Monday, September 28, 2015

Master and Apprentice: Banjo Builder Workshop in Historic Peninsula, Ohio

The 191-year-old Peninsula, Ohio, provided the backdrop to a parade of pedestrians making their way from station to station across the bucolic village for Music on the Porches on Saturday.

Doug Unger (left) and Mark Ward playing tunes.
Inside the close confines of Bronson Church, founded in 1835, a master and apprentice presented a free workshop on the art of instrument building. That master being the renowned banjo builder and artist Doug Unger and his former apprentice Mark Ward.

Unger and Ward began the workshop by playing several old-time tunes, discussing their work and the music, and taking questions from the audience. Unger then invited the spectators to step up to the front to see the instruments.

On display were samples of his dazzling inlay engraving and carving craftsmanship. Unger explained his process to onlookers, detailing the time and focus necessary to complete instruments of such a rarefied caliber.

Ward, an accomplished builder in his own right, showed off a pair of handsome fiddles he built, one a two-point Stradivarius style that really caught my eye. Ward apprenticed with Unger in the 1990s through a grant from the Ohio Arts Council and now lives in the Cincinnati area, where he builds banjos and fiddles and performs repair work.

Unger explains his process.
Including his own player, Unger showed off three complete banjos, a neck that was basically finished and another neck still in the rough, with a chubby dragon inlay in progress. He also showed off a full size mandolin and a handful of "pocket" mandolins, along with his various tools.

Unger said he got his start building banjos because he couldn't afford to purchase one. A friend told him to build his own. There weren't resources available at the time on how to go about building a banjo, but Unger said that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"Any artist worth his salt doesn't want to be told how to do something," he said. "He wants to figure it out himself."

Unger spent a lot of time researching the old masters. He would take measurements and make drawings of inlay patterns. He said it took him a couple years to build one he could compare to the old Fairbanks he coveted. Now, his mastery belongs on the level of the great Consalvi.

It can take up to three hours of work to complete the inlay of a peg head, and up to two months to finish a banjo. Unger uses a variety of materials for inlay, including mother of pearl, black pearl, snail shell and abalone. He also repurposes antique celluloid and tortoise shell for binding and other decoration.

Unger displays his instruments.
Near the end of the workshop, Unger took me on a personal tour of his workshop and painting studio, a small building that he built behind his house. His banjo workshop feels warm and inviting, despite the dim lighting. Instruments in various stages of completion hung from the ceiling. When he's working, Unger said he doesn't let anyone else in the room except for the cats, as he has to talk to himself and psyche himself up for the intense focus it takes to work on the inlay.

Unger's banjos can be found for sale at various vendors, including Elderly Instruments, Bernunzio and Smakula Fretted Instruments. He said Smakula will be carrying more of his banjos in the future.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Returning for a Farewell Reunion

Mining the depths of experience for a solution to my lack of banjo-related posts, I remembered my last hair cut. As it is nigh time for another, this was a couple months ago.

My barber, a short walk from my house, had closed his shop for his lunch break. Not wanting to give up and go home, I killed time at my local record store. I only had a $20, and my hair cut would take up most of that, so I wasn't expecting to purchase anything. Flipping through the "Folk/Misc." section, though, something changed my mind.

It is pointless to resist.
The cover was a wreck, held together with yellowed tape. But the sleeve had done its job, keeping the vinyl clean. For $2, I couldn't resist the lure of Mike Seeger, leaning against an old GMC truck parked inside the pitch black confines of a red barn, wearing jeans and a blue work shirt, above the words "The Second Annual Farewell Reunion" and featuring such old-time luminaries as the Highwoods, Roscoe Holcomb, Kilby Snow and of course the New Lost City Ramblers, among many others. It was a steal. My barber would have to deal with a smaller tip for coiffing my hair.

Just like my long pauses between posts here, actually listening to the album would take another couple weeks, as my record player is set up in the attic, and it's too hot to spend much time up there in the summer. At the end of August, while my son napped, I went up to bag and board some comic books and finally decided to put the needle to the Seeger album. I was not disappointed. I don't buy as much music as I used to, but it's still hard to beat the thrill of a good find.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Leftwich Lessons: The Fun's All Over

If you've been holding your breath since my last post, my apologies to your family. It's hard to believe it's been more than three months. My only excuse is that I haven't had much banjo-related news to report, as the fiddle has been my main instrument as I continue to tackle the fickle beast.

Bertie the Bus on Banjo Road.
The few times I do drag out the banjo, it becomes part of  my son's playground. It most recently served as a road for his toy bus to drive along. His muting of the strings has actually led me toward a new staccato way of playing when I do manage to be left alone. The fiddle, though, reigns supreme.

This month marked a year and a half of working through Brad Leftwich's Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle videos. Last week I started the final tune of the two DVD set, "Old-Time Blackberry Blossom" (aka "Garfield's Blackberry Blossom"). It's a real finger workout, but it's a fun tune.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Field Recorders' Collective: An Ohio Old-Time Connection

Don't you just love tax return season? While the bulk of this year's IRS and state tax refunds went to pay for grownup stuff, I squirreled a little bit away to use on new music. I got my own copy of the new Dan Gellert CD/DVD set from Old-Time Tiki Parlour, and then kept the Ohio old-time connection going with four albums from the Field Recorders' Collective, referred henceforth as the FRC.

Great Ohio old-time.
Those four albums were:
Hicks was recorded by Kerry Blech and Joe LaRose. The Goehring disk includes members of the legendary Red Mule String Band, as well as other notable musicians. The Seymour and Plum recordings come from Goehring's field recording collection.

As an Ohio boy, born and raised, these four albums have been on my wishlist for a long time.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Banjoversary: Seven-Year Itch

March 24 marks my seventh year playing the banjo. In the past, this date would be spent tallying my lifetime practice hours to see how close I've come to that magical 10,000-hour mark.

Ever since taking up the fiddle, however, those hours have become sparser and sparser. My banjo now spends most of its time hanging on the wall. I'll let my son strum the strings as we pass by its place. He's much gentler now. A year ago, I would hold my breath fearing that he'd snap off the strings.

The extent of my playing these days resides in noodling once or twice a week or the even rarer occasion of playing with friends at a party or festival. I'd much rather spend my free time tackling the beast that is the fiddle.

The fiddle should be on top now.