This one goes to 11.

This entry was posted by on Monday, 13 March, 2006 at

Road trip to Nashville is complete!

Visited a few stores, and even got a private tour of a small banjo factory. Dragged my friends, wife, and baby with me, and most of the time they seemed to enjoy themselves. The final trip was to the farmhouse of a semi-famous banjo player and master craftsman, Paul Hopkins. He builds banjos one at a time with his son, and has over 30 years of experience in the business.

Like many independent banjo builders, he owns a couple of pre-WWII Gibson banjos, which are considered by most banjoists to be the Holy Grail of banjos. Paul, in fact, has inherited the actual 1934 Gibson that Earl Scruggs plays in the opening track (“Ground Speed”) of the uber-famous Foggy Mountain Banjo album. And of course, he even played that tune for me on said banjo. :-)

So, as you might expect, Paul and others have spent years trying to build new banjos that imitate that magic pre-war banjo sound. They model the neck and resonator, and then pour in their own tricks. Folks like Tony Pass, out in Arknasas, have figured out super-secret ways of squeezing together a 3-ply block-rims out of submerged mega-dense wood. Each banjo takes days to hand-carve and assemble in these shops, and let me tell you, you get what you pay for! Here you can see Paul, Tony, and former collaborator Mike (R.I.P) sitting in Paul’s sound studio, the very place where I got try out the completed banjos.

And so I finally found The One, made of glistening walnut and chrome. There’s really no way to describe the sound of this thing. It makes my $300 banjo sound like a toy. It has a ring that is smooth and beautiful when played softly, yet knocks down walls when I start picking harder. I need to actually be careful when I play this thing, I’m not used to the giant bolts of electricity shooting out of it. I fear its power, and expect it will take me years to learn to control it. I suppose the only thing to do is lay down a track or two and post a recording for all to hear!

Sure, I could have driven to central Michigan and bought the same banjo from a store, but it’s just incredible to see the exact tools, benches, and pieces of hardware whence your instrument was born. It’s even better to know the craftsman personally. If something goes amiss with the banjo, I can phone Paul and ask for advice, or just ship it out to him for servicing. He wants to take care of his “babies”, you could say. That’s the sort of attention you just can’t find at a retail store!

This is the banjo for the Rest of My Life, well worth the two years of research and savings. It’s the banjo to pass down to my heirs. And holy moly, does it inspire me to practice!

(P.S. If you haven’t clicked the links above, do so. There are some nice photos.)

6 Comments to This one goes to 11.

  1. Tina says:

    March 14th, 2006 at 12:27 am

    That’s funny. Matt was comparing your relationship with your banjo maker with my relationship with my frame builder. And as I was reading your piece, I just realized that they are also both named Paul.

    Congratulations on your new baby!

  2. iBanjo » Blog Archive » What I Did on my Winter Vacation says:

    January 2nd, 2007 at 10:37 am

    [...] I supercharged my banjo during the break too. After nine months of playing the one, I finally put new strings on the beast. And while on vacation in North Carolina, I discovered brass fingerpicks in a store (instead of the usual nickel ones)… as well as metal thumbpick, instead of the usual plastic ones. Finally, as a holiday gift I got a torque wrench that allows me to evenly tighten all the screws on my drum head to a precise tension. So between the tightened head, the brass picks, and the new strings, the banjo sounds even better than when I first got it. At last Friday’s jam, someone said it sounded “like a laser beam” from across the room. Woo! [...]

  3. iBanjo » Blog Archive » My Folding Banjo says:

    February 16th, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    [...] I fly around so much now (5 or 6 times a year, at least), that’s it’s become an annoyance to leave my banjo behind. I hate spending a week in North Carolina or California with no opportunity to practice. I did manage to carry my mega-banjo into the cabin of an airplane once; the very nice attendants let me stow it in the coat closet. But the thing is crazy heavy to lug around an airport, and you can’t always depend on kind attendants. There’s always that looming risk of some jerk forcing you to check the instrument, and no hard-shell case can withstand the abuse of a baggage guy throwing your instrument 20 feet into a hold. [...]

  4. iBanjo » Blog Archive » says:

    May 2nd, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    [...] Every one of these pieces is malleable. You can buy replacement parts, swap them around, adjust them, and then spend weeks tinkering to make your banjo sound just the way you want. These folks fill their discussion boards with advice about how one component sounds compared to another, the best way to tweak parts, and putting up recordings for each other to evaluate. The banjo you buy is just a starting mold; it may be something else a few years and many fiddlings later. When I shopped for the one, I was explicitly looking for a banjo known to use the Tony Pass rim, due to the partially-petrified (extrodinarily dense) wood used. Since then, I’ve changed my bridge, armrest, strings, drum head… and even my fingerpicks. (Double-cobalt plated picks!) [...]

  5. iBanjo » Blog Archive » Winesburg, OH in Kansas City, MO says:

    May 27th, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    [...] won a Barrymore Award. (The Philly show actually produced box-office royalities, which paid for my banjo!) While I’m skeptical the show will ever go to Broadway, I do hope it gets refined and [...]

  6. Matt says:

    March 1st, 2010 at 7:42 am

    why not just make 10 louder? ( I can not believe after all this time…. this has not been suggested yet )