Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

So, I was talking with Jim Mills the other day and... I got a pre-war Gibson Mastertone

Multiple Grammy Award winner and multiple IBMA Award winner Jim Mills, undoubtedly one of the best banjo players in the world, has played with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder for 14 years, played on two of Dolly Parton’s albums and other artists’ albums, has played with countless other top bands and artists on stage, and has made his own solo albums. He’s hung out with the likes of JD Crowe and his all-time hero and inspiration - Earl Scruggs. Jim is also the world’s foremost collector and authority on pre-war Gibson banjos; he literally wrote the book. After denying myself a Gibson since the 1970s, desire and envy has gotten the better of me and so I sought out the best to aid me with my indulgent acquisition.

Jim and his pre-war Gibson private showroom are located in the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina and may be visited by appointment only. You see, Jim has a personal approach to buying and selling these uniquely toned instruments and in my mind, I equated him to a matchmaker. I emailed him and told him my story and that I was looking for the last banjo I’ll ever have. He promptly replied with pictures of three banjos he thought might be good for me and we set up a date for a visit. Road trip aficionado that I am, I made the drive the day before and arrived at his showroom at the appointed time.

Jim greeted me outside and welcomed me and escorted me to the showroom, a museum really, that houses memorabilia and paraphernalia of all things Earl Scruggs and pre-war Gibsons and his own accomplishments and people he’s played with and done business with. The bathroom walls have framed letters from Dolly Parton for cryin’ out loud. One could spend hours viewing and discovering these items and they all have stories. After showing me the highlights including the one of a kind Mack Crow banjo, we sat and just talked for a spell, getting to know each other. It’s all part of the process and it just can’t be rushed. Jim is so personable and gracious and generous with his time. He wanted to know about me and my intentions and needs and he gave me a condensed education about the construction of these pre-wars, how to tell the different models apart, why they sound they way they do, how the old tenors are converted, and how to spot fakes and he answered all of my questions. He also shared amazing stories about Earl, the old banjos and others that have been to his showroom and bought banjos from him.

We then started pulling banjos and I asked him to play them, cause you know, I’m shy. Yeah, like I’m really gonna play a banjo in front of Jim Mills, geez. He was very accommodating though and played a selection of conversions for me and I was amazed at how they resonated in my chest, sitting across from him. Wow. Jim has a disarming way about him though and before I realized it, we were swapping banjos back and forth and I was playing them. In front of Jim Mills. Again, wow.

I had it narrowed down to a couple and then I noticed a gold plated 1927 ornate plectrum banjo. Whether it can be called a conversion is debatable I guess. It had the original checkerboard tenor neck, however it had been split down the middle lengthwise and spliced with a matching piece of wood to expand the neck to accommodate the 5th string. It was a gorgeous piece of work and apparently only one man in history has ever done that successfully. I played it. It was amazing. I had butterflies in my belly. I was so tempted. I looked at Jim and said “if I showed up at a jam with this banjo, it’s going to turn a lot of heads and I think everyone would expect more from me than my abilities can deliver”. He smiled at me and said “yeah, I get it. I felt the same way when I was young”. So, I gently replaced it in its rack on the display case and with a knowing look, he handed me back the 1929, Style 3, Mastertone conversion, with two piece flange and Bill Sullivan neck and I played with it a little while longer and then I gave him that look of agreement. Neither one of us had to say it. The deal was done. After that unspoken decision, he said, “this is a working man’s banjo”.

He took it apart for me to show me the three places where the serial number is supposed to be and the format and color they are supposed to be and that they all matched and the uncut and almost perfect condition of the Gibson guarantee label. He showed me a couple other items that confirm this is a genuine product. He wrote and printed the bill of sale and letter of authenticity describing its details and condition. Oh yeah, and he signed my @BanjoBen hat.

I asked him if I could video him playing it and he smiled and said sure. Here’s the video.

If you’re ever in the market for a pre-war Gibson, you must must must contact Jim Mills, you won’t regret it. His stories alone are worth the price of admission. As I drove away, I thought, what a sweetheart Jim is. I felt like I made a new friend.

This is the 1st post in a series of 3. See also my visits with Charlie Cushman and Banjo Ben Clark

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So awesome Maggie. Love the story. By the way. I think you’ve seen the new advanced banjo lesson today? Shove the Pigsfoot? I believe your banjo made another surpise appearance! :wink:

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It did indeed, isn’t that neat? I was so happy that Ben did that.

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How cool is THAT?!? Beautiful instrument!

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Wow! That thing rings out like a canon! Congrats on finding it. You’re going to have to become a professional player now. The banjo commands it! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

I loved your story, too. How cool to hang out with someone that’s been such an integral part of country music history. Thanks for sharing!

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I just saw the lesson on Instagram then came straight here. That’s a great story. One I can only dream of. Congratulations, that banjo picked a good one.

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Wow Maggie! That’s awesome. Can anyone tour Jim’s shop or is it only if your looking to buy an instrument?

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I think he sets appointments with those contemplating selling or buying or appraising banjos. While I was there it was just Jim and me. He does a seminar on pre-war Gibsons now and then at the showroom so you could watch for that.
I want to go to his next one as well.

Of course, you could just contact him and ask him.

What a neat neat story, @Maggie! The more trips I make around the sun the more I come to realize that it’s the stories like these that make the items we own all the more special.

In the end, this is just another one of those ways that we look at the amazing things before us - the expertise of a builder, the craft of the musician, the sound of some tightly wound strings, etc - and cause us to go: “My gracious…what a God we serve!”

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Wow @Maggie, that was fun to read and listen to. Thanks for posting! He sure can make that banjo ring out, and he looks like a great guy. You’ve got ahold of a banjo treasure!

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Wow, that’s really cool!

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Congrats Maggie…YOU will be the talk of the town now…lol. What cool way to purchase a banjo, Im sure you could talk to Jim for hours on just about everything banjo. Soooo, i guess you are doing a video next of YOU playing it???. That banjo has such a strong sound, I know one thing… I won’t sound that good at 90, Lord willing…

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Amazing Maggie what a great banjo that is there’s no excuses now…lol

Well done and thanks for sharing the great video

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I have been trying to persuade @Maggie to do a video for what seems like an age. Maybe my approach is all wrong. Should I dare her to do a video?

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I hereby second Archie’s proposal for a Maggie Video. :heart_eyes:

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I’m telling you @Mark_Rocka , this banjo has some sort of magical powers man. I’m a great player now all of a sudden and I’m ready for the stage. On the road to Nashville, listening to Jim Mills and Earls of Leicester albums, I fantasized that I’d be in the right place at the right time and wound up on the Opry stage playing my new old banjo with Vince or Ricky or the list goes on. I was a huge hit of course and that led to bigger and better gigs, you know.

It’s a shame I’m plagued with stage fright and I’m camera shy. Oh and I’m not as good a player as I dream I am, so there’s that. But hey, one can dream.

Yeah, it was a kick to hang out with Jim indeed, great guy.

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I just found out he’s no longer doing those seminars :disappointed:

What a God we serve indeed Rance (@5stringpreacher). Because of that I’ve never been interested in having a lot of stuff, I’d rather do things and experience His gifts that are all around us. Every now and then though, there’s a “stuff” that I would like to have for the reasons you mention. That and the whole flesh is weak thing, which is true but…

It is a such a joy to play and it already has history with me, considering who’s played it since I’ve had it. I don’t even know who’s played it in the past. It could have been someone famous or a working man playing in a local town band or for his family or even a closet player like me. It’s fun to think about that.

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Thanks everyone for the compliments and comments. I’m a little giddy about the whole thing and I’m bragging a lot, which is not my nature, but we all have our moments, so thanks for indulging me. I’m just living in the moment.

To those of you who keep encouraging me to do a video (@Deere_Crossing, @Archie, @_Tye_Stick, @Lee_G) , thanks and I’m certainly NOT asking you to stop. Baby steps. I just played in front of Jim Mills, that’s huge. I didn’t do a whole song or anything, just some snippets, you know while we talked, very nonchalantly. I get nervous playing with my uncle, but I’m working on it.

Cheers y’all

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@Maggie the first video is the toughest after that it’s all down hill.

Here is my very first video warts and all. posted way back in 2014. I was a bag of nerves the whole way through and this was about the 100th attempt. So I know just how you feel.

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