Instruments & Gear: Fine Lutherie

Hawthorn Top Tension Banjo

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Peghead Nation instructor Wes Corbett demonstrates his main banjo.

by Teja Gerken
September 23, 2019

Introduced by Gibson in 1937, top-tension rims allow the player to adjust the head’s tension from the top, rather than requiring the removal of the resonator to gain access to the lug nuts. The design offered convenience and a modified tonality. But the design didn’t end up revolutionizing the banjo world as Gibson had hoped, and as a result, top-tension models (the RB-7, RB-12, and RB-18) were phased out again by 1943. But top-tension banjos still have a dedicated following of players. Among them is Peghead Nation’s Contemporary Bluegrass Banjo instructor Wes Corbett. While Wes was in the Peghead Nation studio shooting the first batch of lessons for his new course, he demonstrated his Hawthorn Top Tension banjo for us. 

Based in Kansas City, Missouri, Hawthorn instruments are built by Bradford & Company Fine Instruments, which was founded by Glenn Bradford and Mark Franzke in 2014. In addition to its line of banjos, the company also offers flattop guitars and A- and F-style mandolins. 

Built in the style of a Gibson RB-7, Wes’s Hawthorn has a maple neck, solid maple resonator with flat inside surface, and large peghead. The neck has a radiused fingerboard with fifth-string spikes installed. The instrument has a Price tailpiece, and Wes is currently using a Snuffy Smith bridge given to him by Ned Luberecki. An easily removable armrest allows full access to the adjustment nuts that allow tensioning of the head from the face of the banjo. Wes keeps the head of his banjo tuned fairly low, at about F#. “It’s where Béla Fleck has kept his banjo for a long time,” he explains. “It opens up more sustain and overtones, so that the tone is more complex. It may not have as much punch as a typical bluegrass banjo, but it’s part of my sound.” 

In this video, Wes plays a couple of tunes and discusses the banjo and why it works for his playing style.


Category: Instruments & Gear

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