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OME's North Star bluegrass banjo
The Ome banjo company has long been a force in refining the art and craft of lutherie. For years, Chuck Ogsbury, daughter Tanya, and his small crew of talented luthiers has led the charge in improving the banjo in both looks and tone, all the while maintaining a firm grasp on the tradition that the instrument is steeped in. In the last ten or so years I've been honored to make the acquaintance of both Chuck and Tanya, and have come to realize how truly dedicated their company is to making a handcrafted American banjo. It is this passion that helped perk up my ears when I heard they were coming out with a new model in early 2012. This model, The North Star bluegrass banjo, not only upholds the reputation of this fine American company but also retains the spirit that Ome banjos are known for and built with.
The North Star is quite a head turner. "Classy" and "understated" were the two words I couldn't get out of my head as I looked at this banjo for the first time. Aesthetically, it has copious amounts of vintage appeal. The North Star's finish is of smooth tong oil over the mahogany resonator, neck, and maple rim. The hardware, including Ome's own "sweetone" tailpiece, is of aged brass, giving this banjo that weathered look that is not only eye catching but somehow makes it feel that much more comfortable. The tension hoop has a tong oil finished mahogany armrest attached, which adds striking visual appeal as well as an unsurpassed level of comfort. The stark black, radiused, ebony fretboard is adorned with subtle small dot inlays and a stylized star spanning the 19-21st fret. In classic Ome fashion, the headstock is elegantly inlaid in both Abalone and mother of Pearl, with the Ome scripted logo front and center.
The playability of this instrument certainly matches that of its looks... comfortable. With the smooth oil finish, and radiused fingerboard, this banjo plays with ease. The neck profile fit my hand very well, lying somewhere between a vintage style neck and a more modern oval profile. The oil finish gave no resistance to position shifts and movement up and down the neck, allowing shifts on the neck to be extremely fluid. The set-up was quite literally spot on, the strings were nice and low, and the nut, frets, and bridge matched the radius of the neck throughout. The set-up allowed for minimal fretting pressure, great comfort and fluidity, and clear, concise, "buzz free" notes.
The North Star's tonal offering is one that, while not for everyone, will certainly grab any player by the ear. At the heart of this banjo's tonal system is an 11" renaissance head, sitting directly on top of the maple rim, paired with the mahogany resonator. To say this banjo sounds just like that of any banjo with a tone ring would be false and misleading...however, there are some surprising similarities. The expansive tonal palette of this instrument was one that I had underestimated, taking into account looks alone. The North Star offers very clear and articulate single notes, with plenty of volume, snap, and pop to spare. The notes ring true, with subtle overtones that neither interfere nor compete with the fundamental. The high end is incredibly well balanced to the low, and the notes ring with less of a bell-like sustain, but more of a thick, round, wood-flavored tone, with a quick enough decay for the next note to move in and make itself comfortable. The overall volume of the Star was extremely impressive, rivaling banjos even with a tone ring, however the character of the notes is what really separated this banjo from other instruments. This is a wonderful banjo that most certainly has the capacity to cut through a jam, even though the "traditional" recipe may not have been followed.
If you're looking for banjos with a traditional tone ring, a heavier instrument, and gloss finish, this may be one to pass on. However, this is one to absolutely try if you want a lighter banjo, if you plan on expanding your collection to introduce a more "modern" instrument, or if you're looking for an instrument that offers a different, unique, useable tone to add to your stock.
OME's Wizard Openback
Question: What is the ultimate banjo for clawhammer playing?
I get this question a lot, both by students just starting out as well as from folks who have been playing a while. And as most of us soon discover, there really is no one ultimate banjo. The answer is always more a product of the conditions— economic as well as playing style—of the person looking for their next (or often first) banjo as well as what is available when they are looking.
Answer: There is no ultimate banjo. (But, this one may just change that.)
Many variables come into play when looking for an instrument but the two most often listed tend to be price and instrument size (scale length as well as pot size). Not to be minimized also is the "fad" factor; what is popular for the style folks are currently playing. The best I can do is provide you with as much information as I can to help you decide what would be your best option today.
I've played many banjos over the years and "endorsed" several. Some years ago I was asked an interesting question by one banjo manufacturer. They wanted me to play only their banjos at the exclusion of all others and couldn't understand how I could recommend more than one brand. Wasn't my credibility in question if I didn't say "one" was the best?
I sort of laughed and responded that quite the opposite would occur. My "endorsement" of various makers without being employed by any one of them put that maker's banjos in my elite list—since I have bought and paid for my instruments (yes, at a reduced cost in most cases)—of instruments that this "master player" considered worthy, which made my position an unbiased player/reviewer/ endorser instead of someone who was paid to just play "x" brand. I have been able to keep that approach, which for now continues, though I must admit that after my experience with this new OME Wizard, that may have to change!
Remember, what is popular now wasn't popular even 20 years ago and might not be 20 years hence. Preferred pot size and scale lengths have changed over the years, from the extreme in the late 1800s and early 1900s when there were all types of banjos—from giraffe banjos and ukes to bass banjos with pots as small as a few inches like the Chinese banjos (the xen xens, dating from several thousand years ago) to pots as large as bass drums. Pot sizes came in 1/16" increments, but with skin heads fit to each banjo, it really didn't matter. Scale lengths likewise varied a lot before the oft-called "Gibson scale" of 26 1/4" that has become the norm over the last few years.
Things settled down and stabilized somewhat due to mechanization of the building process. Because of that, it's not surprising that the major banjo manufacturers have been slow to change and less than anxious to create the "current favorite" year to year. Tooling is expensive! That is not such a big issue if one can assume that the new "standard" will be around for a while but fads are fads and they tend to be neither rational nor predictable. Until now, if you wanted a 12" pot, 25 1/2" scale banjo in the style of Kyle Creed (the most identifiable source of these dimensions) you had to go to custom makers such as Kevin Enoch or other so called "boutique" builders such as Chuck Lee, Lo Gordon and Mike Ramsey as well as those doing one of's and small production folks like Jason Romero.
While these builders make fine instruments and they are quite desirable, the numbers produced has been low; some have waiting lists several years long. And, the price in most cases is not something to be taken lightly, though they seem to have stabilized over the last couple of years. The builders sell primarily directly to the player, meaning not much distribution. Yes, there are exceptions, with Chuck Lee being the most widely recognized as being available in the finer acoustic music shops, but by and large, this is still a cottage industry as far as the banjo world is concerned.Recently some of the import builders such as Gold Tone have signed onto the 12" pot with their quite nice and well received Bob Carlin model—the BC 350, and later the BC 120—and even OME themselves started testing the waters with a 12" pot on their banjos a few years ago, but again, if you wanted an old time 12"er with that shorter scale—no luck. Until now!
Some background: Last August I was up in Colorado to play at the first annual Fort Collins old-time festival; that gave me an opportunity to stop in Boulder, home of OME banjos. It is also the current home of friend and banjo/fiddle great Miles Kraussen, so I had plenty to do. I got to spend time with Miles, which is always a treat, take in Jeff Haemer's famous Wednesday evening old-time jam (which has been running weekly nonstop for over 30 years now), and I even found a great Indian grocery to pick up some things I just can't get here in Yuma. Especially enjoyable was a stop at OME to visit and see what was the latest from Chuck, Tanya and Rick and their crew. Well! Was I surprised when Chuck showed me the first-run prototypes of these new old-time instruments which were set to be previewed at the IBMA gathering that October. I was awestruck. The necks felt so good and with just enough meat added to give it a balanced substantial feel in the hand without being what we like to call "clubby" or awkward. It was lust at first touch. Next, Chuck took me into their showroom where he kept handing me different instruments, switching out bridges, tailpieces and even different numbers of brackets. Then over lunch he proceeded to collect more information as to my thoughts on what I liked and/or didn't. We didn't come to any solid conclusions, other than when one of these instruments was available, I really wanted to be able review a production model.
Well, the prototypes sold out instantly at the shows so it wasn't until the week before Thanksgiving that my instrument arrived, and even then I had to take what was ready to go—no special orders here—which is fine with me since I wanted to see what will be available to all of you as opposed to having a special instrument that would be different from the production models. The only consideration for my personal preference was that my banjo came with a Fiberskin head, which I prefer to the (also available) Renaissance head.
First, I'll say it, I love this banjo! OME has taken some very significant steps in making a true old-time banjo with the release of their newest offerings. And not one but four new banjos directed at the current old-time market—the 12" Minstrel (14 brackets, no tone ring, wooden dowel: $1750), the 12" Wizard, reviewed here (26 brackets, no tone ring, wooden dowel: $1995), the 12" Flora (26 brackets, rolled brass tone ring, wooden dowel: $2325) and the 11" Southern Star (24 brackets, Silverspun tone ring, double coordinator rods: $2650). All list prices include a hard shell case.
These instruments all have a scale of 25.5" with a slightly wider nut width of 1.34" (and wider string spacing), s-shaped frailing scoop, OME's new Sweetone tail piece, and are fitted with their brass hardware which has been oxidized to an antique finish and should age and tarnish over time. The new wooden armrests are an additional $75 retail (wonderful, by the way). The Wizard and Flora are also available in 11" but all 11" versions of the above models have double rim rod construction as of now. If the demand is high for 11" pots, they may consider offering the wooden dowel in 11" pots (though Chuck says you can order it with a dowel rod if you prefer).
I received a basic 12" pot Wizard to review and I must say, I couldn't be more thrilled! The basic specifications for this instrument I received are a 25.5" scale; 1.34" nut width; 12" 2-ply tone rim; Fiberskyn head (Renaissance also available but I want to try a real skin on it!); Snuffy Smith bridge; walnut neck with African Ebony fingerboard, oil varnish finish; real mother of pearl and abalone inlays; aged brass hardware including OME's new "Sweetone" tailpiece and planetary tuners; S-shaped frailing scoop and wood dowel stick which attaches to the banjo by threaded ferrules allowing for the stability and adjustability of a rod, while maintaining the classic dowel look and sound.
A couple of other important features are the 5th string pip or nut as opposed to just a spike—and the ball mount for the tailpiece. The 5th string nut guarantees that all 5 strings are at the same height and the ball mount for the tailpiece is way better looking and significantly more stable than the little angle bracket that some companies use. Combine that with internal drilled coordinator rod(s, or in this case the wooden dowel)—that means no large industrial looking bolt/nut combinations on the outside of the pot—and you have a banjo that is up to date with a classy old look and feel.
This banjo was stunning right out of the box. The first thing I noticed was the shape and feel of the neck. I am continuously thrilled every time I pick this instrument up at the neck. I have been trying to find the right balance of shape, depth, and "feel" of a banjo neck for years and this is truly what I have been looking for. OME says the spacing is wider but I didn't really notice any difference from my other banjos so perhaps this is in relation to other OME's. I thought it was great.
The neck is not too big or too skinny. The profile is round enough without being too deep, nice convex heal shape all in the old Vega tradition without being either a copy or a direct descendent of those old banjos. And the finish is wonderful. They use an oil varnish finish that has a nice satin look and a smooth even feel. The inlay is tasteful but minimal. Perhaps best put, this neck is the answer to my longtime question, "What if you took the old instrument(s) and updated them based upon today's technology (like truss rods) and preferences (like shorter scale lengths)." If I have any issues there would be the minor preference on my part for a smaller peghead, but, that's me. This neck is right on in shape, feel, weight and playability! It is fast!
Next up for me was to play it. This banjo gave me strong, responsive tone right out of the case. You can play this instrument with ease, as even with the wood tone ring-less pot it is live and loud. The action was low and fast even with the 3/4" Snuffy Smith bridge. The neck is dead flat (they come up some over time, so OME chooses to start with a flat set-up) when you get it and the head is quite tight, which adds to the brightness of the instrument, which is a set-up issue that we'll address in the next part of this article. The sound has warmth but still strong and bright. In fact, this is the closest any of the major banjo companies has come to the sound and feel the old-time folks are looking for—a major plus.
I will say that the tone as set-up from the factory is still a bit bright for me because I prefer a warmer tone, dark without the trebly ring. But that becomes the next quality of a great banjo. Can you make it what you want it to be, sound-wise? I had no problem adjusting the instrument for the sound I prefer. Briefly stated, I like a warmer and dark sound but I still want clear tone in the upper range. I like some sustain (ring) but not so much that it pierces your ears or rings so long the notes are no longer distinct. Towards that end, I have usually gone towards a looser head and higher action with some relief (curve) in the neck and a 5/8" bridge.
I've made some basic adjustments to an already great instrument. In order to get my sound I loosened up the head almost a full turn on each nut (you do this in steps of 1/4 turn at a time), loosened the truss rod to put some relief in the neck (I have about 3/64" clearance at the 12th fret with a steel rule bridging frets 1-17) and have ended up at 7/64" clearance at the 12th fret to the third string with a 5/8" bridge. I also switched to Elixir medium strings (.010, .012, .016, .023, .010) because I love their feel, and the 3rd and 4th strings are a bit heavier than the stock medium OME strings (.014 & .022 respectively) the banjo came with. Finally, I ditched the Snuffy bridge (I just consider them too bright) in favor of a standard ebony topped Stew-Mac one.
With these banjos, OME becomes the first major banjo company to adopt the 12" 25 1/2" scale as a regular production model and should be able to produce a steady flow of instruments to meet today's demand with stable specs you can count on from instrument to instrument.
This isn't your Father's OME banjo! Bottom line is I am enjoying the sound and playability of this new and wonderfully old banjo. You will too!
It is hard to believe that 50 years have elapsed since the first ODE banjos were produced in Colorado. This legacy of innovative and high quality banjos has followed a successful course with the first ODE banjos being produced by Chuck Ogsbury in a small shop near Boulder, Colorado. As the years passed, the journey included a name change to OME, and distribution at one time by Baldwin and Gretsch. Chuck managed to continue with the OME name and has built a strong reputation for top of the line craftsmanship, high quality and breathtakingly beautiful instruments. His range of tenor and plectrum banjos are known to surpass the best of the vintage 1920's banjos for tone, appearance and playability. Of course, Chuck scored his early success with the 5-string players during the "folk boom" of the early 1960's. In those days, the rims were cast from aluminum and included an integral arch top tone ring in the casting. Chuck's extra long necks and resonated bluegrass banjos were quite popular in the day. By the mid 60's, Chuck and the ODE gang were beginning to produce the first wood rims with cast flathead tone rings installed. This is the time period thatI became involved with Chuck and ODE banjos.
I visited with Chuck, Eric Weissberg and designer Ed Britt during last spring's Banjo Camp North 2010. We had a great time reminiscing about the good old days in the early 1960's.
The Ome Southern Cross Banjo
Playing this new Southern Cross banjo is really more like revisiting the OME family than a review. This banjo is the testament to the banjo makers' art and attests to the tradition that started in Boulder 50 years ago. Here I am holding the grandchild of the banjos I first played and tested as they were born 45 years ago. While Chuck was creating his new line of wood rim banjos with cast flathead tone rings in 1963-1964, I was invited to be part of the blind fold test team to decide how well the new banjos and tone rings stacked up against vintage prewar banjos. "Kix" Stewart (as in Stewart MacDonald) was working at ODE, and championed Chuck's entry into this new ODE banjo style.
But, back to the OME Southern Cross. Right out of the case, I found the factory set-up to be right on the money. The fact that the banjo sat in its case for three months untouched (I couldn't play because of a hand injury) attests to the solid construction and overall stability. The action is medium-low, and this baby plays like a dream. The fingerboard is slightly radiused and a bit wider than several of the vintage style bluegrass banjos on the market. I personally prefer this extra width (my original 1930 flathead Style 3 conversion sports extra width as well). The fit and finish on this banjo scores very high marks—excellent fret work with fret ends meticulously dressed (no burrs). The banjo has a gorgeous deep nito-cellulose finish, with the fingerboard and resonator binding cleanly installed. The peghead and fingerboard have an elegant and original inlay pattern that has the prewar influence. The tone of this banjo is magnificent—plenty of good low-end growl and bell-like treble up the neck—no harshness. The tone is predominant in the midrange—where the "punch" dwells. The banjo hasplenty of volume to spare and still retains good tone when played hard. Excellent fret work and no buzzes! The Southern Cross has gobs of silky sustain when slow passages are played, and the decay of the notes works perfectly when playing fast as well. The banjo has great clarity and never sounds muddy. The Southern Cross is a really versatile banjo for traditional or modern playing.
This series features OME's new "Holy Grail" tone-ring. Chuck has consciously steered clear of "reproducing" the vintage banjos of the 1930's but has done everything possible to utilize their most desirable features. The OME bluegrass banjos have set a standard for their own particular sound and appearance. Chuck explained to me that he wanted to create this new Southern Cross banjo to compete and be comparable to the vintage sound. Fact be known, OME Banjos has scored a direct hit for the bluegrass banjoist who wants a great sounding banjo that echoes some of the best vintage banjos. This banjo will satisfy the discerning tastes of any bluegrass player—and will stand up well against all the great banjos being produced today during this "rebirth of the Golden age of banjo making"! Here are some specs that Chuck supplied to me as answers to several of my questions:
Mike Kropp: What strings are on it now, and the gauges?
Chuck Ogsbury: OME Medium gauge: 10, 12, 14, 22, 10
BNL: Do you have published specs as regards the nut width, 12th fret width end of neck width? Neck dimensions. I really like the wide nut, and girth of the neck—very pro feel.
CO: Nut width 1.27", 12th fret width 1.77", heel 1.895". I've never liked the narrow Gibson width. We're now making a new line of old-time banjos with a nut width of 1.34" and it feels great to me for old-time work.
BNL: What is the fingerboard radius?
BNL: Retail price and street (MAP) price—does this include the Superior case?
CO: Retail: $4150 with case. MAP $3735.
BNL: Tuners are? Knobs seem better contoured than the usual pearlescent stuff—what is this material?
CO: Acrylic Amber knobs. OME Custom tuners.
BNL: Flange is zinc?
CO: Yes! OME Zinc with F-holes.
BNL: Tension hoop is brass or zinc?
BNL: Rim is maple plies or block? How many plies, and other pertinent info?
CO: Soft 3-ply maple for that sweet tone!
BNL: Is the correct name for the tone ring "Holy Grail"? Do you make it? Anything new with the tone ring or rim as regards design, metallurgy or other voodoo mythology?
CO: Yes. This is our HG 50 or Holy Grail 50 tone ring. We have it custom made like most of our metal parts. It uses the OME prewar formula sand cast, precision machined with 20 holes close to the original. It is slightly heavier than our Megatone 200 & 400. So far, there is a difference, but not a lot, and all three work well. The Southern Cross is the closest thing OME makes to the classic "prewar" flathead. Prewar formula, shape, weight, and alloy. Mahogany neck, ivoroid binding, simpler symmetrical inlays, rosewood fingerboard (most all Megatones have the zinc flange and 3-ply maple rims) and the Presto tailpiece. Believe it or not, we are finding that the Presto tailpiece is the number one factor that will make any OME Megatone close to the prewar sound. So, for about $35 you can replace the harp tailpiece with a quality Prucha Presto and have a wonderfully close prewar sound.
BNL: Hooks and nuts are steel? And are these stock or manufactured specially for Ome?
CO: Hooks are steel but we also have brass ones. The nuts are OME ball end 5/16 type.
BNL: Truss rod, one-way or two-way?
CO: Since about 1983 OME has used a two-way truss rod. Presently, ours is is a compact, stainless steel rod that removes less wood and is finer adjusting than other rods on the market. Our fret wire also wears much longer than other wires on the market, but it is still nickel silver for that fine old tone.
Other additional pricing:
The Radius FB has an up-charge of $295 list. Chuck also notes: "We offer the same banjo in our "Vintage" (or "Depression") Series, which has our "Speed" oil finish, mahogany or curly maple woods, and synthetic tortoise boundr esonator for $3325 list or $2990 MAP. Case included. If you're looking for a superb banjo that is suitable for all of today's styles and has the vintage growl and tone, think about the OME Southern Cross—highly recommended!
Quote from Chuck:
"It normally has not been my way to copy or imitate other builders works. I just like to be different and I have always felt there is usually plenty of room for innovation. Variety is the spice of life sort of thing.
At the same time, I have always been appreciative of what has been done in the past. Consequently, OME products utilize both innovation and traditional aspects. This has worked very well in the old-time and jazz markets, but I have sometimes felt that considering the quality of our instruments, OME has never quite achieved the acceptance it deserves in the "hard core" bluegrass world. This has been especially frustrating for me because I was born, raised, and grew up with bluegrass music in Kentucky and I love it."
With this in mind, about two years ago, I decided to put my preferences aside, and do whatever it would take to have OME get as close as possible to the prewar flathead sound, without being a "clone." This effort has resulted in the Southern Cross. By the way, that name was inspired by one of my favorite songs by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, as well as the Southern Constellation, and the South in general."
It was an unusual career path for an engineering student, but this year Chuck Ogsbury is celebrating 50 years of banjo making success.
Ogsbury began studying at the University of Colorado in the late 1950s. Taking a coffee break between classes one day, he wandered through the Timberline Lounge at the University Memorial Center. A young woman was singing and playing guitar, accompanied by a banjo player. The woman's voice and the music blew him away. It was Judy Collins.
The chance encounter inspired Ogsbury to begin playing guitar. Shortly afterward, he picked up the banjo.
Soon he had designed his own banjo and built the prototype instrument in the CU physics machine shop. By the time he graduated, Ogsbury was already in business.
Some of his engineering professors were disappointed that Ogsbury didn't continue in engineering. "I was in the top 10 percent of my class," Ogsbury explains. His post-graduation banjo making plans didn't go over well with his parents' friends and relatives either.
Nevertheless, he produced his first 100 long neck banjos in a shop at Left Hand Canyon in 1960. The handmade instruments sold for $72. Comparable banjos at the time cost some $350.
"It was kind of a Henry Ford type of thing. Making not only a good product, but an affordable one," Ogsbury remembers. Sales took off quickly.
In 1961 he hired a friend to help. They set up shop in North Boulder and Ode Banjos was official. A year later Ogsbury bought an acre of land and hired a local contractor to build a 2,400-square-foot building for the growing company.
Business Week magazine featured the banjo maker in 1962 and suddenly there was a waiting period of 8 weeks for an Ode.
A 110-mph Chinook wind completely destroyed his operation in 1963. Ogsbury picked up the debris and moved to a rented warehouse. He was back in production within a month.
With lawsuit settlement money and the help of friends, he rebuilt a slightly larger space and continued producing beautifully crafted instruments.
A few years later, Ogsbury sensed the beginning of the end of the folk movement and he sold his small company to Baldwin in 1966. For about a year he traveled around the country, but came back to Boulder, settling up in Gold Hill. Before long, he was thinking of new banjo designs.
Baldwin still owned the Ode name. So Ogsbury changed the name to Ome and registered the trademark. Ome Banjos has been expanding its line of instruments ever since.
For the past 22 years, the enterprise has occupied an unassuming structure at 5680 Valmont.
A sharp and lively 71-year-old, Ogsbury takes pride in the exceptional quality of his banjos.
We're making works of art here," he said. "Our instruments are made to last for generations. How many products can you say that about?"
With over 90 percent of its business out-of-state, Ome Banjos is still not well known in Boulder.
"We're kind of a national treasure that nobody knows about," Ogsbury quipped.
Fresh, vital and energetically charged with deep and genuine feeling, Kort McCumber's new CD – Lickskillet Road – is guaranteed to satisfy. Whether you're looking for something to lift you up on your feet, or something to drive you thoughtfully into and sometimes to the edge of your seat, you'll find it on Lickskillet Road. Twelve great, new songs meet with great, timeless musicianship to make Lickskillet Road a must-hear, gotta-have-it CD.
A first listen leads to a quick conclusion …Kort is an accomplished player, and a versatile one. On this release, he plays no less than eight instruments (he plays many of them at the live show as well, along with a few more); Navigate your way up and down Lickskillet Road and you'll find Kort on guitar (acoustic and electric), bass (electric and upright), mandolin, bouzouki, dobro, harmonica and banjo. (Kort plays both an Ome Five String Jubilee Open Back and an Ome Four String Irish Tenor).
In the end, however, it isn't his instrumental versatility, but his vocal virtuosity that takes the record to the next level. His singing is not just good, it is great! Some singers can hit all the notes while others are skilled at capturing the feeling. Kort does both, breathing life into the songs and reaching into the lives of those who hear them.
As if that's not enough, McCumber and recording engineer/co-producer Jim Gilmour solicited a little help from the best of the best. Guest appearances from Vince Gill (mandolin and harmony vocals on Middle Child and lead guitar on Got Me a Woman), Sally Van Meter (dobro) and Don Conoscenti (acoustic guitar, electric guitar and lap steel), along with the soulful playing of numerous other musicians, raise the bar another notch or two. In the end, Lickskillet Road is well-conceived and skillfully delivered.
While Kort is clearly seasoned and comfortable in the studio, his greatest joy and dynamic verve is on-stage. The proof is in the performance. In 2007, Kort was the unanimous choice winner of the Suzanne Millsaps Performing Songwriters Showcase. His winning performance earns him a spot on the main stage at next summer's Founders Title Folk and Bluegrass Festival in Snowbird, Utah.
The next BIG show, the Colorado CD Release, is slated for January 4th at the Boulder Theater in Boulder, CO, presented by KGNU, Banker's Happiness Productions and Lucky Nugget Records. Mollie O'Brien and Rich Moore will open the show and you can expect guest appearances from Don Conoscenti, Michael Lille, Greg Schochet, Brett Billings, Tom Larson, Jim Gilmour, Beth Wilberger, Joy Myers, Dan Rose and others. If you're in the area, this is a show you won't want to miss. And if you're not, make your way there. In case you haven't heard, Colorado in the winter is pretty cool!
For more information on Kort McCumber or to listen to/purchase CD's, go to kortmusic.com, cdbaby.com, and Itunes.com. For a more up-close and personal kortmusic experience, go to the Boulder Theater on January 4th.
I first met Ome founder Chuck Ogsbury in the late 1980s, when my Boston friend Ed Britt brought him round for an introductory visit. Even then Chuck had already been in the banjo building business on and off for almost twenty-five years. He had created the Ode Banjo Company in the early 1960s and built some legendary 5-strings, sold that off to Baldwin Piano, and in 1970 he and a few partners started up the Ome company on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado. Although Ome had built mostly 5-strings in its early days, by the early 1980s its market niche was primarily the high-end tenor and plectrum market. By the time of our first meeting, however, Chuck had regained full control of the company and begun to devote much of his energy to re-establishing Ome as a major player in the world of 5-string banjo manufacture.
This decision was the start of roughly fifteen years of product development and experimentation. There have been radical changes in terms of rim designs, tonal systems, neck shaping, and hardware. There has also been considerable development in terms of available inlay patterns and other decorative aspects of banjo design.
As I came to know Chuck and his line of banjos, I came to realize that he was both a banjo visionary, and a true perfectionist. His purpose all along seems to have been to create the best crafted, most attractive instruments he possibly could. More important, his restless quest to create the best banjo possible has also extended into the realms of tone production and playability.
Chuck now feels that the development process has reached fruition, and that his current line of instruments (both 5-string and 4-string, both resonator and open-back) are the best Ome has produced to date.
I'll start with the open-back line, since that's the one I'm personally most familiar with. To appeal to the varied tastes of old-time banjo enthusiasts, Ome now makes three kinds of open-backs, all of which are available with both 11" and 12" rim sizes. Other things being equal, 11" sized rims yield a bit more clarity and high-end overtones, while 12" rims offer more warmth and low-end overtones. The 11" models are available with the modern standard 24-bracket configuration or with the 28-bracket configuration once characteristic of the Fairbanks/Vega line (I always preferred the 28-bracket system because with this configuration the brackets don't dig quite as much into the lap). To help maintain just the right level of string tension on both 11" and 12" open back models, Ome has developed its own specially designed sweet tone tailpiece.
* The Minstrel is designed for those who want a warm, woody tone perfect for vocal accompaniment, or for blending in with a present-day old time jam session. It has a 3-ply, 3/4" thick maple rim that features a carved "tone-rim" instead of a tone ring. Although some other builders glue on a separate piece of hard-wood to serve this purpose, Chuck made a conscious decision to carve this tone-producing system directly out of the rim, so that it is all in one piece. The idea here is that just as much tone is lost through the glue joint, as is gained by using a harder or more resonant bit of wood. Generally, the necks on this model are made of mahogany instead of the usual maple, which also makes for a less piercing sound.
* The Old-Time adds a small brass ring to the above described rim and tone rim system, to suit those who like the warm-woody tone but want just a bit more clarity and projection. In terms of banjo building history, this is closest in principle to the design of many late 19th century banjos.
* The Traditional banjo is for those old-time banjoists who want power, punch, and a wide range of dynamic and tonal expression. It has a complex tone ring set on a 9/16" multi-ply curly maple rim. This ring, based on one of the B & D (Bacon & Day) Silver Belle tone production systems, features a triangular-in-cross-section spun brass outer shell within which a quarter-inch steel rod is kept suspended under pressure. My own banjo is of this type, and I can attest that the system yields strong and even tone production throughout the banjo's range, which means that both miking and recording are a breeze. Comparing this system to the vintage Vega tubaphone, for example, I would say that the Traditional has its own characteristic sound, but in terms of every tonal measure I can think of, it's more or less in the same ballpark as its famous antecedent.
Chuck mentions that open back models are also available with 4-string tenor or plectrum necks, and in fact that the 12" Old-Time model with tenor neck is now selling quite well among players of Irish-style tenor banjo. Open backs are also available with 6-string guitar-banjo necks. According to a recent players' survey, the two most promising 6-string models each feature 12" rims: one model has the silver-spun tone ring, the other has the wooden tone rim.
For still more power and punch, the 11" traditional model is also available with a Megatone tone ring. In addition, as an extra option, all open-back models can be fitted with a Flushfit resonator, a wooden "lid" that clips on to the coordinator rods and fits across the entire back of the banjo, in effect creating a sound-chamber (this is akin to the old "pie-plate" resonators that you'll find on some early-20th century banjos). Next I'll move on to the bluegrass line. Ome has just developed a new version of the cast-brass Megatone (mastertone-like) tone ring within the last three or four years, which is designed to strongly evoke the pre-war "flathead" sound. In further pursuit of this sound, Ome has also adopted the pre-war idea of using a zinc-alloy die cast resonator flange (as opposed to the brass flange previously used). They have also done a lot of experimentation on the fit of pot and neck, the thickness of neck, and the fit of ring and three-ply 3/4" maple rim. In addition they have also developed their own Harp tailpiece, designed to keep the strings evenly spaced, while varying the tension to place a bit more pressure on the treble strings, and a bit less on the bass.
Resonator 5-string banjos are also available with a sand-cast, bell-bronze archtop tone ring, with top-tension construction, with radiused (curved) fingerboards, or with old-growth water-cured maple rims.
In terms of the jazz line, Ome produces a full complement of both tenor and plectrum 4-string banjos, all of which employ the 9/16" multi-ply curly maple rim with silverspun tone ring, and the harp tailpiece. There are three basic models:
* The Standard Jazz is fit with the same kind of resonator used for bluegrass instruments (historically, it goes the other way of course; bluegrass instruments wound up with the resonator originally designed for the tenor-banjo version of the Gibson Mastertone). Unlike the instruments of the megatone line, it has a two piece brass flange.
* The Classic Jazz features a "bell-shaped" spun brass resonator flange, and the overall appearance of the resonator is like that featured on the old B & D Silver Belle banjo line.
* The Megavox Jazz feature a deep wall resonator with a top-mounted flange.
Ome banjos feature a wide array of peghead and fingerboard inlay patterns, each more beautiful than the last, with fanciful names like Renaissance, Bright Angel, Rain Forest, Columbine and Odyssey. There are also a plethora of other options in terms of stain color, peghead shape, metal engraving, heel carving, resonator decoration and the like. I don't have the space to go into all these here, but you can get a really good look at many of them in the new Ome Catalog. To conclude with a few words from Chuck: "After working all these years, we have completed a new product line of instruments. These are the best instruments we've ever made. Now the challenge is just to keep building them!"