Gold Tone musical instruments are available through banjocrazy.com. Call Paul Roberts for more information at (970) 731-3117.
Gold Tone musical instruments are available through banjocrazy.com. Call Paul Roberts for more information at (970) 731-3117.
Béla Fleck has teamed up with Gold Tone president Wayne Rogers to produce the Missing Link—a baritone five-string, and the first-ever Béla Fleck signature banjo. How Béla and Wayne carried their inspiration from vision to production, and why, is the story of the Missing Link, a big-voiced banjo that Béla says, “gives players a wider palette to choose from, in expressing their musical desires.” The tuning is cGCGE, a fifth below normal banjos. With a capo on the 7th fret of the Missing Link, it’s in unison with a G-tuned banjo.
“Béla approached us at Nashville NAMM 2013 and said he had an idea for new banjo,” said Wayne Rogers. “He said he’d be touring with Abigail and wanted a counterpoint instrument, so we began bouncing ideas about possible components. The name was Béla’s idea—the missing link between a cello banjo and the regular five-string. When it was done we both knew it was a winner. Within a month, Béla had used it to record four of the tracks on Abigail and Béla’s duet album, which debuted at number one on Billboard Magazine’s bluegrass chart. Béla then showed the Missing Link to Steve Martin, who was so intrigued with its sonic possibilities that he ordered one immediately, and, it looks like it will appear on Steve’s next album.”
Béla credits John Hartford for his inspiration to explore the baritone banjo. Hartford tuned from a third to a fifth below standard and he had a collection of old twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-inch pot banjos he used for low tunings. Hartford inaugurated his trademark low-tuned banjo sound in 1972 on his “Morning Bugle” album, in which this intriguing verse appears at the end of Old Joe Clark:
Now I need an old Orpheum five string
With a twelve inch open back pot
So the next time you go to the attic
Look and see what you’ve got
Or a twelve inch Farland open back
Twenty-eight three-eighths inch scale
I wish you’d write and let me know
If you’ve got one for sale
The key advantage of using a 12” pot for a low-tuned banjo is its ability to reproduce the mids and bass frequencies with even coverage. Hartford’s interest in low-tuned banjos didn’t set off a big rush on 12” pots, however, among old-time banjo players, through the influence of Kyle Creed, the 12” pot gained favor for its full, mellow sound.
Gold Tone began using 12” pots in 2004 with their Bob Carlin open-back models, and has since incorporated it into other models. “I designed a BT-2000 banjitar for guitarists with a 12” rim,” says Wayne. “It’s in my opinion our best sounding banjitar. The frequencies of the baritone banjo are similar to the heavier (wound) strings on guitar. On the Missing Link we kept to a normal scale, as that moved the bridge closer to the center, which Béla and I both agreed would increase low frequencies. The Missing Link’s pot is distinguished by its use of a bronze tone ring.”
Béla is known for liking his necks wide and his fretboards radiused. The hard rock maple neck has a compound radiused ebony fingerboard, jumbo frets and zero fret nut. We asked Wayne how that would feel to someone who plays a normal Gibson-size neck. Wayne said, “The ML neck’s width is 1 3/8’’ at the nut, and since we use all wound strings it really feels just right. Along with the wider neck, the radiused fretboard and jumbo frets really enhance fingering.”
“The Missing Link was designed for bluegrass,” admits Wayne Rogers, “but I suspected, if we made it convertible, it might sound pretty impressive as an open back. I play both styles, and enjoy the ML open back for old-time.”
The resonator is attached with four removable mounting brackets. The 3-ply Canadian maple rim has a bar bronze tone ring; the 7/8” bridge is radiused. The resonator is mahogany and the banjo fits in a regular-sized case. The neck is finished in a deep brown mahogany stain and is inlayed in an art nouveau design.
BNL: Béla, you and Abigail perform and record with an extended family of banjos. Why did you choose Gold Tone for this project?
BF: Abby’s been playing a cello banjo for quite a while and she integrated it deeply into her “City of Refuge” CD and band. She played it on 3 songs on our new CD. I’ve also have a cello banjo, which was recently set up with steel strings, giving it a lot of power. I play it in our show and on the album. I also play the soprano uke banjo on a song in the set, and sometimes two. I really dig that little banjo.
Our new Gold Tone is the baritone banjo, aka The Missing Link, which was created as a collaboration between Gold Tone and myself. I needed a banjo to get below Abby’s main banjo, but not as low and floppy as the cello banjo. All these banjos fill in a gap, in that no one else has been making these sizes and versions. They are highly useful for us, and I also think it’s cool that they are not elite, super expensive banjos. Most anyone could afford these, but they sound very good, and no one else makes them.
BNL: What was your inspiration to design a baritone?
BF: I’ve always loved the low tuned banjo sound, a la John Hartford. But whenever I tried to tune a standard 11-inch head banjo down, the low notes were super soft and the banjo just didn’t kick. When I got Wayne to put a 12-inch pot on a larger, Béla sized, 5-string bluegrass neck, the low notes had the space to resonate and make some noise. When my banjo playing friends try it, they get excited, because they love finally being down in that register, but with projection.
BNL: What was the collaborative process you and Wayne went through to evolve the prototype?
BF: We went through several stages, actually. We tried the graphite neck—I wasn’t feeling the funk with that one. We tried different tone rings, ending up with a thin bronze one. We tried different necks, rims, bridges, tailpieces, and arm-rests. But I must admit, even the first one sounded very good. That’s why I was willing to continue the process. That first one is the one you’ll hear on the Abby/Béla CD. I now have a couple that are significantly improved from that prototype, and those are the ones that are on the market.
Wayne was always very deferential, and said that I heard things that he didn’t hear. But my view was that if he couldn’t hear the difference, then it probably was not worth pursuing. I felt like we made a lot of small improvements, that we both agreed were worthwhile, that added together to make a significant ‘big’ improvement to an already good instrument.
BNL: The strings are all wound. How did you arrive at .018w, .022w, 028w, .038w, 018w?
BF: This is an area where I felt that I made a breakthrough contribution. I always remembered John Hartford telling me to get a wound third string, any time I tuned down a banjo. So I did on this one. And it sounded so much better, I decided to try a wound second string, too. And that sounded so good, I went to a wound 1st and 5th. When I went to all wound, the sound of the banjo came into focus. Don’t waste time with unwound strings on this banjo. 1st string is a wound 17 or 18, and we go up from there. Trust me on this!
BNL: Down what musical pathways do you traverse with this new banjo?
BF: It allows me to do idiomatic playing in keys that I couldn’t do that in before. I can now play out of G position now in keys from C up to F#. I can play in drop C in keys from F up to B. And I can be the low guy, under Abby’s banjo. Plus, as a composing tool, you just find yourself playing new stuff when you are down so low. The cello banjo used to kick start some tune creation, and this one does too. It’s now part of my arsenal, and I expect to use it from now on.
BNL: In what ways might this baritone banjo help to enrich music? Could a baritone banjo cross musical genres?
BF: I wouldn’t make any claims of that sort. It gives banjo players a wider palette to choose from in expressing their musical desires. Let’s just start there and see what happens.
BNL: How does it sit in the mix from Abigail’s perspective?
BF: She likes the fullness it gives our duo. She’s just received her own clawhammer ML and from first blush, it looks like it’s going to stimulate some songwriting.
BNL: What does Juno (Béla and Abigail’s two year-old son) think about it?
BF: He likes rocks the best. Banjos are a strong second.
BNL: How are audiences responding to it?
BF: I find the audiences love the idea and sound of a wide variety of banjos on stage. In our duo, every song has its own combination, and that makes the whole set more intriguing.
BNL: It seems that this instrument is an extension of what you give people musically: an open door to the imagination. Hearing you play it, in the context of the music you play with Abigail, it feels like an unexplored tonal landscape for the 5-string has opened up.
BF: I suspect you’ll really enjoy it. I sure do.
It’s interesting to note that the Missing Link harkens back to the 19th century when banjos were generally tuned a fourth below today’s standard. In the 1890s the standard went from dGDF#A up to gCGBD. Pete Seeger descended back down the scale in 1943, when he lengthened the neck of his banjo, in order to play in lower tunings to match his vocal range. His longneck banjo was tuned down a third (three frets), and it was popularized by Pete, Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio, Alex Hassilev of the Limelighters, Bob Gibson and others.
John Hartford dropped down even lower, while still using a standard neck.
Gold Tone’s reintroduction of the cello banjo brought the banjo down a full octave.
So, in terms of pitch, the Missing Link takes the banjo back to where it once belonged. Béla plays it on Railroad, What’cha Gonna Do, Pretty Polly and For Children: No 3 Quasi adagio, No 10 Allegro molto—Children’s Dance.
What further music will bubble up from the depths of this new baritone voice? If, as Béla says, “you just find yourself playing new stuff when you are down so low,” things could get really interesting. We’ll start there and see what happens.
Paul Roberts is a multi-instrumental concert performer, music therapist and composer. Paul has been a Gold Tone retailer since 2008. His website is http://banjocrazy.com
© Copyright Banjo Newsletter 1973-2017, All Rights Reserved.
Bob Carlin introduced me to Marcy Marxer, a fabulous multi-instrumentalist, who performs in a popular duo with Cathy Fink. Marcy had borrowed a 4-string vintage Gibson cello banjo from Mike Seeger, and she was accompanying Cathy’s banjo by playing the cello banjo in a new tonal and rhythmic style.
I searched YouTube and found them playing some old-time tunes, “The Buffalo Girls/ Puncheon Floor” and “Coleman’s March.” I was immediately struck by how the two banjos sounded together with the harmony, counterpoint and bass lines Marcy was playing on 4-string cello banjo. I was hooked on this instrument!
I contacted Marcy and she was thrilled to think we would offer a production model. We began the plans. Marcy sent me a vintage Gibson Guit-jo 6- string banjo that had the same exact pot as Mike’s 4-string. I was surprised to see the pot had a hollow internal chamber 1″ from the sides.
The design began. I decided on a solid 3-ply Canadian maple 14″ rim and used a heavy brass tone ring, instead of the hollow chamber on the old Gibson. We invested in tooling for the rim, tone ring, and counterhoop, as 14″ sizes were non-existent. Remo designed a special jig for a 14″ plastic banjo head. Marcy sent me tracings of Mike Seeger’s cello banjo neck. I modified the bulky Gibson neck to a thinner design.
Marcy and I conferred often on every detail. We chose a Weyman-style inlay, rarely used on replicas. Dual coordinator rods were necessary for stability and adjustment (the Gibson used a non-adjusting dowel stick).
Marcy and I discussed whether there would be any market cello banjos, since she was really exploring new territory. Other than having a relatively short heyday – in turn of the century banjo orchestras and banjo bands – this instrument was relatively obscure. Unique marketing and lots of creative promotion was our only hope!
At the 2007 Clifftop Festival, we met with Curley Miller, a prominent classical 5-string player, of The Old 78’s. The Old 78’s (Curley and his wife, Carole Anne Rose) use a 5-string cello banjo, and they have recorded with Clarke Buehling, who has performed and recorded with one for many years. We began design on a 14” 5-string.
Old-time Florida banjo champion, Chuck Levy, convinced me this was a perfect body for a 6-string, which would extend the bass frequencies of a standard band. So, a third model – with an extra low 5th string – was added (not a Guit-jo).
Our target date was January 2007– NAMM …5 months away. When our samples arrived, Bob Carlin was the first to play one and he was “blown away” by the incredible tone and volume. We quickly made a call to Marcy and played it over the phone. She was delighted.
After the show, the 4-string sample went to Marcy. She immediately called and said we had done it! Tone, playability, and cosmetics were all perfect … beyond her expectations. Within hours, she and Cathy posted two YouTube videos. Sales Manager Tommy Sivert traveled to Bonnaroo and showed a cello 5-string to Bela Fleck, who ordered one on the spot. Mike Kropp, Bob Carlin, Tony Trischka, Mary Cox, Cathy Moore and others received their instruments and started posting videos on YouTube.
After designing over 150 instruments for the Gold Tone line, this project will always be my most memorable. Thanks to the help of Marcy Marcer, this instrument – I believe – will become mainstream and enter many genres of music with its distinct punchy and irresistible tone!
Wayne A. Rogers – President of Gold Tone
Gold Tone CEB-5, five-string cello banjo tuned eDEAD. The cello banjo offers a portal into many regions of sound. Please visit my website http://www.banjocrazy.com/ where I represent Gold Tone banjos and have interviews with wonderful banjo players like Adam Hurt, Marcy Marxer, Bob Carlin, Cathy Moore, Cathy Fink and others.
Robby Faverey writes:
“Some years after I got enthusiastic reading an article about the Stedman bania, the oldest banjo in the world, built in Suriname by a runaway slave in 1770, this instrument is exposed in the Museum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden. This is a gourd instrument, and is one of the ancestors of the banjo. Having constructed around 10 gourd banjos I started to built the follow ups of the banjo, like Minstrel banjo and Appalachian banjo. Experimenting with bigger sound chamber I used a floor tom and built my first fretless cello banjo. Being a baroque lute player I immediately put gut frets on the instrument and started to play some dances of the cello suites of Bach. More convenient however were the normal fretting which the luthier and restaurator Thomas Grabinger did so well for me.”
Cello banjos are growly beasts that have returned from antiquity. Cello banjos and all Gold Tone musical instruments are available through my website: http://www.banjocrazy.com/
“Wisdom Rock,” is an original composition in gCGCD tuning. I named it in honor of a rock formation that’s in the forest behind my house.
Once a staple in early twentieth century banjo orchestras and clubs, the cello banjo disappeared by 1930. Gold Tone has brought it back, collaborating with string wizard Marcy Marxer to develop the CEB-4 cello banjo. It offers contemporary players a new and fascinating low banjo voice for use in any kind of music. Tuned in fifths, the CEB-4 is great for both lead and accompaniment roles. Its shortened scale makes fingering easier and the high-tension nylon strings provide punchy, dynamic tone while being easy on the fingertips. The brass rod tone ring and fourteen-inch pot punch those low notes out strongly and clearly.
New Creative Opportunities with the Cello Banjo
by Cathy Moore
The cello banjo has helped me develop as a musician by giving me new creative opportunities.
Its low voice and long sustain inspire me to try slower, darker tunes than I usually play on a regular banjo. The cello also asks me to slow down some of my regular repertoire, drop extraneous notes, and syncopate the core melody. This often reveals a surprising depth and complexity within a tune that I had been playing on autopilot for years.
My right hand adjusted to the wider spacing of the original cello bridge, but it wasn’t happy switching between the cello and regular banjos. So I’m now using a bridge made by Mike Keyes that has normal string spacing, and my right hand feels at home everywhere.
The new all-wound strings are a great improvement over the original ones. Melody notes on the first string are clear and bell-like, and the equal amount of sustain from all strings makes a strum sound full and round.
The long sustain persuades me to simplify melodies a bit, especially in tunes that use a lot of low notes. I play near the middle of the head or, for more clarity, closer to the bridge.
I love how easy it is to tune the cello banjo–there’s so much resonance, you can easily hear what you’re doing. Also, the neck is so stable that when I retune one string, I don’t have to tweak all the others.
As the days get shorter, I find myself going to the cello more often to expand my repertoire of dark, introspective pieces. But the cello also holds its own in a rollicking old-time jam, filling out the bottom of the sound and inspiring me to explore bass runs. It’s a great way for any clawhammer player to develop their creativity and grow as a musician.”
Used by permission
I play a short tune and discuss how I approach playing clawhammer on the Gold Tone CEB-5 cello banjo. Things I forgot to mention in the video: In addition to playing closer to the bridge, I don’t use brushes or, basically, play more than 2 strings at once. I take notes out of notey tunes and just generally add more space so the tones don’t glom together.
If you liked Jump at the Sun, the tune I played, you’ll like John Kirkpatrick’s many other works. Check out his online store:
Marcy Marxer Signature Model CEB-4 Gold Tone Cello Banjo
Marcy Marxer signature model. The 4 string cello banjo, originally used in turn of the century banjo orchestras, has been redefined in this decade by the playing style of Marcy Marxer. Tuned in 5ths it allows accompaniment and lead arrangements for not only old time but most all genres of music. Plus string gauges may be changed for low octave playing of any four stringed instrument The 14” body is very loud and the brass tone ring extends its punchy tone. The shortened scale makes fingering easy. It uses nylon high tension classical strings. Mandolinists, cello, violin or viola players can finger immediately, lending a new tone to all styles of music.
“These banjos have their own soulful sound,” Marcy said. “Thanks for understanding why I bonded with this instrument, and bonding with it yourself. This voice hasn’t been heard for close to 100 years! When it was heard, it was barely playable. It needed to come back as a playable instrument. The Cello Banjo has been given a second chance, and this time it’s working! Thank you for being part of it, Paul.”
“Gold Tone Cello Banjos are a unique new production instrument resurrected from the days of the banjo orchestra. The pros love them: Bela Fleck, Tony Trishka, Bob Carlin, Marcy Marxer, Cathy Moore, Mary Cox plus many more. Cello Banjos easily fit into ensemble music or can be played solo.
Occasionally, a Gold Tone dealer takes a special interest in a particular product and gives it his all. Paul Roberts of BanjoCrazy.com has set up his site featuring our cello banjos and has provided history, interviews, playing techniques, collections of music and videos, and a wealth of information on the specifications. If you’re interested in learning more about cello banjos, visit BanjoCrazy.com and talk to Paul who is an authority on this special instrument.”
Wayne A. Rogers
“Elephant Dance” is from Banjos Dreaming, an album of original music for Cello Banjo by Paul Roberts https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/paulroberts8
On Banjos Dreaming, Paul multiplexes the sounds of two Gold Tone CEB-5 cello banjos, tuned an octave apart, with the tinkly sounds of a cittern, made by Stefan Sobell, restrung to play as a banjo-lute (banjola).
Check out Paul’s website http://banjocrazy.com/ where he represents Gold Tone musical instruments, and which includes articles and interviews of interest to banjo players.