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Getting to Know Bob Smakula

Smakula Fretted Instruments has one of those websites that makes a vintage banjo enthusiast drool from both corners of his mouth. Proprietor Bob Smakula buys, sells and repairs instruments, with a focus on banjos, fiddles, guitars and mandolins. He started his business in 1989, when he moved to Elkins, W.Va., from Cleveland, where he worked with his father, the late Peter Smakula, at Goose Acres. It was his father who introduced him to the banjo and helped spawn his interest in old-time music.

“My father was a respectable banjo player and played both old-time styles and bluegrass,” he says. “After a long day of work for a major corporation, he would come home and play banjo for at least an hour before dinner. Always hearing banjo music while growing up kept my interest. When I was about 10, I had my dad show me basic clawhammer rhythm on the banjo.”

However, a lack of attention span caused a bit of a delay in applying those banjo lessons until the age of 15. That summer, in 1974, Smakula and his family went to the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville, W.Va., where “there was an amazing amount of old-timers,” such as Melvin Wine, Ira Mullins and Glen Smith, as well as younger revivalist musicians, including Peter Hoover, Dave Milefsky and the Red Clay Ramblers, who attended the festival.

“The town was packed with great old-time musicians,” he says. “When we came home, I started serious banjo playing.”

The Kent State Folk Festival was also a major influence in Smakula’s interest in traditional music styles. He went every year starting in the early 1970s for close to 20 years.

“I think in the 1990s the festival changed enough that I stopped going,” he says. “The student organizers would bring in many great musicians and dig up local folks that were especially interesting. I remember seeing great Cajun musicians there, John Jackson, Tommy Jarrell, Red Clay Ramblers [and] Melvin Wine.”

Although Smakula flirted with bluegrass music in the early 1980s, he never had a strong desire to play bluegrass banjo. Most of his friends were old-time musicians, so that was his primary interest. However, another reason he didn’t play bluegrass banjo was the result of an injury.

“About a year after really getting into banjo playing I cut off part of my right thumb in a high school shop accident,” he remembers. “There is no problem playing clawhammer, but I cannot put a thumbpick on my right thumb.”

Since 1999, Smakula has placed in the top five of the Appalachian String Band Festival (Clifftop) banjo contest seven times, so obviously clawhammer has worked out fine for him. Here he is playing at the 2008 Clifftop banjo contest, when he placed second:

Banjo Collection
Smakula has several banjos that he plays on a regular basis. His first banjo was a Buckbee clone circa 1890, with a spun-over rim and a solid Brazilian rosewood neck. Next came his father’s Fairbanks Regent from 1903, also with a spun-over rim but with a maple neck.

“The first great banjo I bought for myself was a 1924 Vega Whyte Laydie No. 7,” he recalls. “This instrument was perfect for the melodic clawhammer I was doing at the time. A bright and quick initial note with a fast decay. Though I had to cross the Cuyahoga River to purchase the banjo, it was the most memorable Tradin’ Times classified ad I ever followed up.”

Smakula had been an east-sider since his family moved to the eastern suburbs of Cleveland in 1966, when he was 8. As anyone who grew up on the East Side will tell you, it’s rare to cross over to the West Side for any reason, and the reverse is true for west-siders. That must have been one heck of a banjo to warrant going to the other side of town.

“I always had an interest in fretless banjo and made a few for myself. Somehow it never took,” he continues. “Just before I left Cleveland I went to a pawnshop in Painesville, Ohio, following up on a tip about an electric guitar I could make some money on. In between the crappy low-end Korean guitars and cheap ‘bottlecap’ imported banjos, there was an interesting fretless that I was able to buy at a reasonable price. It took me a few years to get around to making it playable. When I first set it up with nylon strings, I liked it, and when one of my customers suggested I use gut strings, it became my main banjo for a long time. It still is my main fretless banjo.”

His other frequently used banjos are a Goose Acres with a 12-inch rim and 26-inch scale (cataloged as a Tradition 12 after he left), a Goose Acres patterned after a Fairbanks Electric, a short-scale Buckbee fretless with an 11 ½-inch rim (with which he recorded Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” for the Rounder release, “Old Time Banjo Festival”) and the 1903 Fairbanks Regent he inherited from his dad.

In addition to banjo, Smakula also plays old-time and Cajun fiddle, mandolin and rhythm guitar.

Setting Up Shop
Smakula has been in the music instrument business since high school, when he and his brother “Speedy Pete” Smakula founded Goose Acres Thumb Piano Factory and Dulcimer Works, making thumb pianos and dulcimers that they sold to family friends and at small craft shows.

“My father was teaching fiddle, banjo and guitar and doing instrument repairs at the same time,” he says. “After a while we kind of merged his and my businesses. After working out of our house for a few years, we opened the first Goose Acres store during the fall of 1978, near the intersection of Cornell Road and Euclid Avenue in University Circle. We soon outgrew that space and in 1983 my father bought the building at 2175 Cornell Rd. in Little Italy.”

In 1989, Smakula moved to Elkins to start Smakula Fretted Instruments, which he runs from the shop next to his house “with no indication of what I do on the outside.”

“I buy and sell a lot of instruments, but they all need some level of restoration before I can resell them,” he says. “The main floor of my shop is filled with instrument projects waiting my attention. I have very little walk-in traffic. After 12 years of ‘tourists’ coming to Goose Acres, playing every instrument, then buying a few picks, I decided I did not want a walk-in store.”

All the work at the shop is done by Smakula and his assistant, Andy Fitzgibbon, who is Smakula’s only full-time employee, though he has had a few short-term apprentices who have come in to learn instrument repair.

“Most of the instruments I offer are vintage instruments that we have restored,” Smakula says. “I focus on acoustic instruments that are appropriate for old-time music.”

Smakula sells only a few new instruments, such as Gold Tone CC-OT banjos, which are sold for a price that is hard for him to restore an instrument and resell it for a profit.

“Enoch Tradesman and Dobson banjos are the best new banjos I can buy for resale,” Smakula says of his former Goose Acres colleague Kevin Enoch’s craftsmanship. “Every Enoch I pick up, I’ll say ‘Nice’ while examining it. Banjos made by other modern makers usually get at least one, ‘I wouldn’t have done that detail that way.’ I am very critical of instruments. Having studied many of the best vintage instruments, I have a strong opinion of what I like.”

Smakula also sells hard-to-find accessories, such as odd size Remo banjo heads, small shaft planet banjo tuners for vintage banjos, Gotoh banjo tuners and a wide assortment of vintage banjo parts. “I am also the importer of the vintage style adjustable wire armrest offered by myself and various retailers around the country,” he adds.

While he built many banjos while at Goose Acres, Smakula now focuses on repair work.

“I have built four banjo necks since I moved to West Virginia,” he says. “When I get inspired to do it, I enjoy the work, but when you are known for repair, there is an endless queue coming through the shop. Repair is harder work. In my shop, we always strive to be invisible. We try to do our work on a particular instrument the exact way the original maker did. It means being able to mimic the little signatures of the famous and obscure makers.”

Advice for Beginners
Since Smakula has been involved with building, repairing and selling musical instruments since he was a teenager, GBB asked his advice for novice old-time enthusiasts interested in taking up an instrument.

“Get the best instrument you can afford from a reputable dealer,” Smakula says. “A better, well-adjusted instrument will be more fun to play and your musicianship will progress faster than with an instrument that is sold by someone that just doesn’t understand. Though new inexpensive instruments are better than ever, they still require some work to make them play their best. This is especially true with the lowest price point instruments. A knowledgeable and caring dealer will make sure nothing leaves the shop that is flaky and will take care of you if an adjustment is needed.”

Smakula also suggests taking lessons.

“If you are lucky enough to have a teacher in your area, sign up,” he says. “You will progress faster than just learning from audio and video recordings. There are a number of old-time music camps where musicians can immerse themselves in a week’s worth of old-time music. It is a great way to learn a certain person’s style. I have been involved in the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops since I moved to Elkins and highly recommend their program. In the 20-plus years of my time in Elkins I have taught fiddle and banjo classes at Augusta and a long running instrument repair class.”

More Videos
A slideshow and interview of Smakula produced by the West Virginia University School of Journalism:

A short tutorial on removing adhesive from banjo brackets:

[Editor’s note: Bob Smakula will be included in a forthcoming post about the Cleveland old-time music scene in the 1970s and ‘80s.]


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