony pegs. I put Newtone medium gauged strings on it.
Overall it looks like an old Fairbanks or early Vega.
The playability is sensational. I took a few weeks to break it in, trying everything I could up and down the neck – fast notes – as well as languorous melodies. The sound is true and clear at all positions. Bell-like tones in the upper registers, and rich lower notes. A punchy quality with lots of volume. A lovely quick decay is followed by a resonating subtle harmonic quality that I associate with the Tubaphone sound. The sound has developed now to the point that I can barely stand to put the instrument down. I feel like I’m discovering new territory every time I play it. (By the way, I love the sound quality of the calfskin head. It takes more care and I have to tune the banjo more frequently, but it’s worth it.)
The inlays are superbly done. The flowerpot alone holds your attention, it is so beautiful. Edges of the inlays are flawless. The neck construction is beautiful and clean – the ebony and figured maple work really well together. Neck fitting to the pot is perfect. Overall, the reconstruction is a work of art.
Carl Arcand was extremely helpful in guiding me to the right choices to match my needs – at my request, he designed and built the neck and set the instrument up for me to play Scruggs-style Bluegrass on it, no matter what the purists may say. He was patient and thoughtful. Very easy to work with. The estimate for time and expenses that he produced at the beginning of the project was dead on. He shipped it very safely in a Superior case contained in a well-padded shipping container.
I cannot recommend Carl Arcand and Second Life Banjos highly enough.
Overall Rating: 10