The Missing Link and all Gold Tone instruments are available through Paul Roberts at BanjoCrazy.com. 970-731-3117

The Banjo Just Got Better!

Q&A with Wayne Rogers (president of the Gold Tone Group) about the AMAZING new ML-1 “Missing Link” Béla Fleck model five-string banjo.

“We both knew it was a winner. Within a month he’d recorded with it on five of the tracks on Abigail and Béla’s duet album (which debuted at #1 on Billboard Magazine’s Bluegrass chart). Béla then showed the ML-1 to Steve Martin, who was so intrigued with its sonic possibilities that he ordered one immediately.

Béla has been playing his ML on tour with Abby, and it’s sure to become part of his stable of instruments for many of his shows worldwide.” Wayne Rogers

ML close

The Banjo Just Got Better!

Q&A with Wayne Rogers (president of the Gold Tone Group) about the AMAZING new ML-1 “Missing Link” Béla Fleck model five-string banjo.

How did this project come about?

Béla and I had a meeting at the 2013 Summer NAMM Show. He had in mind a new type of banjo. He had been playing the Gold Tone CEB-5 Cello Banjo for some time, used and endorsed our Zero Glide replacement nut system and knew that GT was the world leader in alternative acoustic instruments (we call them “Folkternative” instruments). Béla had long been a great fan of John Hartford, and he knew that John had performed extensively with lower tunings on his banjos. As a matter of fact, Béla now owns the two banjos that Hartford used the most, one of which still sports John’s original strings.

Béla and his wife, Abigail Washburn, were about to begin a concert tour and since they would be performing many banjo duets, he wanted a deeper-voiced instrument to compliment and blend with Abby’s standard-tuned banjo. I remember him saying “I don’t want the basso tone of the Cello Banjo; I’m looking for a sound that’s as close to my pre-war Gibson’s tone as possible”.

How did Béla want the instrument voiced?

The question became, “how low can we go before it gets too close to the CEB-5 Cello Banjo?”  We decided to voice the thing halfway between the standard G-tuned banjo and our octave-lower cello banjo. Thus, the ML-1 is tuned to cGCEG. This is a fifth lower than open G, and if you place a capo on the 7th fret it would be in unison with a normal G-tuned banjo.

How did you achieve the desired tone?

We immediately decided on a twelve inch pot because the larger the pot, the more low-end output. Then we built Béla a number of prototypes with varied neck profiles and different types of heads and tone rings. During the following year, he test-played them all. Last July, my wife and partner Robyn and I and our daughter Mandy visited Béla and Abigail at their Nashville home and settled on all the final specs.

And those specs are…?

Maple neck, three-ply Canadian maple twelve inch rim, sand-cast bronze tone ring, mahogany resonator, Gold Tone “Terminator” tailpiece, our patented Zero Glide nut, a 15/16″ compensated maple and ebony bridge, all nickel-wound strings (gauged .018w,.022w, .028w, .038w, .018w, made for us by D’Addario)) and a medium crown black Renaissance head by Remo

How did you come up with the unusually beautiful ornamentation?

I showed Béla a unique art nouveau inlay pattern we had come up with, and he instantly approved. We both wanted something that is classy, but not flashy. Set into the ebony fingerboard, it is very striking. We decided on black tuner buttons to match the head. There’s also a block inlay near the end of the fretboard with Béla’s name engraved in it. The Missing Link is finished in a deep brown mahogany stain.

What did Béla think of the final version?

We both knew it was a winner. Within a month he’d recorded with it on five of the tracks on Abigail and Béla’s duet album (which debuted at #1 on Billboard Magazine’s Bluegrass chart). Béla then showed the ML-1 to Steve Martin, who was so intrigued with its sonic possibilities that he ordered one immediately.

Béla has been playing his ML on tour with Abby, and it’s sure to become part of his stable of instruments for many of his shows worldwide.

So, it’s tuned to open C, a fifth below the standard five-string banjo; why would a player want one?

Actually, it’s a baritone instrument, but you don’t need to learn any new techniques; you use the same fingering as a standard five-string. It adds a rich lower register to any ensemble. It’s great for vocal accompaniment. Capoing extends the possibilities, although I’ve yet to see Béla use a capo on the Missing Link.

Why “The Missing Link”? 

The name was Béla’s idea. He said that the ML-1 was the missing link between the cello banjo and the regular five-string.

I play a normal “Gibson size” neck but I have heard that Béla likes his necks wide and his fretboards radiused. How’s that going to feel? 

The original “Béla neck” profile might be a bit radical for some players. The neck on his prewar Gibson Style 75 was built to Béla’s preferences by renowned luthier John Monteleone. We found a happy medium; the ML neck’s width is 1 3/8” at the nut, and since we use all wound strings it really feels just right. First-time players exclaim, “This thing plays unbelievably”. Along with the wider neck, the radiused fretboard really enhances fingering and most players don’t even notice that it’s not flat.

The ML has a resonator. Will there be an openback version as well?

There’s no need for another version. The ML-1 is “convertible”! In about ten minutes, you can remove the resonator and its mounting brackets and it will be a bona fide open back banjo. Its clawhammer-style tone is huge! Openback players will soon discover the ML’s versatility with Old Time styles as Béla has done with fingerpicking styles.

Are the any available options? 

We will be offering several pickups including the Fishman Rare Earth (currently used by Béla) and our popular sliding magnetic pick up. Our ABS or ABS-C banjo mics also fit perfectly. A left-handed version will be available soon. Of course capo spikes, different string spacings and custom bridges can all be added at our shop. The ML-1 comes with a deluxe hard shell case, and it will fit any normal 14″ resonator banjo case or gig bag.

I’d heard that the ML-1 was due in the summer of 2014, but I haven’t been about to find one to try. Was there a delay?

Yes. We wanted to get as close to perfection as possible, so we had to revise a few specs.

It sure would be cool to get the world’s best banjo player to sign his model for me…

Béla will autograph a very cool serial number sticker, located inside the resonators of the first one hundred pieces sold.

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