New Rickard banjo!

Posted: November 3, 2014 in music, Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,
New Rickard banjo

New Rickard banjo

Bill Rickard and I have been friends for some years. We share a love of banjos, most banjo music, and motorcycles. For those who don’t know, Bill makes some of the most amazing banjos around these days. But not only that, he has become a major supplier of banjo parts to the industry. Find him at Rickard Banjos.

He has a shop in Aurora, Ontario, about 40 minutes from my basement. He is an accomplished machinist, and is reproducing many vintage style parts from the first Golden Age of the 5-string banjo (~1880 to ~1910). And not just reproducing them, but making them from better materials, and using modern machining methods to make them even stronger.

If you’ve seen me play, I likely had my go-to banjo, the Ghastlytone, Bill made all the metal parts and collaborated with Hugh Hunter at Midnight Special on some of the woodworking.

Rickard peghead

Rickard peghead

And now, at long last, Ghastly has a companion and a true peer. In mid-October Bill delivered the beast you see above. And because I’m a banjo nerd, I have to describe it. I’ll start at the top…

Bill’s new tuners at 1 and 3, and Bill Keith‘s at 2 and 4 so I can get from doubleD tuning to A or A-sawmill in a hurry.

The peghead inlay is my concept, and Bill’s magic construction. How it ended up is a black pearl cloud with a white pearl edge (how Bill cut this I have no idea!), with a german-silver thunderbolt through it on an ebony back over  the cocobolo neck. It throws off dark rainbows in the light.

Rickard neck (top)

Rickard neck (top)

The neck adjustment access is uncovered, and painted black so it blends in.

The inlays on the neck are raindrops, seemingly randomly scattered down the neck. The actual placement is my design, and Bill and I had many discussions (arguments? angst?) about what materials would be best until we decided on german-silver for the big drops at the standard position markers (1,3,5,7,10,12, 17 and 19) and bluish abalone for the rest.

The pictures don’t do it justice.

Rickard neck (middle)

Rickard neck (middle)

The neck itself is made of cocobolo, one piece cut in half and joined on the middle with a maple/ebony/maple strip.

The fingerboard is ebony, unbound, with 21 stainless steel frets. Scale length is 26-1/2 inches, one of the old Vega standards. It is only 21 frets so I could get the bridge closer to the edge of the pot than Bill normally puts them. There is no frailing scoop.

There are railroad spike capos in the neck at 6, 7, and 8, so I can mess about with key changes and modal tunings with less fuss on stage.

Rickard neck (bottom)

Rickard neck (bottom)

I am a fingerstyle player who plays to the end of the neck, so I need low action (1/8th at 15). The action also needs  to be low so the strings are close enough to the humbucker pickup, supplied by John Kavanaugh, to get decent amplification.

I tried to get the height the same as the Ghastlytone, so I would have less fussing about when dealing with DI boxes and PA systems at gigs. The closer they are to each other – the better.

Rickard pot

Rickard pot

The pot is also beautifully figured cocobolo, with antiqued brass metal to hold the head down.

It’s a 12″ pot, of course, so I can get some decent low-end. Bill was insistent on a 1/2″ pot, while I was worried that anything less than 5/8 or even 3/4 wasn’t going to have enough punch. Bill was right, and I was not.

Rickard pot

inside Rickard pot

It is a LOUD banjo. The Dobson tone ring really rings in this configuration. It is so loud that the rich overtones collide with each other when I’m playing jazzier chords at speed. So I had to put some wool between the tailpiece and the head to kill the noise from the strings past the bridge, and a piece of cork on the perch pole just barely touching the head near the pickup.

Now it’s perfect. And very similar to the Ghastlytone. Now I can’t tell which is better, as they’re both better than anything else modern I’ve heard for the way I play. So – 1/2″ cocobolo rim with a Dobson ring sounds reasonably close to a 3/4″ hard maple rim with a tubaphone. Weird, but I couldn’t be happier. I now have two go-to axes.

One is tuned in D and one in C anyway, so I don’t have to retune on stage between tunes. They will both be going with me to every gig.

Rickard's Oettinger

Rickard’s take on the Oettinger style tailpiece

And the tailpiece. Sometimes I wonder if Bill is a mad genius, sometimes I’m certain.

This massive piece of high tolerance engineering is a true wonder. Bill has taken the Oettinger idea from the Jazz Age and brought it to the space age. Steel allen screws into the brass ensure precise calibration of every arm, so string tension can be balanced for even tone and volume across all the strings. And the overall height is just as easily adjusted as the piece clamps to the rim hooks. For a hot rodder like me – this is a joy. Hours of fiddling to get it the way I want, then I can change my mind and do it all over.

So – Bill – this is an amazing instrument. Well worth all of the time and effort it we’ve put into it over however many months (years?) it has taken.

I’ll post a sound clip as soon as I can get one …

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