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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!

7100 reviews in the archive.

Dogwood Banjos: Jaybird

Submitted by Page47 on 2/15/2016

Where Purchased: Direct from Builder

Year Purchased: 2016
Price Paid: 1700 ($US)

Sound

When Mike Chew and I first started discussing this banjo, we spent a lot of time talking about tone. I wanted an open-back, clawhammer banjo that had a rich, organic natural tone where the primary tonal characteristic was what I described as "presence". I wanted moving bass tones and round clear highs, but most importantly I wanted the tone to be "right there". I described several metal tone ring banjos (dobson TRs mainly) that I had experience with that sounded like you were playing from the bottom of a large dumpster: I told Mike I wanted the exact opposite of that. Mission accomplished. This banjo's tone isn't drenched with ringy-overtones and echo-y sharpness. Mike achieved exactly what I was looking for: simple, rich, soft, enveloping tones.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

I gave Mike every measurement of every aspect including the action at the 12th fret. Mike shipped the banjo perfectly set up with 2 bridges: one Grover and one 2 foot bridge of his design. Both provided the exact action I asked for to the 1/32th. The John Balch calfskin needed a 1/2 turn out of the box and I've played with other bridges, but setup from Dogwood was perfect.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

Mike captured my vision here prefectly. In the same way that I was after a simple, natural, tone, I also wanted a simple, natural beauty asthetic. We chose to forgo intricate inlay designs on this one and focus on the beauty of the wood selections. Mike used a lovely curly walnut for the the one-piece neck and pot. He did a highly quality curly maple binding around the slotted peghead and fretboard that aethetically frames the beautiful wenge fingerboard and rimcap perfectly. He included a purposeful, yet simple looking brass plate over the frailing scoop. The only inlay is a Dogwood Banjos embossed leather emblem on the peghead: the soft natural look of the leather goes so well with the hand rubbed finish of the wood and provides a very unique finishing touch. Workmanship here was top notch all around.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

Having only had this instrument for 1 month all I can say is that I see no reason, so far, to expect any reliability issues. Every aspect of the instrument is solid.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

I wish I could rank this higher than 10. It was a JOY to work with Mike. We talked frequently. He sent me almost daily pictures during the actual build. I had been planning this build for some time and had a tremendous amount of nitty-gritty things on my "wish list". I half expected Mike to get kinda annoyed with all the requests and questions and ideas. However, it was actually the opposite! He seemed to absolutely love being engaged, talking through the ideas, thinking about the experimental concepts. It felt much less like he was a guy building an insturment for me and much more like we were two friends working on a project together. Mike is a solid dude and tons of fun!

Customer Service: 10

Components

John Balch hide head is clearly top notch. We used a Fielding tailpiece which I find to be perfect for open back banjos. We used Grover tuners (rather than Waverly) on the slothead: we discussed this and felt the Waverlys were possibly a bit overpriced and that the Grovers function very well. We also used a simple vega style arm rest to complete the package. Mike makes his own tension hoops so the J-hook attaches through a whole in the side (Romero has a similar design). This gives the top view of banjo a clean and smooth look, rather than the groove and bumps of a typical notched hoop.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

This is a fairly unique instrument.

First, I wanted to do a slotted peghead using the aggressive (30 degree) peghead angle on old Dobsons and on the Bonefass banjos.  This decision was born out of a discussion with Adam Hurt who suggested that steep angle contributed positively to sustain and tone.  Mike accommodated this unusual request and did a great job with the slotted 5th string as well.

Second, I wanted an A Scale banjo (specifically 23 5/16").  I play nearly all my G tunes in SRB tuning (gEADE), so very rarely am I anywhere near the loose Open G tuning.  I felt an A Scale would be perfect for my playing style.  I even went so far down a math rabbit hole, that I requested the bridge be placed using the Golden Ratio (there is a long thread about that theory here on BH) on this 11" rim.

There are some additional subtle things here that I think contribute positively to the instrument.  Mike did a thin (3/8") and deep (3.5") 11" pot that is almost a hat-tip to minstrel banjo designs.  I believe the large chamber contributes to the deep tone, but the 11" rim size allows the hide to stay in control and clear.  Mike built a nice wenge tone ring, rather than using a metal tone ring and also used a rosewood nut to mellow the tone further (vs bone or other non-wood nut).  Finally, I'm using very heavy strings (12, 14, 17, 26, 12) to not only suit my playing style and allow the proper tension on an A Scale, but also the larger strings have a more powerful punchy tone.

All these factors contribute to this being an absolute top notch instrument that perfectly matches the vision I had when I went into the build.

Overall Rating: 10

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