It’s all in the detail: Banjo part of fundraising efforts for Wayne Theatre

Item by Crystal Graham
freepress@ntelos.net

It’s not your everyday banjo.

With musical instruments being cranked out of big factories every day, Geoff Stelling’s handmade banjos are a true rarity. The Afton-based business produces just 200 or so banjos annually.

Geoff’s son, Jimmy, who works with his dad in the business, is a banjo player who has played music professionally. He’s been playing Stelling banjos since he was 8 years old.

Together, the family has dedicated themselves to making what Geoff calls a “better banjo” – working 25 hours plus on each banjo – spread over six to eight weeks. A process that is precise because you have to wait an ample amount of time for the glue to dry and the finishes to cure between coats, among other details that make Stelling’s banjos stand out in the industry.

Geoff moved to Virginia in 1984, 10 years after starting his business in California, and enjoys the setting that the rural countryside provides him. He’s even been able to use local walnut trees – even some on his property – in his banjo-making.

“We live on a small farm with goats and cows and lots of animals,” Stelling said. The mountains, steams, and woods are “ideal for making banjos.”

Because relatively few banjos are made each year by Stelling, the instruments aren’t inexpensive. Most start around $4,000, but they have sold for as much as $35,000.

The Stelling brand has a reputation dating back to 1974 – when Stelling completed his first banjo, The Bellflower.

“The Bellflower was one of the first two banjos that I made,” said Stelling. “It was the first banjo that I ever completed and sold to a banjo student of mine in San Diego. It was made out of black walnut, which was one of my favorite woods from the very beginning.”

While the Bellflower has been made out of a variety of woods in its history including Japanese birch, mahogany and maple, Stelling has returned to making the banjo out of the walnut in the original design.

The Bellflower, which retails for $4,300 and is available at approximately 40 retailers worldwide, is making an appearance on this side of the mountain, with a special drawing at a bluegrass festival. Tickets are available now in advance of the upcoming “Bluegrass, Blue Jeans and Barbecue” event on June 14 at Laurick Farms in Waynesboro.

For a $10 chance, anyone could own their own Stelling banjo with proceeds benefitting the Wayne Theatre Alliance, a 501(c)3 organization based in Waynesboro. The non-profit group is working to renovate and restore a closed theatre into a first-class performing arts center.

“We are excited that we can offer a Stelling banjo to collectors and others in the community at our first ever bluegrass festival,” said Clair Myers, executive director of the Wayne Theatre Alliance. “We know that whoever the lucky person is to take home the banjo will treasure it, and we look forward to the boost that the event will bring to our project.”

“And it just seems fitting,” Myers said, “to have a banjo with this excellent reputation to serve as a fundraising tool at a bluegrass festival.”

While Stelling would agree that bluegrass music isn’t bluegrass without a banjo, he is also quick to point out that banjos are used in all musical genres.

“Banjo is played in many different styles of music,” he said. “Classical, jazz, blues, country … it’s a crossover instrument.”

The banjo is a percussion instrument with roots back to the 1800s, said Stelling. “The banjo is what’s known as the hot rod of the stringed instruments. It’s one of the loudest, most obnoxious instruments you can make with strings on it.”

For more information on tickets for the Bellflower Stelling Banjo or the bluegrass festival, contact the Wayne Theatre Alliance at (540) 943-9999 or www.waynetheatre.org.

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