One who makes or repairs stringed instruments that have a neck and a sound box is known as a luthier. The name comes from the French word for lute, which is one of the oldest plucked string instruments.
In the first of a three-part series about Kentucky’s luthiers, we travel to Russell Springs to meet Frank Neat, who makes bluegrass banjos. Neat’s customers have included the top bluegrass banjo players in the world, from the late Earl Scruggs to J.D. Crowe.
Neat is a recipient of the Homer Ledford Award, given annually since 2007 to Kentucky luthiers who have demonstrated outstanding craftsmanship, mastery of tone, and playability, and are recognized by the community of musicians they serve.
Neat has earned the respect of musicians. One fan is the legendary bluegrass musician J.D. Crowe. “I don’t think you can beat what he does,” he said.
Neat said it normally takes him two weeks to make a banjo, and he does repairs as well. “We do banjo necks and put them on different pots for a lot of people,” he said. The “pot” is the round part of the banjo.
Banjo player and TV personality Neal James showed off the banjo used in the TV show “Call of the Wildman,” which features Turtle Man Ernie Brown. The inlay work on the banjo, done by Frank’s son Ricky, features a replica of Turtle Man’s tattoo and an intricately detailed turtle. “The turtle has actually got eyeballs and toes,” James said. “Ricky Neat is the man!”
Frank is proud of Ricky’s work. “I taught my son how to do it. … And he has got a natural knack for doing it anyway. He’s good at it. And then whenever I got old enough and it was hard for me to see, it was handy for him to do it too.”
Frank recalled when he became interested in the banjo. “I guess I was probably 7 or 8 years old and I heard a guy – he’d come to our house and he was playing. And from that time on I liked the banjo. That got me hooked on it.”
He recalled how he got into the banjo making business. Frank was playing in a band in Indiana with Earl Scruggs when he met bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
“We’d played several different shows with him, and I was talking to him one day and asked him about building him a banjo. And he said. ‘Well, I don’t know why you hadn’t already.’ So I asked him, well, what do you like? And he said, ‘I like a small neck and I like a bright sound.’
“And so I built him one and put his name on the fingerboard on it. And he called me a couple of months later and said, ‘If you’ll build these, I’ll sell them and we’ll call them the Stanleytones. “
He built the first banjo for Stanley in 1975. He builds 50 Stanleytones at a time, making them a limited edition.
He also enjoys custom orders from performers on TV or the Grand Ole Opry. “It’s a pleasure to know that I have done that, that it was good enough that they would play it,” he said.
J.D. Crowe said Neat is the only one he wants to work on his banjos. “He tries to get the best wood to go into the instrument, the banjos, and the best tone range, the metal, the whole bit. There’s just a lot to making one and setting it up. And making a new one that sounds like an old, which is very hard to do. And Frank can get very close. I think Frank is the best as far as I’m concerned.”
Neat has high standards for his materials. “For a Frank Neat banjo, we pick the best of everything that’s available,” he said.
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2111, which originally aired on March 26, 2016. Watch the full episode.