In September of 1967 shortly after my 21st birthday I rode a motorcycle from California home to Florida and along the way I stopped in Galax, Virginia, where Kyle Creed sold me his personal banjo. I have been wanting to tell this story for years, so finally after four decades, here is my tale, along with a detailed description and photographs of this unique instrument.
After high school graduation in 1965 I moved to Riverside, California, to live with my father and attend Riverside City College. I had been playing bluegrass guitar since age 14, but at RCC I was befriended by Ed Neff, Chris Gray and Bob Gregory of The Atomic Steam Ratchet String Band, and their friend Dave Allen, who introduced me to Old Time music and I was changed forever. Two years later I decided to ride a motorcycle back to Florida. I had a cheap banjo and Chris Gray had taught me how to frail a few months earlier. I had saved up money for the trip and was determined to buy a better banjo somewhere on the way home.
The first leg of the trip was to Berkeley to visit Ed and Dave who had moved there. I almost bought a banjo in a music shop there, but I figured it would not be good to carry it 3,000 miles on the motorcycle and decided to wait until I got to the east coast. Call it Divine Providence or Karma or whatever, while in the shop in Berkeley I noticed a Folkways album called “Galax”, with recordings from one of the fiddlers conventions. I was completely ignorant of that scene at the time, but while reading the album notes the idea came into my head that Galax would be a good place to buy a banjo. I was already planning to visit a 97 year old aunt in Emporia, Virginia, so I found Galax on my map and decided I would stop there on the way.
In Galax nearly three weeks later I was buying gas at a Texaco station and asked the owner where I might buy a banjo. He pointed across the street to a barber shop and said those people maybe could help me. I walked into the barbershop and four pairs of eyes turned and stared at me, a scraggly haired kid in a black leather jacket and boots. I felt about knee high to a flea and very uncomfortable, but got up my courage and asked where I might buy a banjo, a good one. They suddenly got very friendly and all smiles and said I should go see Kyle Creed. “Who’s that?” I asked. “Well, he makes banjos, good ones” they said. “Go out to the Blue Ridge Parkway on the edge of town, north for 3½ miles, turn left on the gravel road and go up the mountain for about a half mile. He’s got a little store there.”
I arrived at the store and found one of those old wooden buildings with a pronounced list to port which looked like it would collapse if you pushed on it a bit. Across the road was the beginnings of a new store building, just being framed in with two-by-fours. This time I removed the leather jacket, then walked through the doorway into an old fashioned general store with sacks of flour, canned goods, and tools hanging high on the walls. When I asked for Mr. Creed, a gray haired woman looked up from behind the counter and with a tilt of the head indicating a side room that proved to be his workshop, mumbled “In there”.
The first thing that caught my eye when I entered the room was a beautiful banjo neck lying by itself on the workbench. It was made of dark cherry, with ebony fingerboard, thin white binding, and tasteful inlays. It seemed to glow, and it had such an impact I can still see it clearly in my mind. It was just what I had dreamed of and it captured my heart instantly. Then Kyle Creed said “Can I help you?” And thus began what still remains one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
I had long before decided I wanted an open back arch top, but the only two banjos he had ready to go were an open back flat top and an arch top with resonator. I must have looked very disappointed as we talked and finally he said “I think I have what you want up at the house.” We drove farther up the mountain in his car, went in the back door, and he took down an open back arch top banjo that was hanging on the wall in the kitchen. It had white formica on the rim and fingerboard, and there were no inlays or fret markers (I don’t remember if it had side dots). It also had gold speckled black formica on the bottom of the rim. I thought it was the ugliest banjo I’d ever seen, and then he played it. Wow!, what a sound!
Before he played it, he pulled out of his pocket a piece of brass that fit over the top and bottom of his index finger. It was open on the sides, similar to how a band-aid would wrap around the end of a finger. It had a little nub on the tip which he pointed out to me. He said it helped him get the volume and tone he wanted and was made from an old automobile headlight reflector.1 I also noticed that he played way up over the fingerboard. I had never seen anyone play like that. He looked the banjo over, admiring it and obviously very pleased, and said he’d made it a couple of years before and had liked it so much he kept it for his own use (I have seen this banjo in a photograph on the back of one of his albums). He pointed out that the neck was an “A-neck” because “we play everything in A” and he didn’t like the sound with a capo. So he just made the neck short and tuned in open A.2 He also explained that the neck was shortened at the peghead end, as if the neck between the nut and the 2nd fret had been removed. So the fret spacing was just like a standard neck with a capo on the second fret.
He asked if this was what I wanted. I hesitantly said well, yes, but would it be possible to swap the neck with the one on his workbench, since I wanted a standard neck (I didn’t tell him I didn’t like the formica). He said yes, that would be fine, and that he had just finished working on that neck (in retrospect he probably welcomed the request because he wanted to keep the A neck). So back down the mountain to the store we went. On the drive back he said “Yessir, that’s a really good banjo. I was offered $250 dollars for it once, but turned it down”. My heart immediately sank, because some motorcycle repairs along the way had reduced my cash to about $185, and I figured I’d need $35 to get home. I kept thinking that I needed to halt this process somehow, but he happily chatted on and I was so mortified I was tongue tied.
Back To The Workshop
Back at the shop he removed the short formica neck and installed the beautiful cherry/ebony one. While he was working Kyle told me several things about the neck. It was made of cherry taken from a fence rail along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Work on that road had begun in 1945 after World War II as a government project to employ newly returned servicemen. When the right-of-way was cut, the timber was used to make the split rail fences. As a result, the fence contains every kind of wood that grows on the Blue Ridge, including cherry, walnut, oak, poplar, hickory, etc. One day he went along the Parkway fence nicking rails with a pocket knife until he found one made of cherry. Then he made a new rail and went back and swapped it for the cherry one. He got three good necks out of that one fence rail. He said that because the wood had been suspended above the ground for over 20 years, baked in the sun, rained on, and snowed on in winter, any bending or twisting it was going to do had long been done, and this would be a good stable neck.
As he was cheerfully working and talking, his wife came in and out of the workshop two or three times, nervously hovering about. At one point she muttered quietly in his ear, “Don’t you sell that banjo. The boys’ll be mad atcha.” He replied, “Hush, woman. Make me another’n’”. And that was the end of that. I have often wondered what “the boys” had to say about it. Perhaps nothing. I suspect that before the day was done he had the A neck on another pot, adjusted and tweaked to his satisfaction.
When it was finished he played a few licks on it and handed it to me. As I examined it I asked him about three things: Q: Mr Creed, why did you put this formica on the rim? A: “Make it sound better.” Q: Mr Creed, what are these holes with the little screens for? (the rim has eight 3/8” diameter holes, plugged with small round nickel plated screens) A: “Make it sound better.” Q: Mr Creed, why is this extra inch of wood between the last fret and the rim? A: “Make it sound better.”
He later added that the purpose of the extended heel was to move the bridge further toward the center of the head, which he preferred to do on the arch tops. Referring to both the tone ring and the tension hoop, he said they were “bell brass”, made for him at “a local foundry”. I later discovered that the tone ring is actually two separate pieces (photo #2). Kyle also said that all of the inlays except for the 1st and 3rd fret ones came from “an old Star banjo”. The 3rd fret one, a star made of five separate pieces, is a replica of the original which broke when he was removing it from the original fingerboard. The 1st fret inlay he added to the set. He didn’t say anything more about it, but because of the four holes it appears to be made from a mother-of-pearl button (photo #9).
The dreaded moment finally arrived and I fearfully explained my situation, and that all I could spend was $150. I don’t know if he took a liking to me, or perhaps simply needed the cash to help build his new store across the road, but he said he would accept that amount. “But”, he added, “I’ll have to charge you sales tax, so it will be $156.00”. So we made the deal. He put it in a chipboard case and I strapped it on the back of my Honda 305 Superhawk and headed off for Emporia, wondering how I was going to make it home to Florida on $29 (I did make it home, with two dollars and some change in my pocket). In the journal I kept of the trip, there is a brief entry dated Monday September 25, 1967: “Am buying a banjo from Kyle Creed of Galax, Va.”. I’m not sure what $150 in 1967 money would be today, but to give some perspective, in my journal I see that I was renting motel rooms for $3 to $5, hi-test gas was $.38 per gallon, and meals in restaurants were under $2.
I don’t know what price this banjo might have commanded, but I am ever grateful for having been allowed to be the steward of such a fine instrument. I hope Kyle Creed is resting in peace for the service he did to a young emerging banjo player who at the time did not fully comprehend the high quality of what he was getting.
More About The Banjo
It is an incredibly good banjo, with good volume, tone and projection. It is well balanced, both from bass to treble across the strings, and up and down the neck. It has a very controlled tone and doesn’t need a sock or sponge stuffed inside to suppress overtones, as so many do. The fact that Kyle liked it enough to keep it as his own, and recorded at least one album with it, speaks louder than words.
The neck fits the hand comfortably and does not “get in the way” of your playing. It is neither too flat nor too thick anywhere. There are no abrupt transitions in width or radius while moving up and down the neck. In effect, it becomes “invisible” in that there is nothing about it that distracts from or intrudes into your concentration.
At the nut, the neck width and string spacing are a bit wider than is commonly found The width is 1 1/4”, and the string centers are spaced at 11/32”, which is very agreeable to my hand. This leaves a very comfortable 1/8” between the 1st string and the fingerboard edge, which makes 1st string pull-offs a breeze. Over the years I have been deeply involved in building and repairing stringed instruments professionally and have played countless banjos. In my experience this banjo still remains as one of the physically easiest to play. I have often wondered by what process and over what period of time Kyle arrived at this design. Whatever the answer, he certainly knew how to make a good banjo neck.
It also turns out that Kyle was right about the stability of the neck. It is as straight now as it was then, and is also quite rigid. Go from G to Double C, and no other strings have to be adjusted. This ability, to change tunings without any other strings going out of tune, I have prized as much as anything else about it. I’ve been on stage with it many times over the years and the ability to retune quickly and with confidence was a huge asset.
Once, I am ashamed to admit, I left it outside overnight in its case at a festival campground and it got rained on. The case was ruined, the banjo was soaked, but the neck never changed. It has an adjustable truss rod, but I’ve never had to use it (in fact, the banjo once developed a strange buzz which turned out to be the truss rod nut which had loosened and was vibrating).
At this point I suppose I should explain the “Fuming Bronze” part of this article’s title. The banjo has a coordinator rod made from a threaded brass welding rod on which is stamped:
"AIRCO No. 27 Low Fuming Bronze R CUZN C " (photo #13)
When I showed this to Ken Perlman (who encouraged me to get this story written down) he chuckled and said I ought to call it the “Fuming Bronze Banjo”. We got a good laugh out of it, and later when I began writing the article it was a natural title. So it is just a bit of humor. I never heard Kyle refer to the banjo by name or model number. Inside the rim is an orange paper label on which is typed: “Hand Made by Kyle Creed, Galax, Va. 1965” (photo #4)
The screens are an enigma. The only other time I have seen these screens was on an old National mandolin that had a resonator, similar to a banjo. Rather than a banjo-style metal flange, it had a wooden surface with round holes plugged with these identical screens, very much like this Regal Blue Comet. The screens appear to be nickel plated brass. I have often wondered if Kyle got these screens from one of those mandolins, and whether he had determined through experimentation that they actually do improve the tone of an open back banjo.
I visited Kyle again in the middle 1970s when I was passing through the area. He remembered “the kid on the motorcycle”, but was more interested in my helping him install a new bathroom sink. I had arrived just in time to help lower it into place while he was underneath guiding the plumbing into place. I remember it was pink and oval shaped, and I got caulking all over my hands.
Found Its Way Home
After being in my care for over 43 years, in 2011 this fine instrument was passed into the stewardship of a new owner, someone who knew and played music with Kyle. It is in good and caring hands not far from where it was made. It is being played regularly and has appeared at some festivals. This is a unique instrument and its story deserves to be kept alive for historical value, so I plan to keep it here on-line indefinitely.
1. I have it in my mind that he said it was from a Model-T headlight reflector, but I read in another article about him that it was from some other kind of car, a Buick I think. It doesn’t matter, of course, and as I am trying not to embellish this article for effect, and my memory could be wrong, the word “automobile” will do to make the point. Kyle Creed was a master craftsman and an inventive genius.
2. I am reporting what Kyle said as accurately as I can remember, in an attempt to give the reader some sense of how he expressed himself and the nature of our conversation. I don’t think this statement should be taken literally as to exclude playing in other keys or tunings.