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The Great British Banjo Company

The Great British Banjo Company

Have heard about the UK Banjo Manufacturer that launched one of the most successful UK Kickstarter projects ever, has its own brand of beer, and offers a line of Banjos in any color you like?

The Banjo Reserve recently contacted Simon Middleton, Founder and Managing Director of The Great British Banjo Company, to understand more about the ambitious and creative team that launched the UK's first and only British banjo manufacturer in more than 60 years.

Q.  Why was the Great British Banjo Company created?  Why Banjos and why now?
A.  I created The Great British Banjo Company because I had become excited by the notion of restarting a dormant British manufacturing sector.  Although there are a small number of individual craft makers of banjos in Britain, there hasn't been a 'banjo factory' producing instruments in large numbers since the 1950s.  Banjos have experienced a resurgence in recent years, as we all know, but the vast majority of instruments available in the UK are made in China.  It seemed the right time to add a different thread to the narrative.  I'd been retailing banjos for several years and many customers ask about the origins of the instruments.

Q.  Personally, what were your reasons for starting the Great British Banjo Company, wanting to be involved in this industry?
A.  I've been involved in music for 25 years in one way or another, playing in bands, performing as a singer songwriter and so on.  Never a banjo player though.  I think it's partly the fact that I haven't entered this as a banjo player that gives me a different perspective.  The fact is that half our customers have never played banjo before. We are drawing them into the instrument and into pang music generally, as a fulfilling hobby, because of the appeal of our high quality handmade instruments, which are not cheap but still affordable, the fact that they are made in Britain, and because of the power of the Shackleton story, which we have put at the heart of our brand.

Q.  Why did you select the individuals that make up your team?
A.  My real expertise is in creating the big picture: the brand, the narrative, the concept, and the broad design ideas.  But that alone can't make banjos or anything else.  So my first new recruit to the company was Geoff Ransome, a trained luthier with excellent craft skills and a superb design eye.  Geoff was vital in creating the look and feel of The Shackleton banjo and leads the design of new products, as well as production itself.  Now we have also been joined by a young cabinetmaker Fraser Knight who applies his workshop and woodworking expertise into creating each instrument to a very high standard.  And for aspects of finishing, including our custom painted banjos, we use another young instrument specialist Mark Ball, who is an expert in guitar finishing and restoration.

Q.  What is it about your Banjos that you and your team are most proud of?
A.  Three things of almost equal importance really.

First, The Shackleton banjos sound and feel fantastic.  They are much louder than anyone would have predicted, considering they weigh much less than four pounds and have no tone ring (the skin is stretched over a bearing edge on the rim).  And they have a sweet, earthy tone that players seem to love, without any of the metallic edge of some banjos.  They are so lightweight and user friendly too.  When people try them in our showroom against competing instruments they just seem to bond with The Shackleton.

Second, their design and construction is quite radical, and the risks we took have all paid off.  The necks for example are all one-piece quarter-sawn Appalachian rock maple.  Very hard, very stable because of the expensive cut, and very lightweight, whilst giving a beautifully woody tone.  Our necks have no truss rods, because with the timber we've chosen and the way we make them, the truss rod is unnecessary.  On new models we are introducing carbon fibre stiffening and separate fretboards to meet the preferences of some customers.  Our rims are radical too: 19 ply hand-laminated, using drum-making technology.  It's highly effective and produces rims that we believe are stronger, more consistent and more resonant that traditional three-ply bent wood rims.  And of course our banjos look very different from others, with their asymmetrical slotted headstocks and guitar tuners.  We use high quality guitar tuners (Grover and Schertler) with 18:1 ratios because this gives greater tuning accuracy and stability than 4:1 planetary tuners, which is more important for most of our customers than the ability to change key rapidly.

Third, the fact that these are the first banjos to be manufactured in Britain in scale for more than 60 years.  We've changed the landscape of the banjo industry in the UK and I'm immensely proud of that.  British design and British craftsmanship have a great appeal worldwide: which is why so many of our Shackleton banjos have been sold overseas, from Australia to Hawaii to Hollywood.

About The Great British Banjo Company

The Great British Banjo Company is a British company owned and run by a small team of family and friends, based in the fine city of Norwich in the beautiful county of Norfolk.

Our mission in life is very simple: to bring Great British-made banjos to the world. We manufacture fantastic quality, affordable, banjos here in the UK.

Our best known instrument is the highly affordable openback banjo – The Shackleton – designed and made in Great Britain, and intended to be the perfect instrument for beginners and demanding enthusiasts, and to be ideal for travel, for festivals and outdoor gatherings.

We are very proud indeed to be the only company actually manufacturing banjos at production levels in Great Britain: leading the revival of a very special industry.

The Shackleton is a proper British banjo. The neck is 100% manufactured in Great Britain. The rim is 100% manufactured in Great Britain. The assembly and set-up is 100% done in Great Britain.

The Shackleton is named after the great British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. In November 1914, as Endurance was sinking through the Antarctic pack-ice, Ernest Shackleton risked drowning to rescue a musical instrument, saying, "We must have that banjo. It's vital mental medicine."

The banjo belonged to Leonard Hussey, and Shackleton's instincts about its vital role were proved right. When Shackleton set off in a small boat to sail to South Georgia to get help, he left behind on Elephant Island twenty-two men.

The brave 22 crew lived for many months under an upturned boat rigged up as a shelter with sail cloth. Every Saturday the banjo-playing meteorologist Hussey put on a concert for his companions. He composed songs and tunes, and whenever someone managed to catch a seal to eat he would bring out his banjo to celebrate. He played, the rest of the men sang, and morale was maintained.

Leonard Hussey survived the adventure, as did his banjo. It is now in the National Maritime Museum, its skin bearing a dozen signatures of members of the failed expedition to the South Pole.

Where are their products made?  The Shackleton open back 5-string banjo is handmade in England exclusively for The Great British Banjo Company – the first model in a completely new range of British-made banjos. This 5-string open-back model is beautifully crafted and features a wonderful combination of traditional styling and superb sound.

Where are the components sourced from?  Rims and necks are manufactured in the UK.. All manufacturing processes, finishing, assembly and set-up are carried out in the UK. All packaging is sourced in the UK. Most metal components are fabricated in Britain.


Simon Middleton
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Phone:  01603 417903