Axes in my Life

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Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't RiseTM
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Axes in My Life

As a music lover, I'm also a lover of musical instruments. I "connect" quickly with any instrument that is reasonably playable and produces a listenable sound. A couple years ago I wrote a series for the site about saxophones I had owned. Part memoir, part review, part apologies to the horns for not appreciating them more and treating them better when they were in my possession. I've since received a number of e-mails from folks who have owned or who were thinking about buying one of the same instruments - now vintage, of course. It's been fun to realize how many people have shared similar experiences.

Recently, I tried to explain to someone that my first guitar was more furniture than musical instrument, but I learned to play, and to play fairly well, on the thing, because I was determined to learn. That got me thinking about other fretted instruments I'd owned and the things I could write or say about them that might encourage other people or bring back pleasant memories. "Fretted Instruments in my Life" was too stuffy, though.

As I went through the list of all the guitars, banjos, and mandolins I've tried to make music with over the last fifty years, I've noticed that many of them would not even be considered musical instruments today, and the vast majority cost me $100 or less - even in "today's dollars." Only a very few of the instruments described here are in my home today - many were traded or sold long since, and several professional instruments that I "own" now are really on a sort of permanent loan to folks who have more use for them than I do. But while they were in my possession, I made the best music I could squeeze out of them.

A note about looks versus musicianship - As you'll see in the following list, I have the habit of tweaking instruments that are "good enough" to get the sound I need to make them as playable as possible. In retrospect, I might have been taken more seriously at certain stages of my musical life if I'd spent more on fancy instruments I didn't really need. Often I was too broke, but more often than not, I figured it wouldn't matter, since I was obviously playing rings around the guys who had maxed out their credit cards buying shiny new toys they could barely play. The bad news it that it did/does matter. Our article "Are You a Brand Bigot?" is meant to address wannabees and musical illiterates who can't see past the brand name on the headstock of your ax when evaluating your chops. But the truth is that brand bigotry exists at all levels of the music industry, even in so-called progressive or anti-establishment circles, where singer-songwriters rail against social ills on $4000 rain-forest-wood guitars. So, don't think I'm recommending any of the instruments below for make-or-break gigs (even my professional Ovies raise eyebrows in some circles). I do believe, however, that a real musician can get music out of just about anything with strings, and that you can learn on just about any instrument as long as it is playable. (For tips on making stringed musical instruments on this page a little more playable, see our article on "Setting up Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments.")

With all that out of the way, here is a list of the fretted instruments I have developed a connection with over the years.

  • SS Stewart ArchtopMy big sister's S.S. Stewart Archtop guitar, on which I learned the root chords and several picking styles, starting about the age of 12 (1964). S.S Stewart's archtops were pretty nice guitars in their day, used in a lot of swing bands, but they didn't all age well. Neck warping is one of the most common problems, and Tess' had a tiny start on that. The neck wasn't adjustable, but the bridge was. Still, we didn't know about sanding bridges, etc., in those days. So to make the guitar playable, Tess put on nylon strings and adjusted the bridge all the way down. Tess also had Pete Seeger and Jerry Silverman's The Folksinger's Guitar Guide: An Instruction Manual and I worked most of the way through that book one summer, although I skimmed over some parts.

    If you find a nice S.S. Stewart with a straight neck and are satisfied with light strings, you may get a lot of enjoyment out of it. My sister's went to college with her in 1966, so I lost access to it. The photo is of a similar model.

  • Kay Tenor BanjoWhen I was about 14, the same sister brought home a backless Kay 4-string banjo from college. I spent a summer learning Dixieland chords and songs on it. But she took it back to college that fall, and I never saw it again. Decades later, when I needed a banjo to play Dixieland styles on, I asked Tess if she still had her tenor, but it was long gone, umpteen moves and loan-outs later. (As it turned out, I really needed a 6-string for the gig anyway, so it wouldn't have helped me much if she still had it.) This is a photo of a similar instrument; sorry but we don't have any photos of the original.

  • Cameo 5-string banjoMy first 5-string banjo was a Cameo banjo with wooden pot, no tone ring, and the unfortunate ability go up and down a half a step if I just changed position while playing. At the time, Pete Seeger was my hero, and banjo was still popular in several kinds of popular music. Surrounded by guitar players memorizing Simon and Garfunkel songs, playing a banjo seemed like a good way to stand out from the crowd. This one was purchased for $75 from a pawn shop in downtown Dayton, cardboard case and all. The money was the money that Dad offered to give me to buy a class ring my junior year of High School (1968). I didn't want a class ring. I wanted a banjo. 46 years later I still think I made the right choice.

    Using Pete Seeger's How to Play the 5-string Banjo, I taught myself to play a number of styles, although when it came to Bluegrass, I used four fingers instead of three, since I had already gotten used to a number of four-finger patterns on guitar.

    When I was about 17, I used this banjo to write and play the soundtrack for an 8mm gangster spoof that one of my high school friends made. Bonnie and Clyde was still fresh in everyone's memory, so I borrowed a lot of Earl Scruggs licks. The name of the movie was "Your Mother Looks Good in Cement Slippers," and was very ambitious considering the technology. Are your ears on, Wil? Time to convert to digital and upload to You-Tube.

    In a subsequent series of rock bands, I used the banjo when we played certain country and Bluegrass-inspired songs. Then when I started playing "Jesus Music" in Christian coffeehouses and festivals, I had a couple songs that still "needed" banjo. One was a bluegrass-inspired take-off of the "Dukes of Hazzard" driving ethic with the chorus:

      Rollin' down the highway past the houses farms and streams.
      It's a good thing I'm a Christian, with the close calls I have seen.
      I go to church each Sunday; I never drink or steal.
      So why do you say I'm going to hell on wheels?"
      ? Copyright 1975 by Paul D. Race, Battered Guitar Music.

    In the late 1970s and very early 1980s, memories of folk music - and its wide acceptance of various styles - were still alive. I could get away with singing blues, then bluegrass, then swing, then folk, then 50s rock, in nearly any venue. But gradually, banjo became massively "uncool." If you think I'm exaggerating, please contact me with the name of one top-forty pop song from the 1980s or 1990s that featured banjo. I can think of one from 1979 that was still getting airplay in 1980, (played on a 6-string banjo), but nothing else come to mind. Even "Christian music," which had originally allowed a wide variance of styles, became brutally homogenous. (You could almost see folks thinking "I thought this was a Christian concert. Why is he playing a banjo?" or dulcimer, or mandolin, or harmonica or anything else that was not a guitar or piano.)

    Yes, Bluegrass was on the rise, but I didn't generally play in Bluegrass styles, nor could I have survived playing the smoke-filled bars where 99% of those bands worked.

    I suppose I could have tracked down places and people where a folk banjo would still have been welcome. Or gotten so good that I made banjo "cool" again (on the other hand, even Bela Fleck couldn't turn the tide by himself). In the meantime, I had work and school and we were starting a family. Life just got too "thick" for that sort of thing. (Our article "Whatever Happened to the Banjo? Marginalization of an American Icon" addresses those dark days when people who could play banjo were not considered "real musicians" no matter how many other instruments they played well.)

    So my Cameo banjo stopped coming along on most gigs. Then in the mid-1990s, I sold it to raise money for an "upgrade" banjo that kept better tune and was louder. Though the Cameo gave me many hours of pleasure, I haven't really missed the ability to change keys mid-song by accidentally putting too much or two little pressure on the neck.

  • 1960s Kay 'Student' guitarMy first guitar was a 3/4-sized Kay guitar given to me by my cousin Linda in the late 1960s. She had got it by saving S&H Green stamps, but it was unplayable when it arrived, and her family had no idea how to fix it.

    The photo to the right shows someone else's in more-or-less original condition. If it looks like the fret markers, binding, and pick guard are all painted on the thing, that's because they are. The strings at the nut were so high, you could have used the thing to slice cheese. At the bridge they were worse. But, unlike my sister's S.S. Stewart, this was my guitar and nobody really minded if I took the thing apart. I filed down the nut and bridge, sanded off the face and back, stained it, and painted another fake "binding" around the tone hole and edge. Sorry I don't have a photo of the thing as I rebuilt it. But actually I'm not that sorry - I was a high-schooler, and it wasn't that great. I bought a cheap gig bag and took it everywhere. It was small, but student "dreadnoughts" were just beginning to find their way to Ohio, so it wasn't that much smaller than many of my friends' "parlor guitars." By the time I was a junior in high school, I realized that the new dreadnoughts my friends were upgrading to were louder and better looking. But we were a blue-collar family and my old Kay played just fine.

    This guitar went with me to college and actually developed a surprising tone by the time I passed it on. Plus I had become a halfway decent guitar player. Folks might do a double-take when I brought it out, but I soon cured any skepticism about whether I knew what I was doing. I think I traded it for my first (Harmony) bass, and the fellow who got the Kay was quite pleased with the trade.

  • Mariachi 12-stringMy first real guitar was a mariachi-style twelve-string brought back from Mexico by - you guessed it - my big sister - thanks, Tess, for encouraging me in so many ways. The neck was 2 3/8" wide at the nut and I would spend half of every concert tuning it, but it had a nice sound. The photo to the right is of a similar guitar - mine had a delicate mosaic of tiny lizards around the tone hole, but I don't have a clear photo of it.

    This was my main guitar for years - I played it in rock bands, in Jesus Music bands, in coffeehouses, in campgrounds, in festivals, in street fairs - in short, anywhere you could take a guitar.

    For a time I was playing very regularly in "Christian Coffeehouses" in the area, and the one constant was bad PAs. No matter how many mics, mic stands and even mixers we brought to the gig, inevitably the guy at the soundboard would make the guitars sound like mud or ukeleles or worse.

    At that time, piezoelectric pickups were just coming onto the market. We bought a couple Barcus Berry "Hot Dots," and installed them in the bridges of our guitars. Then we had to buy separate preamps to make the output loud and balanced enough for the PA inputs. Still, once we were feeding a consistent sound to the PA, there was a greater chance that the PA guy could coax an appropriate guitar sound out of the speakers.

    I usually kept Martin Marquis Lights on this guitar, and left it tuned down a whole step, a common accommodation on 12-strings. Then if I needed to play in D I could choose between playing E chords or putting a capo at the second fret. With its classical configuration, the latter left me only 10 frets between the capo and the body of the guitar, but, let's face it, with the neck nearly three inches wide where it met the body, I was only going so far down the neck anyway.

    Once a friend borrowed it. Not realizing that the low tuning was deliberate, he tuned it up to standard (EBGDAE) tuning. The bridge tore completely off the face of the guitar, leaving quite a mess, as you might imagine. The real miracle was that it didn't hit him in the head and give him a concussion or worse - there is a lot of stress on those strings. I was able to glue everything back into place, but I added extra bracing underneath the top, with two screws going down through the bridge. I probably played it another two years that way. In fact, I got so good at fixing guitars other folks would have thrown away that I fixed up several for friends who had had similar disasters.

    I sold it when I had a chance to upgrade to the Legend (below).

  • My first bass guitar was a Harmony semi-hollow-body bass that, ironically, had a nice acoustic bass sound on tape, but was one of the ugliest instruments you've ever seen. I think I traded my Kay guitar for it, but I don't exactly remember. At the time I was going through a lot of rock bands. They'd form, practice for six weeks, play one gig, then fall apart arguing over who was the leader, or some such - some of you have been there. There was a lot more call for a bass player than there was for a sax, banjo, or acoustic folk guitar player, so the bass got a lot of work for a while.

    Though the Harmony was strung as a bass guitar, it was really one of their standard guitars with four fat strings instead of six skinny ones. That meant that it was a "short scale," so any guitarist in the band could double on base if they needed to. Unfortunately, it also had guitar-style tuners, which required serious force to tune those heavy bass strings.

    The first thing I did was take the pick guard off - who needs a pick guard on a bass anyway? I also replaced the tuners with bass tuners and the knobs with Gibson-style transparent golden knobs. The photo is of another person's bass. He has replaced the tuners and taken off a superfluous thumb rest, but he has kept the original knobs and pick guard in place.

    For several years after giving up on rock bands, I still used my Harmony bass "out" occasionally, especially for coffeehouse gigs where a bunch of us would get together a sort of "pickup band." It was especially useful when a guitar-playing friend would ask me to sit in on bass. Or when I would need a guitar-playing friend to sit in on base for me. Because of its relatively realistic acoustic bass tone, I never got grief with it even when it was supposed to be an "all-acoustic" concert. Occasionally, I would be amused to see a working regional band show up with one - you can spot them a mile away.

    Mostly, though I used it in my "home studio," a rickety affair back in the 1970s and early 1980s that revolved around a number of reel-to-reel decks and repurposed Tapco stage mixers. Over the years following, a number of friends borrowed it and each one left their mark. By the time I sold it at a garage sale, it was barely a musical instrument.

    Much later I saw an ancient video of the Spencer Davis group performing "Gimmee Some Lovin'" on a '60s European television show and realized that it was the same bass that the band had used for one of the most iconic rock bass solos ever. That put a funny twist on the story, but even knowing that ahead of time wouldn't have dissuaded me from passing on what was left of it.

  • Kent student electric.My first and only electric guitar (so far) was a "student-sized" Kent electric with a Squire-shaped body and a single coil pickup. Imagine a Jaguar with less sustain. That said, it could kick out some great vintage sounds, and would handle certain kinds of solos very credibly. When I was about 18, I got it for $15 out of a big box of "as is" guitars at Hauer Music in Dayton. For the next couple of years, I used it in working rock bands when the song called for rhythm guitar. Onstage, it would occasionally drew some stares, but there were never any complaints about the sound or the licks I could get out of the thing. Sadly, I didn't realize at the time that, in public performance, appearances were really more important than musical quality. I'd have got more respect with an expensive guitar I couldn't play than a cheapie I could wring all kinds of music out of.

    When one band I was in was trying to learn songs with unusual guitar solos, I'd work them out on the Kent, then teach them to our lead guitarist, a fellow with an expensive Gibson who never tired of explaining to the rest of us that he was just "slumming" by hanging out with us losers. One weird side-effect of that is that I know the solos for a number of songs I wouldn't play in public for love nor money today. Years later, I sold the Kent for maybe $50 to help raise money toward my Legend (below).

  • Hondo A-Body MandolinMy first mandolin was a Hondo A-body that I got really cheap while I was working at a music store in 1978. I experimented on it, learned a few chords, and then gave to a friend who was leaving the country for mission work and couldn't take a guitar. That's not as generous as it may sound - the neck, which didn't have any means of adjustment, was already starting to warp. Although most of these self-destructed over the years, a quick internet search will show you that some are still around. Don't even think about buying one of these wall decorations unless you get your hands on it and try it out first.

  • Ovation LegendMy first professional guitar was an early-model electric-acoustic Ovation Legend. Tobacco sunburst, no cutaway, no tone control, volume only, solid AA spruce top.

    In the late 1970s, after years of frustration playing acoustic or semi-acoustic gigs where the PA guy managed to destroy a perfectly good guitar sound, a friend of mine solved the problem by buying an Ovation electric-acoustic. I was hesitant to give up my 12-string (above), but the sound she got, even in bad situations, was much better than the sound people were getting through the PA with miked guitars. Or even with guitars like ours with aftermarket pickups and outboard preamps. I thought it would be worth the risk.

    Between spring 1978 and early 1979, I worked for a music store, and got a chance to try any number of guitars - under the guise of tuning them for customers, of course. I learned which Ovie models had solid tops. I also learned that once they were tuned, they would stay more or less tuned for months. So when a used early Ovation Legend acoustic-electric became available for a good price locally, I checked it out and bought it. Then I sold my Kent electric guitar and my Mariachi twelve-string without regret. Because it stayed in tune so much better than my 12-string, my friends told me I'd have to learn more songs.

    With new strings, the old Legend still holds its own acoustically with almost any guitar you can play, although it projects so much sound out the front that sometimes folks playing it think it's quieter than their dreadnoughts or jumbos. Sit in front of one when someone else is playing it, and you'll change your mind in a hurry. I've taken it to all kinds of gigs and workshops where I shared the stage or room with professional musicians who have made real money through their music, and have never had anything but compliments on the sound. Yes, I might prefer a D-28 or some such in the studio, but onstage, the "plugged-in" sound is as good or better, the tuning is more reliable, and they're way more durable and resistant to humidity changes.

    Please don't confuse a $2000 professional Ovie with the Applause or Celebrity guitars you can get for a few hundred dollars. "I played an Ovation once, and it was a piece of crap," is a common complaint from folks who don't know the difference between a $300 guitar and a $2500 guitar. That's like playing a "Martin Sigma" plywood guitar and saying, "I played a Martin once and it was a piece of crap." Or letting a $100 "Gibson Maestro" determine your attitude toward Gibson's $3000 guitars.

  • My second 5-string banjo was a Kay 5-string with an eagle stamped on the back of the resonator. That's not why I bought it, of course. By the time I bought it, "folk banjo" had disappeared from popular culture, replaced by either Bluegrass banjo (Scruggs-style) or no banjo at all. So, in addition to its other problems, my Cameo didn't have the "right" sound. With its big heavy aluminum pot with the pointed flanges, the Kay sounded more like a "bluegrass" banjo than my Cameo did.

    Sorry I don't have a good photo - right now it's on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota with a family member who teaches there. I'd miss it more except I'm having such a good time with my Deering "Good Time" (below).

  • Ovie 12-stringMy second professional guitar was an early-model electric-acoustic Ovation 12-string. I had played one when I worked for the music store, but they were quite expensive and hard to come by used. I did miss my old 12-string sometimes, though. Having a 12-string that kept better tune was very tempting. In the late 1980s, I saw one locally for a "no brainer" price, and picked it up. It sounds great acoustically. When it's plugged in, its sound is reminiscent of the Byrds' sound on songs like "Turn, Turn, Turn."

    Soon after I got it, and got reacquainted with sound and feel of a 12-string, I saw a Muppets episode with Harry Belafonte doing "Day-O." I became very nostalgic for the early days of my guitar playing, when I was cutting my teeth on Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Ed McCurdy, Harry Belafonte, Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, and the like. But in the late 1980s, this part of Ohio had no folk venues, and the "singer-songwriter" coffeehouses hadn't caught on yet. The only place I was playing often was in Christian settings. I dug out two old folk songs - "Sloop John B" and "What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor" and gave them Evangelical lyrics. Yes, I know that probably seems like a sacrilege to both Christians and Folkies. But many audiences have enjoyed it. Funny thing is, while I dig the Celtic sound of the second half, most audience comments are about the first half, the "Sloop John B"-inspired bit. They say, "I love that Kingston Trio song you did." or "I love that Beach Boys song you did." Or "I love that Glen Campbell song you did." A good song really is the gift that keeps on giving.

    If you want to hear the 12-string in action, you can download this song free here. (I don't do this for just anybody). For more information about more songs, check out my song web page. It hasn't been updated for some time, but I'll get back to it one day.

    I don't play this guitar enough. I occasionally get called on to play the "rhythm acoustic" part in our church's worship services. I guess playing chord and rhythm parts on a 12 string would work, too.

    It has developed the "Legend crack," in which the two panels that make up the face of the guitar separate between the bridge and tail-piece, but that hasn't affected the sound one bit (it usually doesn't).

  • Ovation Long Neck GuitarMy third and probably last professional guitar is an electric-acoustic Ovation Longneck, one of the loudest guitars I've ever played. The Longneck had the advantage of being tuned naturally a step down. So a lot of songs I used to sing in D that were really better for my voice in C became easy to play. I bought this used from a fellow in Columbus. When I bought it, I was going to sell the Legend, but my family protested since I had had the Legend so long they couldn't imagine the thing leaving the house. I still use them both.

    The Longneck's previous owner had used "Light" acoustic strings, but had tuned it up to E, then cranked the neck back to accommodate the higher tension on a 27" scale length. The thing had been cranked back so long that when I put new "Light" acoustic strings on it and tuned it to DAFCGD (the correct tuning for this instrument) the strings lay on the fingerboard, even with all tension removed from the adjustment rod. I finally wound up raising the bridge by sliding a sliver of bone under the bridge pickup. From that point on, it behaved very well.

  • Samick Corsair BassMy first solid-body bass was a Samick Corsair Fender copy. Samick is better known for making instruments with other people's brand names on them. I bought this one because one of my kids was going to be in the musical How to Eat Like a Child, and they needed a base player. My old Harmony had been loaned out to careless friends so often that was no longer playable without serious work. The Samick, which I bought used over eBay, was hefty, with good intonation, tone and sustain. Not long after that play was over, I loaned it to one of my children to play in a praise band in Indiana. It has never come back. But that's okay because it's getting played way more often that it would get played here.

  • Dean Solid Body Bass My second solid-body bass is a Dean student model bass that I bought for $100 through Craig's list when a friend asked me to play bass for a musical (110 in the Shade). For my participation, I was paid what I paid for the bass, so it evened out. The only problem is that it's very lightweight, so it lacks "thunk" and sustain compared even with the Samick. On the other hand, it's a lot easier to drag around, and I'm not getting any younger.

  • Dean Backwoods 6 banjo. My first 6-string banjo was a Dean Backwoods 6 that I bought to play a faux Dixieland banjo part in a local musical - it turns out that when "The Boy Friend" was staged in America, the "banjo" part was played by a lead-guitar player on a 6-string banjo. While researching, I learned that 6-string banjo really was a popular jazz instrument a century ago, so it was far more than just a guitar-player's way to "play banjo" without learning to play banjo (a marketing lie, by the way.) My article Are 6-string Banjos for Real?" tells that saga.

    Update, October, 2014: I got the electric-acoustic version of this banjo in October, 2014, and wrote an extensive comparison between the two. The "electric-acoustic" version isn't as loud, so if you want to play "acoustic" jams where they won't let you plug in, the "baseline" unit is better. Also, you can put any piezo pickup on the baseline unit and it will sound more like a banjo amplified than the magnetic pickup on the electric-acoustic one. But the electric-acoustic one has a wooden pot and can get the pre-1900s sound I like better than the baseline unit, so I'm going with that. After loaning it out to friends who wanted to try the thing, I sold it to a guitar player in Columbus who wanted to be able to play banjo leads in his home studio. For an overly detailed comparison of the two banjos, check out our article "Dean Backwoods Six Shootout."

  • Rogue RA-100 Mandolin in Tobacco Sunburst.  Unfortunately the link under this photo only shows the black version.My second mandolin was a Rogue RM-100A A-Style Rogue RM-100A that I got when Musician's friend put them on a "Stupid Deal of the Day" special (about $30). The first one I ordered had surprisingly good tone, but had serious manufacturing damage on the fretboard. Reading reader comments, it seems there is no quality control on these. I sent it back and got a replacement. The second one has very good tone, considering what it is, and is quite playable. My daughter Molly took to it right away and was soon learning chords on the thing.

    Here's a confession - when I "play" mandolin, I mostly use a picking style based on guitar flat-picking. So I can accompany myself on a mandolin, but I'm not anything like a mandolin player. Don't tell audiences, though, because only the Bluegrass or Celtic fans ever know the difference.

    Update for 2022 - The Rogue mandolin has been out of my possession now for something going on 5 years. I have no idea at all how well it's holding up. As far as I know, it's well on its way to being a wall decoration.

  • Martin Steel-string BackpackerMy first travel guitar was a Martin Steel String Backpacker Travel Guitar with Bag. I was traveling a lot for work and wishing I had an instrument to practice on during the evenings alone at the hotel. I had tried a Washburn Rover and several other travel guitars, but I didn't want to pay $300 or more for something that could easily get destroyed if they made me gate-check it. When I came across a used Backpacker cheap, I realized that the neck on these has improved significantly since I tried one a few decades ago. So I gave it a try.

    Martin Backpacker Gig BagThen maniacs started shooting up airports, and in the gig bag this thing looks a little like a small rifle. In fact, I saw one fellow at an airport who had hand-painted "This is a guitar" on his Backpacker case with white paint. So my Backpacker has never gone onto an airplane, but has spent a lot of time in the back seat of my car. In retrospect, I probably should have held out for a Washburn Rover - it plays more like a real guitar than the Backpacker, and it has a less threatening case. We'll see.

    BTW, in the late 1990s, I tried a travel guitar that Ovation was importing under the Applause name. It had a neck like a 2"x4" and about as much tone as a brick, so that one was off the table from the "get-go."

  • Fender FM-52E Electric with Adjustable NeckMy third mandolin was a Fender A-body FM-52E electric mandolin with an adjustable neck - a must-have for any fretted instrument I plan to keep for "good." At the time, I was seldom playing "out" except at church, and our sound guy always turns our instruments down as soon as we get up to sing. I don't THINK it's deliberate, but it has happened every time so far. So I was trying to figure out how to mike the Rogue mandolin, using maybe one of those $15 piezoelectric setups. It's a lot harder to install these on an F-hole instrument. Then I came across this Fender with a single-coil guitar pickup for $100 at a pawn shop. No, the guitar pickup doesn't carry the high end as well as a piezo, but it's a lot less hassle.

    Update for 2022 - This mandolin is still in my possession, is still playable, and - surprisingly - keeps its tune well for months on end. A friend recently played it at an outdoor gig (instead of his expensive non-electric mandolin), and it sounded great through the PA, until the PA head blew out. So it's still a keeper.

    I made certain that it was the older model with the adjustable neck - the new ones do NOT have this. (That's why I don't have a link to these on Amazon - you don't WANT a new one.) The thing has an OK sound for what it is, as well as the ability to easily amplify should the need arise. I found an official Fender gig bag for a reasonable price, and gave the Rogue to a family member.

  • Deering Good Time Basic ModelMy third 5-string banjo - and for a long time my favorite - is a Deering Goodtime 5-String Banjo base model. I had been reminded of the plunky, traditional tone of a backless banjo through the Cold Mountain sound track. Also, when I picked up a used Good Time in a pawn shop, I couldn't believe how easy it was to play well, and how much lighter the thing was than my resonator banjos. I eventually talked the fellow down and bought it. It is a genuine pleasure to drag along places where a resonator banjo would be too loud, would take up too much room, etc. I also got a very nice Superior gig bag for about $40 - just the right size for a backless banjo. Now when I pick up the Good Time in one hand and a resonator, tone-ring-equipped banjo in the other hand, I can't believe the difference in sheer weight.

    Here's a funny "brand-bigot" effect - to many people, it doesn't look like a "serious" banjo because of its light finish and the name Good Time printed prominently on the head. The fact that it's as easy to play as slicing hot butter and has a great traditional sound is secondary to many audiences.

    Update for 2022 - We discovered a few years back that if someone pours diet soda into the gig bag by accident and you don't discover it for a few days, the excess moisture can cause the pot to partially de-laminate. I believe I can clamp and glue it back together, but haven't had time to do it yet.

    In the meantime, I picked up a backless "Goodtime Classic Special," which I now use for most 5-string playing out of the house, be it concerts, jams, historical reenactments, etc. The "Special" is brown, has spikes (for changing the pitch of the 5th string, and has a tone ring, which makes the thing loud and "chimey."

    Deering's "Goodtime Special" line has been replaced by the "Artisan" line, which also looks like an authentic late-1800s banjo. I have also acquired a base-line Artisan 5-string that I take to places where the "Special" would be too loud.

  • Rogue 6-string banjo with resonatorMy second 6-string banjo was a Rogue base model. The Good Time made me wish I had an open-backed six-string as well. And one that didn't cost much, so I wouldn't be afraid to drag it around. Also, with a backless 6-strings, I should be able to use many guitar techniques that wouldn't work on a resonator, tone-ring-equipped 6-string.

    I couldn't take the back off of my Dean Backwoods 6 because the pointed flanges of the aluminum pot would turn the thing into a deadly weapon. A fellow on Craig's list was selling a Rogue bottom-line 6-string banjo for $100. It had a wooden pot and great action, so I bought it. I soon realized, though, that it had a narrow neck, and the string spacing even at the bridge was too close to do the kind of fingerpicking I usually do on a guitar. The fretboard near the pot was wide enough that I should be able to space the strings out a little more, so I tested a couple different bridges. Eventually, I tried to buy a Dean Backwoods 6 bridge for it, and the Dean people send me one for free. Thanks, guys.

    Though the spacing was still too narrow at the nut, I could finger pick it. In fact, it's neck is more like a guitar neck than the Martin Backpacker, so I even considered using it as my "travel guitar."

    I ordered the same gig bag that I got for my Good Time, which should have fit nicely, but the bag that came was for a resonator banjo. It allowed the banjo to slop around like it was in a pillowcase. It was a different brand but it was clearly mis-labeled "backless banjo" on the tag, so they A: must have substituted what they considered to be a similar gig bag, and B: got a batch of mislabeled bags from the manufacturer. So I sent it back with explicit instructions and the customer service people promised not to substitute if the one I wanted wasn't available. They sent back the same bag! I sent it back, got a refund, and ordered from another company. They also sent the wrong bag. I eventually ordered an official Deering bag for the Good Time and started using the bag I bought for the Good Time on my Rogue. Although I think having a banjo bag labeled "Deering" for a $300 banjo is a little ostentatious.

    After a few trips, and really trying to get used to it, I decided that the narrow neck would never really suit my needs. I traded it plus some cash for a professional Appalachian dulcimer. I went to a very skinny woman with very skinny fingers. A week later I saw it back on Craig's List, but I knew better than to ask questions.

  • An Unidentified Samick banjo.For a while, the banjo I took "out" most often was a Samick 5-string that I got from a pawn shop for $125 locally and took the resonator off. My goal was to have a 5-string I could leave in the car or take to the beach and not worry too much about, without risking my Good Time, which would cost a great deal more to replace than it cost me in the first place. This one was similar to the Samick "Greg Bennett" SB-2 , but it had planetary tuners, which are not stock on that model. They could have been an aftermarket add-on, except the kind of wear this banjo shows doesn't lead me to believe it was owned by a serious player. The tuners are much better than those on my Kay, and the instrument is much more solid than the average "starter" banjo. It needed a tad more tweaking to keep optimum than my Good time. But it served its purpose.

    By the way, the Samick hype talked about how perfect these are for Bluegrass. As well made as they are for the cost, they don't have a tone ring (or one of those big aluminum pots with the flanges, so they may be good for practicing and learning Bluegrass, but you'd want to upgrade if you started playing "out" much. Ironically, the wooden pot made it perfect for my uses, though.

    Update for 2022 - I loaned this out and it never came back. But here's the weird thing: for decades, Samick, a Korean company, made more banjos than anyone in the world. In 2020, I tried to help a friend living in Korea acquire a practice banjo, only to learn that Samick hasn't made them for years, and they're virtually unavailable in Korea. I looked into sending one of my banjos, but learned that it would be cheaper to order a $120 Rogue (Chinese) banjo from Musician's friend and have it shipped over there than just to ship one of mine. No, I don't recommend the Rogue, but the friend knew how to set it up and it serves their purposes.

  • Dean Backwoods Six electrified model, not exactly an upgrade from the baseline model I bought earlier - a different banjo with the same head, tuners, and neck but different features and uses.My third electric-acoustic banjo was a Dean Backwoods Six Electric-Acoustic. For my playing style, the baseline Backwoods 6 had too much "ring." And the Rogue 6-string banjo had too narrow a neck. I thought momentarily about taking them both apart and making one banjo to my liking. But I was afraid of destroying both banjos. Nobody in the area carried the electric-acoustic Backwoods Six, but I learned that it had a wooden pot. So when an electric-acoustic "second" became available on eBay, I bought it (the only way to try things like that out in this market).

    I liked some things about it and disliked others. It's not, strictly speaking, a better banjo than the "baseline" banjo. For instance it isn't nearly as loud. And plugged in, the magnetic pickup doesn't sound nearly as much like a banjo as the cheap piezoelectric pickup I put on the baseline unit (although it has a much higher output so you could use it with crappier amps). Except for the same head, tuners, and neck, it's actually a different banjo from the baseline unit, with different features and issues.

    I sold it eventually, since it wasn't really serving my any of my purposes for having a 6-string banjo.

    For an overly detailed comparison of the two Dean 6-string banjos, check out our article "Dean Backwoods Six Shootout."

  • Early Deering Deluxe 6 BanjoMy first professional six-string banjo is a Deering Deluxe 6. I got it fairly cheap on eBay, strung for left-handed and very tarnished. The story of what it took to "turn" it to right-handed and clean it up is here. It has a banjo-length neck, which I like, but a wider nut than I'm used to, so it took some getting used to.

Updates for 2022

I'm now revisiting this page something like six years after I wrote it. About 2017, I started playing "out" a great deal more, and I swapped out even more instruments.

The Goodtime Classic Special has an old-timey look and a great sound, due to its tone ring.  I use mine for acoustic jams and historical reenactments.  The Goodtime Classic line has since been replaced by the 'Artisan' line, which looks even cooler, but costs more. Click for bigger photoMy tone-ring-equipped Goodtime Classic Special is still my best 5-string for unamplified Folk jams and post-1880 historical reenactments. I have bought a Kavanjo head for it, though, which I think would make it great for short or open-mic-style gigs, etc. The head is still in the box, I'm afraid.

I bought mine on a an open-box closeout right before Deering replaced the Classic line with the Artisan line, which has some better features, but cost more. But I'm sure an open-back Artisan with a tone ring would sound just as good and be just as useful as this one.

This photo shows a new Deering Sierra, not my restored basket case, but it gives the general idea. Click for bigger photo.For more professional gigs, I picked up and restored a Deering Sierra 5-string "basket case, and put a Kavanjo head on it. I use that one for auditorium or outdoor concerts, etc. where amplification is critical. Like my Deluxe 6, it looks like it's been through a war - this is a photo of a new one, not of mine. But like my 5-string Goodtimes, it plays like slicing butter with a hot knife.

Davison/Jameson's 6-string banjo, sounds like a brick but without the fruit bowl, er, resonator, it makes a better travel guitar than my Martin Backpacker.  Click for bigger photo.I also picked up a very cheap used Davison (Jameson) 6-string banjo with an adjustable guitar-style neck. Even new, these are more "banjo kits" than they are actual musical instruments. In addition to normal adjustments, I had to recut the nut and order a new bridge. I also took the resonator off, since I mainly wanted to use it as a "practice guitar" on beach vacations. Sorry, but the Martin Backpacker just wasn't cutting it.

Don't buy one on my account.

The baseline Goodtime Artisan comes with a stained fingerboard, a fancy vintage-looking headstock, and 'spikes' for changing the pitch of the 5th string without retuning it.  It's not cheap, but it's way better than similar-looking Asian banjos.I've also picked up two Goodtime Artisans. I got the baseline Artisan very cheap used, and I drag it to family get-togethers, etc., where a loud banjo would be inappropriate. Essentially, it's standing in for my first Goodtime, which I still haven't repaired. (Watch for updates).

I also ordered a new 6-string Artisan to take places where the Deluxe 6 is overkill.

Ibanez's 'performance' parlor guitar, patterned after Martin's 'Size 2' early-1800s guitars.  It should technically have a slotted head, but those cost many hundreds more.  Click for bigger photo.Most recently, preparing for historical reenactments that got canceled in 2020, I bought an Ibanez PN1MH "parlor" guitar, which, as of this date, still needs a great deal of setup and tweaking. It should have a slotted head to make it look more authentic. And the veneer top, frankly makes it sound like a brick. So there are two things I can't fix on this instrument but I still hope to adapt it to my purpose (a similar instrument with slotted head and solid top would have cost hundreds more.)

There's no hurry on the tweaking, since they're STILL cancelling the reenactments I was used to doing.


I realize by now that it looks like I've "churned" a lot of instruments. Maybe I have but I've been playing guitars and banjos since the early 1960s, after all. The vast majority of instruments above the 2022 update have been traded in, sold, or put out on "permanent loan" to friends and family members. Once I got an instrument that suited my purpose I bought it for, I kept it and found homes for the rest. So our house doesn't really look as much like the music section of a pawn shop as you might think. (True confession - I have also accumulated a beat-to-blazes 70s legend to keep in my workshop so I don't have to drag a good guitar out of the house for an online "open mic" or such.)

But I thought some folks might find it fun to realize that they are not the only person in the world to try to make "real music" on some of the early relics. Others might find it encouraging to see that I first learned guitar, banjo, and (some) mandolin on pieces that wouldn't even be considered musical instruments today. If you want to learn for yourself and not just to impress your friends, you can learn on an instrument that looks bad and has poor tone, as long as it has been "set up" properly. Our article "Are You a Brand Bigot?" addresses this issue to some extent as well.

You also might find it interesting to see that - as of late - I've been gravitating toward cheaper instruments I'm not afraid to take anywhere, versus first-tier instruments that I'm afraid to take out of the house except to safe, climate-controlled environments. If you hire me to come play at your church or coffeehouse or festival, or concert hall, I'll bring my better axes (even if I have to borrow them back from the family members I've loaned them to). But if you call me up and say, "Can you bring your banjo to the picnic," or "Hey a bunch of us are jamming at the street fair this weekend," I might not.

Hopefully my admittedly self-indulgent "trip down memory lane" will remind other musicians of some "piece of junk" they learned from because they wanted to. After all, the music isn't in the instruments we use, not even the ones that are easiest to play and have the best sounds - it's in our heads and our hands and our hearts.

Best of luck,

Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to visit the Creek Don't Rise discussion forum. Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.

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