David Hyatt [see gallery]
I am relatively new to banjo making in general and gourd banjo making in particular. As such, my style and approach to making and playing banjos are still developing. My feeling now is that the gourd banjo is a powerful medium of artistic and musical expression that will need to capture the imagination of a new generation of players to survive.
Although new to banjo making, Iím not a stranger to woodworking. Apprenticed initially to be a brick and stone mason, I soon found myself with a 9-inch Rockwell table saw that I needed to build a "rustic" home in the Ozarks in 1977. I can still remember how scared I was as I cut through the first board. After a stint of working with master carpenter Ron Barnhart, I began building cabinets and other precision joinery in the late 1970s. I later entered into a partnership engaged in the restoration of architectural antiques. In 1983 I began contracting commercial construction, and in 1984 moved back to Arkansas to build the Thorncrown Worship Center designed by renowned architect E. Faye Jones. In 1987, I returned to college to seek an accounting degree. I changed professions but still retained woodworking as a hobby over the years.
I built my first banjo at a three-day workshop co-sponsored by Mike and Patty Ramsey and the Virginia 4-H at Appomattox in the late winter of 2001. I worked hard on this banjo, and I guess it was then when I had a realization ≠ I could make a banjo (I had been playing for a while). About this same time Clarke Buehling sold me a simple gourd banjo he had made; he said it had an [unattractive] "thuddy" sound, but I liked it just fine.
Playing this banjo, with its wide, flat neck, I became more interested in gourd banjos in general. Of course, as a weekly student of Clarke's, my regular exposure to the subject fueled my growing enthusiasm. Clarke, knowing I was "handy," asked me to repair the neck that was broken on one of his dipper gourd banjos. I agreed, and this experience got me working with gourds. Throughout this duration of time I was planning to do a documentary on Clarke and his banjo building. I thought I should go ahead and make a banjo, so I would get a sense of the building process and know what sorts of questions to ask. I made and gave this banjo (built with techniques similar to Clarke's) to my son. I immediately built another, completely different in size, tone and texture, for myself. Making a musical instrument for oneself from a gourd is a pretty powerful experience.
As of this writing, my style of building is heavily influenced by the celestial themes of early production banjos, notably W. A. Cole and his man-in-the-moon and shooting star motifs. I designed a simple moon inlay for my fretless "woody" made at the Ramseys' banjo camp. (I also commissioned a banjo, designed by Ray Alden and built by Jim DeCava, with these themes.) In another book on gourd art, I saw a picture of a painted gourd with attractive, large, contiguous partial star cutouts. Instead of duplicating the design, I used smaller, spaced, star and moon cutouts on the gourd, trimmed with gold acrylic paint (to match the tacks).
I believe that a tacked head produces a better tone and projection because you can get the skin very tight. I also use smaller gourds, which supports this approach (with a smaller head size). I use a separate, round dowel stick to save wood -≠ important since I tend to use expensive neck woods. I like the dramatic, uncluttered effect of an ebony fingerboard and peghead, although I may break this silence with an inlay if appropriate. I make the tailpiece out of wood, and I affix it so it barely presses against the gourd, thus stabilizing the neck.
I am not interested in recreating banjos of the past, but I am glad that other makers are interested in doing this. I will use a power tool in any circumstance where it will save me time (which I can tell you is my precious commodity). I am interested in building banjos with extraordinary tone and as high a level of craftsmanship as I can muster (this is the art part - which I am still learning). Lastly, I do this as a hobby, and I will only produce a few of these a year. My greater interest is in promoting gourd banjos, and I hope to develop a model and construction process that can be shared inexpensively with others in a workshop setting.