Cedar Mountain Banjos
In true Appalachian form, craftsmanship is passed down and improved upon with each iteration at CMB
Artisan and handcrafted one by one in the Southern Highlands. A fantastic example of a cottage industry that spreads the wealth by spending money on tools, materials, banking, employees, and more locally. Tim Gardner takes the perfectionist's approach - proven methods some from classical design and others improved or solely created by Tim that not only are aesthetically pleasing, they also meet incredibly high standards for sound, action, feel and durability. CMB consistently fills custom orders from enthusiasts all over the world, while quietly proud of the numerous top banjo pickers as clients.
GraciousRoots talks with CMB owner, builder, and professional musician Tim Gardner.
GR: Cedar Mountain Banjos - where did that name originate?
Tim: My stepfather Lo Gordon started CMB in 1996 at our old family property in Cedar Mountain, NC just south of Brevard.
GR: How did you become a banjo builder/artist?
Tim: I started working for CMB in 2005 after working in the construction trades for a few years after college. My dad needed a new shop helper, and I eventually took over ownership of the business in 2013.
GR: GraciousRoots readers will know your current bluegrass endeavors. Give us a snapshot of your musical history?
Tim: I started playing the fiddle when I was seven years old, and our family string band would travel around the state of Florida where we used to live going to old-time fiddler's conventions. In addition to learning fiddling, I was also getting classical violin training and playing in youth orchestras. Upon graduating college, I started getting into bluegrass and other more progressive forms of acoustic music and started playing in bands. My current band is Unspoken Tradition, who are currently working on our third album.
GR: Where is CMB located?
Tim: CMB is currently located in Mills River, NC
GR: Who are your design inspirations?
Tim: My number one inspiration for aesthetics and design is definitely my dad. His designs and sense of proportion, in my opinion, are the epitome of rustic elegance and functional art, even down to the finest little detail. He has never been one to jump on the bandwagon of whatever happens to be 'in style' at a given time. Since taking over CMB four years ago, my goal is to maintain that 'classic Cedar Mountain' look and sound while building on and honing designs, tone, and playability. Of course, no one exists in a vacuum, and most modern builders take inspiration from each other as well as the classic makers of the late 1800's and early 1900's such as Vega, Bacon, Dobson, S.S. Stewart, and others.
Walnut Bella Rosa pair
GR: Do you have a favorite banjo?
Tim: Hmm, that's a tough question. There are so many types of banjos, and they all serve a specific purpose or tonal aesthetic. I think my favorite type of banjo these days incorporate a Tubaphone style tone ring, which gives it a beautiful bell-like voice with powerful projection through the whole register. My Bella Rosa model is made with a Tubaphone tone ring.
GR: How did you learn the craft?
Tim: Just like with the designs, my main source of banjo making knowledge would be from my dad Lo Gordon. However, it's not just about the art and the 'craft'. Making musical instruments is a unique union of art and manufacturing, and creating fine designs that are also cost effective and competitively priced can be a challenge. Modern makers who are producing any consistent and significant volume need to approach it as a manufacturer and to think about things like efficiency, materials sourcing, and buying in volume. In addition to my dad, I've learned some valuable production techniques from other prolific builders such as Bart Reiter, Patrick Heavner, and Bill Rickard.
• A particular sound and /or style you prefer to build?
• We have always been primarily an open-back banjo maker, but I've recently developed a new wood tone ring bluegrass resonator model called the Bramble.
GR: Materials - As I understand, you incorporate specialty woods - tell me about that.
Tim: For over 20 years we've been using exotics such as rosewood and mahogany in addition to the classic domestic woods such as maple, walnut, and cherry. The tone and look of exotic woods are unmatched in my opinion; however, some of these species are getting hard to come by due to overharvesting and governments putting much-needed restrictions on exports. Over the past several years I've made efforts to reduce our use of such exotics by offering all-domestic models or options which have been gaining popularity. However, the higher-end clients still expect exotics. We've been exploring substitutes as well as future sourcing of FSC-certified or plantation-grown wood.
GR: Has the opportunity arisen to play your banjo LIVE with UT?
Tim: Not yet, I'm just the fiddle man!
GR: Anything new coming up with CMB?
Tim: We're always tweaking and adjusting our product lines to appeal to market trends and to keep ourselves inspired. Starting in early 2018 we'll be beginning production on the new Jubilo model, which will be made in large batches with standardized specs to keep the price affordable and always to have them in stock. The majority of my builds in the last few years have been made to order, so we're hoping to use the Jubilo to satisfy the folks who don't necessarily want to wait six or more months for a commission.
GR: What makes CMB banjos stand out?
Tim: To me, the consistent and unflinching originality of our designs, as well as the variety of materials used, make them stand out. The words "safe" or "easy" don't play a factor in coming up with new design concepts. Also, extra attention to detail and fit and finish make a big difference in the final product. We don't just rush things through and slap them together to get them out the door.
GR: Personal preference: Scruggs style or Clawhammer?
Tim: I honestly don't have a preference here. I was brought up playing old-time music and building banjos for primarily clawhammer players, however being a professional bluegrass musician has definitely grown my appreciation for Scruggs style. They both have their place and purpose, and when played by a masterful player they are both beautiful.
GR: Resonator or None?
Tim: I love them both, but I think I have an affinity towards open backs for their lighter weight and versatility. Plus I build them!
GR: What would surprise people to know about you ?
Tim: Believe it or not, reggae and Caribbean hip-hop have been helping me find my groove in the shop lately!
GR: You're not the average 'Joe' who decided to start making banjos. Share a bit of your musical history.
Tim: I grew up in a musical family playing old-time string band music, and ever since graduating from college I've been working at making a career as a multi-instrumentalist, sideman and recording artist. This was a little bit of a challenge at first coming from an old-time background, but I eventually found a way to merge styles and find common threads between them. My goal has always been to become a very versatile player, and as a result I've had the opportunity to play live and record with lots of talented artists over the years. I've learned a ton about virtually all facets of the music industry, especially when in comes to producing music. In the mid 2000's I started setting up a home recording studio and have worked with quite a few bands to engineer their records. Each year brings new opportunities for live performances and collaborations - the tough part is finding the time to do it all!