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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!

6936 reviews in the archive.

Cases (Hard, Flight): Hoffee

Submitted by corcoran on 4/2/2017

Where Purchased:

Overall Comments

I ordered the case from Jeff Hoffee in 2013 and had him ship it to Huber Banjos, for a banjo Huber was building for me.  I paid whatever the list price was in 2013.

Positives:  the Hoffee case is a very solid, perhaps impregnable, case.  You probably could drive a truck over it with minimal damage to the banjo, although I don't recommend trying.  The looks of it are really nice, with the clear finish revealing the silver-grey carbon-fiber structure below -- very space age.  It is exceptionally well padded, and the plush lining is lovely.  The banjo feels very secure when it rests in the case.  The storage area is quite large and can hold lots of the banjo paraphernalia many of us love to lug around with our instruments.  Finally, the case is comparable in weight to a Calton case and lighter than a Price teardrop case.  So it is possible to carry it some distance without courting a hernia.

Negative: In order to enlarge the storage pocket, Hoffee moved the neck support forward, to the point where the peghead joins the neck.  This means that you cannot leave a capo around the nut when storing the banjo in the case.  I find this annoying -- a minor annoyance, admittedly, but still an annoyance -- because I like to leave my capo clamped around the nut and can do so in my other travel cases.  The Hoffee also has a support sticking up between the tuners beneath the peghead, a feature none of my other travel case possess.  Perhaps this is intended to provide additional security when the case with banjo is bouncing around in airline baggage or in a courier's truck.  However, a banjo luthier told me that the tuners broke off the peghead of a banjo in a Hoffee case he was shipping from Nashville to California, presumably due to shearing action when the crate containing the case and banjo was tossed around, and he recommended removing the support if any serious shipping is contemplated. Thus the support below the peghead can work against the instrument's security.  My biggest concern with the Hoffee is not with the case itself, however, but rather with the difficulties I had with the case cover I ordered from Hoffee.  I found that the cover I purchased from him simply did not fit the case; it was too small.  I talked to Jeff Hoffee about this, and he was no help whatsoever and failed to provide any support for the not-inexpensive case cover I had purchased from him  His only suggestion was that I deal with the Colorado Case Company directly.  I phoned them, and Colorado determined that the case cover Hoffee had sold me was for an older and now-obsolete version of his case.  They cheerfully exchanged the smaller case cover for a new one that fits the Hoffee case perfectly.  I can only hope that Mr. Hoffee has updated his inventory of case covers, so that this kind of cock-up does not occur with other customers.

Overall assessment:  The Hoffee banjo case is a very high-quality travel case that should provide excellent protection for you instrument under routine circumstances.  Above I have outlined some minor issues that concern me, and if you plan on shipping the instrument in the case (or checking it into airline baggage), you might want to consider removing the support that sticks up between the tuners.  My main issue with the case is the lack of support and follow-up when Mr. Hoffee sold me an inappropriate Colorado Case cover, one that is too small for the current iteration of the case.  The net result is that my default case for travel is Calton case, from when the cases were made in Calgary.  I don't think you can beat a Calgary Calton.  The Calgary Flames are another story.

Overall Rating: 8

Chris Cioffi

Submitted by corcoran on 12/18/2016

Overall Comments

Robin Smith and Chris Cioffi divided up the labor on the project of making a new neck for my old model 6 Gibson flathead.  Rob acquired a neck blank of beautiful curly maple from Michigan (where the old maple Gibson necks came from).  Rob shaped the neck and did the perfect inlay work.  Then Chris did some further work on shaping the neck, trimming it down to an even more playable state, inserting stainless steel frets, and performing the neck set   He says the stainless steel frets will out-live me!

Chris then went to work on the drum, to bring it back to the state of outstanding sound it was in when I purchased the banjo in 1967.  He concentrated on the state of the two-piece (tube and plate) flange.  Noting that the tube had never been removed from the plate since it left the factory and was very tight on the tone ring, he did a hand refit of the flange tube and tone ring.  Because the skirt on the ring had bottomed out on the rim, he also hand-fit the rim to the tone ring.  He reglued some minor rim delamination and performed a bunch of small general maintenance procedures.  Then he performed the final setup of the banjo.

The upshot is that the new neck is a magnificent sample of curly maple that plays like a dream.  Furthermore, after Chris’s tender ministrations, the banjo sounds terrific.  It is loud and possesses that pop characteristic of the best prewar flatheads.  The bass is appropriately growly and resonant, and the treble is clear and bell-like right up the neck.  The banjo has that indefinable something that sets the really good banjos apart from the more run-of-the-mill instruments.  It sounds like it did when I bought it almost 50 years ago, when it was the envy of a host of banjo players where I grew up.

I recommend Rob Smith and Chris Cioffi for construction of a new neck for your banjo or, especially in Chris’s case, for setup and fine-tuning of the instrument’s sound.  Chris Cioffi is truly the banjo whisperer.

Rating: 10

Overall Rating: 10

Robin Smith

Submitted by corcoran on 12/18/2016

Overall Comments

Robin Smith and Chris Cioffi divided up the labor on the project of making a new neck for my old model 6 Gibson flathead.  Rob acquired a neck blank of beautiful curly maple from Michigan (where the old maple Gibson necks came from).  Rob shaped the neck and did the perfect inlay work.  Then Chris did some further work on shaping the neck, trimming it down to an even more playable state, inserting stainless steel frets, and performing the neck set   He says the stainless steel frets will out-live me!

The upshot is that the new neck is a magnificent example of curly maple that plays like a dream.  The inlay pattern on the model 6 Gibsons is complex, and the gold-sparkle binding is a royal pain to work with I am sure.  Rob's job on this is first-rate, as good as the best I have ever seen and better than most.  You just cannot beat this kind of superb craftsmanship.

I highly recommend Rob Smith and Chris Cioffi for construction of a new neck for your banjo. 

Rating: 10

Overall Rating: 10

Huber: Custom VRB-G Truetone

Submitted by corcoran on 8/9/2013

Where Purchased: Huber Banjos

Year Purchased: 2013
Price Paid: $6000 + ($US)

Sound

Right out of the box, this banjo is outstanding. It has a bell-like treble right up the neck, and the bass growls like all good prewars should. Of course it is not a prewar, but you could have fooled me. In fact, the tone of the banjo reminds me very much of an original flathead RB-Granada from 1930 that I first played in Huber's shop 10 years ago.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

The banjo was pretty much in tune when I pulled it out of the shipping crate, and I have not had to modify its setup in any way. It will eventually require a slight adjustment of the head tension, and Huber provides a torque wrench to perform the adjustment with.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

The curly maple neck and resonator are beautiful. I ordered it with the model 6 engraving pattern in the antiqued metal, reminiscent of (well, identical to) the engraving on my 1929 model 6 flathead. The inlay pattern is Reno style, the same as on J. D. Crowe's banjos. The cosmetics are flawless -- as one would expect on a Huber banjo -- and sometimes I enjoy just looking at the instrument. But of course I can't resist playing it subsequently.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

First rate all the way. It is a professional banjo.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Huber Banjos are outstanding to work with. Joe Spann is accessible, friendly, and helpful. Plus he appreciates my jokes, feeble though they may be.

Customer Service: 10

Components

It's all good

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

I think this is the golden age for bluegrass banjos, and the banjos that Steve Huber makes are right at the head of the pack. Wow.

Overall Rating: 10

Chris Cioffi

Submitted by corcoran on 3/3/2011

Overall Comments

I visited Steve Huber's shop in June 2003, when Chris was working at Huber Banjos, and spent a lot of time with Chris, picking, talking banjos, and learning from him as he went about his tasks in the shop. Chris is a real pro and an expert on construction, setup, and maintenance of banjos. Plus he is very enthusiastic and likes to share his knowledge and experience. Oh, and he is one hell of a picker too.

Chris and Steve pulled apart and then reassembled my prewar Gibson, and I learned a lot from that experience. Near the close of my visit, I decided to order a Lexington from Steve, and Chris was the luthier who ended up assembling it. He did a great job, and he is one of perhaps three craftspeople (including Steve Huber, of course) who I trust with my banjos.

I recommend Chris enthusiastically for any work that needs to be done on a banjo.

Michael Corcoran

Overall Rating: 10

Jim Mills: Gibson Mastertone: Flathead 5-String Banjos of the 1930's and 1940's

Submitted by corcoran on 9/14/2009

Where Purchased: amazon.ca

Overall Comments

A few years ago, I suggested to a friend who was a major bluegrass photographer in the 1960s and 1970s that we put together a book about prewar Gibson Mastertones, a critter that we both have some knowledge of. We could arrange with noted banjo players for my friend to take photos of their banjos, I suggested, and he and I would interview the players and write the text. “No way,” said my friend, “We would not get access to them because they don’t know who we are” (or words to that effect).

Well, Jim Mills had the same idea, and, being Jim Mills, he does have access to the great players and their banjos. He recruited noted Nashville photographer Dan Loftin to take the photos, and the result is the book “Gibson Mastertone: Flathead 5-String Banjos of the 1930's and 1940's.” As testimony to Mr. Mills’s access to the great players, the book includes sections with descriptions of the prewar Gibson banjos played by Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, J. D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, Butch Robins, and Steve Huber. It also includes detailed descriptions of a number of Mr. Mills’s own banjos and some other instruments. Anyone interested in prewar Gibsons should purchase a copy of this book – you will probably find it to be indispensable, right up there with Greg Earnest’s website and the Gruhn and Carter book “Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments,” for which Mr. Loftin also did the photos. However, like most books it has its strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths:
As expected, the photography is outstanding, well worth the price of admission. And Jim Mills writes about the banjos with passion, with charm, and occasionally with humor. Furthermore, the text is full of interesting anecdotes, information, and opinions from Mr. Mills, who is one of the major collectors and dealers of prewar Gibson flatheads, and most readers will find that their knowledge about the instrument is greatly increased by the book. A particularly important feature, for example, is the section at the end of each instrument’s description in which the provenance of that particular banjo is detailed. It is remarkable to discover how much is known about the history of some of the banjos, and how little is known about others. Also scattered throughout the book are references to the mismatch often found between the hypothesized date of manufacture suggested by the Gibson “serial numbers,” and the verified date of shipping when shipping information is available. Mr. Mills makes the point that we will probably have to rethink our view of the actual chronology of manufacture of the different models, given the demonstrable inaccuracies arising from consideration of the “serial numbers” alone.

An especially enjoyable surprise for me is the book’s inclusion of the Hoke Jenkins RB-6. The dogma has been that Gibson never produced a 5-string version of the model 6, one of the high end Gibsons. Although model 6 aficionados have for some time been aware of reports of at least one original model 6 flathead 5 string, the only hard evidence for it has been the photo of Hoke Jenkins with Jim and Jesse in 1952 holding what appears to be an original 5-string model 6 (see the Bear Family’s box set of Jim and Jesse). As Mr. Mills points out, they weren’t making repro necks in the early 1950s. Mr. Mills has tracked the banjo down, and the book displays it in glorious photos and analyzes its characteristics and history in loving detail. For me, this banjo alone justifies the cost of the book.

Weaknesses:
The down side is that book contains a lot of mostly trivial errors that are, nonetheless, irritating and distracting. That is, the writing is not very professional, and there are lots of errors in punctuation and grammar. Furthermore, aspects of the text are annoyingly repetitive. For example, throughout the book there are multiple references to “my good friend” or “my very good friend.” No doubt Mr. Mills has many friends in the banjo world, but it becomes distracting for him to refer to so many people in this way. Now I can already hear the defensive howling in some quarters of BHO: “Mr. Mills is not a professional writer, this does not pretend to be a work of great literature, I can understand what he is trying to say even if the writing is not the best, not everyone is an English professor, good punctuation and grammar don’t matter,” and so on and so forth, blah blah blah. Some of this I won’t disagree with, but here’s the deal. This is a BOOK; it is not an e-mail message or a posting on BHO, all of which are ephemeral and ultimately discardable. The book is an important piece of work, a major contribution, indeed a scholarly effort, and it is part of the permanent historical record. Copies of it will be available in public libraries, and it ought to be found on the bookshelf of every person who is a 5-string banjo player or who is seriously interested in prewar Gibsons. Hence it should be as well written and as carefully prepared as possible. Mr. Mills and his publisher should have spent a little extra money on the services of a professional editor, who would no doubt have cleaned up the text considerably.

But these are minor quibbles, and no doubt most readers will either be unaware of them or not care at all. However, there is a major error in the book that will have to be corrected in future printings: The major error is that Mr. Mills consistently misspells Butch Robins’s name throughout! He adds an extra B, making it Robbins (sic) rather than Robins. This is embarrassing, to say the least. He also misspells Jim Smoak’s name (“Jim Smoke”). Good thing he got it right with Earl Skrugs, Sunny Osbourne, J. D. Crow, and Bill Kieth. Just kidding!

I note that the book makes another significant error in attribution or credit for the photo of J. D. Crowe on page 24. The photo says, "Courtesy of the Jim Mills Collection." The photo was in fact taken by, and belongs to, Ron Petronko. Ron took the photo in 1960, at the Ottawa Auditorium, in Ottawa, Ontario, and it has been on display in the International Bluegrass Museum. This too should be corrected in future printings.

Overall evaluation:
As noted at the outset, those of us interested in prewar Gibson flathead banjos of the 5-string persuasion will find the book to be indispensable. It provides detailed and extremely valuable information about a variety of representatives of the species, and the photography is positively stellar. The shortcomings in the presentation of the text can be overlooked, with the exception of the misspelling of Butch Robins’s name and Jim Smoak’s name, and the miscrediting of Ron Petronko's photo of J. D. Crowe. Once those glaring errors are corrected, the book will deserve the top rating of 10.

Overall Rating: 10

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