Alison Brown with her Deering Julia Belle banjo
In collaboration with award-winning banjo picker Alison Brown, and inspired by the music and art of the late John Hartford, Deering Banjos has announced the debut of their latest model.
The Julia Belle, named for Hartford’s song Julia Belle Swain from his 1976 album, Mark Twang, recalls John’s use of a low-tuned banjo in most of his recordings. He initially favored a banjo tuned to open E to suit his deep voice, but the sound of the growly, low-tuned banjo eventually came to define his sound as much as his on-stage dancing while he played.
Deering had created a John Hartford model while he was alive, which he used for live performances, and is still available from the company. Like the original Hartford model, this new one uses a 24 fret neck, two more than has become standard on Mastertone-style instruments.
Alison actually owns the prototype model that had been John’s, as she had been a close friend of his during his life, and remains close with his family to this day. So when her idea for a special banjo for herself became clear in her mind, she knew that she wanted Deering to do it. Her vision involved the elongated fret scale, and the low tuning, with the radiused fingerboard that she prefers. But she wanted it to be a mahogany banjo instead of maple, with inlays based on Hartford’s original artwork.
She reached out to his family and requested access to his collection of sketches, which they happily granted. There she encountered his drawing of a woman dancing, which she chose for the headstock overlay, and which she says inspired her to give it the name Julia Belle.
The inlays in the fingerboard are also taken from or inspired by John’s drawings, including the one on the back of the headstock which includes Alison’s signature. Deering’s slim neck profile is used along with an ebony fingerboard.
For the pot, they are installing the Deering 06 Bell Bronze tone ring on their 3-ply violin grade maple rim. All the metal parts are nickel plated, and the neck and resonator are buffed to a satin finish.
The banjo is shipped set up for an open E tuning, with string gauges of .012, .014, .020w, .024w, .012. Individual owners may want to experiment with other tunings and gauges as their tastes dictate.
Brown says that the sound of the banjo tuned low really speaks to her, and opens her up to new choices.
“In my opinion, there’s nothing like a low banjo to open up a player’s creativity. The low resonance gives the banjo a solo voice that is so comfortable and inspiring to play that I find myself reaching for it often to play around the house. It’s a great tool in band settings and in the studio too, especially when you need to play in D, E or F but really want to hear the open sound of a G roll.”
Deering will debut the Julia Belle at their booth in the exhibit area during World Of Bluegrass next week in Raleigh, where it will be available to try out. If you time it right, you might even catch Alison there playing it herself.
It carries a MSRP of $5,699 and comes with a Deering hard shell case and a lifetime warranty.
Orders will be processed through the company’s world wide network of dealers.