Each October, the plucking and twang of banjos is a familiar sound along the James River where thousands gather for the Richmond Folk Festival. On today’s Virginia Currents, WCVE’s Ian Stewart finds out how this old-time instrument is crafted from a master builder and his apprentice.
To find out more about the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship program visit:
Virginia Humanties Program
To learn more about Greg Gallbreath’s homemade banjos visit:
Master banjo builder Greg Galbreath is tuning his homemade open-back banjo. He is tightening the hooks that circle the head.
Greg Galbreath: So it’s got a 12-inch head. It has a goatskin head on the front of it.
Goatskin gives tone to his banjo. Other banjos can use artificial heads such as nylon. But problems can occur with natural skins.
Galbreath: The humidity being outside is um, moistened it, so it’s not sounding very good. So yesterday in my shop it sounded great. And then I got here and I was trying to play it and it’s dead sounding so I’m tightening it up to make it sound better.
Galbreath has been making banjos in his shop in Eggleston Virginia for 20 years. The style of the open back, says Galbreath, goes back to the 1800s. This is before they put on resonators, which are found in many bluegrass banjos and were put on in order to amplify the sound in larger arenas. To date he’s made more than 180.
Galbreath: I kind of went into my secret stash. And I got the fanciest piece of wood I could find. And it’s just got this incredible...it’s called flame maple or curly maple and so it’s got a light, kind of vintage, yellowish amber background but with these darker stripes going all up the neck. It’s a pretty dramatic piece of wood.
For the past year Galbreath has been teaching the craft of banjo making through the Virginia Humanities Folklife Apprentice program. Galbreath’s apprentice is Peter Keller, who’s own background includes wood working and building boats. At this moment, Galbreath and Keller are displaying their homemade banjos under a tent in the foothills of Charlottesville at the Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase.
Peter Keller: I’ve always loved the music and combining the two is just a great opportunity...and I couldn’t pass it up.
Due to their different schedules, it can take anywhere from a month to year for Galbreath and Keller to make their banjos. When they do get together, Galbreath and Keller can spend up to nine hours working on their instruments. They start with three strips of wood they steam-bend in a circle to make the rim.
Galbreath: And then those three strips are glued together to create the rim. Then it’s turned on a lathe to get it back true and perfectly circular.
After that, there’s a big giant chunk of wood, says Galbreath, sort of like a 4 x 4. Wood is a big part of the instrument. Different types of wood and different types of densities can affect the sound. Holding up their two instruments, Galbreath explains
Galbreath: Peter was going for a real kind of mellow sounding banjo, so we went walnut for his, which is a softer wood and has a softer, mellower sound. And I did a curly maple on this one. And you can kind of see the back of that one. And maple’s a harder wood so it’ll have a bit of a brighter sound to it.
Apprentice Keller then picks up his banjo and begins to play.
The difference between the two is confusing, as Galbreath admits.
Galbreath: The heads have a big part to do with it. This being a real skinhead and it being humid out it’s going to mellow it out a bit. And this artificial head is going to be a little brighter sounding. But then a lot of the other things about Peter’s banjo are mellower and a lot things about mine are brighter.
Power tools are used for some of the work, but the rest is done by hand, particularly the shaping of the necks. Keller’s banjo has some unique details.
Keller: Most of the banjo wood is walnut but the trim is all--the fretboard and the rim cap, the peg-end overlay and the tone ring are all purple heart, which is a tropical hardwood...that I had saved from a tall ship that I had been working on twenty years ago.
There is a term in banjo playing known as the Clawhammer. Players make a down-picking movement on the strings with their index or middle finger, then they “pop” the fifth string with their thumb. In this view, the hand represents a claw shape. It’s an old-time technique that produces a melodic sound. These are mostly played on open-back banjos. In the last ten years, Galbreath has seen a resurgence in the market for his style of banjo making.
Galbreath: Ya , there’s actually a ton of demand for open-back banjos right now. Which is nice, because there wasn’t. When I first started there wasn’t. Bluegrass banjos were definitely more popular.
Galbreath says that some of the banjos he’s working on now for special orders have taken up to four years to craft. He’s received orders for his homemade banjos from as far away as Sweden and Norway.
For Virginia Currents, I’m Ian Stewart