Posted by: Paul Roberts | April 12, 2017

Tony Trischka plays Gold Tone cello banjo

Gold Tone’s Cello Banjo Review by Tony Trischka

2008, Banjo Newsletter and Gold Tone website; used by permission

The first thing that strikes you as you pull the ole cello banjo from it’s case is that you’ve shrunk… perhaps by visiting wonderland and popping a pill that makes you just a little bit smaller. Yes, it’s a five-string banjo (sans resonator), but the neck is wider, the pot is bigger, the strings are thicker and wider apart, and that loooowwww sound… an octave lower to be exact.

Marcy Marxer had borrowed an original four-string Gibson cello banjo from Mike Seeger, and that was all the inspiration Gold Tone’s Wayne Rogers needed to put these babies into production. Marcy showed up at one of my gigs last spring with her new four-string Gold Tone. We jammed and she sounded great and my curiosity was piqued.

Next think I know, they’re making a five-string version, and one ends up in my greedy mitts.

This breed of banjo was originally used in turn-of-the-century banjo orchestras (which would also include the more diminutive piccolo banjo). To hear some of this unique sound, check out the Old 78s on the Gold Tone website. These folks are great.

The Gold Tone looks great with its tasteful gold-plating, brass tone ring, three ply rim, 32 brackets, 14” pot assembly, nifty arm rest, and cool headstock design. The inlay is vintage Weyman #1 (retroing into the future). It has double coordinating rods and a 24 ¾ inch scale.

O.K., that enough about it’s decidedly good looks and physical specs. How does it sound and feel?

Initially, upon lifting it out of the case, I was stumped. It was such an odd sensation… playing some Scruggs rolls and fiddle tunes and having the sound come out so deep… I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Almost immediately I took another tack by writing some tunes that flowed naturally out of this particular instrument. I came up with a jig, a weird progressive tune, and a one chord fiddle tune. Now I had a seminal repertoire under my belt. Having accomplished that, I went back to playing one fiddle tunes and found that I rather liked the way they felt and sounded… so deep down low. I also started playing the old folk song, Shenandoah, out of G, in a slow Scruggsy kind of way. I liked the simplicity of it and the fact that every single note had much more gravitas than it would have in a standard G tuned environment.

In terms of writing music, things come out of this instrument that wouldn’t necessarily come out of a normal five-string. It creates its own terrain for exploration, which sparks my creativity… and that’s, personally, very exciting for me.

As far as the larger scale goes, it’s a tiny bit harder to reach certain things at certain times, but overall its not awkward at all… just different.

I’ve also found that the cello banjo seems to be more forgiving with mistakes. It’s harder to miss notes, presumably because the strings are thicker (the first through fourth are wound, the fifth is unwound nylon), the spacing is wider. Almost like everything’s in slo-mo and you have all the time in the world to get to the next fret.

Incidentally, clawhammer sounds great on the cell banjo. If you go to the Gold Tone website you can see and hear Cathy Moore play a beautifully lonesome version of Spotted Pony. The low tuning gives it an incredible depth and an added measure of spookiness. Another advantage of clawhammering on a cello banjo, in my perception, is that the wider spacing between the strings makes it easier to get the drop-thumb in there.

My only critical comment related to the headstock. I love the look of it, but its tapered construction at the end creates space issues when tuning the second and third strings. Not impossible, just a little bit awkward.

With that one caveat, I’m really happy with this beast. Can’t keep my hands off it. It probably won’t stand as your primary banjo but it’s a beautiful way to expand your horizons and still have the five-string language under your fingers.



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