Okay, so I got a bit carried away – I have received both a Shackleton banjo and a Barry Sholder fretless gourd banjo in the last week and they’re both, frankly, stunning and very different in character.
I’m going to split my musings over two posts because each instrument is exceptional in its own way and deserves a post of its own as a result. This is, of course, nothing to do with me trying to get my head (and fingers) around playing a fretless
First off – the Shackleton. I pre-ordered one of these way back in July 2013, before there was so much as a design concept in place. For quite a few reasons.
Firstly, I’d heard the “Islander Ash Leaf” banjo which the company behind the Shackleton (originally Banjos Direct, now the Great British Banjo Company) had commissioned previously and – well – better musical minds than mine were blown by it
Secondly, I’m a big fan of Shackleton the explorer – along with Christopher Lee, he’s one of my idols.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, the vision of what these guys were doing blew me away. Despite the economic climate, despite the ready availability of mass-produced (take that to mean what you will) banjos from the far east, they were going to design and manufacture a British banjo on a large scale, using as many British parts as possible, and at a price point to rival the ‘Big Boys’. What they were planning was nothing less than re-vitalising an industry that hasn’t been seen in Britain for sixty years.
A few weeks after my speculative preorder, the company launched a kickstarter campaign to help fund the project – which quickly met 160% of its original target, resulting in over 150 advance orders.
Then a few months later the first Shackletons began rolling off the benches of a very hard-worked team of luthiers – a banjo which, with the exception of a Remo head and Grover tuners (and a couple of minor bits), is made entirely in Britain. The neck, carved from a single quarter-sawn block of Appalachian rock maple, is turned and hand finished in Britain. The pot – a multi-ply arrangement, finished in birds eye maple and hand made by Premier Percussion – features a rather nice bearing edge instead of a tone-ring. Even the stainless steel brackets and tension hoop are made in Norfolk. I’m not going to wax lyrical about the peg head – save to say I like it a bit
Yeah yeah yeah, you’re saying – get on with it. How does it sound?
Like something three times the price, that’s how. Listen:
The Shackleton itself is surprising light, coming in at around 2Kg. It still manages to have the depth of tone of a much heavier instrument (not sure how they’ve managed that) and the sensitivity and sustain is just incredible. Every aspect of the instrument reeks of quality and precision – it’s easy to say ‘hand-made in Britain’, but when you actually open the box and take out a work of art which is assembled and set up to such exacting standards – well, I reckon the banjoneers at the GBBC are going to be very very busy from now on, and I reckon that Sir Ernest Shackleton would be proud. After all, in his own words, “Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn if unless it achieve results.”
It’s customary, at this point, for me to find a negative to balance my glowing review. Sorry folks. I have no negatives to give you. Yes, it’s a little more expensive than some of the ‘looky-likey’ banjos (Deering Goodtime, I’m looking at you). But that’s because, bluntly, it’s a better instrument. There are no compromises here. The last time I was banjo-shopping I played pretty much everything I could find that cost less than £1,000 and the Shackleton trumps all of them.
At the same time, though, there’s no complexity. There’s no money wasted on pretty pearl inlays, Scruggs tuners, armrests or anything like that. The instrument, with it’s relatively few tension brackets (and, really, with modern mylar heads, there’s no need to wreathe your banjo pot in bolts any more), has a spartan elegant look. You’re paying for tone and playability, not an inlaid dragon on the fretboard. And I love the headstock Have I mentioned that already?
So – there we have it. If you’re looking for either a first time banjo or an upgrade without going into four figures, this is the one to get.