MAKERS OF LONDON: JOHN DELLER OF FLATFOOT JOHNNY
In this week’s edition of our Makers series, we caught up with John Deller, a maker of early (pre mass-production/African origin) banjos from his workshop in South East London. We find out – among other things – the fascinating history behind early banjos and how they’re different from old-time banjos.
To know more or to buy or repair a banjo, you can get in touch with John through his website.
WORDS BY THE CITY STORY TEAM
The City Story: We’re very curious to know how you came to making banjos. Are you self-taught?
John Deller: In 2009, I decided to learn to play bluegrass banjo. I always tend to go deep into the routes of any music I listen to and I soon discovered that before bluegrass was the old-time banjo and before that was the early banjo, and its African origins. I really loved the sound of theses earlier instruments, but I couldn’t afford to buy another so decided to make one – how hard can it be?! Needless to say, my first wasn’t great but it sounded more like what I was after. Being a bit of an obsessive maker, I couldn’t resist making another... and then another... you get the picture. Everything I've learnt is from YouTube, other websites, and a lot of trial and error.
TCS: What is the difference between early and old-time banjos?
JD: Early banjo refers to the instruments made from 17th century until the end of the 19th century. It has an incredibly convoluted and fascinating history.
Invented by the African slaves in the 17th century, making instruments related to the African Akonting, as the gourd banjo, it eventually moved into the hands of white performers in the mid-1800s and was taken on stage. This was the beginning of the unfortunate period of minstrelsy where the banjo became a part of the tool-set to parody and belittle the African American population. I must say that this is a very abridged history as the instrument eventually moved into the affluent world of white parlour music and was massively popular around the world. Its shape and style changed, its sound changed, the method of playing changed, and eventually everybody forgot it was originally an instrument of African origin and assumed it was white and rural: and ironically became another source of parody towards another marginalised population – i.e. the inbred slack jawed hillbilly. But these days there has been a real renaissance with a resurgence of makers (especially in the US) building some stunningly beautiful instruments, and African American players rediscovering the early banjo – most famously Rhiannon Giddens, previously of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
So, the definition of the early banjo is usually fretless, the pot started off as a gourd or a grain measure (a type of measuring bucket) and then later a purpose made steam bent hoop. Hide head, gut strings (nowadays nylon) and tuned a couple of steps lower than modern instruments, which gives a lovely deep sonorous tone that vibrates through your body when you play. The style of playing (stroke style or clawhammer) came directly from Africa. Compared to modern banjos its very simple and light weight and as a maker I have the freedom of expression in neck shapes scale lengths and other decorative features which make them beautifully unique.
Generally speaking old time banjos are open backed and old-time music refers to the style of playing and the setting the instruments were played in i.e. family gatherings, community dances etc. rather than performed on stage as in bluegrass. Bluegrass music is usually accepted as having started in 1945 by Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys and bluegrass banjo is defined by Earl Scruggs’s fast driving banjo style. It was generally performed on stage to an audience.
TCS: What would your suggestions be for a first-time buyer?
JD: If you’ve never played a banjo before I’d basically start off with a cheap modern instrument so you get to grips with the playing technique. I don’t know how the guys way back when learnt on a fretless, gut-strung, hide-headed instrument that would have been subject to the vagaries of humidity and temperature...serious skills! Then if you want to progress onto something more unique and idiosyncratic (and after all why wouldn’t you?) then come and see me!
TCS: Tell us a little more about the process of making a banjo by hand? Is there a part of the process that is your favourite?
JD: All of the wood either comes from reclaimed furniture or is sustainable UK-sourced timber. This way I can use beautiful woods and go to sleep at night knowing I’m not a part of the deforestation of this planet. Some of the wood is very local. If I hear a council chainsaw, I’m there asking of I can take the logs... they usually say yes. I’ve recently started steam bending my own pots. Oh man, that was a frustrating and expensive exercise! A lot of snapped wood and an equal amount of swearing! But now I’ve just about got it...I swear less. The necks are carved by hand using spokeshaves, planes, and rasps. I mostly use hand tools throughout the building process rather than large noisy machines. I make all the brass head tensioning hardware myself and use a small local foundry to cast the bronze parts. I love it when I’m asked for a custom detail I’ll often use nature as inspiration or I’ll research antique instruments. Be it carving, inlay or colour. It’s very exciting to get into the mind of the person commissioning it. Also, once its strung up and settled and I've fixed all the buzzes it’s incredibly exciting to hear its voice for the first time.
I’m about to attempt to grow my own gourds with the help of the bassist in our band. I’m very excited to grow my own banjos!
TCS: What does a banjo-maker do in his spare time?
JD: If I’m not making banjos, I’m working as a prop maker and fine art fabricator. Or I’m playing banjo in my old-time string band: Flatfoot Johnny and the Wandering Rhythm... or making Lego spaceships with my 4-year-old son.
TCS: What do you like most about where you live?
JD: I live on Shooters Hill, near Woolwich. When I first moved here from Forest Hill, it seemed a bit out of the way. But having a young son and being a lover of nature, it’s the perfect location. A great family vibe and the beautiful Oxleas Wood on my doorstep, where a lot of my inspiration comes from (it’s also where the local classic hotrod club meet every month – something else I’m into).
Photographs courtesy John Deller