Banjo Maker | Missoula, Montana
Mike Bennett was 14 years old when he heard the Kingston Trio album at a friend’s house and realized he wanted to play the banjo.
“I couldn’t find a good one, and I had no woodworking skills,” the Missoula musician said. Nevertheless, the passion was strong, he began to teach himself the trade.
“I had two music stores, one in Downey, California, and one in Redmond, Washington,” he recalled. “To promote selling instruments, I’d have banjo-makers come in and lecture. So the tuition was free.
That was the way he started to learn to make banjos. He also learned to make guitars but making the banjo remained his first love. The banjos heyday was in the 1920’s when there were dozens of manufacturers. A copy of the 1923 Sear Roebuck catalog offered 14 models, costing between $3.45 and $19.95. “They had all these different ideas about what the best way was to make a banjo,” Bennett said. “And since then, we’ve been trying to copy exactly what someone did 100 years ago.”
Bennett specializes in bluegrass-style five-stringed banjos, where the fifth string is attached midway on the neck. It allows a finger-picker to pluck melodies while thumbing a descant line. He favors a style of wooden rim with a curved inside, which boosts the lower frequencies and gives it a mellow sound [“not that banjos are real mellow,” he observes]. He also likes the richness he gets by adding a second, larger back to the instrument, called a resonator.
He custom makes each banjo to the customer's preferences. “I like to tell people that it takes three to four months to make one, but I don’t keep track of the hours. I’m kind of afraid to. They don’t leave until they’re the very best I can do, and that sometimes takes a bit of time.”