Instruments are an important enough part of many musicians lives that they become almost like members of their family. As such, they are often given names by their owners. Christina Wilson, of the Honey Whiskey Trio has just welcomed “Winston” into her family. I didn’t pry into the reason behind the name (but have some guesses!), but she has made it known that Winston is already well loved.
This banjo had its beginnings when my wife and I took our son to a vocal workshop given by the Honey Whiskey Trio in town just over a year ago. I wasn’t going to do it, but my son convinced me I should go give Christina, their banjoist, a business card. Our conversation somehow turned into an order, and Winston was born.
Christina was very open to whatever ideas I was interested in pursuing, with only a few requests. It was to be an open-back with a frailing scoop, something I had not done yet, so was excited to pursue. She did not need fancy woods or inlays. But left these choices to me.
Using the flared rim was something that made sense to me for an open back, because the hooks and brackets are not exposed to have any chance of interfering or catching on clothing or anything. Also the beauty of the wooden pot is much more visible without metal hooks poking out all over. To keep things lightweight I went with the Port Orford Cedar neck and a wooden tone ring. Because the Leopard-wood ring I had made prior turned out so well, I used it again, also incorporating it for the frailing scoop and other trim as a nice contrast to the maple.
While working on the pot I did decide to do one thing I had been itching to try for a few years, ever since I spent some time researching shamisen building on a trip to Japan. For those unfamiliar, the shamisen is basically a Japanese banjo (although they have been around much longer than their American kin), a 3-stringed instrument with a stretched head (cat, dog, or snake skin) on both the front and back of a square pot. High end shamisen often have an intricate herring-bone carving on the inside of the pot that is supposed to improve the sound. I saw some of these pots on unfinished instruments and couldn’t help but thinking how it was a pity that this beautiful carving would never be seen on the finished instrument. I had previously heard of other banjo builders doing something similar to create an uneven surface for sound to bounce off of on the inside of banjo rims, for a less harsh sound. I never knew if that actually did anything or was just a gimmick, but after seeing these shamisen, I really wanted to try it out on a banjo, so I went for it. It certainly added a visual interest that set it apart, and while it is always difficult to pinpoint what one specific feature is doing to change any specific character of the sound, it is safe to say that the overall sound was very warm and pleasant to hear (especially when Christina played it!)
Another thing I came back with on that trip to Japan was an assortment of pure silk shamisen strings. I couldn’t afford the $3-500 cat or python skins to try my hand at stretching, especially when they told me that over half of the skins will tear, even by experienced stretchers, but the strings sounded safe! So I have more ideas for another banjo with shamisen strings and carving, a real hybrid instrument, but who knows when the time shows up for that one!
In the meantime, for full specs and more photos of the Winston banjo, go to its gallery page here.