What's so attractive about a pile of wood and metal? Nothing, until it's sawed up and screwed together to form an open-back, five-string banjo. As we speak that's exactly what Bart Reiter is doing in his home workshop in Lansing, Mich.
It might even be the one I'm going to buy. If it's a Standard model, that is. A Bart Reiter Standard. The words alone Taser me, send me into convulsions of desire. I have to settle down, stay focused. As we used to say in high school, "maintain."
A new Bart Reiter Standard costs $1,195 (with case). That's exactly $845 more than I have. Not that it's any of your business. But haven't you ever wanted something? A nonessential something? Something that caused you to make a plan?
It's good to have goals. Goals breed discipline, and when it comes to money that's exactly what I need. So I have a fundraising thermometer. Like the giant ones in front of a church that show how much has been raised for renovation. You'll find my thermometer in the most important place in our house. Magnetized to the refrigerator. I keep a red Sharpie on top of the fridge to color in my progress, slow as it is.
I considered a Kickstarter campaign. Let's be honest, though. While there are many worthy projects there, there's also a heap of id-driven pleas there, too, which can make Kickstarter seem like an I-Me-Mine Craiglist. But I thought about it.
This kind of restraint, this kind of patience in the face of lust for physical objects, is new for me. The banjo fund has made me a more fiscally conscious grownup overall. Before now, if I felt like getting takeout in the middle of the week, or popping for a sweater I liked in the window of a thrift shop, I'd flat out do it. Not that that doesn't still happen, but at least I think twice. And sometimes I even pass.
I vowed to make this happen without cutting into the family budget, so I've taken on extra freelance work. Between that and the (small in number) dollars I pick up playing my current banjo in a band, this is how I intend to get to the roughly $1,000 goal. Busking and babysitting ($10 per hour, if you need one) are also on the docket.
You may say, "Andy, since you have a banjo already and it seems to be doing the trick, why do you need a different one?"
That's a reasonable question. Wanting something you don't need is a cherished American pastime. Something that IKEA and Apple understand perfectly. Can I continue playing the instrument I now own? Of course. The reasons I want another are as complicated as the art of music making itself.
Art. They don't call it a discipline for nothing. While I'll never be called an artist, it wasn't until I started to learn the 5-string that I understood what that meant.
A person's first instrument is usually a lot like a person's first bicycle. Eventually you grow out of it. I can do things on my current banjo that I couldn't dream of at the beginning. But it's what I hear when I play with all my might that tells me it's time to move up. Notes decay when they should swell.
I learned to play the banjo in the exact opposite way I learned to play the guitar: by working at it. I started just four years ago. People over 25 years old don't like to be beginners at anything. Yet it's humbling and healthy to suck at something, then plug away through each stage of accomplishment. For me it went like this: sucking less, being able to operate the banjo safely, annoying family less, annoying neighbors less...and then, 50 hours later, the ability to play "Old Joe Clark."
I can play "Old Joe Clark" in my sleep now. And while I may never make it out of the "intermediate" bracket, it's clear that a Bart Reiter Standard is the only tool I'll need from here on out.
By all accounts Bart Reiter is plainspoken, down to earth, practical and gifted. Just like his banjos. He was the subject of a recent documentary on American luthiers. In one scene, Reiter is shown toiling away in his shop, framed by the wooden pots, hanging rims and long wooden necks of his creations. The filmmaker asked him what part he liked best about making banjos. He looked up from his work and grinned.
"When the check comes."
Hang on, Bart. It's coming.