J.B. Schall started making banjos in the city of Chicago during the 1870s. Within a few short years, the Schall name became associated with some of the most celebrated banjos of the day. A skilled mechanic and experienced banjo player himself, J.B. Schall worked beside his five employees – ensuring the quality and craftsmanship of every instrument that came off the line.
A few years ago, I came across a vintage J.B. Schall banjo from the 1890s. It had a beautiful double-spun nickel rim, and the original skin head was intact. But the neck was cracked in two at the heel.
When I asked the seller if he knew anything about its history, he shared with me the story of his grandmother. This particular banjo had been given to her in years past by a young man who had wanted her hand in marriage. He presented this banjo to her just days before becoming a Klondiker – one of the many thousands of amateur prospectors who departed for Canada and the Yukon gold rush of 1896.
The man left Chicago in search of this faraway gold, but was never heard from again. Weeks and months turned into years, and this banjo endured – undoubtedly a bitter-sweet reminder of that lost love.
Struck by the story, I felt compelled to bring this broken old banjo back to life. I bought it immediately and took it into my shop.
As I worked on reconstructing the neck, I observed many of the finer details of the banjo’s construction. In particular, the outline of the peghead caught my attention. It was a classic old-time shape – darkly decorative, with flourishing curves and points that only a banjo could own. I was so attracted to the shape that I adopted it as a model for my own banjos.
Progress was slow, as I was also working on other banjos at the time. But eventually, the remaking of old J.B. Schall was complete. And when I played the first few phrases of music on it, I thought of that young lady so many years ago.
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