The Hunt for the Old Banjo

For most people, something as simple as needing some work done to an instrument is a simple errand. But my dad (Joe Hardin), doesn’t meet strangers, he is making friends. This turns any of our weekend to do list into mini adventures and our latest one had us traveling to Hickory, NC.

The Banjos

The first thing you have to know to really see how amazing this trip was, is my dad’s long time search for his holy grail of banjo tone. If you listen to the Beverly Hillbillies, you will hear that iconic Earl Scruggs banjo and you will notice today’s banjos–well they are a whole different sound.

But hey, some people love the loud and proud banjos today–most people actually. But, for my dad, his ear had been trying to replicate the heart of his childhood. Through a series of lengthy phone conversations, an elderly man in New Jersey turned friend (as happens with Dad) sold a couple of banjos that have had my father giddy for weeks. Christmas morning (as it seemed) and his first banjo arrived–a ’68 Earl Scruggs Vega–and there it was. The tone. It was near perfect and anyone who would listen was bound to hear him roll a few notes.

The second banjo–a 1925 Gibson–made his heart jump even further. If you have ever had that sensation of trying to remember a song but only having the melody in your head, then you can probably relate to the relief when Dad finally heard such a close match to this sound he has been chasing for decades.

But as we sat with these two old banjos, they needed a little bit of TLC and we knew just the man to trust.

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The Banjo Maker

So we drove them into Hickory, NC where Warren Yates, the man to see when it comes to Banjos, welcomed us into his workshop. We took up quite a lot of his time, but he was pretty gracious with us. One can describe him as half passion, half comedian.

When it comes to banjos, his knowledge seems limitless. His shop boasted several in various stages of being built and with a quick few movements, the first banjo was apart and getting a good thorough inspection.

The really special thing about Mr. Yates isn’t just about making banjos, it has more to do with solving problems like my dad had. His real talent is in being able to recreate sounds of the past. His prewar replicas mimic so closely the tones of an era gone by that someone wishing to relive a piece of their past need only close their eyes.

He also makes picks, straps, and basically anything banjo related, but when he placed his handmade Yates banjo in Dad’s hands and asked him to give it a go–well that’s when it was easy to understand why he has such a stellar reputation.

There it was, that perfect sound. Years of searching and getting closer and closer, came down to one that wasn’t even old at all. A brand new banjo with all the “wear and tear” of a memory made my Dad’s smile go ear to ear–and made the hour long drive home a little one-sided. How is it possible to calculate and test your way into a feeling? I’m not sure how all the magic is done, and I think Mr. Yates likes it that way, but I can say it is nice to know we don’t have to say good-bye to the things we loved from our past.

I should also note, that any time spent with Mr. Yates will leave a smile on your face regardless, because telling jokes comes as quickly to him as banjo making.

If you would like to learn more about Yates Banjos, you can watch our short interview with him on our Facebook page or visit his website at Yates Banjos.

 

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