The Big Plink

Mac Yasuda brings home a priceless banjo collection -- at a price

Upper-tier, classic American banjos of the 1920s and 1930s display a level and variety of craftsmanship virtually unmatched in the annals of stuff. Anywhere you look on these instruments, some craftsman has been there first: hand engraving a filigreed design in the metal rim; hand painting a fleur-de-lis on a headstock; hand carving an ornate ebony elephant’s head at a neck heel, replete with little ivory tusks; hand etching patriotic scenes into celluloid fret markers.

People sure must have had a lot of hands back then. What were they thinking, the artists who spent weeks toiling over these details? Did they wonder if their anonymous efforts would be appreciated, if they would inspire the musicians to greater heights? Did they wonder where their banjos might be in five--or 50--years’ time?

Even the most farsighted and glue-addled of them couldn’t have imagined that, nearly a century after these masterpiece banjos were made, the best of them would be piled in a dark, dank, corrugated-metal barn half a world away amid the rice paddies of Japan’s Chiba Prefecture. Or that they’d lay forgotten there for more than a decade, until someone finally came along to rescue them--someone wearing an orange hazmat suit.

“It was the worst smell ever in there,” Mac Yasuda recalls. “There were dead rats, rotting newspapers. We opened one banjo case, and it was overgrown with green moss.”

The full article text and exclusive photographs are available in the print edition of The Fretboard Journal.