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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!

7013 reviews in the archive.

Griffin (James Bowen): An Coolin, semi fretless sn 114

Submitted by neillconnor on 9/24/2011

Where Purchased: Maker

Year Purchased: 2011
Price Paid: (3000 historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

This banjo is a semi fretless 26 1/2 scale twelve inch bill rickard pot tubaphone . The first five frets being fretless with a mother of pearl fingerboard in that section. This allows clearl loud silky smooth slides. The fret positions are marked with black epoxy filler as James was unable to get a single sheet of mop to cover the space of the 1st five frets. The banjo has a deep full sound with clear singing trebles up the fretboard and silky smooth slides on the fretless section.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

I have o ly had the banjo a couple of days, but the only change I have made to the set up is to swap the light gauge strings for mediums. The action is low and I can't improve on it in any other way.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

The banjo is made of curly maple. The pot has a tasteful herringbone inlay around it and capped in ebony. A bill rickard bracket band fitted together with hooks and closed end nuts, 12 inch tubaphone tone ring, also from mr rickard. His hardware is absolutely superb.
I had a hand made engraved griffin long tailpiece and custom made armrest, which is the most beautiful armrest I've ever seen together with the pearl engravings done by a friend of James, who's last commission was an engraved silver salver to Prince William and his wife on their wedding day.
The neck is supremely slender which is a trademark of griffin banjos and is exquisite. James used 5 sheets of gorgeous mop separated by fine epoxy inlays. He used epoxy as he said if he had used small slices of ebony there was a small chance such thin slivers may shrink over time. There are fine hand engraved mop inlays along the length of the fretboard and the name of the banjo 'An Coolin' on the 20th fret.
The heel of the banjo has a classic leaf design hand carved by Ron hestler of Shropshire who I believe to be the best carver in the uk, if not the world. He spends most of his time restoring the carvings in cathedrals and national trust properties but is a friend of James and does his heel carvings. It is stunning!
The headstock of the banjo has a magnificent full griffin hand engraved inlay

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

The hardware is, like all bill rickards gear, superb and very well made. The banjo will easily still be here long after I'm gone.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

I have another banjo made by griffin, and being a one man band his personal service is second to none. The banjo will receive a free 1st check over sometime in the next 12 months. When I took my other banjo back for it's service, James spent 3 hours completely stripping the banjo and showing me how the truss rod worked and how to set it up again. I had a tour of his workshop and several cups of tea also.
An Coolin, was personally delivered to me by James, a journey of 45 miles

Customer Service: 10

Components

None of the parts on this banjo are cheap shortcuts, infect, having been to his workshop, there are NO cheap parts to any of his banjos. They are all hand made with the same materials, even the entry level banjos. The only difference in price is the extras like hand carving, hand engraved pearl and other custom enhancements.
There is nothing on my banjo that could be bettered.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

I havnt stopped smiling since i received the banjo and don't think I ever will, even when I get frustrated at my lack of playing aptitude....

Overall Rating: 10

Necks: 5 string neck

Submitted by neillconnor on 8/22/2011

Where Purchased: Dave Stacey, U.K.

Overall Comments

I recently bought a 1909 Fairbanks Whyte Layde No 7 off ebay with a rather badly finished neck. Being a southpaw, i commisioned Dave Stacey of Letchworth, England to make a repro left handed neck for the banjo, complete with backstrapping and heel carving, as he had already some years ago made me a no7 neck for a 1922 Vega which was fabulous.
But dave has surpassed himself this time with, what i can only describe as a work of art.

Here is a link to Dave Staceys photo album with some pictures of the neck being built together with the original neck.

http://www.banjohangout.org/myhangout/photos2.asp?id=34227&photoID=112223&albumid=0
Check out the pictures in my homepage under album Dave Stacey fairbanks neck.
http://www.banjohangout.org/myhangout/photos2.asp?id=24100&photoID=111471&albumid=5973

Overall Rating: 10

Griffin (James Bowen): Ariel

Submitted by neillconnor on 1/4/2011

Where Purchased: from James Bowan

Year Purchased: 2010
Price Paid: 1600 (uk sterling) historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

The Ariel is an open back short scale A banjo, with a 10 inch pot. A true frailing banjo well balanced across the whole range, with mellow low notes and sweet singing treble. A wide range of tones are possible from this tiny banjo with volume galore when needed from it diminuative 10" pot. The pot is block constructed cherry, with a simple plain tone ring that produces a well rounded and suprising volume.
I have several G banjos but find myself picking up this little ariel more times than not as its so comfortable to play either in my old banjo chair or equally in my armchair. The neck is slimest and sleekest i`ve ever come across and i swear i could wrap my fingers twice around it. With a medium gauge set of strings, this banjo tunes down to regular G no problem with no intonation problems at all. I can honestly say that i have no dislikes whatsoever with this little beauty, and since i collected it from James in December, have played it several hours a day every day since, much to my wifes distain.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

The banjo was set up very well when i purchased it. The action was just right. Changes to action hieght can be easily made by the twin truss rod adjusters in the pot, but i found that james had got the action spot on for my liking. I put a wound 3rd string on the banjo to get a bit more bass, but that was about it

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

The banjo is a stunner!! The pot ischerry, with herringbone inlay around it and the base has a hoop of madagascan ebony with wonderful smokey swirls in the grain. When i first picked the banjo up i thought this was some kind or artificial material as i have never seen ebony with such a beautiful grain. The hardware on the pot is real good quality thick chrome plated, with a superb tailpice made by James. James too makes the 10" flange, which too is impeccibly chromed.
Now we come to the neck, AMAZING. the neck, made from cherry, is spliced and contains a strip of ebony. the sleekness of the neck is really stunning has to be the most comfortable neck i have ever held and is flawless. I asked for a carved heel and this was done by a master carver friend of James who lives locally to him, Ron Hester. The lines of the deep carving are exquisite. The fret board is thick ebony with mop inlays at the 1,3,5,7,10,12,15,17,19,21 frets and "arial" engraved into mop on the 20th fret. The fret board is edged with ivoriod binding with black positional dots along its length.
The peghead, is also elegant, reminscant of the vaga shape, and has ebony veneer into which is set a full mop engraved griffin, the logo of James bowans banjos. The tip of the peghead has a small mop inlay which looks beautiful. The tuners are by Gotoh. The final finish of the banjo is gunstock oil. I believe there were about 18 coats applied.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

The banjo is so well made it will outlast me and my son, and probably any sons he may have. The hardware and construction of this banjo are flawless in every respect, the metalwork is solid and heavily chrome plated and the woodwork, is perfect. where the neck meets the pot is as perfect a meet as there ever could be......not a fraction of millimetre gap anywhere.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Customer service is excellent. At the outset of the order, i asked james for certain things ion the banjo and he did exactly as i asked if it could be done. He also let me know if some of my ideas would not be a good idea, one of which was to have a staffordshire bull terriers head carved on the heel. I took his advice and went with the classic elegant leaf mottiff.
He regulary wrote to me and phoned me about the progress of the banjo and was always most helpful. The banjo has a lifetime warrenty, which is transferable should the banjo be sold to someone else, but there is no chance of that ever happening. James also gives the banjo regular check ups, the 1st of which is free and additional ones very cheap.
My banjo is No 106, and i received a parchment certificate with the banjo stating my name, the banjo name, its serial no and the date of its completion, signed by the maker.
Just a quick update on 29/04/11. I took my banjo to james for his 6 month free banjo check which he does for all instruments. He stripped the banjo down completly to clean it and then spent a couple of hours showing me how to alter the action etc. This was a really useful exercise and he was most generous with his time.
I really cannot praise his after service enough. Superb.

Customer Service: 10

Components

The beautiful neck, the tailpiece, the pot....everything. I honestly cannot fault any part of this beautiful banjo

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

I commisioned this left handed Ariel short scale banjo from mr Bowan, having seen his stand at a music festival in Worcestershire . Words cannot adequatly express how 12 months later i own such a beautiful sounding and amazing looking banjo. The basic price for the banjo was £1400, and the heel carving £200,making a total of £1600 and its the best £1600 i`ve spent .Mr Bowan is an old school gentleman who listened to my ideas, gave me a tour of his workshop, and makes the best sounding, best looking banjos ive had the pleasure to hold. The man is an artist and craftsman. I salute you. I have uploaded a couple of pictures of the banjo on my home page.

Overall Rating: 10

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