Bluegrass has always depended on small businesses and entrepreneurs to keep the music playing. Most venues, festivals, or concerts where you hear it played are small businesses, as are the bands, record labels, and retailers that see it recorded and performed.
This is equally true of instrument builders, where the bulk of the banjos, mandolins, guitars, fiddles, and reso-guitars we love are made in small shops by dedicated craftsmen. The fact that these are so often independently owned and family run makes their survival an all the more important part of our bluegrass community. So when a new one appears, it means that someone has taken a financial risk to hang out a shingle, and is, as such, worthy of celebration.
Just a few days ago, Chris and Stephanie Sorenson of North Ann Arbor, MI, announced that the business they had been operating as a part-time endeavor, Companion Custom Banjos, had reached the point where it could support them both, and they have made it their full time career. Doing this after only six years in operation shows that they are clearly providing something to the market, both with finished banjos and banjo components for others builders.
Chris does the bulk of the building, while Stephanie does the custom inlay which they offer for very reasonable rates.
Like so many ventures of this kind, Sorenson says it really started as a lark. He is a certified commercial pilot and flight instructor who had been teaching in the aviation program at Eastern Michigan University. The college has an in depth flight school, with about a dozen aircraft used in awarding bachelors degrees, and certification to new pilots. He enjoyed his work at EMU, working with students and developing curricula, but then the banjo big bit.
“I built my first banjo in 2015. It was definitely a passion project, and I gave it to my Uncle Don, who was the one who initially got me interested in banjo. He turned me on to Earl Scruggs and The Ballad of Jed Clampett. I remember waiting for the end of the show as a kid so I could hear the banjo, and wore out my Dad’s Flatt & Scruggs tapes.”
Chris had only gotten his own high quality banjo in 2014, and once he mustered up the courage to take it apart and put it back together, it took the fear out of the notion of making his own.
“I always had an interest in woodworking, and that first banjo turned out really well, which gave me the confidence to build another. That second went to a pro player, which gave me even more confidence. Steve VanWyck of Calabogie Road played it all over the midwest helping spread the word, and told others about my banjos. That one banjo I made for him tuned into orders for numbers 5, 6, and 7.
We started out using parts from other manufacturers, but have recently begun making our own. I learned machining from some local pros, but had to learn most of it myself. Now we are making our own rings, coordinator rods, arm rests, resonator hardware, resonators, and block rims. We sell parts now to a number of other builders.”
Banjo maker Jimmy Cox, recently deceased, was a mentor for Chris, and taught him quite a bit about building instruments and making components like rims and resonators. A big item for them of late has been custom colored tuner buttons. They started by trying to make replicas of the amber swirl buttons used by Gibson on the Granadas years ago, and they now make buttons in more than a dozen different colors.
“It was very challenging to break the code of the amber swirl. We’ve been surprised by how many people wanted colors other than amber. These days we can make them to order, with about a three week lag. A guy today wanted Coleman lantern green, and last week someone wanted a cherry red sparkle for his RB-800.”
They also offer custom resonator thumbscrews with inlaid tops.
The Companion Custom Banjos are built in the Mastertone style, with a big bonus being their willingness to make whatever a customer asks them to build. Custom colors, inlays, wood choices… all are on the table during consultations prior to placing an order. They also make open back banjos, with 100% of the work done in house. Chris says that they can turn new orders around within about six months.
A specialty is the block rims that Chris builds, though they also use 3-ply rims for customers who prefer them. He also makes a woody rim, which is constructed by adding an extra layer of blocks which is turned to a flathead ring profile. These make for a much lighter weight banjo, which have proved to be quite popular with buyers.
Fortunately for the Sorensons, their home in North Ann Arbor already had a shop on the property, but now, in addition to building banjos and parts, Chris is also putting up a 1000 square foot addition to their backyard facility.
After many hours of discussions, Chris and Stephanie believe that they are ready to go full time.
“The amount of business showed that there was a market, both for direct customers and to other builders. We ran the numbers, and feel confident that we can make it work.
We have discussed adding more workers, but we aren’t ready for that now. At the moment, it’s just the two of us.
We try to be very competitive in pricing, and all sales are direct to the purchaser.”
Companion Banjos made with the light weight woody rim start at $2400, or $2600 for a standard tone ring model. The sky’s the limit with customization, as you can see in the photos below. More details can be found on their web site.
So welcome to Companion Custom Banjos, the newest full-time banjo building business serving the bluegrass and old time community. Best of luck, Chris and Stephanie!