Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Friday, 10 June 2011

Luke Mercier Solves My Banjo Woes

My first (and lousy) banjo
The first banjo I ever owned was a piece of garbage - it had an aluminum pot (go wood or go home), funhouse dimensions that would send a luthier into a rage, and a short, curly hair pasted into the finish on the neck. As a novice, I was happy to be able to afford a banjo and to have something to pick on. I continued to play it after I outgrew it, and subsequently came to loathe it. My Chinese-made Alabama had to go.

Last January, I treated myself to a proper banjo. Coming from a soulless factory instrument, I wanted something with mojo to spare, so I choose a small Michigan maker with a good reputation named Bart Reiter. The banjo I got is a much more potent and versatile animal, and I'm happy as a clam. All the same, the nature of the instrument means that unleashing that potential in keys other than G or C requires retuning and can slow things down mid-jam. So I started looking for someone to install railroad spikes - tiny nails driven into the fretboard under the fifth string that allow for faster switching into different keys.

As the new proud owner, I was leery of entrusting my banjo to a guitar tech with a dabbler's interest. Although the modification is not especially complicated, it does involve drilling holes that can't be undrilled. Luckily, that Sheesham and Lotus concert I mentioned a couple weeks ago is still paying dividends, and someone there recommended the right man for the job. This is good news for anyone who has seen a Real Coyotes show, because it means 50% fewer corny jokes between songs as I retune.

Luke Mercier in his workshop
Luke Mercier is based out of Springbrook, only an hour from Peterborough. He has fifteen year's experience with George Heinl and Co., Ltd, a Toronto restoration company whose name I recognized because they had dealt with the sale of my grandmother's cello. That was as high-end an instrument as I have ever seen, and gave me confidence my banjo was in careful hands. Although my intellectual understanding of banjos has improved since shopping around, I'm coming from a bottom-end instrument that makes comparisons hard. Almost from the first strum, Luke was able to give me some suggestions on the setup that hadn't even occurred to me. He also told me that installing the spikes would take over an hour, a far cry from some of the other technicians who had offered to bang 'em in while I watched.

Luke took his time, and the spikes are unobtrusive and work like a charm. Based on this comparatively minor job, I'd love to hear some of the banjos that Luke builds himself. He also specializes in the making and restoration of violins, and examples of the craft are hanging around his workshop. I always find it interesting to meet someone whose technical or artistic understanding far outstrips the norm, and I got the sense that Luke could appreciate the instruments for qualities that most of us will never even be aware of.

I'm sure this post will be of limited interest to anyone who doesn't play banjo or fiddle, but those who do maybe can appreciate the relief at finding someone who is meticulous, experienced, and a pleasure to deal with. I certainly hadn't expected to walk into a fully-operational luthier's workshop on a dirt road in Springbrook, and Luke said that his business in turn was supported by some well-kept rural musical secrets. I'm hoping to run across them too someday. In the meantime, here's a link to Luke's website:

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