Banjo Newsletter 3/2010 By Art Rosenbaum
For the past few weeks I have been playing and enjoying a new and lovely exotic-wood Wildwood banjo, made for me by Wildwood’s Mark Platin. I’ll say at the outset that this is not a review but rather an appreciation: the new instrument is my third Wildwood and Mark’s banjos have been my main “playing-out” instruments for about 35 years, so I can’t claim to be an impartial reviewer. I was introduced to Mark by my old friend and college room-mate Brooks Otis, on a visit to Arcata, California. Brooks was the proprietor of Wildwood Music shop, and Mark was making banjos of the same name in the back of the shop. I liked the clear tone, thin neck, and fine workmanship of one of his banjos, and purchased it, and began playing it more than my old Vega Regent. In the 70s I used the Wildwood on my second Kicking Mule LP and at some point plugged my Wildwood in print, I forget where, expressing truthfully if not very originally, that I was “hooked on the Wildwood.” The old-time banjo revival scene was relatively small in those days, and I and the banjo had slightly elevated profiles, as the following anecdote will show.
In 1978 I was early into my 30-year long stint teaching drawing and painting at the University of Georgia, and had arrived in Italy to teach in our Studies Abroad Program based in Cortona. Our first stop was Rome, and after a day of touring museums and churches we strolled through Piazza Navona. Among the fire-eaters and jugglers were some buskers playing American old-timey music. During their break, my wife Margo chatted with the musicians, mostly German and Swiss, mentioning that her husband played banjo. “What kind?” “Old-time style, like what you play,” Margo answered. “No, what brand of banjo?” “Wildwood.” “Oh, the Art Rosenbaum banjo.” Margo said nothing, and when one of the guys, I think it was Andy Gross from Bern, Switzerland, asked me to play something, he observed that I “play Art Rosenbaum style.” I sheepishly revealed my identity, and we became friends, playing for fun and in public later on.
A few years later Mark made me a fine banjo with a tuba-phone ring, which sounds great for solo playing, song accompaniment, and rings out nicely in string band work. A few years ago we visited Mark’s shop in Arcata (before he relocated to Bend, Oregon.) He showed me some exotic-wood banjos with wood tone rings that he was starting to make; I loved the look and tone, and knew I’d like to acquire one eventually. We finally got our thoughts together last year. Since I am planning a new instruction video (stressing traditional tunings more than picking styles) I wanted a banjo with simpler position-marker inlays than the tree-of-life on the tuba-phone. Also, Mark gave me the option of creating my own peg-head design. Among my musical enthusiasms are sea-chanteys and maritime songs, several of which refer to the banjo and derive from African American and Afro-Caribbean tunes and songs, so I made a line drawing of a square-rigger sailing ship which was beautifully translated and executed with wood, pearl, and ivory inlays. All the ship (and the banjo) needs is a name, and I’m not rushing it.
I’ll say it plain: the banjo looks, sounds, feels, and plays great. No varnish: the finish is many coats of tung oil, which gives the neck a silky-smooth feeing, besides bringing out the beauty of the woods. Since I like to play old-time finger styles as well as clawhammer, I like a little bite as well as richness in the sound, and the combination of the wenge tone ring and a Renaissance head seems to provide that.
When I first met Mark, he was one of the very few craftsmen making good open-back banjos—then you pretty much had to go back into the vintage banjo market to find a decent instrument. Now there are lots of fine open-back banjos being made by good makers—I’ve played quite a few. But I’ll keep on picking Wildwood (pun intended.) Thanks, Mark!