Ron Stewart and the Yates banjo

Ron Stewart on stage with his Yates banjoRegular readers of Bluegrass Today should be accustomed to reading rave reviews here of the work of Ron Stewart. Ron has established himself as perhaps the premier session player in and around bluegrass – on both fiddle and banjo – and a highly sought-after producer as well.

Over the past ten years, he has been a member of The Lynn Morris Band, JD Crowe & The New South with high-profile fill in work with Lonesome River Band. He was the subject of two popular instructional DVDs for AcuTab (banjo and fiddle) and released his own solo CD, Time Stands Still.

Ron is featured on two current CDs, Longview’s Deep In The Mountains where he plays fiddle, and Wheels, the just-released project from Dan Tyminski, on banjo. He has also developed a reputation as a first rate set up man on both instruments, and has long been a go-to-guy for folks looking for restored fiddles for sale.

The Yates Ron Stewart signature banjoI have heard Ron expound on banjo set up and construction many times, a knowledge he developed over many years of studying the classic pre-war flatheads, and refined through both examination of and discussion with JD Crowe and his collection of fine flatheads. Now, he has taken his banjo experience to the next step, pairing with builder Warren Yates in the development, set up and marketing of a new line of instruments, the Ron Stewart Signature Series banjos.

Ron shared his thoughts with us recently, explainng what brought him to work with Yates, and describing these new banjos that carry his name.

“I first met Warren Yates in July of 2006 at a show in Morganton, NC, while working with JD Crowe. I was also filling in on banjo with Kenny and Amanda Smith that same day. Warren introduced himself, and showed me a couple of his Rattlesnake banjos. I was impressed with the craftsmanship and the tone of the banjos, so we exchanged contact info, but aside from a couple of emails and a phone conversation or two, didn’t get to know each other really well until the next summer (I had a baby boy due in August, so as many of you know, that first year is, well, really intense and busy!).

I was once again playing in the area in July of ‚Äò07 and Warren and Joel Marley (who works at Yates banjo, inlay) came out to our show, and brought a Studio model Yates for me to play. It blew me away, and we started talking about doing a Ron Stewart model Yates at that time. The Studio model was the banjo I played at IBMA on the Dan Tyminski Band showcase in’07, which I sold to a gentleman in NC when I got my Maple model, which I used to record the new Dan Tyminski Band CD.

I have thought for some time about the way to really get that ‘classic flathead tone’ in a new banjo, and I feel that I’ve found the way to do it. I wish I could go into what it is, but it is something that makes or breaks the tone of the banjo, and that’s all I can say about the process. I had my ideas about tone rings and I had really been waiting until someone wanted to hear my reasoning and logic, and Warren Yates was that person.

It took a lot of hours and trips to NC, and more hours and more trips before it happened, but it did, and thus the V33 No Hole tone ring was born, and I couldn’t be happier with our product! I love tone, in any instrument, and banjos to me are no different that any other instrument, sort of like the violins my father and I re-voice. It’s in there, you just have to know what to do and what not to do to get it out!

The Ron Stewart Maple model is patterned after my 1933 TB1, serial 9464-59. It has the ‘fat’ rim like the ‚Äò33’s do (.630” VS. .600”), distressed finish and hardware, No Hole Venom 33 tone ring, pot metal lightweight flange, special inlay which is in all of my models, and a straight grained maple neck, same size and shape as mine, and smaller frets.

The Ron Stewart Mahogany model has a reddish brown distressed finish, rings in the resonator, distressed hardware, No Hole Venom 33 tone ring, same inlay in the fingerboard with a different headstock inlay. Aside from the visual aspects, these banjos are quite similar in how they respond. They feel right in your hands, and have tones that are just amazing! In a word, they look, feel, and most importantly sound RIGHT!!!!

I set up every Ron Stewart model that is sold, play it in, and sign it in ink. I also designed the Ron Stewart model bridge, same principle as violin or any other kind of bridge, with the right mass, and right wood, it will bring out the most a banjo has to offer. I wouldn’t have my name on an instrument that I wouldn’t walk into the studio or on stage and play it, and I mean EVERY one of them. We don’t just have a few ‘good’ ones, they are all instruments I would be proud to play anytime, anywhere.”

Ron has taken a solo banjo track from the song Why Don’t You Tell Me So so that banjo pickers can get a good listen to one of these Yates banjos in the ideal studio environment. You can find it on the Ron Stewart web site, or listen right here.

Listen now:

“I have had the good fortune in the last six years to have played with one of my heros, JD Crowe, and during that time spent countless hours around, and playing, his flatheads. I knew there was a reason that flatheads sounded the way they do, and from working on violins and other acoustic instruments alongside my father, Frank – who is an amazing luthier – I knew it wasn’t a ‘Genie’ in a bottle.

Everything happens for a reason, cause and effect, and flatheads are no different from anything else in that respect, just like Loars or Herringbones, or violins. There are things that Gibson did, or had the banjo, or using a microphone on it, it cuts through everything, as it should. The same way with a Loar, or Herringbone, or a great fiddle.

The right tones are coming out, and they are not jumbled with unwanted tones. All instruments have overtones, that’s what makes them sound like they do, if they didn’t have any, it would be like hearing a single electronic note. It’s what overtones are there, and are not there that makes a great instrument sound the way it does, and project like it does. Our banjos have the right tones and overtones, that’s why they sound like they do.

Does it make a difference how old the rim is? Sure, but flatheads were new in the thirties, and I bet they still had that right thing about them. But I also bet that they improved as the wood changed over the years as well. To me, these are as close as you will ever get without spending 100k!

The proof is every week when I walk on stage or in the studio, I’m playing my Yates, not my old Gibson.”

Both Ron Stewart signature Yates models sell for $3875, which includes Keith standard tuners and a hard shell case. More photos and details can be found on the Yates Banjos web site.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.