Geoff Stelling, originator and chief luthier for Stelling Banjo Works, who has operated the company with his wife Sherry in central Virginia for many years, has announced that they will be shuttering the company at the end of 2022. Both Geoff and Sherry are still in good health, and want to enjoy a retirement away from the business after so much time in service to the banjo community.
No new banjos will be built this year, and they are primarily remaining open while they find some repair shops to handle Stelling warranty work once they close down.
Stelling got his start working with Greg Deering of Deering Banjos while living in San Diego, California. But Geoff had an idea for modifying the banjo pot assembly that had come to him while working as a submariner in the US Navy. Realizing the difficulties of fitting a banjo tone ring to a rim using the classic Mastertone design, he figured that the way propeller shafts were fitted in the Navy, with both surfaces cut on a matching angle, would work for banjos as well.
His first models were made in 1974 while Stelling was still serving in the Navy, but soon he had his own shop and was doing banjos full time. In the mid-1980s Geoff moved shop to Virginia, and has been building there ever since. There are now more than 7,100 Stelling banjos around the world, many of them quite ornate and highly collectible.
These banjos caught on quickly in the market, at a time when Gibson was not at the peak of their production quality. Many professional players were using his banjos, and Geoff built custom models for some of the biggest names in banjo. Sonny Osborne, Don Reno, Alan Munde, Bill Emerson, Tony Trischka, Ralph Stanley, Béla Fleck, Terry Baucom, Scott Avett, and Ben Eldridge all owned and played Stellings, with several of them serving as endorsers. There have also been commemorative models honoring important bluegrass festivals, including Winterhawk and MerleFest, where Geoff was a regular vendor and attendee.
Stelling was also an avid banjo player, and right up to the end he has played and inspected every new instrument before it has left the shop. At various times the company has built and sold Stelling guitars and mandolins as well.
Known for their volume and projection, the Stelling banjos have a history in the banjo world that will outlast the company, as evidenced by Geoff being inducted into the American Banjo Hall of Fame in 2020. We hope to speak with Stelling in the near future for a more detailed history of his banjos, and the impact they have had on bluegrass music.