With a banjo on his knee: One local instrument-maker’s search for perfection

Building on tradition: Instrument-maker Jim Huskins says, “I’m old enough to remember what it was like in family gatherings and community gatherings in the ‘50s and ‘60s. A fiddle and a banjo were part of every gathering. It didn’t matter if it was a picnic, a wedding or even a funeral.” Photo by Nick King
Building on tradition: Instrument-maker Jim Huskins says, “I’m old enough to remember what it was like in family gatherings and community gatherings in the ‘50s and ‘60s. A fiddle and a banjo were part of every gathering. It didn’t matter if it was a picnic, a wedding or even a funeral.” Photo by Nick King

“A banjo, unlike other acoustic instruments, is kind of a machine,” says banjo-maker Jim Huskins. With its many metal parts and bolted construction, the instrument’s sound is significantly influenced by its metal components.

Huskins started playing banjo in 1972, when he was 19 years old. A year later, he began studying the banjo construction section of the instructional book,Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo. “Using that as a guide, I built an instrument from some hardwood that I was able to get locally from around Marion. It was a pretty poor instrument. But it taught me a lot, and I kept at it. A couple of years later, I was actually building good instruments.” Huskins explains that when he was making his first banjo, it was not the sound of the instrument that lacked: “It was the fit and finish. The quality of the externals was not as good as I would like.”

As with most artists and artisans, both the product and the method are tools for self-discovery. “Mainly I just learned myself in the process,” says Huskins. “I could not be satisfied with an instrument that had poor symmetry or poor fit or lines that didn’t flow.” He continues, “I realized that I had the capacity to notice the subtleties in things like that, and that I was willing to put the time and effort into correcting those.”

Huskins is continuously working to improve his craftsmanship and his product. “I feel like that every [instrument] I build is in some ways a little better than the last one. I find that satisfying. I would hate to think that I was just content with production.” Over time, Huskins has honed his skills in lacquer finishing. He also introduced fine detail work such as mother-of-pearl inlay. All of his instruments are made without any computerized machining tools, and Huskins seeks to control as much of the production as possible. Where he once purchased unfinished resonators to use, he is now taking strides to produce the resonators himself.

Over the past decade, Huskins has been giving focus to two specific types of banjos. The first is a “short-neck five-string, called a banjeaurine, that was popular back in the banjo orchestra days.” These instruments are higher-pitched and their short neck makes them convenient for traveling.

Huskins’ second specialty is a hybrid open-back, which has “a lot of elements blended from early 20th-century Gibsons and Vegas, plus what I call a modern neck.” The open-backs are louder with a “warm and deep tone.” Their volume makes them well-suited for solo performances, but Huskins has also played them in old-time bands with a towel rolled up in the back to soften the volume.

For the instrument-maker, the goal was never to build banjos professionally. “I ended up selling a few over the years to friends and acquaintances. In recent years, it’s become a full-time thing.” Building custom-ordered banjos and selling instruments at trade shows and festivals gives him an important connection to the instrument player. “I don’t ever want to get to a point where I’m just working from an order backlog and I’m not actually out meeting people.” 

Huskins’ family settled in the region sometime before 1800, and his connection to the instrument is strong and deep-rooted. “The five-string banjo is a pivotal element in Appalachian culture, and it’s my culture,” he says. “I’m old enough to remember what it was like in family gatherings and community gatherings in the ‘50s and ‘60s. A fiddle and a banjo were part of every gathering. It didn’t matter if it was a picnic, a wedding or even a funeral.” Huskins says that he saw how television altered some of these traditions. “But I see a real cycle back to homemade music being a tremendous focus of what’s going on in families and communities. I think that’s evident in our area.”
For more information, visit JimHuskins.com.

— Steph Guinan can be reached at stephguinan@gmail.com.

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