HISTORY: PART 7
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BNL: What are the OME tonal systems?
CO: The OME “Tonal Systems” are what we call the complete pot assembly of the banjo, including a resonator if it has one. Presently, we offer a number of different systems. For instance, our “Megatone” consists of a flat-top cast bronze tone ring, 3-ply maple rim, and a one-piece zine die-cast resonator flange. The OME “Traditional” system is an open-back with a spun brass and steel tone ring, and individual hold-down brackets. The “Minstrel” is an open-back with a rolled brass or wooden tone ring, offered in 11″ or 12″ pot size. Obviously, these three instruments give very different results.
BNL: Why did you start building with a 12″ pot?
CO: I’ve always liked a big sounding banjo with lots of depth and bass. For this, there’s nothing like a large pot. Our first large bodied banjo was on a Boucher minstrel style that we started building in ’93. This was a fun instrument, but too different from the rest of our line. We stopped offering it not long after we started.
In recent years there has been increasing interest in the larger pots on open-back 5-strings. This hasn’t happened since the ’20’s as far as I know. For OME to take on building such a different banjo, there has to be some market for it. There has been enough interest that we now offer three different 12″ pots and they all can be fitted with our “snap-on” resonator. We also are making large bodied tenor and plectrum styles.
BNL: What do you strive for in the tone of your banjos?
CO: Of the four dimensions in building musical instruments, it’s the fourth, the “Tone”, which is the most fun to work with. What is considered a desirable tone is often very subjective, and it is difficult to define and to measure. It’s also bound up with such variables as instrument set-up, playability, response, tradition, and ultimately, with the person playing the instrument.
What we strive for in tone depends on the playing style and the desired result we are looking for. Qualities such as sustain, overtones, bass, treble, response, balance, and so on, are all important, and they all can be varied. For example, in the jazz and old-time market, there’s a rather wide variety of tonal qualities that are sought after. With these two styles, we offer several tonal systems that best give the desired results musicians are looking for.
In the bluegrass market, the present range is narrower. We offer only one tonal system, the Megatone. However, with this one system comes the possibility of using three interchangeable tone rings. The OME-PW20 for the pre-war qualities; The OME “Melodic” for slightly less sustain and more bass; and the OME-ATS for the crisp archtop performance. One instrument with three tonal possibilities.
BNL: How has developing banjos in three different markets affected things at OME?
CO: It’s been a real challenge. Each playing style requires a really different instrument design. It’s not simply a matter of using different necks on the same pot. The tone ring, the neck, the resonator, and how they all work together are all essential.
Developing instruments in all three traditions has definitely taken a lot more effort, but it has also helped in improving our overall quality. When we work on perfecting a particular style, we often find something that helps to improve our other styles. One example is our guitar banjo.
I started building six-string and twelve-string guitar banjos in the early sixties. We even built one for Reverend Gary Davis and Dr. Edmund Souchon, two great players. But I never really was happy with this instrument and never did much with it. Recently, we developed a 12″ pot for our 5-string open-back models. We took this pot, combined it with our Silverspun jazz tone ring, a shorter 24 3/4 ” guitar scale, and an arched fingerboard. The result has been the first guitar banjo I’ve really liked. Its an outstanding instrument.
An interesting note along these lines involves what happened with two great banjo designs, the B&D Silver Bell and the Gibson Mastertone. The classic B&D Silver Bell banjos were designed by Fred Bacon and David Day to be a classical 5-string instrument. However, the Silver Bell never became popular as a 5-string, but was very popular as a 4-string jazz banjo. The Gibson Mastertone, on the other hand, was designed in the 20’s to be used as a 4-string jazz instrument. Yet, time has shown that this tonal system works best for music which didn’t even exist at that time, namely bluegrass.
BNL: How do you keep track of all these different models, styles, and tonal systems?
CO: It’s not easy. Presently, we have about eighteen standard models, five tone rings, five resonators, and seven neck styles. This doesn’t include our many custom options, the 12″ models, or the one-of-a-kind Grand Artist series. In order to make all these instruments, we’ve had to invest in a lot of tooling, inventory, and know-how. It’s been a bit challenging, but very rewarding. This year, we are putting together our 2001 catalogue which will introduce even more. I give a lot of credit to our craftsmen who build all these instruments. They really care and are doing a great job.
BNL: How do you market your instruments?
CO: With both ODE and OME, I started out selling direct. As production increased, we added dealerships. Some people prefer the convenience of buying through a dealer. Others prefer dealing directly with the builder. A good dealer makes our job easier and helps nurture the overall interest in playing. Direct sales offer a personal relationship with the customer and are helpful with custom instrument orders. We enjoy working directly with musicians as well as with our dealers. We market both ways.
BNL: I think you have a passion for the banjo.
CO: Absolutely. It’s been a major part of my life for a long time now. For me, the banjo is a magical instrument that brings high energy, brilliance, and sparkle to my life. It is also a very grass roots instrument. It’s somehow close to nature, the mountains, and what I consider the good life.
BNL: What do you see in the future for the banjo?
CO: One interesting difference I notice now compared with years ago is that the banjo is being used in more diverse ways today than it as been in the past. Today, there are so many fine musicians playing the banjo, not only in traditional ways, but also in other musical styles. In my opinion, this diversity is very healthy and will help keep this wonderful instrument alive and part of our lives.