Discovering Old Time Music and Banjos
I grew up on a 3500 acre wildlife management area on the Easter Shore of Maryland. My parents didn't play music, however there was a branch of my mom's North Georgia family that played music in the 20's...some of whom were in the Armurchee Stringband with Lowe Stokes of the Skillet Lickers! I discovered old time music while attending grad school in Ithaca, NY, from the playing of the Horse Flies, the Heartbeats and the Red Hots. After this life changing discovery I moved back to Southwest Virginia to fully delve into the history and culture of old time music and more specifically the banjo.
Learning to Make Banjos
In 1996 I did a year-long apprenticeship with master banjo maker Mac Traynham, where I learned the craft of banjo making. Additionally, Mac taught me to play clawhammer and instilled in me a deep appreciation for the history of the music, especially the rich tradition of old time music in Southwest Virginia. It was during this time that I also discovered the deep and moving history of the banjo, and its evolution...from its origins in West Africa to the early gourd instruments created by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and the US, to the Minstrel stage, to the Victorian parlor, and more recently, to the Bluegrass stage, and to its current renaissance.
I loved the experience, which combined my interests in woodworking, music, and history, but never dreamed it would ever become a full time occupation. However, after 10 years of making banjos as a hobby, I decided to follow my passion and officially started making banjos under the Buckeye Banjos name in 2006.
I currently live on a 12 acre homestead at the base of Buckeye Mountain with my wife Cindy Jane, who does all Buckeye Banjos' bookkeeping, billing and shipping, our dog Tucker and three cats, Rosie, Biscuit and Foxy. Cindy, a wonderful fiddler, and I play in the old time stringband Farm Use Only, and when not making banjos or playing music I enjoy slowly improving the homestead, gardening, making hot sauce and getting outside in nature much as possible.
I love that open-back banjos have never been standardized. The variety of tones that can be created by combining various elements seems never ending. I generally like to mix elements to create banjos which have a full tonal spectrum and a well balanced sound - rich, deep, and full, but not muddy, with a clear, punchy high end that will cut through when you need it to, but still be soft and round rather than sharp and piercing.
I don't like to struggle to get sound out of a banjo, so strive to create banjos that have a good deal of presence and projection and are smooth and easy to play. This leads to an instrument that can be driven hard in situations where it is needed, like a square dance or large jams, but can also be played more delicately and work in mellower settings, like playing solo, or in smaller groups.
I typically use shorter scale lengths which put less tension on the strings and also moves the bridge closer to the center of the head adding warmth and richness to an instruments tone. I like a nice low action over the frets, but a higher action over the head, so there is plenty of room for your thumb when playing clawhammer, and a wider fretboard which increases access to the strings when drop thumbing. Additionally, I like a fairly tall, solid-foot cherry bridge which increases sound transition to the head, doesn't sag over time, and adds a slight warmth to the tone compared to a typical maple bridge.
Although technically not as important, I feel a great sounding and playing instrument should also be beautiful and elegant. I love the look and feel of a simple, well-crafted banjo which emphasizes the natural beauty of the wood and metal hardware as well the overall lines of the instrument, but I also love more highly ornamented banjos. I feel that when ornamentation is used it should add to the innate beauty of an instrument and create a cohesive whole, rather than overpower and distract from that innate beauty. When I do opt for ornamentation, I like to work with engraved pearl, which I find incredibly challenging but also highly rewarding, and am drawn to classic late Victorian era ornaments as well as nature inspired themes, especially flowers, birds and insects.
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