Three Tennessee Luthiers Fine-Tune the Craft of Making Banjos
By all accounts, banjos are an instrument woven deep into the tapestry of Tennessee’s musical heritage, even as far back as the pre-Civil War era.
“The banjo originated from African Americans back in the days of slavery. They assembled the instruments from whatever materials they had available at the time,” says Chris Bozung, a banjo maker, luthier and owner of CB Guitars in Fairview. “It graduated from there to the mountains and rural areas of Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and so on. Instrument companies picked up on them and refined them into what we have today.”
The craft of banjo-making is still alive and well in Tennessee, with luthiers such as Bozung continuing to perfect it across the state. Though they’ve been the target of many jokes over the years, it’s the banjo that is getting the last laugh – today, a well-crafted banjo can fetch upwards of $1,800.
“Traditionally, banjos are made of maple, mahogany or walnut, and of course, a lot of metal parts,” says Bozung, who’s been making them since 1993. “I always start with the neck of the banjo – it requires the most intricate work with inlays made from abalone and/or mother-of-pearl, which I cut by hand, and shaping of the neck.”
Bozung custom-makes the instruments to order so his clients, whether professional musicians or back porch pickers, get a personal touch to their banjo.
“It’s so rewarding and such a blessing to build something of beauty, and to do it for yourself is icing on the cake,” he says. “As the old saying goes, if you love what you do for a living, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
George Banjos in Somerville, TN
In Somerville near Memphis, Tommy George and Christian Stanfield have more than 50 years of combined experience building banjos and banjo ukuleles under the brand George Banjos. Their instruments are played by musicians all across America as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and France.
Tommy George began repairing banjos in the late 1960s and built his first banjo in 1970. Stanfield began studying under George in 2007 and completed his first banjo in 2008. He became a partner at George Banjos in 2010.
“It’s a two-person shop – we both do a little bit of everything, but I focus more on the marketing, website and high-end builds, while Tommy does the main line of building and repairs,” Stanfield says. “Tommy is the most generous person I’ve ever met. I started out expecting to apprentice for him and sweep his floors, but he always encouraged me to make something for myself, or make an instrument for my wife.”
Stanfield and his wife, Vera, play their own handcrafted banjos and ukeleles in their band, Side Street Steppers, which is well known in the region for rare and popular music from the 1920s and ’30s. The Steppers have played more than 650 shows and released three full-length studio recordings.
“It feels amazing to be able to play our own instruments on stage,” Stanfield says. “My wife is a ukelele player, and in the fall of 2016, George Banjos began building pineapple ukeleles, which originated in Hawaii. Tommy has built 10 of them to date, with more in progress. The pineapple design is almost 100 years old.”
The company’s banjos incorporate both traditional and exotic hardwoods, and take anywhere from a couple of months up to a year to build, depending on the amount of inlay and carving. They range in price from $800 for a very basic banjo to more than $1,800. George Banjos specializes in building Golden Era five-string necks for tenor banjo conversions as well as small, 8-inch rim banjo ukuleles.
“There are no standard models at George Banjos. Each one is a unique, custom creation,” Stanfield says. “Banjos are enormously important to Tennessee’s musical heritage, from the five-string clawhammer banjo of Appalachian string band music in East Tennessee to the bluegrass banjo of Nashville to the jug band guitar-banjo and Dixieland tenors in Memphis and along the Mississippi – and at George Banjos, we can build them all.”
Heartland Banjo & Guitar Co. in Gallatin, TN
Rob Smith of Gallatin played bluegrass music with bands in Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia and West Virginia for 25 years before relocating to Nashville in 1995.
“I moved to Nashville to play acoustic bass for the band Lonesome Standard Time,” Smith recalls. “Playing in a band doesn’t always pay enough to make ends meet, so I was lucky to get a job with Marty Lanham, owner of the Nashville Guitar Co., building guitars and banjos.”
In 1998, Smith opened his own business, Heartland Banjo & Guitar Co., in Gallatin. He has since built banjos for dozens of professional players and has many customers overseas.
“I enjoy meeting great musicians and building exactly the type of banjo they want to help them play the music they love,” Smith says. “It is very rewarding to see customers smile when they first play their new instrument. It’s also very rewarding to see them on stage or on TV playing one of my creations.”
Strumming on the Old Banjo
Interested in owning a handmade banjo of your own? Get more info by contacting the following:
• Chris Bozung at CB Guitars in Fairview, (615) 799-9217 or cbguitars.com
• Rob Smith at Heartland Banjo & Guitar Co. in Gallatin, (615) 461-7686 or heartlandbanjo.com
• Tommy George or Christian Stanfield at George Banjos in Somerville, georgebanjos.com