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

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Bluegrass banjos came in to being after Earl Scruggs became famous.  The paradigm is certainly Earl’s Gibson Granada.

When Gibson developed its model it was designed for jazz playing with 4 strings, and many bluegrass banjos today are

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

The typical bluegrass banjo is very heavy, weighing in the 9-12 pound range and the metal parts weigh between 90-100 oz. with a rim in the 16 oz range

The typical metal-to wood  ratio is between 5 : 1 for an archtop tube-and-plate Mastertone and 7 : 1 for a one piece flange flathead.  Various makers are making thinner rims in order to increase this ratio to more than 8 : 1.

These so called “thin rims” are highly regarded by many players.

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

and a thinner,lighter rim,  which produces a very loud but expressive sound.

The typical LeVan bluegrass banjo has a metal to wood ratio of 8.5 : 1

Bluegrass banjos generally have a scale length between 26 1/4” and 27” because for the snappy sound of bluegrass, you need the correct  bridge placement ,which is roughly 7/11 across the head, towards the tailpiece.  Many old-time music players like a more central bridge position,but that’s not bluegrass.

The pre-war Mastertones were 26 3/8”.  I normally use 26.55”, although I have gone to 26.9”, which produces a  snappier sound.

The resonator flanges on my banjos are hand made from sheet brass, like the flange plates on pre-war tube-and-plate banjos,  but instead  of using a bent tube to ancj hor 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 is a little higher than a flathead Mastertone - More in line with thin rim Mastertones

In the exploded view to the left, you can see how this works.I normally attach the resonator to the flange and that entire assembl;y goes on to the pot, rather than the normal system where the flange is bolted to the pot by the tension hooks.

The other 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 openback banjo, with the same metal to wood ratio and playing characteristics as a Vega Tubaphone.

Below you see a banjo of the “Norfolk” pattern shown as a resonator banjo and an openback.  The rims on my banjos are bound inside and out with inner veneers, so that they make a good-looking openback.


                              BLUEGRASS                  OPENBACK                 LIGHTWEIGHT 


While my first choice for neck attachment is the hollow wooden “Rudy-rod” dowel with the steel tension rod, because of it’s superior sound transmission from the neck to the pot, I also make traditional dowel sticks and  metal double rod systems. 

Many bluegrass players prefer the double rod system developed by Gibson known as “coördinator rods”.

I make a version of that system,which I believe to be more easily adjustable and with better bearing surfaces.

The LeVan co-rods are anchored in the heel with a brass anchor and do not use lag screws, which is another superior detail.