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Tuesday, 8. September 2009

New fretless Appalachian banjo...

I have made some slight changes and updates to my banjo page.

The newest thing in my banjo life is a new banjo! In July of 2009 I got a fretless Appalachian banjo, made completely by hand by Richard K. Smith of Comer, Georgia according to the design published in the Foxfire books. The front, back and neck are made of black walnut, the nut is maple. The head is calfskin. The tuning pegs are ebony fiddle-style friction pegs. He even hand-made the bridge, but I have put a slightly higher Grover bridge on it for now to get the strings higher for frailing. I might go back. As of now, I have nylgut strings on it, but I may try light gauge steel strings on it soon.

Mr. Smith has built lots of these banjos and he sells them regularly on e-bay. Watch for them. His perfect seller record is well deserved. He makes a fine product, ships promptly and answers questions thoroughly. He is a pleasure to deal with.

The whole purchase - which I got through e-bay from Mr. Smith - had the added bonus of not costing me any customs fees. I was worried as I approached customs that it would cost me another $100 or so just to get the instrument into Germany. Then I saw the sign that allows up to 400 Euros (or thereabouts) per passenger free of fees. So with that in mind I confidently approached the customs officer, showed him my receipt and it was no problem. These banjos typically go for $400-$600, but I got mine for a lot less. I don't know why others weren't bidding.

I have spent a lot of my recent practice time, such as it is, working on getting the fingerings and intonation right. The lack of frets takes some getting used to. Some YouTube videos on playing the fretless banjo have helped. It is a different hand position, more like that of a fiddle, designed to keep things stable so you know where the right fret positions are. I also bought Brad Leftwich's book on Round Peak banjo and have been trying out some of the tab. The alternate string pull-offs are a real hoot.



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by Mark R. Hatlie

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