As a teacher and performer, I am often asked about the kind of banjo I play, and what I would recommend to other people. I play Bart Reiter banjos.
One banjo player wrote to me recently:
I recently heard your track “Dark Holler Blues” on the program, This Front Porch on WNCW. In my eternal quest for tone, the timbre and sound of your instrument on that song is exactly what I’m searching for. What is your banjo setup for that song? I’m currently playing a… (name omitted)… Your playing is beautiful; your efforts in continuing the old time tradition are much appreciated. I’m trying to do the same myself. -Blake Lawson”
I was very moved by this letter, as I am anytime someone mentions that this music has touched them. I wanted to share this on my website because there is one kind of banjo I always recommend: Bart Reiter Banjos.
The Bart Reiters have a clarity, warmth, and versatility I have not experienced with any of the hundreds of other types of banjo I have played. In my career of over 20 years as a performing musician, reliability is something I have learned to appreciate. I used to play vintage banjos that sound lovely or quaint in some environments, but would suddenly leave me at half-volume, or out of tune at the most crucial moments. Musicians know that their instrument is like an extension of themselves, and need to be able to trust it. Working musicians also know that having the right sound at a critical moment (such as a big showcase, your solo in the concert, or a jam with one of your heroes) is invaluable. You never know what can happen in a moment, or where it could lead.
That is why I play and recommend Bart Reiter banjos. My dad found one on eBay back when I was a teenager heading to college. I swiped it and started playing it regularly. It is maple wood with a rolled brass tone ring. Recently, I was thrilled to add another Bart Reiter to my stable. She is made of a darker wood and has a Whyte Laydie tone ring. The feeling is different but complementary, with a really luscious range of volume and expression. Both banjos are superb. www.reiterbanjos.com
Of course, I understand and support vintage banjos too. I just don’t tour with them, preferring to leave them at home. In my opinion a hundred year old banjo has earned its place beneath a grassy tree by a cool stream, so to speak, and should be cherished. I learned on an 1890s Luscomb with a rosewood tone ring set on a metal pot just shy of 12 inches. She was really a beauty. Her extremely low action even shaped my style and preferences a bit. I also enjoy the little Kay banjos (and guitars) I see at places like the Jalopy Theater. In Kentucky, the Bacon banjos are favored and their mellow growl and soft, high humming tones are wonderful to hear. If you are in the market for a banjo and you cannot afford a new one, a vintage banjo can be a great choice. Some of the vintage banjos are quite pricey, especially if they are ornate, but the decorations have nothing to do with the sound. This would be like buying a horse based on its color, which is a bad idea. Find a plain one, with a nice sound that feels right in your hands. You can usually do this for a few hundred dollars. You can also buy a banjo imported from China for about $100 and it will serve any beginner just fine as long as you take the time to let an instrument repair person check the setup and make sure the action is comfortable for you. If you want to look at beautiful vintage and historic banjos and guitars, check out www.banjohistory.com George Gibson has some of the best and coolest old instruments you can find.
Other Modern Banjos
Jeff Kramer of Cloverlick Banjos builds the banjos that Dwight Diller plays. My uncle has one of these and it’s really lovely. I don’t have one, but I know that one of the nice things about them is that they respond to a soft touch and need little effort to play. They also have a full bodied sound and create a good atmosphere when you play them. Without seeming too loud, the music fills the space. www.cloverlickbanjoshop.com