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The banjo reviews database is here to help educate people before they purchase an instrument. Of course, this is not meant to be a substitute for playing the instrument yourself!

7065 reviews in the archive.

Chuck Lee: Ovilla

Submitted by mturc on 8/6/2004

Where Purchased: Zepp Music

Year Purchased: 2003
Price Paid: 1500-1600 ($US)

Sound

This banjo has a wood tone ring and a 12" Tony Pass pot, rennaissance head and a Moon bridge. The tone is rich. Loud, but not booming. It plays equally well soft and full-on. It clucks like a hen. I spent a lot of time with Zepp's sound files before I ordered this banjo. It has exceeded my expectations. If you want bright and tinkly, this is not for you. If you want full and soulful, this is it. You can judge for yourself by listening to http://zeppmusic.com/MP3/lostind_lee022_moon.mp3

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

I haven't changed a thing. Zepp put the Moon bridge on it and set it up. I think Chuck now uses the rennaissance/moon combo on this model.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

Inlaid into the Dobson style headstock, the Ovilla has the man-in-the-moon and a maiden. Chuck got a very interesting expression on the man. Way cool. He originally had a machne-cut star at the 5th fret, but he graciously replaced it with a very nice hand-cut star. I think he now does a trailing group of stars.

The neck is two-piece walnut with colored laminations up the center and under the fretboard, headstock and in the perchpole. Chuck has a great eye for color and balance. The details are subtly elegant. The closer you look at this banjo, the better it looks (The nut is scalloped, for example). The pictures are at http://leebanjos.com/Banjos/Banjo022.htm Take a peek.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

After 10 months, I have no complaints. Chuck stands by his work, so I don't expect any issues

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Both Zepp and Chuck Lee were great. Chuck only sells through dealers so he can concentrate on the building rather than the selling. But he very accessible and open to ideas. He seems like a happy guy who want to make sure folks are happy with his work.

Customer Service: 10

Components

5-star tuners, no-knot tailpiece. Good servicable stuff.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

Price/value this can't be beat. This is the banjo that sits in the stand in my living room. It's a keeper. I'd replace it with another just like it. Sure, you could spend twice as much and get gold plating and engraving, and lots more inlay, but at this price, this is the one for me. Update June 2006.... This banjo has just gotten better with time. Chuck has raised his prices to be more in line with the market, but his banjos are still a great value. In my opinion, his wood tone ring models are his best, and this Ovilla is a great example, being powerful but articulate. Chuck's success speaks for itself. Update July 2008... I've had the good fortune of being able to go by the banjo.com showroom periodically and this Ovilla beats everything I have tried. And in a "blind tasting" that my instructor and I had, this one came out on top, too. Beat out everything with a tone ring. What a banjo!

Overall Rating: 10

Cedar Mountain: Foothills Fretless FH

Submitted by mturc on 8/6/2004

Where Purchased: Cedar Mountian

Year Purchased: 2004
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

This banjo has a surprisingly bright sound. Surprising for a wooden tone rim. (Lo Gordon, the maker, calls it a "tone rim" rather than a "tone ring" because it is all one piece)

The sound not piercing, but plenty loud enough to be heard in a crowd. I played recently at Swannanoa with 10-15 autoharps and another dozen guitars, banjos, and mandos. I had no trouble hearing myself, and a fellow across the circle said he could hear me just fine in the crowd.

The Foothills model has slightly shorter neck than the standard Appalachian model, which I wanted for my fretless. I play in D and A mostly, so the shorter neck works better. But I can tune down to C or G just fine, too.

All in all, this banjo has the sound I like for fretless. A lively ring, but not harsh, metallic, or even bell-like, if that makes sense. And it has a nice zip to the slides, which, of course, is part of the fun of a fretless.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

The banjo was set up by the maker, Lo Gordon. It played well right out of the box. It originally had a plastic head, but I swapped it out for a rennaissance head, which I like better. I had Lo scoop the neck. If I had my druthers, I'd have him come up the neck a little more with the scoop, or maybe do an S-shaped scoop. Update July 2008... I have found, though trial and error, that the head tension on this banjo is critical. Just a little tweak, like 1/8 turn all around, makes a HUGE difference. When you are close to the sweet spot you will know.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

This is the FH model, which has no inlay (the FH-1 and FH-2 are the fancier models). For a fretless, I like the leaner, simpler approach and this is it, although the ginseng inlay in the headstock of the FH-1 is very nice.

The neck and 11" rim are mahogany. The rim has a geometric inlay, which is very pretty and well done. The headstock shape is clean and simple.

Lo makes pretty, clean banjos. This is his cleanest, in my opinion.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

Hardware seem reliable. This model has the less expensive tuners than the FH-2, but everything seems quite servicable.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Lo is a real easy guy to deal with. He is responsive to emails. You deal directly with him. He makes the show circuit, so you can try out his wares here and there. At first, I struggled with playing fretless and he had good suggestions and encouragement. A good guy.

Customer Service: 10

Components

It has a no-knot tailpiece, and looks like 5 star tuners. I'd stick with a ren head or a fiberskin for this model. No upgrades are needed, as you would expect for a custom-made banjo.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

Lo's banjos are not cheap. He has put a lot of effort into development and getting the sound he wants. For your money, you get a quality instrument made by a custom maker. I like this banjo a lot. For a fretless, I think a Cedar Mountian FH is the way to go. If I had to replace it, I'd get the same model, but I would get an S scoop. And I would probably give in to the temptation of that ginseng inlay in the headstock.
Update June, 2006.... I sold this banjo. And replaced it with a matched pair of Foothills from Lo. One fretless and the other fretted. Lo worked tirelessly with me to get a custom inlay design that satisfied us both. He is a first class guy. He also did the S-scoop. Every clawhammer player should have banjos like these. Update July 2008... This banjo and its fretted sibling is my every day banjo. It is extremely comfortable and easy to play

Overall Rating: 10

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