OME’s North Star bluegrass banjo
Review by Anthony Polecastro, Banjo Newsletter, October 2012
The Ome banjo company has long been a force in refining the art and craft of lutherie. For years, Chuck Ogsbury, daughter Tanya, and his small crew of talented luthiers has led the charge in improving the banjo in both looks and tone, all the while maintaining a firm grasp on the tradition that the instrument is steeped in. In the last ten or so years I’ve been honored to make the acquaintance of both Chuck and Tanya, and have come to realize how truly dedicated their company is to making a handcrafted American banjo. It is this passion that helped perk up my ears when I heard they were coming out with a new model in early 2012. This model, The North Star bluegrass banjo, not only upholds the reputation of this fine American company but also retains the spirit that Ome banjos are known for and built with.
he North Star is quite a head turner. “Classy” and “understated” were the two words I couldn’t get out of my head as I looked at this banjo for the first time. Aesthetically, it has copious amounts of vintage appeal. The North Star’s finish is of smooth tong oil over the mahogany resonator, neck, and maple rim. The hardware, including Ome’s own “sweetone” tailpiece, is of aged brass, giving this banjo that weathered look that is not only eye catching but somehow makes it feel that much more comfortable. The tension hoop has a tong oil finished mahogany armrest attached, which adds striking visual appeal as well as an unsurpassed level of comfort. The stark black, radiused, ebony fretboard is adorned with subtle small dot inlays and a stylized star spanning the 19-21st fret. In classic Ome fashion, the headstock is elegantly inlaid in both Abalone and mother of Pearl, with the Ome scripted logo front and center.
The playability of this instrument certainly matches that of its looks… comfortable. With the smooth oil finish, and radiused fingerboard, this banjo plays with ease. The neck profile fit my hand very well, lying somewhere between a vintage style neck and a more modern oval profile. The oil finish gave no resistance to position shifts and movement up and down the neck, allowing shifts on the neck to be extremely fluid. The set-up was quite literally spot on, the strings were nice and low, and the nut, frets, and bridge matched the radius of the neck throughout. The set-up allowed for minimal fretting pressure, great comfort and fluidity, and clear, concise, “buzz free” notes.
The North Star’s tonal offering is one that, while not for everyone, will certainly grab any player by the ear. At the heart of this banjo’s tonal system is an 11″ renaissance head, sitting directly on top of the maple rim, paired with the mahogany resonator. To say this banjo sounds just like that of any banjo with a tone ring would be false and misleading…however, there are some surprising similarities. The expansive tonal palette of this instrument was one that I had underestimated, taking into account looks alone. The North Star offers very clear and articulate single notes, with plenty of volume, snap, and pop to spare. The notes ring true, with subtle overtones that neither interfere nor compete with the fundamental. The high end is incredibly well balanced to the low, and the notes ring with less of a bell-like sustain, but more of a thick, round, wood-flavored tone, with a quick enough decay for the next note to move in and make itself comfortable. The overall volume of the Star was extremely impressive, rivaling banjos even with a tone ring, however the character of the notes is what really separated this banjo from other instruments. This is a wonderful banjo that most certainly has the capacity to cut through a jam, even though the “traditional” recipe may not have been followed.
If you’re looking for banjos with a traditional tone ring, a heavier instrument, and gloss finish, this may be one to pass on. However, this is one to absolutely try if you want a lighter banjo, if you plan on expanding your collection to introduce a more “modern” instrument, or if you’re looking for an instrument that offers a different, unique, useable tone to add to your stock.
OME’s Wizard Openback
Next up in the search for the ultimate old-time banjo
By Dan Levenson, Banjo Newsletter, January 2011
Question: What is the ultimate banjo for clawhammer playing?
I get this question a lot, both by students just starting out as well as from folks who have been playing a while. And as most of us soon discover, there really is no one ultimate banjo. The answer is always more a product of the conditions— economic as well as playing style—of the person looking for their next (or often first) banjo as well as what is available when they are looking.
Answer: There is no ultimate banjo. (But, this one may just change that.)
Many variables come into play when looking for an instrument but the two most often listed tend to be price and instrument size (scale length as well as pot size). Not to be minimized also is the “fad” factor; what is popular for the style folks are currently playing. The best I can do is provide you with as much information as I can to help you decide what would be your best option today.
I’ve played many banjos over the years and “endorsed” several. Some years ago I was asked an interesting question by one banjo manufacturer. They wanted me to play only their banjos at the exclusion of all others and couldn’t understand how I could recommend more than one brand. Wasn’t my credibility in question if I didn’t say “one” was the best?
I sort of laughed and responded that quite the opposite would occur. My “endorsement” of various makers without being employed by any one of them put that maker’s banjos in my elite list—since I have bought and paid for my instruments (yes, at a reduced cost in most cases)—of instruments that this “master player” considered worthy, which made my position an unbiased player/reviewer/ endorser instead of someone who was paid to just play “x” brand. I have been able to keep that approach, which for now continues, though I must admit that after my experience with this new OME Wizard, that may have to change!
Remember, what is popular now wasn’t popular even 20 years ago and might not be 20 years hence. Preferred pot size and scale lengths have changed over the years, from the extreme in the late 1800s and early 1900s when there were all types of banjos—from giraffe banjos and ukes to bass banjos with pots as small as a few inches like the Chinese banjos (the xen xens, dating from several thousand years ago) to pots as large as bass drums. Pot sizes came in 1/16″ increments, but with skin heads fit to each banjo, it really didn’t matter. Scale lengths likewise varied a lot before the oft-called “Gibson scale” of 26 1/4″ that has become the norm over the last few years.
Things settled down and stabilized somewhat due to mechanization of the building process. Because of that, it’s not surprising that the major banjo manufacturers have been slow to change and less than anxious to create the “current favorite” year to year. Tooling is expensive! That is not such a big issue if one can assume that the new “standard” will be around for a while but fads are fads and they tend to be neither rational nor predictable. Until now, if you wanted a 12″ pot, 25 1/2″ scale banjo in the style of Kyle Creed (the most identifiable source of these dimensions) you had to go to custom makers such as Kevin Enoch or other so called “boutique” builders such as Chuck Lee, Lo Gordon and Mike Ramsey as well as those doing one of’s and small production folks like Jason Romero.
While these builders make fine instruments and they are quite desirable, the numbers produced has been low; some have waiting lists several years long. And, the price in most cases is not something to be taken lightly, though they seem to have stabilized over the last couple of years. The builders sell primarily directly to the player, meaning not much distribution. Yes, there are exceptions, with Chuck Lee being the most widely recognized as being available in the finer acoustic music shops, but by and large, this is still a cottage industry as far as the banjo world is concerned.
Recently some of the import builders such as Gold Tone have signed onto the 12″ pot with their quite nice and well received Bob Carlin model—the BC 350, and later the BC 120—and even OME themselves started testing the waters with a 12″ pot on their banjos a few years ago, but again, if you wanted an old time 12″er with that shorter scale—no luck. Until now!
Some background: Last August I was up in Colorado to play at the first annual Fort Collins old-time festival; that gave me an opportunity to stop in Boulder, home of OME banjos. It is also the current home of friend and banjo/fiddle great Miles Kraussen, so I had plenty to do. I got to spend time with Miles, which is always a treat, take in Jeff Haemer’s famous Wednesday evening old-time jam (which has been running weekly nonstop for over 30 years now), and I even found a great Indian grocery to pick up some things I just can’t get here in Yuma. Especially enjoyable was a stop at OME to visit and see what was the latest from Chuck, Tanya and Rick and their crew. Well!Was I surprised when Chuck showed me the first-run prototypes of these new old-time instruments which were set to be previewed at the IBMA gathering that October. I was awestruck. The necks felt so good and with just enough meat added to give it a balanced substantial feel in the hand without being what we like to call “clubby” or awkward. It was lust at first touch. Next, Chuck took me into their showroom where he kept handing me different instruments, switching out bridges, tailpieces and even different numbers of brackets. Then over lunch he proceeded to collect more information as to my thoughts on what I liked and/or didn’t. We didn’t come to any solid conclusions, other than when one of these instruments was available, I really wanted to be able review a production model.
Well, the prototypes sold out instantly at the shows so it wasn’t until the week before Thanksgiving that my instrument arrived, and even then I had to take what was ready to go—no special orders here—which is fine with me since I wanted to see what will be available to all of you as opposed to having a special instrument that would be different from the production models. The only consideration for my personal preference was that my banjo came with a Fiberskin head, which I prefer to the (also available) Renaissance head.
First, I’ll say it, I love this banjo! OME has taken some very significant steps in making a true old-time banjo with the release of their newest offerings. And not one but four new banjos directed at the current old-time market—the 12″ Minstrel (14 brackets, no tone ring, wooden dowel: $1750), the 12″ Wizard, reviewed here (26 brackets, no tone ring, wooden dowel: $1995), the 12″ Flora (26 brackets, rolled brass tone ring, wooden dowel: $2325) and the 11″ Southern Star (24 brackets, Silverspun tone ring, double coordinator rods: $2650). All list prices include a hard shell case.
These instruments all have a scale of 25.5″ with a slightly wider nut width of 1.34″ (and wider string spacing), s-shaped frailing scoop, OME’s new Sweetone tail piece, and are fitted with their brass hardware which has been oxidized to an antique finish and should age and tarnish over time. The new wooden armrests are an additional $75 retail (wonderful, by the way). The Wizard and Flora are also available in 11″ but all 11″ versions of the above models have double rim rod construction as of now. If the demand is high for 11″ pots, they may consider offering the wooden dowel in 11″ pots (though Chuck says you can order it with a dowel rod if you prefer).
I received a basic 12″ pot Wizard to review and I must say, I couldn’t be more thrilled! The basic specifications for this instrument I received are a 25.5″ scale; 1.34″ nut width; 12″ 2-ply tone rim; Fiberskyn head (Renaissance also available but I want to try a real skin on it!); Snuffy Smith bridge; walnut neck with African Ebony fingerboard, oil varnish finish; real mother of pearl and abalone inlays; aged brass hardware including OME’s new “Sweetone” tailpiece and planetary tuners; S-shaped frailing scoop and wood dowel stick which attaches to the banjo by threaded ferrules allowing for the stability and adjustability of a rod, while maintaining the classic dowel look and sound.
A couple of other important features are the 5th string pip or nut as opposed to just a spike—and the ball mount for the tailpiece. The 5th string nut guarantees that all 5 strings are at the same height and the ball mount for the tailpiece is way better looking and significantly more stable than the little angle bracket that some companies use. Combine that with internal drilled coordinator rod(s, or in this case the wooden dowel)—that means no large industrial looking bolt/nut combinations on the outside of the pot—and you have a banjo that is up to date with a classy old look and feel.
This banjo was stunning right out of the box. The first thing I noticed was the shape and feel of the neck. I am continuously thrilled every time I pick this instrument up at the neck. I have been trying to find the right balance of shape, depth, and “feel” of a banjo neck for years and this is truly what I have been looking for. OME says the spacing is wider but I didn’t really notice any difference from my other banjos so perhaps this is in relation to other OME’s. I thought it was great.
The neck is not too big or too skinny. The profile is round enough without being too deep, nice convex heal shape all in the old Vega tradition without being either a copy or a direct descendent of those old banjos. And the finish is wonderful. They use an oil varnish finish that has a nice satin look and a smooth even feel. The inlay is tasteful but minimal. Perhaps best put, this neck is the answer to my longtime question, “What if you took the old instrument(s) and updated them based upon today’s technology (like truss rods) and preferences (like shorter scale lengths).” If I have any issues there would be the minor preference on my part for a smaller peghead, but, that’s me. This neck is right on in shape, feel, weight and playability! It is fast!
Next up for me was to play it. This banjo gave me strong, responsive tone right out of the case. You can play this instrument with ease, as even with the wood tone ring-less pot it is live and loud. The action was low and fast even with the 3/4″ Snuffy Smith bridge. The neck is dead flat (they come up some over time, so OME chooses to start with a flat set-up) when you get it and the head is quite tight, which adds to the brightness of the instrument, which is a set-up issue that we’ll address in the next part of this article. The sound has warmth but still strong and bright. In fact, this is the closest any of the major banjo companies has come to the sound and feel the old-time folks are looking for—a major plus.
I will say that the tone as set-up from the factory is still a bit bright for me because I prefer a warmer tone, dark without the trebly ring. But that becomes the next quality of a great banjo. Can you make it what you want it to be, sound-wise? I had no problem adjusting the instrument for the sound I prefer. Briefly stated, I like a warmer and dark sound but I still want clear tone in the upper range. I like some sustain (ring) but not so much that it pierces your ears or rings so long the notes are no longer distinct. Towards that end, I have usually gone towards a looser head and higher action with some relief (curve) in the neck and a 5/8″ bridge.
I’ve made some basic adjustments to an already great instrument. In order to get my sound I loosened up the head almost a full turn on each nut (you do this in steps of 1/4 turn at a time), loosened the truss rod to put some relief in the neck (I have about 3/64″ clearance at the 12th fret with a steel rule bridging frets 1-17) and have ended up at 7/64″ clearance at the 12th fret to the third string with a 5/8″ bridge. I also switched to Elixir medium strings (.010, .012, .016, .023, .010) because I love their feel, and the 3rd and 4th strings are a bit heavier than the stock medium OME strings (.014 & .022 respectively) the banjo came with. Finally, I ditched the Snuffy bridge (I just consider them too bright) in favor of a standard ebony topped Stew-Mac one.
With these banjos, OME becomes the first major banjo company to adopt the 12″ 25 1/2″ scale as a regular production model and should be able to produce a steady flow of instruments to meet today’s demand with stable specs you can count on from instrument to instrument.
This isn’t your Father’s OME banjo! Bottom line is I am enjoying the sound and playability of this new and wonderfully old banjo. You will too!
Bittersweet Anniversary For World Class Banjo Maker
by Gary Shapiro, 9 News, September 2010
Chuck owns Ome Banjos in Boulder. It all started when he was an engineering student at CU Boulder in the 1960s. He built a few banjos in the school’s workshop. He loved to play banjo, and liked to work with metal and wood. Many of his creations are ornate – featuring artwork trimmed with silver and gold. All of them sound wonderful, and many have been played by famous musicians all over the world.
These days Chuck works out of a small shop in east Boulder, surrounded by his daughter Tayna – who helps him run the company – and three instrument builders who have been there for years. He was celebrating his company’s anniversary this summer by introducing a new line of banjos, and several 50-year limited edition models.The banjos are for sale, but the celebration is kind of on hold while Chuck deals with one of life’s blows. His home of 25 years near Gold Hill burned down in the Fourmile Canyon fire. There is nothing left.Chuck, his wife, and his dogs barely got out. Chuck told us “the wind up there that day was very intense, and it was a very chaotic wind that was blowing all directions, and was blowing embers all over.”Many of the houses around his are still standing, but his is just a pile of wood, metal and concrete. His daughter told us that the worst part of losing the house is that Chuck also lost things in it that reminded him of past relationships and many of his accomplishments.
It’s those things he will miss most. Pictures, letters – a book featuring some of his most prized banjos over the years. Chuck plans to eventually rebuild the house – and for now he and his wife are living at their shop. He says sometimes he feels OK, and other times he feels terrible. It’s all part of coping with life’s suprises.
Chuck is sure he will get through all this just fine, and he plans to keep making banjos for as long as he can. And the celebration of his 50 years in business will go on – to mark life’s ups and downs, and especially its sounds.
(KUSA-TV © 2010 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)