|Home||Mercier Violins||Mercier Banjos||The Store||Contact||Instrument Gallery||Site Map|
Click on images to enlarge
Testimonial, Audio & Video
I had been giving a lot of thought to getting a newly-made banjo that would be suitable for the music of Frank B. Converse's 1886 Analytical Banjo Method, containing some of the most advanced 19 th -century banjo music played in the finger-picking, 'classic' style. The banjo needed a wooden rim, gut strings tuned to eAEG#B, frets, and was looking to the future yet still steeped in the past. It was hard to find a luthier who could do that. Many makers would adapt a later design, usually by just putting nylon strings on their existing models...and some makers specialised in earlier periods such as the wonderful Ashborn and Boucher instruments.
I finally found a luthier in Canada, Luke Mercier, who makes high-quality violins, works for a historical instrument museum as a restorer, and plays and has a passion for historical banjos. He had an instrument available which was a copy of an early Fairbanks model, with minimal wood decoration on the peghead, to which he added a Dobson tone ring. Both the model and the tone ring date from a couple of years either side of Converse's publication, and even if the great man didn't play this exact model of instrument, it is of the general aesthetic of the period. So I took a gamble (I live thousands of miles away from his workshop) and ordered it.
I guess I got lucky. Ordering a musical instrument online is not the way I usually do things, but there was something about Luke's professionalism that spoke to me. Besides, I told myself, I could always return it. As it happens, it's a keeper!
The sound is soft and sweet, and seems to suit both the music and my way of playing - it is perfect for me. It's not for hammering out songs on a minstrel stage, or for loud rag-style orchestras, but is 'at home in the parlor', so to speak. The perfect parlor banjo.
It is a very subtle instrument indeed. It can be incredibly mellow for a banjo, but has strength as well. It's a sound I haven't really heard before from a banjo, but it's all meticulously researched - construction, strings, technique. I'd like to think that, for a while, after the minstrel period and before the orchestra/ragtime craze, this is what the homely parlor instrument sounded like.
Thanks to Luke's exemplary craftsmanship, it looks like an old original, not a modern copy, which is inspiring. Both my other banjos are 19th-century originals, and this one feels and looks the part. Tone-wise it sounds great. The fourth string has an almost double-bass-like thud to it. It certainly sounds like the bass string. I just love its thumpacious thumpocity!
The neck feels great for playing on - beautiful fretting from first to last. The pegs and peg holes are perfect, as you would expect from a respected violin maker. It already feels like an old friend.
Every note on the bass is very clear and well articulated. The balance across the strings is very even and the warmth of the bass is carried right up into the higher positions on all strings. The more I play it, the more I love it. It fills the gap between the Boucher and Ashborn on the one hand, and the SS Stewart, later Fairbanks and Cole on the other; before the metalic pop became the norm, and a more focussed sound than the old ‘tubs'. I think it perfect for 'parlor-style' playing, and 100 per cent perfect for Frank Converse's 'Analytical Banjo Method' of 1886, which is what I wanted it for.
I've never heard a sound like this from any banjo before. There are the earlier minstrel specialists, and then early 20th-century ragtime players, but to me the really interesting repertoire is on the bridge between the two. It would be nice to think that my videos might influence some others to look more closely at the period. And now - thanks to Luke Mercier - I have the perfect instrument for the style.
Edinburgh, October 2009
To view and hear Rob MacKillop's interpretations of 19th century Classical Banjo works on this banjo and more follow the link below.
Luke Mercier Handmade Violins & Banjos
346 Bateman Road
RR1 Spring Brook, Ontario