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Oct 15, 2021 - 3:17:42 PM
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2740 posts since 12/31/2005
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So many choices these day, and so much science and testing done on this little piece of wood. Seems like, in the good ole' days, bridges were pretty much the same. I remember a lot of discussion about thinning them, etc., but I don't remember in the early '80s having a whole lot of choice in terms of makers, weight, grain variations, etc.

When did the boutique bridge industry take off, and who were the pioneers?

Oct 15, 2021 - 4:25:28 PM
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Bill H

USA

1763 posts since 11/7/2010

I've tried quite a number of bridges and made some of my own--a bridge makes a world of difference in tone and volume, and a bad bridge can make a banjo sound dead.

Oct 15, 2021 - 5:14:52 PM
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rcc56

USA

3844 posts since 2/20/2016

The proliferation of banjo bridges is a recent phenomenon.  When I bought my first banjo in 1975 [a Harmony Reso-tone], we had three choices: Grover, Grover, and Grover.

I remember Geoff Stelling visiting shops in the early 1980's, when he would spend a day in the shop setting up his banjos for their owners. He always carried a box full of his newly designed Stelling bridges with him. They were good bridges.

I remember the Snuffy Smith bridges appearing quite a few years ago. I believe that was sometime in the 1990's. Then, Curtis McPeake followed with his "lightening bolt" bridges, also in the '90's.

Those three are the earliest that I can remember.

Edited by - rcc56 on 10/15/2021 17:17:24

Oct 15, 2021 - 5:41:44 PM
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14028 posts since 6/29/2005

when I started working on banjos in the 60s, a friend and banjo mentor told me I should make my own and showed me a couple he had made. Since then I have never bought one, and later in the 80s, an orchestra conductor showed me how to make violin and cello bridges and apply some of that  old "technology" to banjo bridges.

I've converted and fixed up plenty of banjos besides the ones I make and always make a new bridge.

The old "store bought"ones I have removed all seem to be made kind of haphazardly with not a lot of regard for the piece of wood, the grain, and angle to the head, etc.. much less so than the average violin bridge.

I think that what you might call "boutique bridges" are made by people who make them by hand and put a lot more thought and care into them than let's say Grover.

Oct 15, 2021 - 5:54:38 PM

rcc56

USA

3844 posts since 2/20/2016

If you're handy with tools, it's possible to make a bridge from scratch using only hand tools [Strad didn't have no belt sander]. It will take a while.

A drill press with a couple of good bits and a drum sanding attachment, and a belt sander can reduce the labor time. But if you're not careful, it's easy to take too much wood off, or do something nasty to a finger. I tend to leave the machine work a little on the heavy side, and then finish up by hand.

Oct 15, 2021 - 7:20:55 PM
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12424 posts since 6/2/2008
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In his appearance on the Picky Fingers Banjo Podcast (scroll down to #70 at that page), Silvio Ferretti (maker of Scorpion bridges) says outright that Snuffy Smith "invented boutique bridges." Not clear to me when.

In his brief retelling of bridge history, he says Grover bridges were laid out cut to maximize the number of bridges from any particular piece of maple. As a result, he says, there was no attention to the direction of the bridge in the wood, grain orientation or the avoidance of grain runout. The other result was inconsistency, with maybe one of out 20 bridges being good. Silvio credits Snuffy with being the first to understand the importance of the layout of the bridge relative to the grain and how to produce the most efficient bridge.

I think boutique bridges are a thing because their makers promise care and attention to design and manufacture, with bridges cut from wood blanks to place quality of performance over quantity of product.

Oct 15, 2021 - 7:53:18 PM
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14317 posts since 10/30/2008

When I started picking as a teen in the 1960s we had Grovers and the one with little bone inserts in the ebony (I learned only recently these are called "Farquarson" bridges?)

My dad had an old busted up piano he took apart for old wood, and he took it in his head he would make banjo bridges for me and my friends that had vertical grain. Otherwise shaped like a Grover. He made them with hand tools including a coping saw. Ebony from piano keys. Elmer's white glue. A banjo friend of mine clued Dad on different bridge heights, and soon I was carrying a box of 'em around and letting banjo players take one.

The pickers thought they sounded GREAT! But they were flimsy if you tried to grab them by the "wings" and move them under string tension. That vertical grain was very against that kind of stress. Once we all learned to treat them gently they were pretty popular.

Around the late 1980s and early 90s it seemed I encountered my first Snuffy Smith bridges. The heavy weight and the "back angle" (prevented them from tipping forward under string tension -- yes, that used to happen). They sounded good. Then Snuffy started getting into REALLY tall versions of these bridges and it was Katy Bar the Door I guess.

That was my awareness of bridges in the bluegrass world of the northeast anyway.

Oct 15, 2021 - 10:32:01 PM
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Bart Veerman

Canada

5074 posts since 1/5/2005

Boutique bridges started out as OEM bridges with makers like Boucher, S.S. Stewart, Dobson, Windsor etc. more than 100 years ago... smiley Thinning Grover bridges was a popular habit in the 1970ies for even folks like Don Reno.

One thing to realize that up to about the 1980ies, most banjos came equipped with 1/2 inch "tall" bridges, something that don't seem to fly anymore these days.

Some of the pioneers? It's kinda late at night here (and into a "couple" of beers...) so my apologies if I left out any well-deserving names and, most definitely in no particular order:

  • Randy Stockwell, Moon bridges
  • Snuffy Smith
  • Scott Zimmerman, Desert Rose
  • Silvio Ferretti, Scorpion,
  • Wadsworth
  • Arthur Hatfield
  • Tim Purcell
  • David Cunningham
  • Jerry Rabun - hugely innovative
  • Jeff Stelling
  • Tom Nechville
  • Gary Sosebee
  • Steve Davis
  • Don New
  • Mike Smith, Kat Eyz & new generation Snuffy Smith

Most of these folks got on stream around the 1990ies to about 2010. Quite a few of them actually are members here on the Hangout so you could contact them personally, should you wish to - do visit their Banjo Hangout home pages.

A heads up: by design, people are a disposable "product" so when you do look up the home pages of the folks on the list above, you'll notice that most of them are kinda, well, hmmm, ugh, sorta beyond their "best-before" date. If you've ever wondered about checking out their stuff, this might well be the time to give them a holler...

Oh, whether I should have included myself on this list, I'll leave that up to you guys to decide...

Cheers,

Bart.

may your moments of need be met by moments of compassion

Edited by - Bart Veerman on 10/15/2021 22:48:26

Oct 16, 2021 - 12:11:38 AM

Bill Rogers (Moderator)

USA

25395 posts since 6/25/2005

Some years ago, I got a handful of 5-legged “minstrel-sryle” bridges from Wyatt Fawley. He was selling off the ones he made. I tend to modify them as needed. They’re all maple, which I prefer.

Oct 16, 2021 - 4:25:56 AM
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Emiel

Austria

9997 posts since 1/22/2003
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quote:
Originally posted by The Old Timer

When I started picking as a teen in the 1960s we had Grovers and the one with little bone inserts in the ebony (I learned only recently these are called "Farquarson" bridges?)

 


Farquhar bridges are bridges made by Jim Farquhar, another "boutique" bridge maker, now retired:

https://bernunzio.com/product/farquhar-tenor-banjo-bridge-15597/

These are all (?) 4-string bridges with taqua inserts (the "vegetable ivory"). The old Grovers may have had bone inserts, the newer ones have plastic inserts.

Oct 16, 2021 - 7:20:08 AM
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80 posts since 8/9/2007

Add Doc Huff , and Jeff Stellings silent partner Geoff .......

Oct 16, 2021 - 7:47:21 AM

1775 posts since 1/3/2004

Don’t forget Sampson and Hot Spot. They’re the earliest ones I recall other than Snuffy Smith.

Oct 16, 2021 - 1:42:27 PM

3946 posts since 3/28/2008

I first ran across Snuffy Smith bridges in the mid-1980s. IIRC, the Stelling that I got in 1983 came with a Snuffy bridge on it.

Oct 16, 2021 - 2:08:04 PM

315 posts since 4/10/2018

Don’t forget that Mr. Bart Vreeman is a master craftsman of a terrific line of bridges.

Oct 16, 2021 - 2:27:24 PM
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969 posts since 10/31/2007

Let's not forget Steve Davis fine bridges.

Oct 16, 2021 - 2:54:12 PM

mrbook

USA

2030 posts since 2/22/2006

In the 1990s I put a Snuffy Smith bridge on a new banjo I had acquired, and it seemed to sound much better. After about 15 years, the guy who originally built it talked me into selling it back to him (it took 3 years), so I put his old Grover bridge with bone inserts back on so it would be just like he made it (I had kept it in the case pocket all that time). The banjo sounded good with that bridge, too. Nevertheless, I have always changed out my bridges, usually for the Snuffy Smith, Scorpion, or Sosebee.

Oct 16, 2021 - 3:18:31 PM
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Fish Head

Ireland

99 posts since 12/15/2017

quote:
Originally posted by Emiel
quote:
Originally posted by The Old Timer

When I started picking as a teen in the 1960s we had Grovers and the one with little bone inserts in the ebony (I learned only recently these are called "Farquarson" bridges?)

 


Farquhar bridges are bridges made by Jim Farquhar, another "boutique" bridge maker, now retired:

https://bernunzio.com/product/farquhar-tenor-banjo-bridge-15597/

These are all (?) 4-string bridges with taqua inserts (the "vegetable ivory"). The old Grovers may have had bone inserts, the newer ones have plastic inserts.


It's called 'tagua', comes off a variety of palm tree in South America. I can't understand why this isn't used extensively in musical instruments. It carves beautifully, lots of Japanese netsuke carvers use it as a very viable alternative to ivory. The nuts only grow so big so there are limits to how it can be used, but that said, it is an extraordinary renewable resource.

Oct 16, 2021 - 3:26:53 PM

6564 posts since 9/21/2007

Reading this reminds me of some of those "greatest of all time" lists. "Greatest Action Moves of All Time" never list The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. "Most Popular Song of All Time" never lists Yankee Doodle or Oh Susanna. We sometimes can't see past our own era.

To build on what Bart wrote, most makers offered their own bridges as OEM. But there were also individuals who made and sold bridges. A. D. Grover started this way. He was a mechanical engineer. He started selling bridges in the late 1890s, then sold his bridge company. He later started back up making the Non-Tip bridges and quickly added all kinds of gizmos. His son took over and that is the version that most people remember. I presume his son was still running things after WW2 but I have not tried to find out.

Fred Bacon started with bridges and strings before banjos. There were scads of one man shops offering their special design of bridges during the classic era.

FWIW, I do not consider myself a "boutique" maker. While it is just me in my garage shop, "boutique" is way too fancy and hoity-toity for the dust covered and monotonous work that it is.

Oct 17, 2021 - 6:08:12 AM

9093 posts since 8/28/2013

Until banjo bridges are available in various exotic aromas and colors with names like "Starbrite Yellow" or "Vanilla Dawn," and kept in locked dispay cases at 5th Avenue and Beverly Blvd. "shoppes," I refuse to call them "boutique."

Oct 17, 2021 - 6:22:24 AM

832 posts since 1/21/2004

Didn't Sonny Osbourne have a bridge with compensation for his third string in the 1970's?

 

Heavythumb

Oct 18, 2021 - 6:37:49 AM

3993 posts since 5/1/2003

Here’s a Bob George bridge which was installed on this Ludwig banjo in 1985. It’s a work of art,I think. Old piano maple with bone insert and tiny ebony accents just for looks.


Edited by - Ks_5-picker on 10/18/2021 06:40:09

Oct 18, 2021 - 2:18:24 PM

889 posts since 10/4/2018

Whenever I see the word "boutique" I think of a bunch of ladies in hats with veils wearing gloves and sipping tea. There must be another, more meaningful word we can use. Come on ladies, think!

It makes me wonder when did the word boutique in combination with anything banjo related become "a thing"?

When did saying "become a thing" start being regularly used for that matter?

Edited by - Good Buddy on 10/18/2021 14:21:34

Oct 18, 2021 - 2:50:59 PM
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2740 posts since 12/31/2005
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quote:
Originally posted by Good Buddy

Whenever I see the word "boutique" I think of a bunch of ladies in hats with veils wearing gloves and sipping tea. There must be another, more meaningful word we can use. Come on ladies, think!

It makes me wonder when did the word boutique in combination with anything banjo related become "a thing"?

When did saying "become a thing" start being regularly used for that matter?


You're literally asking when did "become a thing" become a thing.   Here is the first boutique banjo band:


 

Edited by - Brian Murphy on 10/18/2021 14:51:21

Oct 18, 2021 - 4:42:57 PM
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889 posts since 10/4/2018

Yes, that's the type of image in my mind....hilarious.

Oct 18, 2021 - 7:24:43 PM

Heady

USA

138 posts since 4/25/2021

I'm a nube - like half a year in - so I don't know anything about this really - I just know this.... my viola was stolen in 1996 and my homeowners insurance covered it. The replacement was theoretically a better viola but for over 20 years I f***ing hated it. I broke my bridge and brought it to the local shop because I was too busy with work and stuff to take it to the luthier I'd been using since I was a kid in the 80s. He made and fit a bridge for it that he said was barely better than basic - but he'd made a few deliberate choices specifically for my instrument - and now I like it as much as the old viola.

I don't know the physics well enough to understand if it's as or more or less important for a banjo - I just know it made the world of difference for my viola.

Oct 18, 2021 - 7:38:10 PM
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2740 posts since 12/31/2005
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quote:
Originally posted by Heady

 viola.


A fiddola?

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