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The Looks and Sounds of Deep Creek Strings Banjos

There are many great banjo builders today creating magnificent instruments, but some of the neatest innovations and most interesting wood choices come from Bryson City, N.C., where Jeff Delfield creates his Deep Creek Strings banjos.

Delfield is a local librarian in Bryson City by day, but he has been building banjos for the past few years. However, his interest in building folk instruments started with Cigar Box Guitars, or CBGs, as he refers to them.

“I was always a fan of the banjo and banjo playing,” he says. “But, honestly, six years ago, when I moved to Bryson City, I didn't know the difference between clawhammer and three-finger, bluegrass banjo. I was much more interested in the blues — especially country blues.”

The music of Skip James, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, and others led Delfield to wanting a CBG, which in turn led him to wanting to build the instrument himself, he says, “Because I’m cheap.” One CBG led to another. Within a year, he had built more than a dozen instruments, after which he started selling them at the local music store.

“It was all about ‘home-made’ and being as creative as possible with the things that were already around the house or in a thrift store,” Delfield says. “This DIY mentality eventually led me to building my first five-string banjo using a hand drum. I was going to follow that up with a gourd banjo, but then I stumbled upon a big salad bowl at an antique mall and I thought, wow, that looks just about the right size for a gourd banjo. So I skipped the gourd all together.”

Delfield began building what he calls “gourdless” gourd banjos, and he has yet to build a genuine gourd banjo. When he finished the salad-bowl banjo, he did not yet know how to play the instrument and had someone else play it for the YouTube video he made to demonstrate the instrument on his website. After that build, Delfield started to teach himself clawhammer banjo.

“It is quite obvious that I was a beginner in those early banjo build videos,” he says.

Through each instrument he built, Delfield gained more and more experience in how to build the next one.

“I had absolutely no experience — not only with instrument making, but in basic woodworking — before I made my first CBG,” he says. “I did that one with a hand saw, a drill, an old rasp, some sand paper and the least expensive finish Ace Hardware sells. Though I didn’t have any formal instruction, I did have the Internet and I did have the public library to draw on.”

Delfield says he read a lot and learned a lot, and every instrument he built back then would turn out a little bit nicer that previous one, a trend he says is still true today.

“There were a few leaps in there,” he says, “but I still haven't hit a plateau.”

For Delfield, building banjos is strictly recreational. Although he sells his banjos, the money he makes can go back into the hobby, whereas his librarian job is what puts food on the table. However, Delfield plans to eventually make banjos as his “retirement job.”

Although Delfield still makes salad-bowl banjos, his designs have become ever more complex, progressing from fretless to fretted, tackhead rims to brass hardware, and from no tone rings to his latest internal resonator banjos. His building influences ranged from the collection of The Freight Hoppers banjo player Frank Lee, Noel Booth of Old Fiddle Road banjos, Brooks Masten, Colin Vance, and his wife, Elise, who is a successful potter.

“She has a great eye for what ‘works’ aesthetically,” Delfield says of his wife. “If I show her a new peghead shape and she doesn't like it, she'll usually not just let me know, but add her two cents, which usually end up being just the thing that pulls the whole thing together. She has encouraged me to make each instrument as unique as possible, within the realms of functionality, of course.”

Delfield uses a wide variety of exotic woods in his banjos, including bloodwood, purple heart, zebra wood, and ambrosia maple. Initially, he chose those woods because, as he says, “I'm lucky enough to have a great wood source near by and they offer these woods affordably.” He put a bloodwood fingerboard on a banjo for himself, because it was much less expensive and nearly as durable as using ebony. The look caught on with his customers, who started ordering bloodwood fingerboards on their banjos.

Picking a favorite banjo for Delfield is as difficult as it would be for the librarian to pick his favorite book.

“Honestly, it's always the one I'm working on right now,” he says. “I just finished working on a fretless banjo with an internal resonator, and it truly is my favorite build to date. I love the way it turned out — the way it looks and sounds — but I'm particularly proud of the internal resonator and that it's removable.”

Delfield says the removable aspect of the internal resonator is an innovation of his. “If it's been done before, I haven't seen it,” he adds, “but I'd love to.”

Next on Delfield’s build list is a new salad-bowl banjo that will have an integral tone ring, which he had custom ordered from a local wood turner, Ron Thompson, who has provided all but the first bowl Delfield found at an antique shop.

Ordering a Deep Creek Strings is fairly easy. Simply e-mail Delfield and tell him what has struck your fancy. Banjos range from $475 for a basic, bare-bones banjo with friction fiddle pegs to over $1,200 for a more modern banjo with a fancy tone ring and beautiful hardware from Bill Rickard.

Comments

  1. Nice! It's amazing what we can do when we set our mind to it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for writing a great article about Jeff and his Deep Creek Strings banjos! He is certainly a great craftsman and getting better every day!

    Thanks, also, for posting a link to my pottery page.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Jeff's banjos are good looking and sound great. He's a real craftsman.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It's amazing what you have accomplished in a few years. Your banjos are lovely to hear and look at.

    Gloria

    ReplyDelete

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