Banjo players lost a major supporter earlier this week, one few of them ever thought much about.
Remo Belli died on Monday afternoon (4/25) at 88 years of age. His Remo Inc. manufactured the mylar banjo heads they use since 1957. The company was founded to serve the drumming industry, which he revolutionized with his plastic head, but banjo players have shared in the bounty.
Modern players typically have no experience with the skin head days, when damp air could cause the heads to stretch considerably from one day to another. Old timers tell stories of having to adjust a head by holding it over an electric lamp in order to draw the moisture out and pull it tight enough to make it playable, or even worse, of tightening it manually before a show only to hear it snap in the case when left in a drier spot without having loosened it beforehand.
Remo heads changed all that for banjo pickers and drummers alike, as the plastic was impervious to humidity, and could withstand far greater tension than skin. They were also notably less expensive than animal hides, and far easier to install.
From the start, Remo also offered banjo heads in a wide variety of diameters, making it a simple thing to fit them to instruments with other than the standard 11” profile.
Steve Huber, whose custom Huber banjo heads are manufactured by Remo with additional frosting sprayed on the surface, tells us that the company was always very helpful and took care to make a custom banjo product for a small customer like him.
“The Remo heads were essentially unchanged from the time they started making them until the mid ’70s when environmental regulations forced them to modify the frosting. This left a thinner top frosting on the heads, and they gave the banjo a different tone. When we asked them to consider making our banjo heads with a thicker coating applied, they were happy to comply, and they really do sound more like the old ones.”
Huber also share a piece of Earl Scruggs trivia about the plastic heads.
“The first song that Earl used a plastic head on his banjo to record was Just Ain’t in 1961. Nobody can say that didn’t sound great!”
Remo introduced a great many other innovations to the percussion world, especially in the realm of lower-cost drum shells, and was remembered by his staff and employees online:
“He committed himself and his company to providing drummers, the world over, with quality products and programs while striving to expand the acceptance of rhythm and in particular drumming as an integral component of an individual’s wellbeing.
Through his ongoing efforts, the professional, the enthusiast, children, the elderly, those at risk and those faced with both emotional and physical challenges have been brought the joy of drumming.
We mourn his passing and he will be missed by people in all walks of life. His spirit lives on and we will continue to pursue his vision of making drumming available to everyone alive.
We will miss you. Rest in peace, Remo.”
The company’s iconic crown logo will stand forever as a tribute to the man whose vision and determination changed a corner of the music industry.
Well done, Remo Belli.