Welcome to the "Bit of History" page

The following articles appeared in 5-String Quarterly. I have shown the graphics in a small size to make it quicker to load the page. If you would like to see a large size copy in .GIF format click on the Large Size Graphic - "(which ever)" and remember patience is a virtue. If you are using netscape and would like to down load a copy of the graphic put the pointer on the image and click on your RIGHT mouse button and "save image as" You can then print the image from your graphics viewer. I've included a graphic scale to help you adjust the size but from experience it won't be perfect but close. ENJOY ! -- Ralph Kephart


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Art for art's sake by Ralph Kephart -- Spring 1995 Issue


The art of inlaying has been around a long time. It seems that humankind has always adorned cherished artifacts; during the Renaissance that the art of inlaying musical instruments with mother of pearl, ivory, precious metals, gems, and other exotic materials peaked.

I became fascinated with the Banjo during my teen years as it appeared to me to be the "hot rod " of musical instruments with all that chrome. It is a love that is still with me today although I like to think my artistic taste has been tempered over the years with experience. I started building my first instrument on the kitchen table; it was a crude attempt. I might never have started if I knew then what I know now.

I was living in southern California during the early 70s and met Chuck Erikerson, of Erika Banjo fame, who became my mentor. In 1972, I bought out what was left of Garapi Banjos (formerly Van Epps). Later, I went to work for Vitali Import Co. and Dobro while cutting pearl for Stelling , Deering Banjos, and Taylor Guitars at the same time. During this period, I started copying banjo inlay patterns and trading copies with Chuck; between the two of us (and other contributors), I amassed quite a collection. In Austin, I have been working with Tom Ellis of Precision Pearl Inlay on "computerizing" this inlay collection.

As musical instruments go, the modern banjo is quite young. It was not until the late 19th century and early 20th century that numerous manufacturers arrived on the scene. During this time, the banjo fell prey the decorator's hand.

It was not long before makers and manufacturers began identifying their products by the peghead design and inlay patterns, which holds true today. The most popular style for banjo inlay design no doubt is the Victorian florid patterns of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The graphic examples (page 13) from the Gibson "Americana" are presneted to help in the identification of styles and types of inlays from the past.

The Gibson "Wreath" was first introduced in about 1925 as the TB-5 (tenor Banjo). The style number after the instrument designation indicated the quality of the instrument. Gibson styles ranged from 00 (least expensive) to 6 (top-of-the-line), at least up until 1930, when things started changing. The letters in front of the style number stood for the kind of instrument (RB regular banjo, MB mandolin banjo, PB plectrum, etc.). The "Eagles" pattern appeared on the "Granada" also around 1925 and later in 1929 on the TB-4; It's now on the RB-800.

These graphics -- pegheads and fret inlays -- are shown at actual size. In future columns, I will try to cover some of the more interesting works of the early days of banjo making, including Bacon & Day, S. S. Stewart, Vega, A. C. Fairbanks, and Paramount.


Paramount Banjo Inlays by Ralph Kephart --Summer 1995 Issue


Last time, I presented Gibson inlay patterns. This time, I am sharing one of my artistic favorites Paramount Banjos, made by William L. Lange. He started in the late 1800's with Rettberg & Lange Co. and started Paramount Banjos in New York City around 1921. Paramount probably produced the greatest number of banjos of any manufacturer during the "jazz era." Serial numbers indicate over 15,000 instruments were made by 1935.

The Style A and Leader were made from 1921 - 1935. The Artist Supreme was produced from 1929 - 1935. Paramounts included Florentine, Victorian, and Americana art design. Resonators, or "acousticons" on expensive models were very decorated. Necks had rosewood fingerboards and fancy carvings on the heal and back of the peghead.

You don't see many Paramounts at bluegrass gtatherings due their sound, described by Lange as being "piano volume and harp tone." This is probably due to the tone rings made of brass and aluminum, and later, aluminum only. Pots were 5/8" thick.

Paramounts were very popular in their day and endorsed by a number of orchestra players and stars such as Harry Reser. A 1920s catalog depicts many women and African-Americans playing Paramount banjos.

The above drawings should not be taken as gospel, as there were numerous changes over the years depending on whether the inlay appeared on a 5-string, plectrum, or tenor. For example, you won't see the first fret inlay on tenors and plectrums. The drawings are shown at 46% of full size; the length of a normal peghead is six inches. If you would like a full-scale drawing of these patterns,write: Ralph Kephart e-mail 5sq@zilker.netor snail mail to: Ralph Kephart, 1606 Elvas Way, Austin, TX, 78758.


S. S. STEWART by Ralph Kephart -- Fall 1995 Issue

No mention of banjos makers would be complete without the name S. S. Stewart. An accomplished player, Stewart was one of the first major manufacturers of the classical open-back banjo. Generally, classical banjos had gut strings with the 4th string lowered to C (over 6,000 cake walks and marches were written for classical banjo). The S.S. Stewart factory was started in 1879 in Philadelphia, PA . It continued until about 1914. Known for its banjos, S.S. Stewart also produced a small line of guitars and bowl-shaped "tater bug" mandolins.

The Stewart factory produced a full line of open backs, including piccolo, banjeaurine, cello, and bass banjos. In addition they produced a guitar-banjo and a 6-string banjo (a 5- string with added bass string, the extra peg was located in the middle of the peghead). Pots for the regular banjos were mostly 11" or 11 1/2" in diameter going up to 12" or even 13" for special orders. The cello and bass banjos were a huge 16" and larger. The American Princess series of ladies' banjos had a 10" pot as well as 10 1/2" pots. Smaller yet were the Pony Concert and Giraffe Banjorette. Most all were made of German silver with wire edges over maple wood.

The company also made banjos for others, such as the Sears Acme. The design on the left was known as the Thoroughbred (top of the line). Other makers of the time also used this design and the art is still being kept alive to this day by Deering Banjos. The vine was silver with the leaves and flower being mother of pearl and abalone. The design on the right, the Acme University Glee, was commonly known as the Flowers and Pistol. One possible reason for the stars, half moons, and squares in the designs was that the inlay work was often performed by Turkish immigrants.

From Mr. Stewart:

"If you must use your banjo as a snow shovel, do so: only don't wonder if it sounds dull afterwards."

S.S. Stewart catalog, 1896.


A.C. Fairbanks by Ralph Kephart -- Spring 1996 Issue

One of the finest made and undoubtedly one of the finest inlayed banjos of it time came from the A. C. Fairbanks - Vega. Company. Like many of the Banjo Builders of the classical Period, (here I'm thinking of Stewart , Bacon and Cole) Albert Fairbanks was also a classical five string banjo player. Although having built banjos before, Fairbanks started earnestly building banjos with Cole around 1880.

The Fairbanks & Cole firm lasted about 10 years with Cole departing in 1890 and setting up his own shop. The company was later renamed the A C. Fairbanks company even though Fairbanks sold out in 1894. In 1904 after a fire the company was sold for reported $925 to the Vega Company.

During the Cole years the banjo was greatly improved esthetically as well as technically. The quality of the inlay work continued to grow and about 1902 they started engraving the pearl. The reason no doubt being David L. Day, the general manager who started with Fairbanks in 1883. Day is given credit for introducing the Whyte Laydie series among others in 1901. Most of the instruments built during this period were truly unique with many different designs. David Day is the same Day that later joined Fred Bacon in 1922 producing the famous Bacon & Day Silver Belle.

At the time of the fire the company was predominately making the "Whyte Laydie" series on the expensive side along with several less expensive models. There was a great deal of artistic license given and taken by the pearl cutters and engravers. In fact it be rare to find any two of the nicer banjos that were identical. I can imagine it would get pretty boring doing the same design over and over.

For this issue I did a copy of a Whyte Laydie #7 built in 1902, The inlay you see on the front of this peg-head also was placed on the back of some different models like the earlier Electric. It can get very confusing as the different models shared many of the same or similar inlay patterns, some on the front and others on the back. Another example; the "Griffin" can also be found on the front of a Whyte Laydie #2 as well as on the back of the Electric or Whyte Laydie depending on the time. There were many different Griffin designs as well.

The other peg-head shown, commonly know as the "flower pot" also appeared on different Fairbanks models and was used on the Vega made banjos. This particular peg-head is from a tu-ba-phone made around 1917. It had engraved "dot inlays" and a star on the 5th fret.

I like the early craftsman took some "artistic license in reproducing these patters. Did the best I could in reproducing them in this medium but if you want an "exact reproduction" work from an exact size photograph of an individual instrument, contact me % 5-String Quarterly.5sq@zilker.net

ORIGINAL DESIGNS - by Ralph Kephart Fall 1996

In this series, we have looked at some classic inlay designs from the past. This time let's look at a couple of originals I did back in the early 70s and talk about design and inspiration.

First, peg heads. For example, on Flamenco guitars, the peg head was the "logo." Each maker had his own design which was his signature. The same holds true for banjos. I would recommend that those of you making your own banjos come up with your own peg-head design that is your own signature or "logo." Be creative and do what inspires you at the time.

The "snake inlay" was inspired by a visit to Chuck Erikson's (a.k.a. the "Duke of Pearl") shop on Lull Street in Van Nuys, CA in the early 70s. I sat at his desk to write a check for some pearl I had purchased when I heard a rattle and thud behind me. "Don't lean back," Chuck instructed. I turned to see what had made the noise and, to my surprise, it was a rattle snake striking the glass in an aquarium right behind me. In fact, there were three but only one seemed aggravated by my presence. Well, that was the inspiration! Chuck had done a beautiful multi-piece fish on the head of a banjo and suggested a snake would be interesting. So, personal experience can inspire the idea needed for an original pattern. When drawing the design create "pictures" -- much akin to stained glass.

I found a snake border in an art book which I used as the basis for the design. The vine was done in gold mother of pearl, the snake body in green abalone, the belly in green rippled abalone and the rattles in pink abalone heart. It took about 120 hours, and yes, I still have it. I tried to build some functionality into the design by having the snake heads, rattles, and bodies crossing at frets 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, 15,17,19 -- the traditional positions for fret markers.

The second pattern is a simple leaf, just modernized. I tried to keep this one basic and clean. The vine was done in nickel silver and the leafs in mother of pearl. If you would like to use it, feel free -- I never copyrighted it. In fact, it was very rare that I ever bothered signing any of my work -- it was art for arts sake! If you want to play around, try adding where I put stubs and changing the vine, or even reversing it. I left the peghead off in order for you to come up with your own ideas.


FINGERBOARD DESIGNS - by Ralph Kephart Winter 1996

In the Fall '96 issue, we looked at some full fingerboard designs, so this time I thought we would explore design themes and their reduction (the same relative design, but made smaller as you move up the neck). To do this, we will use the traditional fingerboard markers, that is fret positions 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, 15, 17, and 19. Many inlay patterns on banjos, such as those found on a Gibson RB-250, use a different pattern for each marker. Here, we will investigate running the same theme down the entire length of the neck. How do you come up with a design theme? Try going through design books until you find something that strikes your fancy. Then start with the first fret and work your way down. Change it as you go down the fingerboard to fit within the frets.

The pattern at the far left uses a reduction theme for guitar, which could easily be adapted to banjo (it would need to be made narrower). The design next to it is a nouveau design I created for banjo. In both cases, the first fret presents the complete concept. So long as you maintain the fundamental theme, you can eliminate or transform elements to accommodate the ever smaller fret spaces. Notice, for example, how the two side elements (what appears to be an "s" and a backwards "s") in the banjo example join to become a U shape at fret 7.

In the pattern to the right, I took the U-shaped element from the design and reworked it to see how many different designs I could come up with based on that shape. Each design to the right represents a 1st fret marker that could be modified or reduced as a theme for the entire fingerboard. Somehow I ended up with a snake theme -- a demon to some, a healing symbol to others. Obviously, your design could be interpreted many different ways. Just remember that your opinion is the only one that counts.

See what you can come up with using this exercise. It takes practice and patience. With success, you could possibly give your fretboard a more distinctive personality.