Charlie Cushman – Banjo Doctor is in

Is your five-string ailing? If so, contact the doctor.

Charlie Cushman, banjoist with the Earls of Leicester and an Earl Scruggs devotee, is a top-notch banjo set-up man as well. Working out of his north Tennessee home, Cush has a shop filled with antique radios, vintage microphones, and everything that he needs to get banjos sounding their absolute best. His clientele includes current bluegrass A-listers such as Ron Block, Billy Strings, and Vince Gill, plus the banjos of past greats like Earl Scruggs and Uncle Dave Macon.

“I’ve played an old Mastertone since I was 21, and know what the sound is. I use that as my measuring stick. I have owned many fine original pre-war flathead Mastertones and have learned a great deal about their tonal abilities, and more importantly, how to achieve and retrieve the tone from the instrument.”

“Your banjo should be adjusted to perform in harmony with your current ability as a player. After 35 years of playing the banjo, I personally can say that as your ability to play progresses, the set-up of your instrument will become an extremely important component in your quest to be the musician you want to be,” stressed Cushman. 

‘I got interested when I was four years old,” the TN native explained. “Watching Flatt and Scruggs’ TV show made me want to play the banjo.”

He took a few lessons when he was seven to “get off the ground,” but is basically self-taught. 

“I started dissecting records, slowing 33 1/3 down to 16 to learn the licks.”

The professional musician began his career performing six days a week on Nashville’s Carl Tipton Bluegrass TV show when he was just 14 years old. He held the steady gig for five years.

As a young man, Cushman hit the road. First, he played a year with James Monroe, then a year with Jimmy Martin. Next, he performed for country singer, Mel Tillis.

“I started doing numerous banjo recording sessions. It got me off the road.”

During this time period, Cush also held a day job and partnered with fellow banjoist, Stan Brown (Wilma Lee Cooper), running a carpet cleaning business. He became a member of the Opryland Theme Park’s bluegrass band, performing five years on the Martin stage.

Cushman then joined Mike Snider’s Band, playing guitar alongside him for 14 years on the Grand Ole Opry. During the holiday season, the band also played the Ryman Auditorium.

“It’s the best stage in the country for acoustic music,” he readily affirmed.

Vince Gill petitioned the five string picker to record on his These Days boxed-set album and then tour. Cush performed on the bluegrass portion of the recorded and live productions.

“Vince had a monstrous touring band of 17 people. We played 115 dates. It was a great experience,” he fondly recalled.

Then the picker became involved in the mechanics of the banjo. He found his second calling.

“I worked for Gibson in 2004-05 as set-up guy in their factory. I was the banjo inspector and did all the set-ups.”

In January 2006, he started working in the repair shop of Gruhn Guitars for George Gruhn.

“It was a 60 mile round trip. That was when gas prices went so high. In 2007, I went into business for myself.”

That leap of faith proved profitable. Pickers began to seek out the banjo repairman at his Cottontown address.

“I got a lot of referrals from word-of-mouth. The best advertising is when someone hears a banjo and asks, ‘How did you get it to sound that way?’ Then in 2010-2011, social media (Facebook, Banjo Hangout) gave us an opportunity to create our own image. I learned how to build interest in my set-ups.”

The banjo technician outlined his process for improving a banjo’s sound.

“The term ‘Set-Up’ refers partially to the adjustment of string height, neck pitch, bridge height, proper alignment of strings, and several other key tolerance issues that result in correct intonation, ease of playing the instrument, and the maximum output of volume and tone.”

Another service Cushman provides is tone chamber tuning. “I have earned an income performing on a number of vintage 1930s Gibson flathead banjos. I am of the opinion that even the newer banjos of this quality and design are capable of producing vintage sound, similar to what we all want, through this process of tuning the tone chamber. I have seen very favorable results from new banjos time and time again. I have developed a methodical approach to achieve those results from most any new high quality Mastertone-style banjo.”

The 61 year old explained the term “Pre-War Sound” that many banjo enthusiasts strive to achieve in their instruments.

“The ‘Pre-War’ sound of these ‘acoustic marvels from old Kalamazoo’ must first ‘live’ and ‘be’ in your mind and memory before you can truly acquire the ability to recognize ‘Pre-War’ sound when you hear it. We have the luxury today to buy tone-rings to try this new pre-war formula and go for the ‘pre-war’ sound. The reality of the matter is until you have heard in person, the many different voices (actual pre-war flathead banjos) of this tonal phenomenon, for many years, day in and day out, as I have, you may not be grasping the full understanding of the of ‘Pre-War Sound.’ A common thread these banjos possess is in their tone and sheer power.”

 This Tonal Awareness is the unmistakable sound that Cushman has developed a trained ear for, and strives to replicate.

“It is my desire to further explore and bring forth a similar tone and power found in these vintage banjos to others’ banjos. This is the most time consuming aspect of the service I render. Working in a consistent, clean, smoke-free/pet-free environment, I know I can improve the performance of a banjo. I have standing of most products on the market today that relate to pre-war banjo specs such as tone-rings, etc.”

“I am devoting my time to build this business to go along with my present musical career. I am looking forward to helping folks achieve their desires which lie from within their banjo. I am very fortunate to have this knowledge, to have owned several great pre-war flathead Gibson banjos in the past, and to have learned this aspect of the Gibson banjo from the many great banjo players and innovators who have carved out their careers on these special instruments.”

“If I sound like I’m some kind of privileged character, you’d better believe that I am! To be in the same community with so many of these legendary masters of the banjo, and to share with them in the interest of these old flatheads, I am truly privileged.”

Here is a brief video of Charlie playing my RB-150 after completing his set up.

To set up an appointment for banjo work with Charlie Cushman, call (615) 708-5075, email him directly, or send him a Facebook message.

The doctor is in.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.