Is your five-string ailing? If yes, contact the doctor.
Charlie Cushman, banjoist with the Earls of Leicester and supporter of Earl Scruggs, is also a first class banjo setter. Working out of his home in north Tennessee, Cush has a shop full of antique radios, vintage microphones and everything he needs to make banjos sound their absolute best. His clientele includes current bluegrass A-listers like Ron Block, Billy Strings and Vince Gill, as well as the banjos of past greats like Earl Scruggs and Uncle Dave Macon.
“I’ve been playing an old Mastertone since I was 21 and I know the sound. I use that as a benchmark. I have owned many beautiful original pre-war Flathead mastertones and have learned a great deal about their tonal capabilities and, more importantly, how to achieve and regain the tone of the instrument.”
“Your banjo should be adjusted to work in accordance with your current skill level as a player. After 35 years of playing the banjo, I can personally say that as you progress, setting up your instrument becomes an extremely important component in your quest to be the musician you want to be,” said Cushman.
“I started getting interested when I was four years old,” explained the TN native. “When I was watching the Flatt and Scruggs TV show, I really wanted to play the banjo.”
At seven he took a few lessons to “get started” but is essentially self-taught.
“I started dissecting records, slowing down 33 1/3 to 16 to learn the licks.”
The professional musician began his career at just 14 years old, performing six days a week on Nashville’s Carl Tipton Bluegrass TV show. He had the permanent gig for five years.
As a young man, Cushman hit the road. First he played with James Monroe for a year, then with Jimmy Martin for a year. He next performed for country singer Mel Tillis.
“I started doing numerous banjo recording sessions. It got me off the road.”
During this time, Cush also had a day job, working with fellow banjo fellow Stan Brown (Wilma Lee Cooper), who ran a carpet cleaning business. He became a member of Opryland Theme Park’s bluegrass band and performed on the Martin stage for five years.
Cushman then joined Mike Snider’s band and played guitar alongside him on the Grand Ole Opry for 14 years. The band also played at the Ryman Auditorium during the holiday season.
“This is the best stage in the country for acoustic music,” he readily acknowledged.
Vince Gill asked the five-string plucker to record on his Nowadays Box set album and then tour. Cush performed on the bluegrass portion of the recorded and live productions.
“Vince had a monstrous touring band of 17 people. We played 115 dates. It was a great experience,” he recalls fondly.
Then the picker got involved in the mechanics of the banjo. He has found his second calling.
“I worked for Gibson as a fitter in their factory in 2004-05. I was the banjo inspector and did all the adjustments.”
In January 2006, he began working for George Gruhn in the Gruhn Guitars repair shop.
“It was a 60 mile round trip. That’s when gas prices went so high. In 2007 I started my own business.”
This leap of faith turned out to be profitable. Pickers began visiting the banjo repairman at his Cottontown address.
“I got a lot of recommendations through word of mouth. The best advertisement is when someone hears a banjo and asks, “How did you make it sound like that?” Then, in 2010-2011, social media (Facebook, Banjo Hangout) gave us the opportunity to create our own image. I’ve learned to arouse interest in my setups.”
The banjo technician outlined his process for improving the sound of a banjo.
“The term ‘set-up’ refers in part to the adjustment of string height, neck pitch, bridge height, proper string alignment, and several other key tolerance issues that result in correct intonation, easy playability of the instrument, and maximum performance of volume and tone .”
Another service Cushman offers is tone chamber tuning. “I made my living performing on a number of vintage Gibson flathead banjos from the 1930’s. I find that even the newer banjos of this quality and design are able to produce a vintage sound similar to what we all want through this sound chamber tuning process. I’ve always seen very good results from new banjos. I have developed a methodical approach to achieve these results with most new high quality Mastertone style banjos.”
The 61-year-old explained the term “pre-war sound” that many banjo enthusiasts strive for in their instruments.
“The ‘pre-war’ sound of these ‘sonic marvels from ancient Kalamazoo’ must first ‘live’ and ‘be’ in your mind and memory before you can truly acquire the ability to recognize ‘pre-war’ sound when you hear it Listen . Today we have the luxury of buying tone rings to try out this new pre-war formula and settle in for the “pre-war” sound. The reality of the matter is, until you have personally heard the many different voices (actual pre-war flathead banjos) of this tonal phenomenon day in and day out for many years, as I did, you may not get the full understanding of the ‘Pre -War sound’. One thing these banjos have in common is their tone and sheer power.”
This tonal awareness is the distinctive sound that Cushman has developed a trained ear for and seeks to replicate.
“It is my desire to continue exploring and bringing forth a similar tone and power found in these vintage banjos as the banjos of others. This is the most time consuming aspect of my service. I work in a consistent, clean, smoke-free/pet-free environment and I know I can improve a banjo’s performance. I have most of the products on the market today that relate to pre-war banjo specs such as tone rings etc.
“I am dedicating my time to building this venture that comes with my current music career. I look forward to helping people achieve their desires that lie within their banjo. I am very fortunate to have this knowledge, having owned several great pre-war Gibson banjos in the past, and having learned this aspect of the Gibson banjo from the many great banjo players and innovators who started their careers playing these particular instruments “.
“If I sound like some kind of privileged character, you’d better believe I am! To be in the same community with so many of these legendary masters of the banjo and to share with them on behalf of these old dullards makes me feel truly privileged.”
Here’s a short video of Charlie playing my RB-150 after he’s finished setting it up.
To schedule an appointment for banjo work with Charlie Cushman, call (615) 708-5075, email him directly, or send him a Facebook message.
The doctor is in.