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