Murray man elevates banjo-making to an art form
Aug 23, 2018 04:34PM
● By Jana Klopsch
Jon Whitney plays one of his favorite banjos. (Photo courtesy Jon Whitney)
By Shaun Delliskave|[email protected]
A few picks on the strings and most untrained ears can detect the unforgettable twang of a banjo. Yet one Murray man, Jon Whitney, seeks to add visual brilliance to the banjo’s audio delight.
“The bedrock principle is that they have to play well and sound good,” noted Whitney. The software developer was recently a featured artist at Murray City Hall, showing off his inventory of fine bluegrass instruments. The backs of some of his banjos feature intricately carved trees or pineapples.
“I played guitar—not very well—for several years after I was married (before that, my main instrument was electric bass). I was interested in the blues, and many of the old blues guitarists played National resophonic resonator guitars,” said Whitney. These resophonic guitars were developed in the 1920s and ’30s to produce more volume than a regular wood acoustic guitar could provide. They have a distinctive sound and are very collectible today.
“I wanted one, so I thought about building one myself. In order to see if that would be possible, I built a resonator mandolin using a pie pan as the resonator. It worked out pretty well; it was playable and sounds okay. In the meantime, I became interested in playing the banjo and switching from blues to other types of folk music. It followed naturally that I would build banjos. My first banjo was completed in about 1999.”
The banjo is a four-, five-, or six-stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity as a resonator, called the head, which is typically circular. Usually made of plastic, the membrane can also be animal skin. Adapted from African instruments of similar design, African Americans introduced the instrument to America. Although it is primarily associated with bluegrass music, the banjo is frequently associated with folk, Irish traditional, and country music.
“On my ‘serious’ banjos, the pot (circular body) is usually the hardest part. I tend to want to use sections of cooking pots or large plastic pipe as the pot on my less serious banjos. In a way, I think this pays homage to the humble origins of the instrument. And, those banjos don’t sound half bad.”
That being said, sometimes the toughest part is being able to put it all together. “I guess the hardest part of building a banjo is finding the time to do it. It does take a lot of patience and perseverance.”
Whitney has won first place twice in the Murray City juried art competitions, woodworking division— most recently last year. In addition, three of his banjos have been accepted for exhibition in the triennial LDS Church Museum International Art Competition.
“I also enjoy working with my hands. My computer programming career was spent working with my brain to create something (software) very non-physical. Building physical things was a nice contrast.”
In addition to banjos, Whitney has made other instruments, such as Paraguayan harps, a hammered dulcimer, and ukuleles. “I’ve built two kitchen tables for our family and some cabinetry. I think I build some of these things because the price to buy them would be outrageous; I'm a notorious cheapskate.”
Whitney hasn’t really been pushing his banjos into the marketplace. He has made enough to pass some along to his seven daughters and their families but is open to selling one to the next Béla Fleck or Steve Martin.
“I'm to the point where I have enough banjos for myself. I’d like to make banjos on a commission that would have a special meaning to the buyer, but I also would like to provide good-quality, low-price instruments to keep the tradition alive with new players.”