Mountain Music Fills the Air: Banjos and Dulcimers: The Foxfire Americana Libray - Eliot Wigginton, Foxfire Students (2011)
Dave Pickett is thirty-one years old and was born and raised in Davidson County, North Carolina. Both his great-grandfather and grandfather were blacksmiths, and his father was a machinist and gunsmith—all with their roots in the same county.
Dave has always been restless, searching for the livelihood that suited him best. He tried farming—he was raised on a farm, has worked a team of horses, and raised tobacco and grain—then he took two years of machine work in trade school, and later returned to school and earned an Associate Degree in mechanical engineering. He worked seven years in technical writing, the last three years of which were spent building prototypes of textile air conditioning equipment from engineering drawings. New he makes banjos and folk toys for a living, has a garden, and makes home brew. Finally he’s happy.
ILLUSTRATION 48 Dave has his pieces figured out so carefully that he can get every wooden piece he needs out of one 40″×3″×3″ piece of stock.
ILLUSTRATION 49 These plates illustrate another hoop style that Dave has used in the past.
ILLUSTRATION 50 The pattern for the side of the neck is traced off on stock and cut out with a band saw (top, right and left). Then top is traced off and cut (bottom, left). A slot is cut in the top of the neck to hold a steel rod that acts to counter the tension of the strings. The fingerboard covers the slot (bottom, right).
Dave got started making banjos entirely by accident. He had always wanted to learn to play one, but he couldn’t afford to buy one. A man he worked with came to him for some help in figuring out how to turn a banjo rim, and he got involved in the project and decided to go ahead and draw out diagrams for a complete instrument. He worked on them for a year polishing and perfecting every angle and joint, and then he built one. It was an impressive success.
He originally planned to build just that one, but people kept pestering him to build one for them also, so he finally quit the engineering job, opened a little shop with several other craftsmen in Winston-Salem (they share the rent and tools), and stuck strictly to banjos and folk toys. He guarantees the toys such as limberjacks, for a lifetime.
It took a lot of moving around to find satisfaction but it turned out that none of the jobs he had tried during his restless period were a waste of time. He used his knowledge in engineering to design one of the finest banjos we’ve ever seen. Being raised on a farm he knows how to—and does—produce enough food in his garden to feed his family. And using his skills in machine work he can manufacture almost every part needed for his instruments.
He sells the finished banjos for about $300.00 apiece (unless the customer specifically requests him to design and make parts such as the tailpiece and fingerboard himself instead of using commercial ones. In this case, the price goes up). It sounds expensive, but even at that price, Dave is lucky if he comes out making fifty cents an hour:
“I haven’t made a fortune, but I haven’t starved, either. What more can a person ask out of life. The main thing is I enjoy what I’m doing. I believe in enjoying what you’re doing. I come in at 8:30 or 9:00 of a morning, and you’re liable to find me here at 10:30 or 11:00 at night because I want to work; not because I have to. If things go bad, I just lock the door and go squirrel hunting or fishing. You set your own schedule. I have no one working for me. Everything I produce is totally from me. No outside help. Main reason is that I’m kind of a bad person to work for. People just can’t do the work like I want it done. I’ve tried to have a few people help me, but all they can do is assembly work. As far as making the parts, there’s just no way. Why pay somebody to do it and then have to do it over?”
He is always experimenting, improving and working on new ideas. Dave now plans to try his hand at something he gets many requests for—an old-style fretless banjo. It will be easier to build—and thus not as expensive—as it will have fiddle pegs instead of commercial ones, and it won’t need the metal reinforcing bar in the neck—the fretless banjo is tuned lower and so the tension on the neck is less.
But if what he’s doing now is any indication, the quality will still be flawless.
Photographs by Ray and Ernest Flanagan.