Bart Reiter Open-Back Banjos

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Richard Johnston-

There are so many open-back banjo makers today that Bart Reiter is no longer an odd-ball, but he was on a rare path when he switched from building guitars to banjos back in the mid-1980s. There were only two or three banjo makers back then who even bothered with open-backs, because bluegrass style defined the five-string banjo. Northern California had an active old-time music scene, however, and Gryphon started carrying new Bart Reiters in 1987, shortly after he started selling banjos to a few music stores, and we’ve carried all the different models Bart has offered ever since.

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You would think all the new open-back banjo brands, and the improved quality of imported banjos, would have slowed Gryphon’s sales of Bart Reiter’s instruments but that hasn’t been the case. This is partly because despite being an individual builder making high-quality banjos, Bart’s instruments are remarkably affordable, so you can buy a new Buckbee model for $1195. If you look carefully at any Bart Reiter banjo and then look at the price tag, the question is “How does he do it?”

The answer to that question lies in how Bart lives and works rather than in cutting corners you can’t notice. He’s always worked alone and likes it that way. Bart also doesn’t spend time at banjo festivals, has never attended a trade show, and his website looks almost prehistoric, at least by Silicon Valley standards. He lives in rural Michigan, loves riding his motorcycle and going fishing, but you can put aside any images of Bart in a leather apron, working only with hand tools at a cluttered workbench by a window. Instead, Bart has a fully equipped workshop behind the family home and has invented a lot of special jigs and fixtures that make building old-time banjos faster and more efficient. There’s still a lot of handwork, of course, and Bart does all stages of building each banjo himself except the rough construction of the wood rims. Brass parts like tone rings and tension hoops are from North American sources.

If you’d like to hear Bart’s approach to building banjos from the man himself, and to see his shop, this 3 1/2 minute video by Craig Evans also gives several examples of Bart’s wry humor. Craig Evans’ Video

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We usually have almost all of the nine different models Bart offers in stock. Bart Reiter banjos are famous for their consistency, and he’s clearly chosen function over fancy as none of his banjos have much inlay or marquetry. We love them because they rarely need any adjustment, and if a Bart banjo does need a bit of tweaking to suit a particular playing style it’s easy to do. Another advantage to this reputation for consistency is that Bart’s banjos are easy to sell when used, so if you start with a Bart Reiter Buckbee model and later decide you want a Round Peak with 12-inch shell and scooped fingerboard, Gryphon is always happy to get a clean used Bart banjo in trade.



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