Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Stelling banjo, Bellflower #191

So what is next on the workshop bench?  A banjo, not a bass.
Lonnie wants to get his first banjo back into good playing condition.  His 1976 Stelling Bellflower #191, his very first banjo.  A beautiful early example of Geoff Stelling's work made out of Japanese birch in a light blonde color.    I’ll go back in time to tell you how we arrived at where we are today.  Sort of a twilight zone with the “back story” to bluegrass and The Bass Monkey Workshop.

About 15 years ago I surprised Lonnie with a mystery bicycling weekend for his 40th birthday.  At that time we were heavily in to bicycling and traveling with our 1996 Santana Noventa tandem.  Between 1996 and 2001 we logged 12,000 miles on the tandem bicycle traveling and peddling all over the north and southeast.  It was great fun and we made many lifetime friends and memories.  Though we still have the tandem and ride it occasionally our vacation time for travel dried up when Lonnie’s job and six weeks of vacation evaporated in 2002 with no warning.  

For his 40th birthday we did a big ride and ended up in Gettysburg for a two night stay at a B&B with no other means of transportation then our feet or bicycle.  This forced us to walk the historic town of Gettysburg for the very first time even though we only live 25 miles away.  On our Friday evening walk uptown to dine at the historic Gettysburg hotel we stumbled upon a small music store called the Arrow Horse where Hank Janney the local bluegrass DJ hosted a bluegrass jam every Friday night.  We stepped into the store for a listen to kill time until our dinner reservation, we became completely smitten with the atmosphere and the music.  We were so enamored that we went back to the jam every Friday night for the next 15 years…this is where the bluegrass bug bit us hard…real hard!

In the first year of attending the jam we watch from the sidelines and enjoyed the camaraderie of the crowd.  Usually participating in the gospel sing-a-long at the end of the evening.  As the weeks and month progressed Lonnie decided he wanted to play banjo.  And true to his spirit he spent the next two years reading and researching banjos.  He was careful to understand how banjos can be made of parts and some vintage banjos are not really vintage at all.  He knew he did not want a brand new banjo but also was not willing to pay thousand of dollars for a pre-war Gibson banjo when he did not know how to play a single note.  Lonnie had no musical background and pretty much went at this blind not knowing anything about music, keys, chords, songs or singing.  This was a long tough road to learn how to play a banjo, his persistence has paid off.

One day we were in a local music store…right time, right place…a man walked in with two banjos asking for an appraisal or if he could trade the old banjos on a new guitar.  Well Lonnie’s ears perked up, he went over to the man to look at what he had in the old moldy cases.  Low and behold one of the banjos was a very early Stelling Bellflower.  By this point in his banjo research and knowledge he knew enough to know this was a good, well crafted banjo.  We asked the gentleman to step outside and proceeded with the inspection and negotiations.  One hour later we were heading to the bank for cash, two hours later Lonnie had acquired his first banjo…in total disbelief that he found a great banjo right in his own backyard.  He was so excited, when we got home he called the Stelling phone number inside the case. Again, much to his surprise someone actually answered the phone on a Saturday afternoon.  Lonnie began to ask the man on the other end of the phone all types of questions about his newly acquired banjo.  They talked for about 40 minutes.  Just as Lonnie was ready to hang up the phone, being satisfied that this banjo was all original and the real deal he said, “Who am I speaking with?”…the voice on the other end said, “Geoff Stelling”.  Lonnie said thank you, hung up the phone and proceed to fall off the chair laughing with joy!  He had found his first banjo in the most unlikely of places.  Spoke with the maker himself.  All that was left to do was what Lonnie does best, begin to clean and fix it up!  He worked the rest of that day cleaning the old dirt off the case, trying to polish the banjo and in general just studying all the parts…because he did not know how to play it.  Not one lick.

A much younger and less gray Lonnie in 2001 working on his newly purchased Stelling Bellflower on the kitchen counter top.  This is years before there was a workshop.

The internal paper tag from the is the real deal

We come to find out with a bit of research the banjo was originally bought from a string shop right here in Hanover, PA.  The banjo came from Chris Warner’s string shop.  Chris had a local music store but also went on to play banjo with some big bluegrass names like Jimmy Martin and Doyle Lawson.  He is a local banjo legend along with Tom Adams. Tom is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and the heir to Earl Scruggs…he was and still is that good on a banjo.  Take a listen to “Live at the Ragged Edge” if you want to hear Tom in his prime.  We were there that cold March night at the Ragged Edge coffee house in Gettysburg when that CD was recorded live…Tom and Michael were smoking hot!  Best night of live music we have ever witnessed.  I am the loud mouth lady hoop ‘in and a hollering from the audience…my first bluegrass recording...unbeknown to me.

So by now Lonnie had the history of the Stelling banjo, had talked with its maker, all that was left to do was learn how to play it!  It was a month to the day after we purchased the banjo that we headed to Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC.  Lonnie took the banjo along knowing Geoff Stelling would be at this festival.  Lonnie was hoping for Geoff to look over the banjo to see if it needed any adjustment after sitting silent for several years.  Geoff was a"no show" at Merlefest due to some health concerns (water on the knee if I remember correctly).  Lonnie decided to make good use of his time with his new banjo and take in a banjo workshop at “The Pit”…the workshop auditorium at Merlefest hosted by Happy Traum.  Upon introductions the instructors were Sammy Shelor, Bela Fleck and Tom Adams…from Gettysburg, PA.  Wow…who is Tom Adams (this is before we had met him) and how can I get in contact with him…banjo lessons immediately came in to Lonnie's head.  After the workshop we met Tom and lesson were a possibility around his heavy travel schedule.  Of all places, where do you think Tom gave lessons…the Arrow Horse store in downtown Gettysburg?  It all seems too good to be true and keeps coming back full circle between Hanover and Gettysburg.  It is a small world.

After Merlefest was over we decided to boldly drop in on Mr. Stelling’s workshop, unannounced and with hopes that he would be willing to meet with us.  Finding his workshop on Banjo Lane before GPS proved to be a challenge.  We ended up calling him by phone and said we are only a few miles away, can we please drop in.  He gave us directions and we began the drive from two lane highway, to a single lane blacktop road, to a smaller stone road that finished with a narrow dirt road, which flowed into Geoff’s driveway and the chick coop workshop out back.  Yep, it was that small and unassuming tucked in against the Virginia hills with nothing but trees and farm animals…goats and chickens.

We got out of the car and here came Mr. Stelling with a hearty welcome, a big hand shake and a red solo cup.  I think it was just after noon time, early enough for cold adult refreshment.  Yep he had a beer in hand on a mid Monday afternoon…never forget it.  It was his business and he did what he damn well pleased…cool!  As soon as we got in the workshop he eagerly took the banjo case from Lonnie’s hands and with excitement he threw open the case to see an old friend.  One of his very early banjos that was made in California, the low serial number places it as a second year of manufacture.  He was excited to see the banjo and even more impressed with the outstanding condition it was in.  Geoff beamed with pride.  We asked questions to which he answered every single one.  He suggested the neck needed a slight action adjustment and offered to take it a part and clean up the metal parts while we waited.  We agreed to his offer and took a few hours to venture into town.  Geoff recommended lunch at the Blue Ridge Pig for BBQ and a local craftsman for pottery and gifts.  We killed two hours and came back to the workshop to find the banjo completely polished with a new banjo head, glistening like a shiny new penny.  Lonnie and Geoff just grinned like two fools.  We bought some strings, a leather banjo strap and paid Geoff for his time.  It was a very good day and Lonnie was completely ready for the next step…playing the banjo. 

A moment captured in time.  Geoff presenting Lonnie with the original banjo head that was removed and replaced.  Geoff signed and dated it with a nice inscription. 

The banjo head stays in a glass cabinet as one of Lonnie's prized possessions.

Yeah, playing the banjo as if it was something you could read about, watch a video or just magically learn how to do it…by doing it.  It has taken years and I do mean years for the light bulb to begin to glow.  But it is happening.  As Lonnie was in the process of learning how to play banjo he also developed an ear for what type of sound he liked in a banjo.  While his Stelling was a great first purchase it did not produce the high treble ring that perked his ears.  As he got more deeply into bluegrass he heard a distinctive difference between Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley.  Though he loved both banjo styles, the Ralph Stanley mountain sound really was what he longed to hear.  Hence the experiments began on his Stelling banjo to try and bring out more “ring” in the tone.  Along the way he tried different strings, banjo heads and bridges which all made slight differences but not what he wanted to hear.  So after many years of playing his Stelling banjo, a brief stint with Tom Adams for lessons and in general trying all he could to produce “that sound” he concluded if you want a flattop banjo to sound like an archtop banjo…buy an archtop banjo!

And the next journey began; finding a Ralph Stanley archtop banjo called a Stanleytone.  That is another two years of chasing dreams and rainbows but finally he found THE banjo that met all his expectations.  Of course this would be his 1983 Stanleytone #9…which is a whole other story for a later time.  After he got the Stanleytone banjo the Stelling banjo remained in the case unplayed and in parts from all the experimenting.

Taking apart the banjo for a good cleaning (a second time), new head, new bridge and strings.

Bringing it up to tune the first time

Checking the tension on  the head.  Came right to a G# on  the first try.

Trying to find the right bridge for the correct tone

So I told you all that, to tell you this!  Though Lonnie LOVES and I do mean LOVES his Stanleytone banjo he wanted to get the Stelling into playable condition and show it some love and playing time.  His ear knows what sound it likes and he can accept that these are two totally different banjos that produce two totally different sounds.  And different can be good, even fun at times.  So Lonnie is currently working on the Stelling banjo installing a new Weather King Banjo head, new strings and finding the right bridge to bring back that bass plunk to the Stelling.  He is enjoying the adventure, I can hear him playing both banjos back to back in the workshop with very distinctive voices coming from each instrument.  The Stelling is a fine banjo in its own right but now having the Stanleytone he can have the fun and diversity to choose which one he wants to jam with…every Friday night, just like 15 years ago.  While much has changed in 15 years much has remained the same.  We are both still smitten with the bluegrass bug and continue to find new adventures at every turn.

Whew…that was a long story!   

After the Stelling banjo is in good playing condition Lonnie said he is ready to tackle “a real bass restoration project!’.  We have a 1941 Epiphone B2 bass that was dropped off over a year ago by a young man that basically said, if anyone can resurrect this Epiphone bass it will be Lonnie.  It is a rare B2 that had a fall and the sound post punch through the top making it unplayable.  Lonnie hopes to be able to repair the top.  If the top can not be salvaged we have a spare B2 that can become a donor bass with a good vintage top.  We would very much like BOTH basses to be restored; one playable B2 is better the two broken Epiphone B2 basses.

The next project a 1941 Epiphone B2 #708

Yep...this will be a challenge!

Stay tuned, this project will take many month to complete. 

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