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Wednesday, 27 March 2013 00:00

Taking matters into his own hands

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art frWhen he didn’t have the money to purchase a banjo, Joshua Grant took matters into his own hands.

“I couldn’t afford what I wanted, so I decided to build one,” he said.

A native of the Nantahala Gorge, the 31-year-old recently launched Grant Custom Banjos, a business that constructs handmade instruments as unique and full of character as Grant himself. 

 

“Tone is the most important thing to me,” he said. “I want to make the banjo look good, play well and feel comfortable, but if it doesn’t sound good, I will not sell it.”

This attention to detail and craftsmanship comes from his father, a mechanic who instilled in his son the idea that a good business reputation originates in the person who takes the time to not only built a quality product, but also inspect their finished work with care and precision.

“He taught me that when you feel something, it should be as smooth as glass,” Grant said. “It’s about paying attention to the small things, and to study these things. A lot of people who look at instruments never get up into it and really look at the detail.”

Grant’s musical journey began as a kid. He remembers watching the variety show “Hee Haw” with his dad (where he saw the clawhammer style of banjo playing displayed) or sitting and listening to close friends pluck a few strings. Though he didn’t initially attempt to learn the instrument, the seed had been planted and continued to grow as he moved along in his endeavors.

“I told myself when I was 12 that someday I would either play fiddle or the banjo,” he said. “And it took awhile for it to click, but when it did, and I made my first one, it was almost like a train with all the mechanics firing.”

In 2008, Grant hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. That experience took him out of the modern world and put him squarely on his own. 

“By hiking the trail, I realized that huge goals can be attained by taking small steps,” he said. “You have to do it when the moment strikes and the energy comes. Sometimes it’s at 11:30 at night, sometimes you can’t even sleep because you know you have to do this one thing.”

His trek opened his eyes and heart to passions that were finally bubbling to the top of his soul. Once he got off the trail, Grant cultivated his epiphany and knew it was time to finally unite with the banjo and its rich heritage.

“There came a realization when I was out there, away from materialism and consumerism, that fads come and go so fast that nothing sticks around or is true anymore,” he said. “Constants are so hard to find these days that when you do find one you find the value in it.”

Once the plans were put into motion, Grant began observing and working in a friend’s studio, where he had access to certain tools and ways of going about his projects. From there, he spent the next seven months refining his methods and producing his first handmade banjo. Over the last few years, he figures to have made almost a couple dozen banjos that have been bought by curious and interested customers from around the country through word-of-mouth.

“Watching someone sit there by themselves and play the banjo, it can make you cry when you really focus on it,” he said. “It’s one person doing something so real, with so much talent, while they’re dependent on their own fingers and their own sound.”

Grant estimates each instrument can take between 15 to 60 man-hours, depending on what type he creates. Besides a growing knack and appreciation for the variations of wood, he comes across his pieces from contractor friends with leftover strips of wood or perhaps just by happenstance, like a recent find of bird’s eye maple from an old barn. 

“I can’t stand to see anything thrown away,” he said. “When I was a kid, you sat at the table until your plate was done. You don’t throw anything away. And that’s what I love about old-time mountain people is that they reuse anything. If it has a purpose, they will repurpose it.”

Grant has also been dabbling in incorporating large gourds in his work. He has acquired quite the collection from a church garden in nearby Bryson City. Out of every 100 gourds, maybe five are prime candidates for the eight to nine inch diameter desired to make into a banjo. Originally used in the earliest form of the banjo in Africa (and still used today), gourds are known for their durability and tone, which thought remains in African instruments has disappeared in the evolution of the instrument on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“I’ve seen gourd crafts in magazines from 3,000 B.C. that still look great today,” he said. “And I’ve forgotten one on the roof of my car, where it fell off and bounced down the road without a scratch to it. That gave me faith enough to know that gourds are study enough, and worthy enough, to be made into instruments.”

With his business thriving and emerging into the regional craft scene, Grant is hoping to attend Western Carolina University in the fall to acquire a degree in fine art, with a minor in Appalachian studies. He wants to someday open a banjo museum and perpetuate the storied and cherished culture of old-time string music and traditions, all in an effort to connect the dots of sound and people around Southern Appalachia.

“I’ve been blessed enough to have the ability to build something like this,” he said, pointing to his latest banjo creation. “I want to make a resurgence of this art, make it acceptable again in society and shatter the stereotypes of what it’s all about.”

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