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Feb 7, 2024 - 2:15:33 PM
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6298 posts since 3/11/2006

John Bowlin's wife Sally sadly informed me this morning that he had peacefully passed away at his retirement community Monday evening, the 5th of February.  John was commemorated by a private family gathering.

To anyone who has been a member of the banjo community for any length of time, John Bowlin will be a familiar name.  The banjo was John's true and enduring passion in life- he had no greater joy than to save a hundred year-old instrument, repair it, and help it find its way into the hands of an aspiring musician.

John was born in 1941 in Shubuta, Mississippi.  When he was nine or ten, his father who was employed in the lumber business as a salesman and mill superintendent relocated the family to the Ashland, Oregon area where John spent his teen years and young adulthood.  By the time he had relocated his young family to Southern California in the mid-1960's he had been bitten by the banjo-playing and building bug, and he had befriended such local builders as Art Gariepy and Bobby Flesher from whom he learned valuable luthiery techniques.

In the 1970's John and family came to Vancouver, WA to make their home. While here, he became well-known as a musician, teacher, repairman, and builder of fine banjos.  Bluegrass was John's focus in these days.  As time went on, he became enamored of the Clawhammer style which became his sole pursuit.  I first met him at a Dwight Diller house concert around 2000 in the home of George Neidhart in Portland, Oregon.  We became fast friends, visiting and speaking on the phone quite frequently.

John retired from his job with the City of Vancouver in very early 2003, and generously agreed to make a low-tuned fretless banjo for me.  This banjo became the proto-type for his Bowlin Model 1865 Fretless Banjo.  I might say that this is where John made his biggest mark on the banjo world.  In short-order these banjos became in high demand, and John placed them with musicians all over the world from Japan to Ireland. His Model 1865 banjos were an important part of generating enthusiasm for the low-tuned fretless that really took off in the mid-2000's.

John made 50-55 of these banjos, the last one around 2011, and they are still in high-demand when they can be found.  He made them one at a time, as a true labor of love as the resulting quality makes obvious.  Additionally, John's interaction with his customers insured that they became friends.  For him, it was always about the banjos and the folks he met through them above all else.

John was a great friend and mentor to me, and I, and many of us will miss him greatly.  What small success I have had on the banjo is due in large part to him.  I have to admit that just prior to meeting John my interest in music and the banjo had begun to fade.  It was through John's enthusiasm and influence that I got back on track.  Were it not for him, I don't know that I'd be playing today. 

A gentleman in the truest sense, John was dignified, generous, humorous, and kind.  A wonderful man and a gentle spirit.  The world, and especially the banjo world is a bit poorer today.

Fair winds and following seas.  
Rest in Peace My Friend. 


From Craig Evans' Banjo Builders Series:

John Bowlin Upgrade Preview (


Banjo Newsletter interview with John Bowlin:

Banjo Newsletter - John Bowlin and his 1865 Fretless


John and his banjos were also featured by Richard Jones-Bamman  in his book;

Building New Banjos for an Old-Time World, University of Illinois Press

Feb 7, 2024 - 2:57:09 PM
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Players Union Member



4652 posts since 3/11/2004

R.D., you have done a wonderful service by capturing the special spirit and contributions of John Bowlin. Your publications and recordings have also celebrated John and his work. This is sad news indeed. I will keep John in my thoughts. 


Feb 7, 2024 - 3:30:52 PM
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1479 posts since 11/26/2012

That was a wonderful tribute, R.D.

Feb 7, 2024 - 3:40:35 PM
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Bill Rogers (Moderator)


27881 posts since 6/25/2005
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A well-deserved farewell. Without your long-time presentation of John’s work, and advocacy for his banjos, he would have remained in undeserved obscurity. May we continue to remember John’s distinct contribution to old-time banjo.

Feb 7, 2024 - 4:51:26 PM
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713 posts since 6/6/2007

One of the big regrets in my banjo life is that I haven’t been able to buy one of Mr. Bowlin’s banjos. I tried contacting him several years ago about trying to get one but I guessed he might have been done making them because he didn’t return my inquiry.

What a neat guy, and thanks for the great remembrance, R.D.


Feb 7, 2024 - 7:51:23 PM
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236 posts since 12/27/2019

Very sorry to hear this news.

Mr. Bowlin introduced me to some of his banjos at his home in Vancouver -- at the very beginning of my own clawhammer journey -- back in 2019.

We spoke for hours on a wide range of topics and life experiences. He was a very warm, generous, and kind-hearted man. I asked him which of his banjos he would *not* sell. It was one of his Ramsey maple specials. He loved that thing.

After that I made a special point of finding a Mike Ramsey maple special of my own. Shortly after one popped up here on the hangout. That would become my very first banjo -- which I still play and enjoy to this day.

Thank you Mr. Bowlin. A privilege and delight to meet you. All the best in your continuing journey!

Feb 7, 2024 - 10:16:10 PM
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14098 posts since 12/11/2003

That’s interesting, Silver Falls. The last time I communicated with John he contacted me about a Ramsey banjo I listed for sale. We chatted for a bit, and he decided not to get it.

RIP John Bowlin.

Feb 8, 2024 - 6:37:18 AM
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4387 posts since 12/3/2008

R.D. Lunceford
Thank you for writing such a profoundly illuminating memorial.
I'll become more familiar with John Bowlin's life through the links you provided.

Feb 18, 2024 - 6:13:12 AM
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Players Union Member



6748 posts since 10/26/2005

Oh my. Just saw this. What a loss. Will post his interview for free viewing for those wanting to appreciate just what a fine builder and gentleman he was.


Feb 18, 2024 - 9:41:12 AM



14098 posts since 12/11/2003

Thanks Craig. That was nice.

Feb 18, 2024 - 3:24:05 PM

1084 posts since 3/23/2006

I was lucky to acquire an 1865 and chatted with John some years ago. His admirable spirit really does live on in his instruments as you can tell from Craig's time with John and R.D.'s playing. Every time I play mine I think about John. My thoughts are with Sally and his family.

Feb 22, 2024 - 11:18:08 PM
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6298 posts since 3/11/2006

Craig, that was very generous of you to make John's video available for all of us to view.  Especially if one is fortunate enough to own an 1865, listening to John  describe his building process is bound to be engrossing.  I know in the dozen years since you shot the video, John and I often recalled your visit, and how much fun we had.  It was a real highlight for both of us, and for me a special honor- thank you.

Our friend Damon Bourne received one of the earlier 1865's, his video show's the instrument in great detail:

Bowlin Banjo Movie (

One of my all-time favorite performances on the Bowlin 1865 (or any banjo for that matter) was Adam Hurt playing Ducks on the Millpond:

Ducks on the Millpond (

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