Jeffrey Menzies [see gallery]
Menzies is a young and prolific gourd banjo maker in Toronto, Canada. In the
fifteen months after making his first gourd banjo, he made thirty more! Jeff
has placed his banjos among a number of performing artists, including Mary
Z. Cox and John Balch. Jeff is also a sculptor, working in the mediums of welded
and stainless steel, cast bronze, iron, aluminum, concrete, and wood. Jeff
also makes open bank banjos in his shop.
Jeff was born June 23, 1976 in Toronto, Ontario Canada. Although he lived
in England for 5 years as a youngster, he was back in Waterloo Ontario for
his high school years. After high school Jeff moved to Ottawa Ontario where
he studied painting and photography at The Ottawa School of Art. He returned
to Toronto for undergraduate work at the Ontario College of Art and Design,
graduating in 1999 with a specialization in sculpture. Fresh from school, he
worked in the Sculpture Department at York University where he managed a bronze
and aluminum art foundry.
Jeff’s introduction into banjo making evolved from a desire to learn
more about the instrument and its history, and also one of necessity. His interest
for the banjo developed while in art school, where as a sculptor he already
had a foundation in making objects using various materials. Not able to purchase
the banjo he wished for at the time, he began making his first banjo. After
he graduated from art school and was practicing as a sculptor he continued
to explore banjo-building techniques with an emphasis on Vega/Fairbanks banjos.
In April 2003 Jeff applied to the Master of Fine Arts program at West Virginia
University and moved to Green County, Pennsylvania. He discovered that he lived
only ten minutes from the Banjo Loft and Wyatt Fawley, a banjo maker best known
at the time for his Vega neck reproduction work, and maker of the banjo that
Jeff was playing at the time. Jeff contacted Fawley immediately to introduce
himself and the two quickly became friends. Jeff worked under Fawley for five
months at the Banjo Loft and learned a great deal about building banjo necks.
Using both hand and power tools, Jeff was able to refine many of the skills
he had developed in his own banjo building experience. His work with Fawley
was a turning point in his banjo making practice.
Another turning point was the announcement of his wife’s pregnancy with
their first child! Jeff and Michelle returned to Toronto in October 2003 and
Jeff began working as an artist/banjo maker. He then began the MFA program
at York University in Toronto and continues his studies there as of this writing.
His thesis involves investigating a personal narrative/oral history of his
own life experiences. His sculptural work focuses on a personal narrative and
exploring object relations.
It was towards the end of Jeff’s time at the Banjo Loft that he was
introduced to the gourd banjo through David Hyatt’s board-a-gourd loaner
program. After playing one of Hyatt’s gourd banjos for a month, Jeff
became intensely interested with making and playing the gourd banjo. The gourd
banjo also fit with Jeff’s art practice since he was already
using gourd images in his sculptures. He saw the gourd banjo not as a separate
practice to his art but as an extension of it.
Jeff’s gourd banjos are not historical reproductions; his work is influenced
by neck designs of mid-1800’s minstrel banjos, contemporary styles and
makers, and also his own sculptural practice. Believing in the importance to
have the work of other makers/players feeding his practice, Jeff has devoted
significant effort to study and collect other gourd banjo makers’ work,
and to the extent possible, meet and learn from them. The final ingredient
is the impact of the materials. Each individual banjo is unique because the
banjo itself is initiated by the gourd used to create it and the wood that
becomes the neck. Throughout the building process, Jeff strives to arrive at
a balance of design and ergonomics that “respects and involves the history
and character of the gourd banjo. I see the gourd banjo as a very functional
instrument and I wish to participate in the making of such an instrument. I
choose gourds that are ergonomic and that I feel will produce the best sound.
I render the necks intuitively and in response to the gourd and piece of wood.
My banjos are constantly evolving. I view the banjos I make as functional art
Jeff is quick to note that playability is a major design element and that
his banjos are made to be played. Moreover, the playing and making of gourd
banjos parallels his interest in telling stories through visual means, an integral
investigation to his masters’ thesis. He often plays his gourd banjo
in committee meetings and presentation of his art practice. Jeff looks forward
to lifetime of musical exploration and a constantly evolving work in making
and playing the gourd banjo.
To see more examples of Jeff Menzies' work or inquire about sales please visit