Friday, April 11, 2008

Me and my Banjos......

I’m a late starter into music, having only been playing some 14 years.
However I now play regularly each week in a 7 piece traditional/dixieland jazz band and in trios and duos and consider myself a working musician, having retired from active speedometer work.
My VEGAVOX 4 banjo, a 1956 model.
Venus de banjo......
I recall one day working on a speedometer ,I thought, I need to do something for me, something special for me. I need to play music… I’d always liked the banjo so that seemed the way to go…wrong! A dying instrument, they are not easy to find in Sydney and then I needed to find somebody to teach me how to play it. Little did I know then that there were three types of banjo….the 5 string, favoured by bluegrass and country players, the tenor, a 4 string with 19 frets and favoured by jazz bands and Irish bands and the 4 string , 22 fret plectrum or standard banjo, also played in jazz bands but great for solo chord melody work. Judy came back with an instruction book from the city, still no banjo ( the book was for a 5 string and I still didn’t realise it at that stage)..then as always opportunities arise…speaking with a chap I did speedometer work for who also used to play guitar in trios etc, he responded that his father played banjo and now dead he had the banjo and I could buy it.
It was a 22 fret KAY brand plectrum banjo.
Fruitless searches in the yellow pages telephone directory and calls to music shops all proved blank for a music teacher.
“Think out of the square, DQ…” I looked for Jazz clubs in the white pages, found the Jazz Action Society and The Sydney Jazz Club, they recalled a chap in St.Ives, Sydney, Paul Baker who played and possibly taught banjo.
Indeed he did and what’s more he played the same style banjo I had.
This would prove to be a boon, for he is likely the only teacher of banjo in Sydney, certainly at that time and proved to be outstanding in the US style of banjo playing as I found out in time.
I had lessons for over 10 years with Paul and we are firm friends and we dep. for each other in music jobs that clash with bookings we have.
Playing in the 7 piece Bridge City Jazz band in Sydney.
So what banjos do I have…?
My favourite banjo is made by the USA company Vega, who went out of business in early 1970s after trading for nearly a century. They operated out of 155 Columbus Ave., Boston Mass. USA.
As well as Banjos, they marketed other brass and reed instruments under their name, although they were made for them by others ( likely Conn in La Crosse, Wi., for the brass instruments such as trumpets, tubas etc).
They made several styles of banjo and the one I favour is the Vegavox, the Vox model from Vega. Designed for them in about 1926 by the banjo great Eddie Peabody ( the first entertainer to sign a contract for $1,000,000 in 1926….) and it continued basically unaltered until 1970, in several guises, the Vegavox 1, 2,3,4 and Ultra. The latter being flashy with gold plating and gems around the instrument.
Eddie Peabody featured with a new 1928-29 Ford and playing a VEGAVOX banjo.
The have a great sound. I have a Vegavox 1, 4 and Ultra and enjoy playing all of them. They are carefully set up to feel and play the same.
I have two other banjos… funny banjos with me are like motorcycles, or Velocettes in particular…I have 6 Velos at present & have had up to 10 at once…
Yes, I'm a "Street Person", a "busker"...busking in a Sydney suburb with some other geriatric musos ( Wally Temple, bent soprano sax, left and Peter Johnson,clarinet, right). I'm playing one of my D'Oole certainly "keeps us off the streets".....
These other banjos are made by Pat D’Oole in Geelong, Victoria.. that’s right an Australian banjo. They also have the resonator similar to the Vegavox, a deep resonator rather than the normal banjo. They also were made with shorter scaled necks for both Paul Baker and myself…the length of the neck is 1½” shorter , but still with the 22 frets. Playing the banjo you use your left hand to fret the chord formation on the neck ( well 99% of banjos are played right handed and the occasional one is left handed)…the shorter scale means you don’t have to stretch your fingers to form difficult chord shapes, as you would on the Vegavox and you can move faster around the neck during playing.
Talk about an eccentric…….
Left click on photos to enlarge.

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