In this episode dedicated to Kentucky’s stringed-instrument makers, Frank Neat of Russell Springs makes custom banjos for the likes of JD Crowe and “Call of the Wildman” personality Neal James; luthier Bryan England of Caneyville shows off his mandolin-making skills and custom inlay work; Menifee County luthier Neil Kendrick crafts beautiful guitars, including one for Rhonda Vincent & the Rage; and host Doug Flynn visits with Berea icon Warren May for a dulcimer sing-along.
Kentucky is home to some of the nation’s most revered luthiers, or makers of stringed instruments. Musicians looking for a handmade guitar, mandolin, dulcimer or banjo flock to Kentucky craftsmen. Kentucky Life highlights the work of Warren May of Berea, Frank Neat of Russell Springs, Caneyville’s Bryan England, and Menifee County’s Neil Kendrick – each of them creators of instruments coveted by some of the top names in country, folk and bluegrass music.
Warren May of Berea is a master woodworker. He has been making dulcimers for 44 years.
“I was playing guitar until I made a dulcimer. I didn’t do too well with guitar, but I could play the dulcimer. I’ve made about a dulcimer a day for 44 years now,” he said.
The hourglass-shaped dulcimer is the original Kentucky style, May explained. He said the dulcimer came to America around 1700. “Very few instruments in the mountains, so any kind of box with strings on it will actually make a dulcimer. And that’s how it all got started,” he said.
The dulcimer has four strings, May said. “Really, you just have two notes: Bim, boing. But those are the two most perfect notes in music,” he said. “So if you’re strumming a dulcimer, and you’re strumming tick-tock heartbeat, you’re playing perfect music. And you can actually add the real notes just on the first string here.” Several emerging artists have grown up with the dulcimer as their principal instrument, and they can play any style of music with it, May said.
To craft his dulcimers, May uses traditional, local woods: walnut, cherry, and poplar. Some of the wood is 200 years old. “Some of the wood is historical, like from the Casey County jail, which was deconstructed, built around 1900,” he said. Each wood has a different sound, he said. May cuts the trees and dries the lumber. He has helpers, but he does most of the handwork: the fretting, the sound holes, the stringing, and the carving.
“Everything I do is to make the instrument easier to play for people,” he said. He has a video dulcimer lesson posted on his website, and includes an instruction book that is free with each dulcimer purchase.
Frank Neat of Russell Springs makes bluegrass banjos. His customers have included the top bluegrass banjo players in the world, everyone 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.”
Frank got into the banjo-making business back when he was playing in a band and 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.”
Bryan England’s shop in Caneyville offers a full line of mandolins and guitars, and his instruments have been used by country superstars, including George Strait and Brooks & Dunn.
England was working at General Electric when he decided he wanted to learn to play the banjo, and then learn to build one. The hobby that started on his kitchen table grew into a business called Custom Inlay. Known for his intricate inlay work, England is also renowned for his use of exotic materials, including fossilized walrus jawbone, wooly mammoth ivory, and unusual woods.
“It’s a challenge. I’ve always liked working with my hands,” England said. “It’s been a blessing.”
He often works with maple and spruce. “We’re at the point where I know what I want to do on each one, and the only thing that comes out different is the real good wood,” he said. “Redwood siding that’s on a house for 60 years, you know, all this makes a difference.”
England makes precise measurements to achieve the sound he wants. “The carved front, back inside, getting those measurements that perfects the sound, the tone bar–there’s a whole lot more work to the mandolin than the guitar,” England said.
His customers appreciate the unique sound of each mandolin. “My name is on this mandolin, but it’s an England mandolin,” said musician Kevin Brooks. “I consider each mandolin hand-tuned. Because each individual mandolin has its own personality, its own tone, which is created by the hands that built it.”
Mandolin player Leon Davis agrees. “It’s got a unique tone. … The mahogany and red cedar I think really make a good combination. And they do a great job of putting them together. It’s a personal thing that they do. They’re good quality mandolins and I don’t play anything else.”
Many people don’t realize they are seeing inlay work and think it’s a painting, England said. “It’s actually cut and then recessed down into the wood,” he said. Most of the inlay is pearl or abalone shell, he said.
Instrument maker Larry Shepherd, who has worked with England for years, is proud of the work they do. “When I’m gone, there should still be someone playing an England mandolin, because they just hand them down …,” he said. “As long as they’re taken care of, they’ll last a lifetime, or two lifetimes. So I‘ve made something that when I’m gone and forgotten, that somebody is still enjoying.” England agreed. “It’s just a joy. This should go on for a long time, as far as what we’ve built.”
Neil Kendrick of Menifee County has been making guitars for more than 20 years. He was taught by the late master luthier, Homer Ledford. Guitar players like Josh Williams, of Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, come to Kendrick for guitars that sound just the way they want them to.
“Neil’s the best luthier that I’ve ever met,” said guitar player Jeffery Fannin. “When you play one of Neil’s guitars, none of the other guitars that I’ve played compared in quality or sound.”
What is the key to making guitars? “The whole idea of a guitar is to get the string vibrations transferred to the inside of the guitar, so they can resonate back out the sound hole at a maximum volume and a maximum tone,” said Kendrick.
Most of his customers are bluegrass musicians. “So the wood of choice in my opinion … is usually East Indian rosewood,” he said. “And that is for the back and the sides. The top wood is various spruce woods. My favorite is German spruce for the top. I’ve had the most success with that for getting the kind of tone that I want.”
Kendrick tries to balance the treble and the bass. His ultimate goal, he said, is to “make an instrument that could be heard out well with someone jamming outside, and still be able to take the same instrument and go to the studio with it and have a good sound.”
Kendrick recalled learning from Homer Ledford. “He’d always take the time to stop and talk to me about the business and about the skills and the processes that it takes to do different tasks,” he said. “Homer had already built thousands of instruments – more than 6,000 instruments in his lifetime.”
Kendrick recalled that Ledford built many things by hand. “To claim that it is a hand-built instrument, I expect it to be everything by hand that I possibly can,” he said. “Homer carried that tradition all the way to the end.”
Kendrick loves every part of the process, from designing to crafting. “I used to have trouble with stopping to eat. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t get myself to stop – especially if things are going well and you’re just really moving along, it’s hard to stop. You get that passion about building the instrument–and then the final result, when you get to see that instrument played on stage, and you look around in the crowd and you see people enjoying hearing that instrument that much, that’s really satisfying.”