Longneck Banjo Tales

by Tom Chapin

The longneck 5 string banjo was invented by Pete Seeger for a simple reason: he needed more frets.

It was 1942, and he was on leave from the army, back in NY City for the weekend to record – with fellow folk singers Bess Lomax, Tom Glazer and Butch Hawes – songs from the Spanish Civil War for Moses Asch. Pete had worked out an elegant banjo part, simulating the sound of flamenco guitar, to the song “Viva La Quince Brigada.”

He played it in C minor, with the low D string tuned down to a nice deep C note. But C minor was just a little too high for his voice and Pete thought, hmmm, if only I had two more frets, I could then sing it a whole note lower, comfortably, in B minor.

Function led to form: Pete brought his Whyte Laydie banjo down to Greenwich Village to the shop of John D’Angelico, the legendary jazz guitar master builder, and had him cut off the neck and insert 2 more frets.

That was the beginning.

Then, through his many years of travel and performance, of trial and error, of lost, broken and replaced banjos, Pete eventually settled on using a longneck with 3 extra frets. And he also moved the 5th string peg up a fret as well, making for easier capo-ing up and down to play in many keys, which his eclectic repertoire of song and music required.

By the late 1950’s Pete Seeger and The Weavers’ (the quartet of Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hayes, Fred Hellerman and Pete) recordings had preceded and helped spark an American Folk Music revolution. Young, mostly urban, mostly white young people discovered and began to sing, play and listen to America’s music in unprecedented numbers.

And The Chapin Brothers were no different. Inspired by the seminal LP “The Weavers At Carnegie Hall,” we started our own folk trio. My late brother Harry on banjo, me on guitar and brother Steve on bass. Harry bought the Pete Seeger book, “How To Play The 5 String Banjo,” found an old c. 1900 banjo in our Grandma Chapin’s basement, fixed it up and started to play. But hungering for a longneck banjo like the one our hero Pete Seeger played., Harry finally saved up enough to get his own Vega.

And during those years, the longneck 5 string banjo had become THE Banjo of the new “commercial” folk groups: I remember Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio, Alex Hassilev of the Limelighters and Bob Gibson all playing Vega longnecks. 

I have always played and loved 5 string banjo, but did not play onstage until I released my first “Family” recording, FAMILY TREE, in 1988. Before that I toured as a singer-songwriter with a 6 and 12 string guitar, which suited the songs I was singing. But the up-tempo and joyous family songs that my collaborators and I started writing and singing fit the clawhammer style that I play and I have included a banjo in my sets ever since. Then, in the 1990’s Greg Deering made my beautiful “Moonboat” long neck banjo, with its wooden John Hartford rim, that I’ve played ever since. Life is good. 

Extra Credit…

In a recent concert I was talking about the Deering Longneck banjo I was playing and then drifted into the story of Pete Seeger making his own banjo neck.

I first heard this story from Bruce Taylor, of Weston Ct., the maker of Pete’s 12 string guitars, who has also made a few copies of Pete’s banjo. Later I got the chance to ask Pete himself about it and he clarified some details.

At some point, years ago, Pete decided to try and make his own banjo neck out of ironwood, lignam vitae, a wood so heavy and dense that it does not float. And so he did, carving out that hard, dense wood into the longneck shape he’d invented, and attaching it to an old Vega Whyte Laydie banjo rim.

However, he had a very hard time with the fingerboard and frets, and it just would not play in tune.

So Pete brought his handiwork back down to Greenwich Village to John D’Angelico (the superlative luthier whose jazz guitars now are museum items, selling for $40k or more) and asked him to re-fret the neck. Mr. D’Angelico said yes, giving the banjo job to his assistant, John D’Aquisto (whose guitars are now almost as famous as his mentor’s) and had him put on an ebony fingerboard with a perfect new fret job.

Never having worked on a banjo before, John measured his fingerboard from a bridge position too close to the edge of the drum head, making a very bright sound. Pete told me that he had to take it back and have D’Aquisto’s beautiful fret job redone to set the bridge near the middle of the head.

And that is the banjo that Pete Seeger played for a long, long time - a Vega Whyte Laydie rim, with his own hand-made ironwood neck, and a fret job done twice by the young John D’Aquisto.

Cool.

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