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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!

6962 reviews in the archive.

Curtis Eller's American Circus: How to Make It in Hollywood

Submitted by curtiseller on 2/17/2014

Where Purchased: Curtis Eller's American Circus

Overall Comments

Another Savagely Funny, Menacing Album from Curtis Eller

by delarue

http://newyorkmusicdaily.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/curtis/

As New York rents rise, the brain drain continues. Case in point: charismatic songwriter and banjo player Curtis Eller, who electrified audiences here from the mid-zeros through the early teens with his historically rich, phantasmagorical songs before leaving the city. Happily, he hasn’t given up on music. Eller’s back catalog is a savagely lyrical, surreal chronicle of some of the darker, more obscure moments in American history. Cruel ironies, double entendres and surprisingly subtle humor are everywhere in his songs, the music informed by oldtime swing and blues but not beholden to those traditions, sometimes menacing and morbid, sometimes gentle, sometimes furiously punked-out. Among songwriters, LJ Murphy is a good comparison – vintage vernacular, spot-on commentary on the here and now.

Eller’s also got a fantastic new album, How to Make It in Hollywood, which finds him taking a full-throttle detour into dark garage rock and classic soul music along with the oldtime sounds that made him one of New York’s most riveting live acts. The whole thing is streaming at his Bandcamp page. The opening track, Old Time Religion, is Eller at his brilliant best. Ostensibly it’s an oldtime gospel song but as it keeps going, it turns out that it’s a parody, complete with call-and-response vocals and organ. “Giving up my last chance, backsliding out the church dance, I’m gonna split the congregation, I’ve got the clap around me, dirty hands and that old time religion,” he drawls righteously.

1929 is sarcastic and anachronistic, early Chuck Berry taken back in time 25 years: this guy had a bad 1928 but he just can’t wait to see how good it’s going to be with Mr. Hoover in office! Eller works similar, bizarrrely pointed historical references into the oldschool soul ballad If You’re Looking for a Loser – which connects the dots between Robert E. Lee and Sonny Liston – and the considerably sadder, slower, more gospel-fueled Three More Minutes with Elvis as well as the wryly grim Busby Berkeley Funeral. And the final track, just solo vocals and banjo, is a very clever slap upside the head of the agribusiness cartel from a plainspoken guy down on the farm.

But the best songs here are the darkest and angriest. Butcherman begins witha bit of a calypso lilt and then becomes a soul shuffle. “I don’t want that filthy Chicago meat, take me down to Delancey and Essex Street,” Eller shouts out to his old Lower East Side stomping grounds: everybody else can have the preacher, but this guy knows that the butcher’s the one who really has his hands on the afterlife. Moses in the Bulrushes reverts to the hellfire apocalypticism throughout much of Eller’s music:

There’s a black crow circling over the North Pole
They got the satellite hooked up to the signal where it just don’t take
And this graveyard don’t have room for my skeleton, not tonight
Where there’s stormclouds going in but they just don’t break

The album’s best song is the eerily pulsing shuffle The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon, with a riverbed grave, Cadillac stalled out on the tracks and Henry Kissinger shaking it all night long as a backdrop for this snarling parable of post-9/11 multinational fascism. There’s also Battlefield Amputation, the album’s loudest song, which sounds like Elvis Costello circa This Year’s Model, right down to the vocals and the torrents of indignant imagery. Along wth Eller on all the stringed instruments, Louis Landry plays drums and catchy, eclectic, often menacing organ, with Shea Broussard on bass, joining with Dana Marks to add soaring, often sardonic harmony vocals. It may be something of a crapshoot and an impossible task to say that one great album rates over the other great ones in a given year, but this one’s as good a candidate as any for number one with a bullet for 2014.

http://newyorkmusicdaily.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/curtis/

Overall Rating: 9

Armrests: Banjomate Thinline Armrest

Submitted by curtiseller on 11/14/2011

Where Purchased: Little Mountain Music

Overall Comments

I think this is the best armrest out there! It's comfortable, looks great and was a breeze to attach. I have 12" Buckeye Banjo with only 18 bracket hooks which precludes the use of most armrests, but posed no problem for the rather brilliant mounting system on the Thinline. It's by far the most comfortable armrest I've ever used, and it looks right at home on my banjo. If you need an armrest, I recommend this without qualification!

Overall Rating: 10

Pickups: Pick Up the World: Banjo

Submitted by curtiseller on 7/15/2011

Where Purchased: Direct from PUTW

Overall Comments

I've been using Pick Up The World pickups in my banjos for a decade and I think they are the best thing going. I've used them on the road and in the studio with four different banjos and they always sound great.

I was initially dubious of the placement of the pickup directly under the bridge, fearing that it would sound thin and brittle. Happily that has not proven to be the case. It sounds wonderful and nearly as good as a mic.

One important note: you will need to use a pre-amp. PUTW makes their own, but I have a cheap Fishman GII pre-amp that seems to work fine.

I've just installed one in my new Buckeye Banjo and once again it sounds great. Nothing sounds better than a good mic, but if you need to work with a pickup onstage, I recommend this over all others.

Overall Rating: 9

Buckeye: 12" Custom Walnut

Submitted by curtiseller on 6/17/2011

Where Purchased: Direct from Greg Galbreath (Maker)

Year Purchased: 2011
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

The sound of this instrument is magnificent! An absolute marvel. It has a deep and powerful low end without sacrificing the sparkle on top. The evenness of the tone throughout the entire range is really quite startling. It's also very resonant and it takes as well to full-tilt rockers as it does to delicate waltzes. It's probably impossible to adequately describe a great banjo tone, but this one works for me!

I use the banjo primarily to accompany my singing and songwriting and I play in a multitude of weird keys, and use a lot of closed chord positions. I honestly can't imagine an instrument better suited to my purposes. I've been chasing a very specific and elusive tone for years and Greg's nailed it! It's perfect. Now I don't have any excuses!

(By the way, I've also heard this banjo in the hands of several really good old time players and it's clearly an unstoppable machine).

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

The setup is great. The action is medium which allows me to play a little harder than I can on my Bart Reiter. Significantly, this instrument was built with a 25" scale length. It's taken me a little time to get accustomed to the short length, but now that I'm settled in I'm convinced that that is one of the secrets to the magical tone.

This banjo is also my first instrument to have a real skin head. I've always been skittish about this, but the sound cannot be denied. It seems to have settled into a sweet spot already so perhaps my fears were unfounded. I'll let you know how it takes to humidity of Durham County.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

Like all of Greg's banjos, this instrument is stunning. It echoes the classic banjos of the late 19th century, but has a very distinctive look of it's own.

One obvious highlight is the custom designed brass hardware, which includes a Dobson-inspired brass scoop-plate stamped with the make and serial number. "Buckcye No. 113". It somehow manages to look elegant and industrial.

The hand-cut and engraved inlay work is another visual highlight. There's an elephant on the headstock based on a drawing by my wife Jamie B. Wolcott, and the neck features small, intricately engraved dot markers, as well as an engraved star at the fifth.

Another area where Greg shines is in the sculptural aspect of woodworking. This instrument is as graceful and well balanced visually as it is sonically.

Here's a little photographic evidence:
http://www.banjohangout.org/myhangout/photos.asp?id=9907&albumid=5726

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

I've only had this banjo for a couple weeks, but I suspect it will outlast anybody who might be reading this review. I like to imagine the look on the face of the guy who finds this thing in music shop 100 years from now. I'll report back once I've had it on the road for a while.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

As anybody who's purchased a Buckeye will tell you, Greg is genuine pleasure to work with. Discussing the construction and design elements felt creative and effortless. I should also add that visiting Greg's gorgeous, mountain workshop was one of the best parts of the experience!

Customer Service: 10

Components

Everything on this instrument is of the highest standard. Greg hand built or designed every component except for the Gotoh tuning pegs. I've already testified to the brilliance of his bridges, which I've previously added to my other banjos. Everything here is of equal higher quality.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

I can't really say enough good things about this thing. If you're looking to get a hand crafted instrument, I think Buckeye Banjos are as good or better than anything you'll find. I'm thrilled.

Buckeye Banjo Website:
http://www.buckeyebanjos.com

Overall Rating: 10

Bridges: Buckeye Banjos Solid Foot Bridge

Submitted by curtiseller on 2/23/2009

Where Purchased: Greg Galbreath (Maker)

Overall Comments

I just put one of Greg Galbreath's new solid-foot bridges on my Bart Reiter banjo and it sounds fantastic. I have the heavy weight model.

I immediately noticed an improvement in volume and sustain. It also improved the balance between the strings and added some detail to the bottom end. I think the solid-foot design is key.

You can find them online here:
http://buckeyebanjos.com/Bridges.html

I've experimented with bridges before and heard some difference, but never as much as this. I'm very pleasantly surprised....thanks Greg!

Overall Rating: 10

Gold Star: GF-100FE

Submitted by curtiseller on 1/24/2007

Where Purchased: Earle's Pick & Strum

Year Purchased: 1984
Price Paid: Don't Remember (bought USED) historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

I inherited this banjo from my father and have been using it on the road and it the studio for the past 8 years. It sounds and plays wonderfully. When I got it, it was set up for bluegrass playing....real bright and powerful. I raised the action a little and added a Sosbee bridge and and straight-pull tailpiece. This revealed a darker and warmer tone that has been perfect for my style. It sounds better than most Mastertones I've played.

Sound Rating: 9

Setup

It was set up for playing fast and loud when I got it. I was surprised how good it sounded when I made the changes. It seems to have a lot more versatility than I would have expected.

Setup Rating: 8

Appearance

The finish and woodgrain on this instrument are great. It's basically a copy of the Gibson Flying Eagle inlay pattern. There are two concentric rings inlaid on the back of the resonator which is a nice touch. It really beautiful.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

I've dragged it around on tour all over the US and Europe for nearly a decade and I've never had any trouble. The only trouble I've had is that a slight twist has developed in the neck, which makes tuning a little tricky.

Reliability Rating: 9

Customer Service

Customer Service: not rated

Components

Components Rating: not rated

Overall Comments

I'd recommend this banjo to anybody....especially bluegrass players. It sounds and plays great. My only complaint is the weight....it's extremely heavy (even for a Mastertone). That's what finally led me to buying an open back.

Overall Rating: 9

Bart Reiter: Standard

Submitted by curtiseller on 12/20/2006

Where Purchased: Elderly Instruments

Year Purchased: 2006
Price Paid: 750 ($US) (bought USED)

Sound

This banjo sounds and plays wonderfully. I was on the lookout for a Tubaphone, but stumbled onto this instrument and was won over. It has Snuffy Smith bridge which fattens up the sound a bit, but otherwise it's standard in every way. I play a three finger style to accompany my singing, and this banjo has a full, rich tone that perfectly suits my purposes. Bart's workmanship is outstanding.

[Since I submitted this review I've replaced the bridge with one of Greg Galbreath's handmade bridges. It totally opened up the sound! The banjo is significantly louder, the tone is much more even and there is a lot more detail in the bass.]

Sound Rating: 9

Setup

The setup from Elderly Instruments was just about perfect. I haven't changed a thing

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

It's very simple and traditional. There's a star in the peghead, and dot inlays on the fretboard. It's a Mahogany neck and maple rim. The tuning pegs have ebony buttons which is a nice detail.

Appearance Rating: 9

Reliability

Everything feels solid. I've taken it out on tour twice with no backup, and it's been totally reliable so far.

[Since I originally submitted this review I've taken this banjo all over the US, Canada and Europe. It's gotten me through hundreds of shows with no backup and has never let me down!]

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Customer Service: not rated

Components

Solid appointments all around. Five-Star planetary tuners with ebony buttons. No Knot tailpiece.Renaissance head. I did end up making two small changes: I added a veg style armrest, and switched to a Buckeye Bridge which made a world of difference.

No reliability issues to report. About a year ago I had to replace one of the tuning pegs, but that was broken by an ill-advised onstage leap under a low-hanging beam!

Components Rating: not rated

Overall Comments

For the price, I can't imagine a better banjo. It sounds great, it plays great and it looks great. I played a Gold Star banjo for years, and the weight became to much too deal with. I've had a hard time finding a lighter banjo with a tone that I liked. This banjo more than fulfilled both needs!

Overall Rating: 9

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