Monday, October 29, 2012

Banjo Trends: Dobson Revival

Just like anything else, the craftsmanship of building a banjo goes through trends. The one that my banjo represents is what we'll call the Dobson Revival.

It would be difficult for me to pinpoint when this trend began because it predates my introduction to playing the instrument, but there are certain characteristics that seem to have become ubiquitous among today's banjo builders.

The Dobson family were major innovators in banjo construction during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the mid-2000s, a renaissance emerged showcasing certain Dobson design hallmarks — some of which may actually have been those of the J.H. Buckbee Co., which manufactured most of the Dobson instruments, as well as other brands.

Dobson Tone Ring
Henry C. Dobson's 1881 "Silver Bell Patent" marked one of the first successful uses of a tone ring. In the mid-2000s, probably with the help of Adam Hurt, a few banjo builders reintroduced Dobson's tone system to modern players. Engineering whiz Bill Rickard now mass produces the simple "doughnut" style tone ring, which can be found in a number of modern builders' instruments.

Heavy Heel
The club-shaped heel, where the neck meets the banjo rim, is another common trope among the Dobson Revival banjos. It's an interesting phenomenon because you can find just as many examples of the fat heel as you can of other styles on Dobsons. The trend may have more to do with Kevin Enoch, who was an early trendsetter with his Tradesman and Dobson models.

Thin Rim
While the majority of Dobson banjos seem to feature silver-spun rims, many modern incarnations feature thin wood rims. More than anything this trend may be due to the cheap availability of Keller drum shells that banjo builders then cut down for their rims.

Paddle Peg Head
The square-shaped peg head may be the most noticeable characteristic of the Dobson Revival. This shape was common in many banjos of the mid-19th century. As with the heel shape, Dobson banjos featured many other peg head shapes as well. One innovation that may come from the Dobsons, however, is the slotted paddle peg head. While the plainness of the paddle shape has its own charm, this is one trend that has run its course. What once symbolized the traditional look of early banjos has become overused. Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes. Enough paddles, already!

Now that we've classified the Dobson Revival, what trends can we see emerging? One aesthetic that seems to be coming back into style are engraved inlays. It's exciting to see the work of younger banjo builders like Greg Galbreath, Jason Romero, and Jason Burns, who exhibit a heightened appreciation for banjos with elegant decoration. What's more, I'm even more excited to see some variation in peg head shapes.

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