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The Biologist's Eye: A Look at the Artistry of Buckeye Banjos

Biology doesn’t sound like a standard resume item for a banjo builder, but don’t tell that to Greg Galbreath of Buckeye Banjos. Ever since starting his company in 2005, he has built a sturdy reputation and now boasts a waiting list of three and a half years for one of his custom-built banjos.

With a background in conservation biology, Galbreath holds a master’s degree in ecology from Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y. Buckeye Banjos is based in Eggleston, Va., at the base of the company’s namesake, Buckeye Mountain, about 16 miles outside of Blacksburg, where Galbreath studied biology at Virginia Tech.

Although Blacksburg lies an hour north of Galax, home of the famous fiddler’s convention, Galbreath got hooked on banjo and old-time music while living in Ithaca. After he finished his studies, he moved back to Southwest Virginia in 1996 to be closer to the source of the music. Upon returning to the region, he went searching for someone to teach him clawhammer banjo and found a new career in the process.

Galbreath learned the banjo trade from noted builder and musician Mac Traynham. After he built his first banjo, he honed his craft over the next decade, building banjos for friends, before making it a full-time gig. Later, he spent time learning to engrave inlay from Kevin Enoch, of Enoch Instruments, and Ohio master Doug Unger. When it comes to art and design, however, Galbreath is self-taught, though he’s quick to point out his mother is a water color painter. But he credits science with helping to develop his artistic eye.

Buckeye Banjo #100
“Aesthetically, with design, a lot of banjo ornament comes from natural shapes and forms,” he said. “Having an eye for that has translated into my engraving, with that attention to detail.”

In his former life, Galbreath spent many hours surveying and collecting hundreds of fish species, all of which he then had to identify.

“You get this eye for small details,” he said. “With identifying any part of nature, you learn to see the details. That eye helps me with the artistic side of things.”

It’s no surprise that he most enjoys engraving that involves natural forms, such as flowers. But as a custom banjo builder, Galbreath has had to adapt to a variety of different styles to suit his customers’ desires. His inlay and engraving span the vast range of traditional designs from the classic Boston builders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to one-of-a-kind contemporary patterns. Defining a personal style becomes a nebulous endeavor.

“People say they can tell when they see one of my banjos. I have trouble seeing it, but maybe that’s because I’m so close to it,” Galbreath said. “All the banjos I build are so different from each other. The overall aesthetic I’m going for is elegant and more of a simple design. But I don’t think I have a certain thing that sets me apart.”

Although it can be a challenge, Galbreath enjoys working in such disparate styles.

“People come up with stuff I’d never think of,” he said. “It’s good for me, creatively, because people can come up with some weird ideas. It pushes me to learn new things.”

For instance, one customer wants a seven-string banjo, with six long strings and a tunneled short string that stops at the 13th fret and the tuner attached to the dowel stick. (Buckeye Banjo #142)

The "Vanitas girl"
Another of Galbreath’s current challenges is an inlay design he calls “Vanitas girl,” which he describes as the hardest engraving he’s ever done. In fact, he’s been chronicling his practice sessions on the Buckeye Banjos Facebook page. Most designs don’t require the amount of preparation this banjo has involved. (Banjo #133 turned out to be for Scott Avett of the Avett Bros.)

“I’ve never done anything this hard before,” he said. “If I have one [inlay design] that’s a little weird or tricky, maybe I’ll do one for practice, but generally I don’t. This was so out of the ordinary. Usually, the challenge is more the coming up with the design.”

A lot of what Galbreath does is based on the person getting the banjo. He uses traditional inlay styles as a base and let’s his sensibilities take over, whether the customer wants something classic like an old Cole pattern or something more unique.

“I really love the old, classic Boston stuff,” he added. “I use that as a takeoff point for the other stuff I do. It’s nice to be rooted in the traditional style.”

A Custom Business
Banjo builders vary in whether they provide set models vs. custom orders. Galbreath’s business model evolved into building solely custom banjos.

“I don’t have any set models,” he said. “Banjos themselves are suited for being customized, from rim depth, scale length, inlay, they can all be really different. I’ve only made one or two that have been the same. It starts with the upfront back and forth with the client, figuring out what they want the banjo to sound like, then what they want it to look like. Everybody wants something different. That’s kind of what I like about it.” 

Buckeye Banjo #131
Galbreath thinks the banjos that have involved the most planning between him and the client have turned out the best. His most recent banjo, No. 131 on his website, features a bird and ribbon inlay design, which he says took about a year to come up with the final design, going back and forth with customer via computer and then involving a visit to his shop.

“You’re confined by the shape of banjo, and the shape of the peg head,” he said. “You’re also confined by tradition, but you can be creative within that.”

Galbreath would like to cut back on the number of custom orders he undertakes to work on some of his own designs.

“It gives me the opportunity to try something new,” he said. “The last one I built for myself, which was last year, had a thinner rim. Most of my banjos have a half-inch rim, so I wanted try out a thinner one. The customer who wanted the bird and ribbon inlay wanted a thin rim, and this let me test it out before doing it for someone else.”

That “experimental banjo,” Buckeye Banjo No. 120, also featured brass overlays and a carbon fiber reinforcement rod for the neck, as opposed to the usual steel bars. Galbreath has another experimental banjo he’s planning to build soon that will feature a clubby Dobson-style heel and checkering on the wood like you would see on a gun stock, an idea he’s wanted to try for the last 10 years.

“When I first started, I figured I would do set models,” Galbreath said. “It seemed like that’s what most builders do. I would spend hours and hours designing different models. I had the idea for a really basic model that I could make cheaper. I was trying to keep the banjo priced for people who can’t afford a really expensive instrument. Literally, the first person to place an order said, ‘Well, I want the basic model, but can you do this, this and this?’ It just took off from there. People wanted customized banjos. It would probably be more efficient from a business standpoint to offer set models, but I think I’d get bored. I like the custom work.”

It’s clear that his customers like his custom work as well. With about 50 orders in the queue, the biologist-turned-luthier has a steady stream of business to fuel his creativity. Whether a customer wants a classic Fairbanks-inspired banjo or some off-the-wall creation, Galbreath is ready.

Comments

  1. Awesome maker! Awesome banjos! Excellent article, Brad!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Craig. If it weren't for you suggesting I contact him regarding old-time communities, this may not have happened. Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  3. A banjo maker's spirit lives in his work. Greg and Cindy produce some of the most wonderful banjos ever. You can feel the love in them when you play them. Great article.

    ReplyDelete

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