Banjo Newsletter

June 2005: My Ten Pound Banjo
By Murphy Henry

Oh my 12 pound Stelling
Is a little too heavy,
Honey for my size,
Honey for my size.

I'm going on the mountain,
Gonna see Geoff Stelling,
And I ain't coming back
With the same banjo.

Roll on buddy,,
Pull a load of tone;
How can I pull
When I'm tired to the bone.

It's a long way to Staunton,
It's a long way to Afton,
Just to get a lighter pot,
Just to get a lighter pot.

When I left Geoff Stelling
I had a 10 pound banjo;
It was just my size,
It was just my size.

Roll on buddy,
I'm a-heading home;
I've got a brand new pot,
And ten pounds of tone.

As you may have gathered from my little rip-off of Nine Pound Hammer, I am now the proud owner of a lighter banjo! I'm not sure when I finally decided my Stelling Murphyflower was a little too heavy, but it was somewhere around the time I crossed what I hope will be my mid-life mark. Perhaps it was as I was climbing those "green rolling hills of West Virginia" with a banjo on my back at Augusta Heritage. (That was nothing compared to Missy Raines who was backpacking her bass!) And there were those unbelievably steep stairs to the top floor of the banjo-teaching building at Kaufman Kamp! ARRRGGGH! I usually made that trek carrying my guitar as well. Sometimes I even had to ask for help, thereby breaking the rule I pontificated to women in my second BNL column: carry your own banjo. At the then-sprightly age of thirty-one, it was inconceivable to me that one day I might actually find my banjo uncomfortably heavy!

I had read somewhere about a Stelling archtop being lighter, so I emailed Geoff asking about ways to pare down the weight of my banjo. I didn't want a new banjo-I love my smaller custom-made neck with its arched fingerboard. (Will someone please tell me why we are now calling those "radiused" fingerboards?) What I wanted was that same neck and resonator on a lighter pot.

Geoff offered several options: change my Old Wood rim to one of the new thin-skirt models; change the rim to fit a lighter tone ring, his Foggy Mountain model; use an aluminum ring; or go to a thin rim with the new archtop tone ring which is a bit lighter than the flathead. Those changes could lighten the banjo anywhere from half a pound to two pounds. I wanted to go for the Fully Monty-two pounds. "Send me your banjo," he said. "Not hardly," I replied, using bluegrass grammar. "I'll drive it down there." I wanted to hear what the various options sounded like.

When I arrived at Geoff's shop around 3 o'clock, the banjomeister was ready to go to work. He whipped my banjo out of the case and laid it on some scales. It weighed in at a whopping 12.1 pounds! For comparison, in Bluegrass Unlimited (April 2003), Walt Saunders notes that a Huber Lexington weighs 9 ½ pounds, and a 1988 Gibson Granada weighs 11 pounds, 5/8 ounces. Ah ha! I knew it wasn't merely the breakdown of muscle tissue and the loss of bone mass in my aging body! My banjo was heavy!

Geoff had stained several rims to match my walnut finish and they were fitted with tone rings and ready to try. He took my banjo to his work bench and started letting down the strings. By the irritated, under-his-breath oath, I could tell he was NOT amused to find that I wind my third and fourth strings "backwards," that is, to the outside of the tuner shaft, not to the inside. Of course, that's not backwards to me, it's just common sense to wind all my strings to the left of the shaft. That way when I play Flint Hill Special both tuners turn the same way. Having to turn one tuner one way and one the other was way too confusing!

We tried the Old Wood Rim with the Foggy Mountain tone ring first, and though we would try the others, this would be the keeper. The rim was one of the earliest that Tony Pass had made, back when he was still calling them Old Forest Rims. Now a full two pounds lighter, the banjo still had a resonant bass, plenty of projection, and a warm rich tone. Geoff himself was impressed. He'd not tried the combination of Old Wood Rim and Foggy Mountain tone ring before. After I played a few tunes, I handed the banjo to its maker so I could hear what it sounded like from the front. Geoff growled about my light gauge strings, as I knew he would. I told him I had been doing everything I could to keep the weight of the banjo down.

As Geoff made the final tweakings to my "new" banjo, I prowled around the shop, looking at some of the Stellings that were almost ready to ship. I was completely bowled over by one made of curly maple stained a bright cobalt blue. It was gorgeous. Gibson had made some "blue" banjos, the RB- and TB-11's, but they were painted blue which covered up the grain of the wood. The blue stain on this Stelling highlighted the patterns in the maple, giving the resonator an uncanny depth. I decided right then and there that my next banjo is going to be blue!

Before I left, Geoff put my banjo back on the scales. He had pared it down to ten pounds exactly! I was a happy camper. My day wasn't done, however. I was heading to Roanoke, three hours down the road, to pick up a fiddle from Ron Stewart. That's another story. But I didn't want to write an article without mentioning the fiddle!

I'll be showing off my Stelling "lite" at various banjo camps this month from Michigan to California to Tennessee. And on Ross Nickerson's banjo cruise next February! You'll be welcome to pick it. I might even let you tote it! Roll on, buddy, no time to moan, I've got a ten pound ax, with a load of tone.