Paul Corrigan makes handcrafted banjos of character and distinction in the old time tradition. He works out of his basement studio in Smithville, MO – which is about 20 miles north of Kansas City.
The name for Bad River Banjos goes back to Paul's grandfather, who ran a timber company in northern Wisconsin under the Bad River name. Paul's father now owns land that had once been part of those logging operations. Some of that land yields maple timber. And that hard maple wood can still be found in banjos that bear the Bad River name.
The Banjo Reserve recently interviewed Paul Corrigan, Owner of Bad River Banjo, here's what he had to say.
Q. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO BECOME A CUSTOM BANJO BUILDER?
A. I didn't set out to become a custom banjo builder in the beginning. I had made a modest banjo for myself, of course. And in time, I started to make similar banjos for a few close friends. Along the way, I studied banjos from the past. I looked at old banjos from the 1890s – instruments that were made by hand with no power tools to speak of. And I grew to respect their enduring qualities. These objects, built from such humble beginnings, were somehow still being played more than a hundred years later.
I thought, "If I can make something that's still being played in another hundred years, that would be a good thing." So, here I am making banjos for whoever will have them.
Q. DO YOU WORK ALONE, OR ARE THERE OTHERS INVOLVED IN YOUR CONSTRUCTION PROCESS?
A. I work alone. But when I'm building a banjo for someone, I never feel like it's a solo endeavor. I enjoy getting to know my clients. And I love the collaborative spirit of building a banjo "in the air" before we settle on materials and a specific design. In this way, I feel like every new commission is also the forging of a new partnership. From start to finish, I share updates and photos of the entire construction process. Over time, this experience – or story – becomes part of the finished banjo. It arrives at their doorstep with a history already built in.
Q. WHAT IS IT ABOUT YOUR BANJOS THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
A. I suppose I'm proud of the fact that I make banjos the way they were made long ago. It's been a journey to rediscover the methods and techniques that makers used back in the day. I have grown to love the simple truths of working with wood, and the time honored traditions of utility, function and form that go with them.
Q. WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR CUSTOMERS?
A. I've had customers from east, west, north and south. Last year I built a fretless banjo for a customer in Great Britain. This past winter, I made a travel banjo for a player in Winnipeg, Canada. Inquiries have come from as far afield as Uganda.
I've made banjos for experienced players, beginning players, and players who had never before picked up an instrument. Just like the banjos I build, no two have been the same.
Q. ARE YOU A BANJO PLAYER?
A. I love to play banjo. I started out playing three-finger bluegrass style, but quickly migrated to clawhammer and the old-time playing tradition. I was attracted to the simplicity of old-time music and the timeless themes that are embedded in many of the tunes.
I learned to play banjo by ear from a fiddle player who spent years learning regional styles from places like North Carolina and Kentucky. He would play a fiddle tune for me, and tell me to come back in a week to play the same tune on my banjo. It was hard but also very rewarding. I would like to think this authentic style of learning has informed the way I build, and has cemented my passion for vintage period design.
Q. WHAT ARE YOUR GREATEST CHALLENGES AS A CUSTOM BANJO BUILDER?
A. Time. In the shop and out of the shop. I have a lot of interests. I'm a professional outside of my banjo-building endeavors. And I have a wonderful wife and two beautiful daughters who still like having me around.
I know that my legacy will be made not only from the objects I build, but from the values and memories I leave with the people close to me. I could always use more time for both.
Q. WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR DESIGN INSPIRATION FROM?
A. I am a designer by trade, so design is a very important part of my process. I am inspired by the very old styles – mostly from the 1890s and early 20th century. I fill my shop with tools and materials from the 20s, 30s and 40s. I have learned that if you spend enough time with these old objects, their design just starts rubbing off on you (sometimes literally).
But design is more than just aesthetic. A design approach is an approach that considers things like playability, tone, construction and durability. Sometimes this calls for innovative solutions, and a fusion of things that traditionally may not have been put together.
Q. WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE GIVES YOUR BANJOS A UNIQUE SOUND, OR QUALITY? WHAT SETS YOUR BANJOS APART FROM OTHERS?
A. I like each of my banjos to carry meaning and to have a story. Some of this story comes from my own family history which goes back to my grandfather, and which endures in the still standing maple timber in northern Wisconsin. And some of this story comes from the historic coal scrip coins that are embedded in the peghead of each Bad River banjo.
Coal scrip was a curious form of currency that took the form of paper bills and stamped coins – most of which were unique to the coal mining, lumber and railroad companies that issued them. These coins passed among many hands over the years. And the hands of workers who toiled in those days were the same kind of hands that picked up the banjo and played.
Q. WHERE DO YOU SEE BANJO MUSIC GOING AND WHAT IS YOUR ROLE IN THAT?
A. It's hard to compartmentalize something like banjo music. It's like saying guitar music. What is that? It can be anything, of course – across a wide range of genres. That's what I have witnessed with the banjo in recent years. It still retains its traditional role in old time, bluegrass and folk music, but has also broken with tradition in so many interesting ways. I would love to continue making old-style open back banjos for as long as there are people willing to buy them. But I'd also love to innovate and build instruments in context to the way people live and play. One example is my original design for a travel banjo, which combines traditional materials and construction techniques with a novel approach to compactness and economy. I designed the first one for myself, for those times when I travel and stay in hotel rooms. It has since become one of my most popular models among new clients.
Q. WHAT OTHER INTERESTS DO YOU HAVE?
A. Running. Art and design and storytelling. Horses. Griswold family road trips. Outdoorsy stuff. Classic literature. Contemporary comic books. Royals and Chiefs. Board games. Cats. Cryptozoology. Fishing.
Recently, I've been learning to play the fiddle – mostly alone and far away from other people.
Q. TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF THAT YOU THINK OUR COMMUNITY MIGHT ENJOY.
A. When I was a child, I shook the hand of President Gerald Ford.
Q. THE PHOTOS OF YOUR BANJOS POSTED ON YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA AND WEBSITE ARE STUNNING. WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND THIS QUALITY PHOTOGRAPHY?
A. Thanks! I'm glad you like them.
When I send a banjo out the door, I will probably never see it again. The photography that I capture has to be an artifact that endures. It's important to me, so I put the time in.
I use only natural light when I photograph my finished banjos, and minimal (if any) propping. Most of my social posts are "in-progress" images, so they are taken under whatever lighting conditions I have in my shop. I take lots of shots, and end up throwing most of them away. So in the end, it's really more a process of subraction than anything else.
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