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Kyle K. Smith Interview
We have the pleasure of talking with Kyle K. Smith also known as the “banjo set up specialist.” Kyle, tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a native of East Tennessee, from Knoxville, blessed by a saintly wife of twenty-five years, Toni, and our number one source of pride and joy, our son Cody.
What is a typical day like for you?
Besides operating my banjo business, I also home school Cody, so my day has an early start. Fueled by a good cup of coffee, I’m answering my business e-mail by about ten minutes after four a.m. I roust Cody out of bed by four-thirty as I head towards the shop to start a disassembly, and he joins me by five a.m. I’ll continue my bench work as we go through his studies. Then we break for lunch, check the mail, and its back out to the shop to put a couple of hours into the banjos I’m building. All my building time is juggled around the amount of setup work. I have a one week turn around so my clients don’t experience a severe case of separation anxiety from their banjos!
How did you get started on the banjo?
The first time I heard a banjo it touched something in my core, I couldn’t get enough of “that” sound. Little did I know it would become a life long passion. I begged my parents to buy me one so I could get started and took lessons for around a year until I had become adept and I could forge ahead on my own, working by ear from recordings.
How did that evolve into your set-up/repair business?
After about two years, discovering all the different combinations of volume/tone/timbre that a banjo could produce was constantly on my mind. It was amazing (and still is) how the least X-factor of head tension, head thickness, truss rod adjustment, tone ring composites, density of wood rims/density of bridge material and depth of the air chamber can change the overall tone/timbre of a banjo. During my testing, I’ve seen that as much as 60-80% of the timbre of an instrument is hidden away in the neck wood. With the variety of tone ring composites available in conjunction with old wood and new, the array of tones/timbres modern banjos can produce is phenomenal.
I never spend a day in the shop that I don’t learn something new. A configuration that by common sense would tell you it would not work, works and vice-a-versa. I knew that it had to be possible to be able to take a given instrument apart and put it back the same way every time, achieving the exact same sound. The key is finding where the natural window is so that the instrument as a whole comes together, giving the widest and most balanced tonal range of the total sum of the parts.
After many years I perfected my proprietary system for electronically voicing any type banjo. Once you can get the instrument dialed in, it’s truly neat how it goes through a metamorphosis as the vibrations from playing relax in the setup. Here are some things I’ve found through my testing about how long it takes for an instrument to mature after a setup. With most tone rings, volume will increase approximately ten percent after the first day of picking. For a new banjo with nickel plating, it takes approximately two weeks to start to hear something close to the final tone/timbre. If it’s a new banjo with gold plating, it will be a month before the set up will start to mature. Old wood, submerged or recovered, with nickel plating hardware, one month, old wood with gold hardware, right at two months.
My mom stopped by the shop the other day and was asking what I was working on, of course I made the mistake of trying to explain it all in earnest. She just looked at me and said, ” I knew you were obsessive/compulsive, but I never imagined anything good would come out of it.” All I could do was give a red faced grin.
How did this evolve into you building banjo’s?
It just came about as a natural progression from the electronic set-up-work. I learned so much about how the different woods/ring composites worked together/against each other, plus I knew that the production necks from other companies could be vastly improved from a banjo player’s perspective. The length, shoulder taper of frets, binding work, heel length and concave of the neck are all very important in order to make a banjo neck fast, roomy and most of all forgiving. A neck should be made so that when you’re playing at break neck speeds your thumb never has to leave the center of the neck all the way up the fingerboard to the last fret. The attention to detail I put into shaping the profile of my necks makes it easy for even a ten to twelve year old to perform a wrap-around color chord. You can’t walk in any music store and find that. Tell us about your shop.
I have a full service shop. I started working out of my house on my wife’s kitchen table. When it got to the point where we couldn’t see the television for the shipping boxes, she gave me the ultimatum of building a shop. You know what they say about “keeping momma happy”! I built the building myself with the help of my father and a couple of close friends who’d stop by to lend a hand with the heavy lifting. Things have been going so well, I’m getting ready to find out how many friends I’ve got left when I build an addition this summer.
There are a few more machines I’d like to acquire — you can never have enough (laughs). At present some of my things are up in my father’s work shop and I’m looking forward to getting them all under one roof. I’m working towards expanding this summer with another building/garage in order to get all of the wood working tools out of my setup/finishing area. I will be doing all the work myself, and hopefully I’ll be in it by next winter.
How do most folks get their banjo’s to you?
We’ll it’s about 50/50 between UPS shipment and customers bringing them by for a while-you-wait or dropping them off and stopping back by to pick them up. I’m blessed to live close to I-40 & I-75 near Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Dollywood. There’s a huge amount of people that come to the area for vacation. I make sure the people that are traveling through or on vacation are a priority, that way they are taken care of at their convenience. I reserve a date and time to meet with them and then take care of them as quickly as possible. It generally takes me 3-5 hrs. to clean/setup.
I really enjoy meeting my clients, being able to talk with them over a good cup of coffee and stealing a few licks when they’re not looking (laughs) After my setup has been completed, it only takes 1/8″ turn per year on the hook nuts in order to keep the instrument peaked on the window if they can’t make it back by the shop. As long as the setup is not altered by the owner other than raising or lowering the tailpiece, I’ll keep their banjo tweaked/peaked on the window for a period of three years at no charge. As far as I know, I’m the only one in the business that does that.
So if someone broke the neck on their banjo or wanted a new rim and tone ring fit, you’d be able to do that for them?
I can take care of all of a persons banjo needs, be it rim/ring fit, broken necks and re-finishing etc. But I only take in limited amounts of work so that I can keep to a one week turnaround on the setup work for my clients and continue to build the Legends.
The name on your banjos is “Legend”. How did you chose that name?
That was the third hardest thing I’ve ever done besides saying “I do” and naming my son (laughs). I wanted the name to say in one word a mouthful about what I’m trying to achieve in each and every instrument I create. I don’t build just a banjo with one type of rim or ring. I draw upon everything I’ve learned through the years of my electronic voicing of the banjos and match it to my customer’s description of the tone/timbre they’re after.
It’s my hope that every banjo I match up with a client will be a friend for life and not be re-sold. A great percentage of my banjos are sold to existing clients. They’ve been able to see and experience what I can do with their instrument. I know the sound they presently have, and they tell me what they’d like more of, less of, etc. I keep a list of certain wood pattern combinations that are on a customer’s “want list,” and when I get ready to put it together, I’ll go down the list contacting them to see if they are still in the market for a banjo. If they are, I’ll procure what’s needed to get “the” sound for them and give them a date when they can expect delivery. I’ve been blessed, I’ve not had a banjo longer than two weeks after it’s been completed.
Are there any touring professionals playing a Legend?
Elmer Burchett Jr. recently played one of my banjos during his stint with the national touring group Pine Mountain Railroad. I met with him & built a banjo exclusively to his taste in tone/timbre/volume etc. Elmer played it on their newest project that should be released in mid to late July on Rural Rhythm Records. The tentative title is, “Preaching, Praising, Singing Hymns of the Mountains,” available at Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target etc. The recording of the banjo was done with a vintage RCA Ribbon Mic & EQ’d completely flat, at Dale Perry’s (Doyle Lawson fame) studio, called “Studio by the Lake.” I’m anxious to hear the final product!
What are you most proud of as a builder?
There’s nothing like the feeling of handing an old friend of many years back to the owner and seeing the look on their face when they play the first song on it after a setup. The smiles, grins and look of amazement as they play through the song make me feel like Santa at Christmas time! As for building, when a customer to picks up their new instrument, I get to see the same progression on their face as they play the first tune. When they look up at me and say, “You nailed it, that’s the sound I’ve been looking for,” that’s what it’s all about for me!
What do you want people to come away with after working with you?
It’s my hope they feel like they’ve made a new friend while at the same time knowing they’ve met someone that’s a rare commodity in this world anymore, a man of his word.