HISTORY: PART 6
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CO: The first thing I did was to go through every detail of design and construction of everything we produced. If anything could be improved, we made the necessary changes. “Constant improvement” became our mode of operation, which it still is today.
About a year after returning to OME, I met Ed Britt of Wakefield, Massachusetts. Ed was a long time 5-string open-back player, collector, and industrial designer. At the time, he was working on a design project which required his going to Colorado. Being that he was an ODE and OME fan, he paid us a visit. The visit turned out to be the beginning of a long friendship.
Ed later encouraged me to come to Wakefield to see his vintage 5-string collection. He also suggested that his friend, Jim Bollman, might be open to my viewing his instruments as well. Things fell together and I ended up making the trip. This was another turning point for OME. Besides experiencing more vintage banjos than I ever imagined, I discovered that Ed and I made a great design team.
As it turned out, Ed already liked the instruments that OME had been building. He just felt that they deserved something more. That “something” turned out to be a project that he was very insterested in being a part of. Ed really helped with OME moving in new directions again.
BNL: What were some of the things you and Ed Britt worked on?
CO: Ed and I started out working on OME’s high-end models, the Renaissance and the Grand Artist. We started by exploring the best of vintage and modern designs, and kept on going from there. That project began spilling over into other areas of our production and we eventually ended up working on the entire OME line. We worked on things for almost four years before the new models were introduced in ’94. Since then, we have continued collaborating on projects as they come up. It’s been a very rewarding effort.
BNL: Did you only add upper line models?
CO: Besides expanding the upper end of the OME line, we also introduced a new low end model called the Jubilee. Years ago, OME offered a low priced instrument called the Grubstake. This was a “no frills” quality banjo which sold well. I decided to improve the tonal system, and used better hardware. This created the Jubilee which I call our “Zen” series. I’ve always liked having at least one lower priced instrument in our line.
Another new model we added was the Magician. This banjo evolved from the fancy Renaissance which Ed and I designed earlier. I took the Renaissance, eliminated about half of the hand engraved mother-of-pearl inlays, the wood carving, and simplified the metal engraving. The result was to create an elegant instrument for less money which still captured the essence of the finer turn-of-the-century banjos. It’s one of my favorites.
BNL: It seems you really enjoy the design process.
CO: I am, first and foremost, a designer and builder. That is what I really love to do. Building musical instruments is especially rewarding because of the music involved. Designing with sound adds another dimension that I have a special interest in. The banjo, in particular, is such a wonderful instrument to work with. Its construction allows for so many possibilities. Just about anything goes.
I also love to explore and discover new possibilities. I never really liked following trends or copying others. In my work, I feel the same way. I strive for something original, something new. At the same time, building accoustic instruments has much to do with tradition, which I am also fond of. With the OME, we have sought to combine vintage and modern ideas in original ways.
BNL:What do you feel makes an exceptional banjo?
CO: There are several factors. An outstanding musical instrument is what I call a four-dimensional work of art. It looks good (two dimensions), feels and plays good (third dimension), and sounds good (fourth dimension). All are important. They must all be properly designed and executed, and should work together in a balanced way.
Ultimately, the bottom line is, if an instrument works for you, it’s exceptional. Every player is unique and has different needs. For me, the idea of the “Holy Grail” banjo simply doesn’t exist. No one instrument can do everything. There are always other possibilities, other options. What we do at OME is to build a wide variety of banjo models, styles, and tonal systems. We then strive to match the right banjo to the right player.
BNL: What do you mean by banjo “styles”?
CO: What we call banjo “style” is primarily defined by the type of music and playing style the banjo is normally used for. We define our three main banjo styles as: bluegrass, old-time, and jazz. Each of these may be defined further, such as: tenor, and plectrum jazz styles, or standard and long-neck old-time styles. We offer these different instruments because they all do very different things. I enjoy the different playing traditions and the different music they are used for.