Above: While the top-tension may be my “new kid on the block”,

I also make bluegrass banjos with conventional hook-and-nut - notched tension hoop construction.

These also have removable or pop-off resonators with the flange attached and convert to clean openback.

Ken LeVan and LeVan banjos is now part of the Smithsonian Folkways series “North American Banjo Builders”


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“Bluegrass banjos” came into existence after Earl Scruggs became famous.  The paradigm is certainly Earl’s Gibson Granada.

When Gibson developed its  iconic model it was designed for jazz playing with 4 strings, and most vintage bluegrass banjos today

are conversions of tenors and plectrums originally designed in the 1920s.

LeVan bluegrass banjos carry on the bluegrass tradition, but use hand fabricated and brazed metal parts instead of cast ones, 

and a 5/8” rim,  which produces a very loud and expressive sound.  They weigh in the 11 pound range.

I use 4 different alloys of brass and bronze and there are no pot metal or zinc parts.

The resonator flanges on my banjos are hand made from “Muntz metal” brass, once used to clad the bottoms of ships, it’s stronger and more corrosion resistant than other brass alloys. Instead  of using a bent tube or pot metal casting to anchor the tension hooks, I use a brazed bracket band.  This adds mass to the center of the pot and along with the tone ring, creates a metal to wood ratio of 8.5 : 1, which is a little higher than a flathead Mastertone - More in line with thin rim Mastertones, but the weight distribution is different.  My rims are similar in thickness to the thin part of “thin rim” Mastertone conversions, a bit thicker than Vega Tubaphones, and deeper as well.

The pot thickness on one of my banjos is 3”

Left:  Exploded views showing the top-tension  model, you can see how the resonator works—

The resonator is attached to the flange and that entire assembly goes on to the pot, rather than the normal system where the flange is bolted to the pot by the tension hooks.

One benefit of this system and LeVan bluegrass banjos in general is that when you “convert” it (which takes a minute or less, depending on the kind of resonator attachment), you have a really excellent “golden era” openback banjo, with no protruding flange, a bracket band, with similar metal to wood ratio and playing characteristics as a classic Vega Tubaphone or Whyte Laydie.

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The neck attachment is a tension-compression rod on top which consists of a center-bored wooden “Rudy-rod” type dowel with the steel tension rod in the center going in to an anchor in the heel, rather than end-grained screwed “lag bolts”.

The bottom rod is a push-pull brass rod which is similar in concept to the “coördinator rods used by Gibson.

Bluegrass players prefer the double rod system developed by Gibson”.

This system has a superior sound transmission from the neck to the pot, is easily adjustable, and has better bearing surfaces

at the neck attachment.


My latest development is the top-tension 2-way banjo, the result of years of development. it features a bronze tube TuBaTone tone ring and a 5/8” “thin rim”, which gives real presence.  It has an easily removable, or pop-off resonator, which converts it to a clean openback when the need arises.

It has recently been described on the Banjo Hangout

as having “a throaty midrange often lacking in other top-tensions” and real “howl and growl”.

Sail Away Ladies

Of course, with a top-tension banjo, you can tension the head without removing the resonator

As with my other banjos, special inlays can be done.

below is an example of custom wood inlay and a resin impregnated fingerboard.

Pretty Polly

My resonators are constructed in pre-war fashion with a deeper  36” radius instead of the more recent 42”. The bottom is 4-ply with 3 poplar plies and the outer veneer.

The rim is done with a vertical grain center lamination, maple inside and veneer on the outside.

pot details, top tension

the tensioning bolts are oxide coated stainless steel

pot details,