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This review is for the fourth banjo that Chris has re-built and set-up for me. The first banjo was my 1929 TB6 Checkerboard. The second banjo was my 1934 TB3. The third banjo was my mid-30s TB11. All turned out to be phenomenal banjos.
The fourth banjo is a "parts" banjo that has a history. I originally had a radius neck built because I had a Huber ring that I had and wanted to build a banjo around it. I sent the neck to Huber and asked him build a pot for the neck using his ring I sent to him. Interestingly, the pot was built by Chris Cioffi when he worked for Huber. As some of us banjos players get tempted to do, I wanted to try to get a different sound. I sold the Huber ring and replaced it with a 1990's era Granada ring. I never really liked the radius neck, so I commissioned a flat fingerboard neck for the banjo. Then I found a 1920's Oriole rim that I had put in the banjo. At the time the Oriole rim was installed, the other Luthier (not Chris) re-cut the neck heel in a way that I knew I would eventually have to have repaired. That is where Chris came in.
I sent the banjo to Chris for him to repair the heel so I could sell the banjo in good conscience. Once Chris saw the banjo, he suggested I let him completely re-work the instrument. Chris reshaped the neck to the same specs as my other banjos, re-fretted it with stainless steel frets, planed the fingerboard to get the correct relief, repaired the heel so well that you can't even tell, put a new nut in it and a new fifth string nut, filled the holes in the rim and re-drilled them to set the neck to prewar standards, re-turned the rim, refit the ring, had the neck refinished to match the neck and set it up.
I flew to Nashville in late November to play it and couldn't believe how it turned out. I also had the pleasure of having dinner with Chris and his wife Christy as they have become good friends of mine.
Now I will NEVER sell this banjo. It sounds as good, if not better, than my prewar banjos. As Chris says, I have a good problem in that I don't know which one to play; they are all great banjos.
I have one more banjo Chris is working on; an open back SS Stewart made by Slingerland in the mid-20s. He is resetting the neck so I can play it and I am sure it will turn out great.
I've said it before and I'll say it again; no one but Chris will EVER touch any of my banjos ever again.
Thanks Chris for being such a phenomenal luthier who never compromises on quality.
Overall Rating: 10
Chris Cioffi has completely gone through and sensitively restored and set up my three prewar Gibson banjos over the last year and a half. In that time, I have become familiar with Chris’s work, the results he can coax out of a banjo, and had time to reflect on his results with my banjos as well as what it has been like to get to know him.
First, Chris has a deep respect of pre-war banjos and he goes to great lengths to do "non-invasive" things to restore their originality and maintain their value.
I first sent my 1929 Gibson TB-6 to Chris for A LOT of work. I've had the banjo since 1981 and it was in need of repair; basically, a total restoration.
He planed the fingerboard, did a fret job, new spikes, repaired the neck binding, fit the original raised head tone ring, new tuning pegs, restoration of original prewar Pearl buttons, on and on…..
He had to plug/re-drill the original rim. Over the years the holes had become oval in shape. He actually hand fit plugs to existing holes instead of just drilling them out. He also asked me to send him the original tenor neck so he could make sure it still fit well as it was intended to when he re-set the 5 string neck. He had to re-carve the neck to trim mass and position the neck on pot for best sound, feel, etc... He also had to relocate the flange cutout and flesh hoop relief, cut the heel shorter to prewar dimension and he had to rebuild/re-install the heelcap. And a very important thing to me, he was able to bring back the original gold plating when it looked so bad that we were both resigned to re-plating it. It turned out beautiful. He suggested I replace the original tailpiece and he re-plated it to try to make it all look right.
And best of all, he convinced me to put it back as an original raised head; I've always had a flathead conversion ring in it. I've never really appreciated a raised head banjo, but I really like this banjo now. It has punch, definition of notes, incredible tone. It sounds great and I will leave it an archtop. It's beautiful and plays like a dream.
This last September I took it with me to Winfield. It was the only banjo I took with me. I have always been a diehard flathead guy and was a little reluctant to show up at my usual camp with an archtop. The camp is usually full of great banjos, even some original prewar flatheads. Well, it couldn't have gone better. Everyone loved the sound of it. I haven't had that many compliments about the sound of a banjo since I've been playing. I even had the chance to hear Kurt Stephenson, who won 1st in the National Banjo Championship, Jake Workman, who won 2nd, and Jeremy Stephens, who won 3rd sit directly across from me and play many songs on it. That was some treat and it was before the contest. What are the odds? They all loved it.
Thanks to Chris' incredible work and setup, that banjo had suddenly become my favorite banjo. I am a true archtop convert. Not a bad result given my original intent was to have Chris spruce this banjo up so I could sell it since I had not really liked the sound of it much since I bought it in 1981.
I decided to name her "The Grand Old Lady". She is truly a classic from the Golden Age of banjos.
You can see pictures of this banjo at: http://www.banjohangout.org/myhangout/photos.asp?id=16740&albumid=496
And pictures of its restoration by Chris at: http://www.banjohangout.org/topic/152453/4
The next banjo I sent the 11 to Chris to "work his magic" on was my TB11. He came through again. I picked up my TB11 in January and it is not the same banjo I left with him; it sounds fantastic. He re-carved the neck for the same reasons he did for the TB-6 neck, and then had it refinished to a perfect match to the original blue resonator, leveled the fingerboard, complete fret job, plugged and re-drilled the holes in the pot since they had been filed out too large years ago, reset the neck to the pot like a prewar, adjusted the fit of the tone ring (Dannick no hole flathead), and performed a complete setup, etc.
The third banjo I sent to Chris is my main banjo, a 1934 TB3, that I had purchased from Jim Mills several years ago. It has a five string conversion neck and a Dannick Long Skirt 20-hole flathead ring. It is a great banjo.
Even so, I took it to Chris knowing he could make it better. I picked it up from Chris this past May. On my TB3, he leveled the fingerboard, did a fret job with stainless steel frets, re-fit and reset the neck for a .656 Huber bridge and set it up with a new Huber head. I can’t believe the difference; it is a completely different sounding banjo and is getting better all the time. I only thought it was good before. He brought out all the sound this banjo has to offer. I couldn’t be happier.
If anyone is considering repair work, I can't recommend Chris any higher. No one but Chris will ever touch my banjos from now on. If you haven't had the pleasure of getting to know Chris and working with him, you are missing out. After experiencing his work on 3 of my banjos, I am convinced that the only banjo he can't make better is one he has already worked on.
Overall Rating: 10
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