Even though I’m not truly a native to the New River Valley, I feel that I have lived here my whole life. I’ve had the opportunity to live all over this great nation, and I feel that this area is something truly special and unique. What I feel drives the quality of life here is not just the stunning vistas, unlimited outdoor opportunities, affordable real estate and dining opportunities, but the people! I love asking the question, “So, what do you do?” for you never know what answer you may get. The entrepreneurial spirit that makes our country great runs deep with the people in our area.
One of the more unique answers that I have gotten to that question was from Greg Galbreath, who owns Buckeye Banjos. I met Greg in Palisades Restaurant (props to the owner Shaena Muldoon for her new menu) and his answer, after we talked for a while and realized that we are neighbors, was “I make Banjos.” I was immediately intrigued and asked if I could visit his shop. I’m always fascinated by artisan skills as I personally have zero patience for anything intricate. My brother is an amateur musician (I use the term amateur here loosely, as he, in my opinion, is quite accomplished) and provided me with a lot of background information on banjos before I visited Greg.
The sun was just setting over a magnificent mountain view when I arrive. Chickens are scampering and scratching and Hank, the shop dog, gives me a very calm and dignified greeting. The shop was glowing warm from a wood stove in the corner and was everything that I expected and more. Clean, smelling of fresh wood and faint aromas of cherry, it was both old-school and modern. Greg’s story is unique and reminiscent of so many artists and craftsmen in our area. He is originally from Chestertown, MD on the eastern shore and attended Virginia Tech. He moved to Ithica, NY to attend Cornell and study Biology specializing in fish conservation. He loved to work with his hands and was drawn to wood working. Over time, he moved back to the NRV and worked with a cabinet maker in Floyd who also made banjos. Intrigued by the intricacy of the craft, and motivated by his love of Old-Time music, Greg started making banjos as a hobby.
As I wander around the shop, listening to Greg talk with my wife as her camera clicks, I am fascinated by the level of detail that he puts into each Banjo. Hand engraving is intricate and totally custom to the client. He hand forms each Banjo from walnut and maple that is mostly grown in Pennsylvania. He explains, “Wood grown in the northern climates grows more slowly than it does here and is denser, which gives the Banjos a better sound.” He talks about how that walnut provides a softer, richer sound while maple is a bit louder and more suitable for stage music.
What was once a hobby for Greg is now Buckeye Banjos, named in honor of the beautiful mountain which overlooks his shop. Hank keeps him company while he works. Greg tells me that his fascination with the banjo arose after he discovered Old-Time music, which has its roots in the early history of the United States and has been linked to the music that our earliest settlers brought with them from Europe, which was strongly influenced by the music of the British Isles. The banjo itself is thought to be heavily influenced by African designs and was originally built by placing musical strings on a hollowed out gourd. Greg’s current custom banjo is a far cry from that hollowed out gourd. This instrument is one that is named the “Atomic Banjo.” This particular client wanted a 1950’s based design, with lots of mother-of-pearl inlays and engraving, which Greg accomplishes utilizing magnifying glasses and tiny files. Custom stars and rocket designs complete the “atomic” look.
If you are interested in banjos, take a look at Greg’s web site, www.buckeyebanjos.com. If you want a completely custom banjo, give him a call, but be warned, his one-time hobby now has a two and a half year wait!