He doesn’t come from Alabama, but David Mead certainly has a banjo on his knee!
Whereas you might have an image in mind of the banjo’s home being somewhere in the swamp filled backwaters of America’s deep south, Fairfield banjos are actually made right here in the UK, in Somerset to be precise. A small team of dedicated craftsmen assemble the instruments, sourcing the metalwork and many of the other combined elements from local outlets. The results are of premium quality that serve both the traditionalist and modernist camps…
The banjo enjoys a rich heritage. Most of the traditional aspects of the instrument begun well over 150 years ago in the US where nearly every musical ensemble had a banjo player in its midst. Changing fashions saw many players make the switch to guitar, especially when steel strung acoustics were on hand to give greater volume. But the instrument still has a large following and is enjoying something of a renaissance in neo folk bands everywhere. This particular model represents the high end, coming in at just a snip under £3000. It’s a resonator banjo, meaning that it has a dish-shaped piece of wood on the rear side which has the effect of reflecting the sound from the top, much like the back of an acoustic guitar. The other type is the open back model – like the Deering Goodtime we reviewed recently – and is sometimes referred to as the “old time” variety. Resonator banjos are known for having more of a focused tone, as well as greater volume and projection. Fairfield tell me that they are careful to observe the needs of the player who favours a traditional instrument, but build in a few modern twists to provide greater playability and an enhanced tonal range.
The back on the Fairfiled is made from a single piece of quilted maple and I must say it’s a very fine looking piece of wood with an almost 3D contoured effect when you hold it up to the light. It’s thick, too – almost like a fruit bowl – adding to the already considerable weight of the instrument. The other thing responsible for this, of course, is the bell brass rim which tensions the skin on top with screws around its base. Some banjos employ the “top tension” method where the adjustment is made on top of the rim – and forums rage with disputes as to which method is tonally superior! The fact is, everyone has their preference, but this model adjusts at the rear.
On to the neck and this is a very fine piece of mahogany and Fairfield tell me that a great deal of research and development has gone into coming up with a profile that sits perfectly in the hand of the player. Apparently computer design saw the creation of various prototypes until one was selected as feeling exactly right.
The peghead boasts four friction tuners, known as “pancake” tuners. A lot of the accepted design of the instrument comes from the pre-war Gibson banjos from yesteryear and this type of tuner is very much par for the course. There’s an ebony veneer to the front of the peghead which bears the Fairfield name in mother of pearl.
As far as the fretboard is concerned, here’s one of the company’s nods to the modern banjo market in that it’s a few millimetres wider than standard. If you’ve ever picked up a standard banjo, you might have found the neck to feel a little thin. But Fairfield figured that fingerstyle guitarists enjoy a bit of extra width to facilitate their gyrations on the neck and so why not banjo players?
The fretboard is cambered – another unusual feature – which makes the playing surface feel a little more finger friendly, and the fingerboard has been raised slightly above the body of the banjo so that it’s easier for the player to access the full run of the strings. As with the guitar, there’s a distinct tonal difference between playing near the bridge and playing up near the neck – so why not extend the same courtesy to banjo pickers?
The Fairfield’s bridge is maple with an ebony strip along the top and it’s been built slightly higher than normal in order to give a bit of extra tone, sustain and volume.
It’s certainly a weighty instrument to pick up – far heavier than any guitar I’ve played in the past, for sure. But as far as sound goes, I guess I have a couple of parameters: one is what I imagine is standard among many which is the infamous ‘Duelling Banjos’ sound, which I take to be the traditional end. The other would include the playing of Béla Fleck, which I think of as being a more contemporary tone. The Fairfield covers both ends of the spectrum with ease – and there’s even more in reserve. If you like your banjo sound to be nasal and snappy, it’s on board; if you like it rounded and more toneful, then that’s available to you as well. Above and beyond those two parameters there is the sort of sustain and tone you’d get from a fine acoustic; mellow and surprisingly rich.
The neck profile and radiusing make handling the Fairfield a delight, too, which all adds up to a superbly impressive instrument all round. The company tell me that they will fit a pickup if requested, the favourite being the Fishman Rare Earth.
It’s always more difficult to know exactly what to expect from an instrument that isn’t your personal main squeeze. As many will know I’m a fingerstyle guitarist first and foremost and only occasionally dabble with other acoustic instruments like banjo or mandolin, for example. I like to think that there’s one aspect I do know a fair amount about though, and that’s tone – and the Fairfield sounds great, ticking every box along the way. It’s a long way from the Deering I reviewed last time, which came with a price tag in the low £300s; in fact this instrument is almost ten times that price. But, as with guitars, the price is representative of the amount of care, attention and pure hands-on attention that has gone into its manufacture. It’s also been fully and thoughtfully researched at the point of design and those contemporary tweaks like the wider fingerboard do make a great deal of difference.
Pros: A banjo to cover practically all tonal bases
Cons: It’s a weighty beast!
Overall: A boutique banjo from a small team of dedicated builders with many deluxe attributes
SOUND QUALITY 5 stars
BUILD QUALITY 5 stars
VALUE FOR MONEY 4.5 stars
Model: Standard resonator banjo
Retail Price: £2,800
Rim Diameter: 295mm
Made In: UK
Tuners: Pancake pegs
Nut Width: 34mm
Scale Length: 670mm
Gig Bag/Case Included: Fitted case