The Story Of A Butterfly
I have been asked by Don Kawalek to write a testimonial/review about the banjo I bought from him. That is impossible for me to do without telling the whole story about how it all came to be. I kind of feel close to Don, whom I’ve never met, as he is a New Jersey guy exiled in WV, whilst I am an Irishman exiled in the South of Spain. “A man is born where God wants but dies in his wife’s village”, the Irish say. Don and I have both worked in the educational field and share that bond.
Anyways, getting back to the story, I am a late beginner. I decided in my forties that before I gave up on life I was going to learn an instrument. I had been placed in the “Crows’ Row” at school and had been told I had no musical ear. True! I decided on the Ukulele and began learning off classes I found on YouTube. I made quite a bit of progress and began playing songs. I found that my Uke was too quiet to play in class so I splashed out on a Banjo Uke. That made more noise and I was happy for a while. However, little by little, I began to get interested in the Clawhammer Banjo as I came across more and more lessons on YouTube.
I decided to take it up and bought a secondhand Fender Open Back from an American sailor on the US Navy Base in Rota, Cadiz. I live in Seville, the home of Flamenco and there isn't a big Old-Time Music scene going on here. I could never get a decent sound out of the Fender, so I decided to upgrade. On a school trip to London, I took a train up to Coventry and bought a Deering Goodtime Special from a lovely guy up there who gave me a great deal.
It's a good banjo and I still have it. Nonetheless, I had joined Banjo Hangout and had been reading about and getting into the nitty-gritty-nerdy aspects of the hobby and I decided that, as I had been improving quite a bit, I would treat myself to the “once in a lifetime banjo” I read around about quality banjos, tone rings, woods, sound etc. It was quite confusing and even quite contradictory at times. I had basically settled down to two or three brands that I would choose from.
Then I came across Don´s name under custom banjo makers. Don works from a one man workshop in Bunkers Hill in WV. I began to think of how special it would be to have a one off piece made by a one man luthier from the home of banjo music. I imagined it would cost a fortune as only one man’s hands had ever touched the instrument. I got in touch with Don and he told me he would make a banjo for me at a price that I considered more than reasonable. We decided on the banjo and he sent me photos during the process. I asked him to put a scoop in and add a few railway spikes which he did.
Don does all his own work, steam bends the rim, makes his own brass tone ring, and hand polishes the banjo many times. The materials are top notch, in my case a mahogany handle and ebony fretboard on a maple rim. It sounds right on and has excellent projection. It stays completely in tune. Temperatures reach 45º C in Seville. It's not too heavy for a banjo with a metal rod through the handle and is well balanced. Pull offs, slides, hammer ons, drop thumbs all sound good. To sum up it sounds like it came from West Virginia. Right now I have a Renaissance head and a Kershner tailpiece but I have tried other heads and a no knot tailpiece. The banjo always sounds good. I use Ernie Ball Banjo Frailing strings which are basically medium strings but light strings are fine too
When I mentioned that Don’s prices are reasonable, I didn't add that I as a European had to punt up another 250 dollars for shipping and import duty. Here in Europe taxes are higher but health care is free. So I paid more than an American would pay and I still think it was cheap for a custom made instrument.
I found out what Don was really like when the banjo got lost in transit. We call my bajo Papillion because it was locked up and lost for quite a while, I believe in Madrid. We had basically given up at one stage. Don behaved like a gentleman in all of this and even offered to replace the instrument, even though it wasn't his fault. In the heel of the hunt, Papillion was finally released and ended up in my hands.
All this happened about six years ago and I have never regretted my purchase and Papillion sounds better every time. It was the “once in a lifetime” banjo and I have never thought of upgrading. Upgrading to what? My advice to anyone who wants to buy a good banjo is to go to a good luthier and get something special. Try to get an instrument put together as a piece and forget all the chatter and hype about this and that part. Don’s banjo is made to last and to be handed down. It sounds like a banjo should and does not need any mods.
Thanks to the Papillion part of the story Don and I have remained in contact. He is a great guy and a great craftsman. We haven't talked much about my banjo because the banjo is just fine. Sometimes Don sends me photos of stuff he is working on because he knows I am interested in his work.
However, Don might be a master craftsman but he is a lousy businessman. He does it for the love of the craft and doesn't spend enough time getting his product out into the marketplace at real market prices. I highly recommend a Kawalek banjo and I highly recommend Don’s price range. Do yourself a favor and get something original and hand-made at a good price. Actually price isn't that important if the quality is there but don't buy cheap and regret it. Neither should you overpay for what are really bells and whistles for “safe queens”. Don’s banjo is made to actually play well and to last.
The best of Irish luck to you Don,
Paul J. Buggle