A comedy of errors

I have a few banjos and not one of em is “just a banjo”. Each one sounds and plays differently than the others, and each has a story. For instance, there’s the Paramount Aristocrat model I got from a piano playing nun in Southern California. It had belonged to her grandfather. She told me that both her grandparents played banjo : ” ‘Roll Out The Barrel’  and all those old sh** kickers “.   I have a 1903 Windsor Grand Concert model that I got from an Irish ballad singer in Australia who got it from a young woman who had promised her grandfather, the original owner, that the banjo would, as he requested, be buried with him. After he died, that is. She found that she could not do it, and after some years she traded it for a guitar. It arrived at my door strung with 5 strings all of equal diameter (.014” if I remember right.).

The story of my Arthur E Smith banjo is a comedy of errors. In February of 2014 I got an email message from an inventor I know, who had designed everything from camper shells to capos. Would I be interested in buying his AE Smith banjo? I didn’t need another banjo, that was for sure, but I was very impressed with the few Smiths I had played. The first one was around 1990.

Kate Brislin and I were playing a house concert in Southern California, a foreign country with strange customs and inscrutable people. Our host offered to let us use his banjo, which he described as “the best banjo in the world”.  Right, more Hollywood hype. Sure, we’ll try out your ban….whoa! this is really good. I mean really really good. We were used to good playability, good craftsmanship, and good sound as being mutually exclusive qualities but this banjr had it all. Who did you say made this? Arthur Smith? The legendary Tennessee fiddle player? Or the tenor banjo picker from South Carolina who composed Feuding Banjos? He didn’t know. He just knew it was The Best Banjo In The World. We didn’t know if it was but it sure was a contender. About every 10 years after that I’d come upon another AES banjo and each was a bit different; all were excellent. Somewhere along the way I found out that Arthur Smith was a covered bridge in Massachusetts.

My friend was so sure I’d want to buy the banjo that he offered to make the three hour drive to San Francisco to show it to me.  Um, OK. And he did. The banjo was lovely and much used. The frets were worn and parts of the flame maple neck below the lower frets were discolored with the finish worn away, and there were some odd holes in the dowel. The peghead was beautifully shaped, uniquely inlayed on the front side, with a backstrap extending down the neck on the back.  All the metal was clean. It had a Baconesque internal resonator and a very large tone ring that brought Yosco banjos to mind. Ooh, and look: The heel carving matched the vine design that was inlayed into the entire fingerboard — or used to be. The last five frets were gone and so was the inlay and most of  fingerboard wood. It appeared as though the “frailing scoop” was done by inviting the Hound of The Baskervilles to take a bite. Unlike the rest of the banjo, this crater was not tidy or elegant. Why did he do this? “I got tired of injuring my hand every time I played”. Ah. He holds the banjo at a steep diagonal angle when he plays and he does pack a wallop. OK, time to stop looking and start listening. I gave her a play. Oh, my goodness. This banjo combined clarity with depth. The lows roared without being woofy. The mids were clear without being thin. The highs never thinned out at the higher frets, of which there were only 17 at this point. I compared the sound with my favorite old time banjo, a Clifford Essex XX Special. The AES was very different and maybe better.  I calculated likely repair costs and I agreed to buy it.

There were oddities and anachronisms in my friend’s account of how and when he acquired the banjo. Besides some small, slightly askew details he remembered buying it new in 1972 in a shop in Vermont, or maybe western New Hampshire, and that it was in a glass case behind the counter. Hmm. Didn’t Kate and Mark begin production at the end of 73 or start of 74? Whoa! Maybe there really was yet another Arthur Smith who built banjos (?). One by one I eliminated the possible shops that could have sold this banjo.  I contacted Kate Spencer via email. She didn’t remember the banjo! But she was visiting Montana right then and not in proximity to her written records about what got built 40 years ago.To complimacate the matter I went dyslexic on her and gave the serial number as 904 instead of 094. This caused her to speculate that my banjo was a very late Mark Surgies project, built after she left the partnership, meant to be 604 (she was aware of serial numbers into the 500s) but with the 6 stamped upside down. If it was really 904 that meant I had the only 900 series AES banjo in existence. I speculated that I had a perfectly wrought counterfeit AES, something that would really be an anomaly and which appealed to my sense of historical silliness.

When Kate got back to Massachusetts she was able to consult her records and she got in touch, telling me that 604 was the 14th AES banjo built, and was the only Colrain model in existence. I think that’s even better than the only fake AES in existence. The Colrain had more or less the features of the Shelburne Professional, which went into production soon after. Her records showed that the banjo was finished on April 27th, 1974 and was sold to Tony Creamer at Fretted Instrument Workshop in Amherst, Massachusetts. The glass case! Of course. Tony sold it, brand new, to my friend on February 6th 1976, which is 38 years and 9 days before I bought it. So how can #094 be the 14th banjo? AES numbering started with 081. I asked Kate why. She said “Who would buy #1”?

I put on new strings, a Will Fielding tailpiece, a new Elite head, and sent away for some nifty new tuner buttons. I gave the banjo to luthier Paul Hostetter for an overhaul, including refretting, filling the hole in the dowel where a clamp for a mic or pickup had been attached, and covering it with a lovely MOP dot, rebuilding the end of the fingerboard, replacing the neck binding, and, if he was game, to replace the missing inlay. But with what design? I wrote to Mark Surgies who Kate affirmed had done all the inlay. Did he have a photo or a “blueprint” of the complete vine? He wrote back promptly, saying that he had no record of what the bottom of the vine had looked like but that it was probably something like *this*. “This” was a drawing he had made of the complete vine, based on the extant part of the inlay and on his memory of what sort of inlay he would have done in 1974.  Paul said “I can inlay that” and he did. I sent photos of the restored banjo to both makers and they were very pleased with the results. You really can’t tell that the upper fingerboard ever resembled a bomb site.

One mystery remained. What about the filled holes at the upper end of the dowel right beside the neck bracket/brace. Why would anyone put extra holes there?  Kate wrote back saying essentially “we did that”.  “More holes than necessary because we drilled it wrong in the first place- keeping in mind that 094 is a very early banjo. “

The banjo has now been played at a number of gigs. No recordings yet.  Microphones like it, musicians and audiences like it. So do I, to say the least. I played this banjo at the Pacific Film Archive as the audience was filing in to view the preview of the new Yasha Aginsky/Mike Seeger film “Banjo Tales”.  I believe I spotted one AES banjo in the film, by the way. I played it at a wedding anniversary in Santa Cruz, and I played it at a “Very Jerry” Garcia tribute (we were in a band together in 1964). What do you suppose I sang and played first?  “Colrain and Snow,” of course.


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