More and more, the word “luthier” seems to be one that people don’t know the meaning of. Basically, a luthier is a person who makes musical instruments (and these days one might be hard pressed to name more than a few people who actually still do this). I find it still a little bit hard to believe that musical instruments can be mass produced, even though I know that they are. At the same time, I also find it hard to believe these days that there are individuals who own their own shops and can compete with the mass produced places. That there are a few such individually owned banjo shops here in the state of Virginia speaks a lot about how important that instrument is to this area.
One of these shops is Stelling Banjo Works Ltd and coincidentally- produces Stelling banjos. These instruments are considered among the best banjos in the world and every one of those banjos has come from the small but efficient shops of Geoff Stelling. There have been two Stelling shops, the original shop in Spring Valley, California and the current shop in the tiny town of Heards, Virginia and all 7,000some Stelling banjos, mandolins and guitars in the world have been made in one of those two locations and have passed through Geoff’s hands.
In full disclosure, I have been a fan of and owner of Stelling banjos for a long time, so I may be a bit overly interested, but Geoff Stelling is one of the very first people I thought of talking to when I started the banjo masters interview series. His success in the banjo building world, the uniqueness of his instruments, and the list of well-known luthiers that have worked in his shops over the years is so very impressive, not to mention the sheer beauty of his instruments that interviewing him seemed almost a given.
On April 4, 2017 John Hildreth, Aaron Spelbring and I loaded our camera and light gear and drove over the mountains and through the woods- we literally did that – we drove over the mountains and through the woods, only we were not going to grandmother’s house, we were going to Heards, Virginia to visit the Stelling Banjo Works shop to talk to Geoff Stelling. Anyone who has not visited the shop might be surprised to see it. From the outside, it is a modest building that once upon a time was a one room schoolhouse serving the needs of several of the communities surrounding it. On the inside though, is a highly efficient workshop that produces banjos as well as mandolins and guitars to a lesser extent. We had a tour of the shop and included audio from that as well as some photographs in our interview video linked above. But just in case you are curious, this is the outside view of the workshop- it really is small!
As far as my recollection goes, Stelling banjos were really the first banjos to depart from the Gibson style banjo pot (for non-banjo players, the pot is the round part of the banjo). I have always been curious about how he came up with the idea for the Stelling wedge-fit tone ring/rim/flange and Geoff gave us a very interesting explanation of that in and compared it to aircraft he worked with during his time in the Navy. For those who might not be that familiar with banjo design, for various reasons centered around certain banjo players in the 1940s (namely Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Snuffy Jenkins and others) for many years the Gibson musical instrument company was THE place to get a banjo for bluegrass music. Many considered Gibson banjos to be the only banjo that would do. Other people wanted to make banjos too and so various other banjo making business’ sprang up and they generally all followed the Gibson style of building banjos in terms of how the parts looked and how they fit together. We I say this, I am mainly talking about the banjo tone ring, rim, and flange, which together make up the banjo pot. Geoff Stelling however came up with a different idea about banjos and banjo parts and so came up with a different way for the tone ring, rim, and flange to work together in a design we call the wedge-fit design. This different design makes Stelling banjos sound very different from Gibson banjos in most cases and as I mentioned, the first to depart from the Gibson design.
In our interview, Geoff also talked about several of the people who have worked with him in the past- well known luthiers like Greg and Janet Deering (Deering Banjo Company), Kim Breedlove (Breedlove Guitars), Jeff Huss and Mark Dalton (Huss and Dalton Guitar Company) to name a few. He also talked about various people who play or have played Stelling banjos- Alan Munde, Tony Trischka, Marteka Lake, and many more.
Our interview is roughly two hours and contains many photographs and probably about everything a person might want to know about the Stelling Banjo Works Ltd company. This interview is posted on the same page as our other Banjo Master interviews and is free for all to view! Please enjoy the learning process.