An eye for wood, an ear for tone
Floyd County banjo maker takes his time crafting instruments the traditional way
By Don Simmons Jr. in 2008
Mac Traynham eyeballs two roughly shaped pieces of bird’s-eye maple like an archaeologist uncovering an ancient mythical artifact. The wood’s quilted-looking grain stands out prominently as the afternoon sun light shines through a window in Traynham’s workshop in the Willis community of Floyd County. Ices glazes over the small pond outside the shop. A deer makes his evening journey across a small pasture. It’s quiet and peaceful out here. It’s a feeling that flows from the landscape into the shop and out of Traynham. The 53-year-old makes his modest living building cabinets, but his heart belongs to his banjos.
Traynham has been hand-crafting old-time banjos for about two decades and playing them even longer. He was nursed in the craft by some of the region’s most legendary instrument makers: Albert Hash and Wayne Henderson from Grayson County; Kyle Creed from Ferrum.
Traynham said he only makes three or our banjos a year. He likes to take his time to make sure the wood is right and matches perfectly rim to neck. He figures he spends around 40 hours per banjo. First, he laminates thinly shaven layers of maple for the rim. Then he chases down traditional nuts and bolts and trades his wood for the parts (old-time banjos use a couple dozen hooks, nuts and shoes to hold the skin tight rather than the less detailed flange units used on modern resonator banjos). Finally, he carefully sets the hand-shaped neck to the rim, eyeballing and playing each one for tone and volume.
“There are some folks around here set up to make a living making them,” Traynham said. “They have machines set up for each step in the process. That makes it a lot quicker, but I just like doing them the old way, taking my time.”
His banjos sell for around $1,500, but he makes his living working in square shapes (custom cabinetry). When it comes to banjos, though, he doesn’t like a lot of customized demands.
“I like to let them kind of come together on their own,” he said. “I also like to know they’re going to someone who loves the music and intends to play them.”
Hanging on the wall to one side of the upstairs part of his shop, a wall full of fiddler convention ribbons attest to Traynham’s own love of the music.
A Southside Virginia native who found his way to the mountains as a Virginia Tech student, Traynham and his brother played guitar and banjo in bands during high school, but it was at a Blacksburg crafts fair that he met Wayne Henderson and ended up asking Henderson to make him a guitar. It was the 41st guitar Henderson had ever made and Traynham loved it. And somewhere inside he must have known he could do similar work.
He and his new wife, Jenny, moved to Grayson Country for three years, listening, watching and learning the music and the craft. “Albert Hash told me making fiddles was just finding a good piece of wood and carving away everything that didn’t look like a fiddle,” Traynham said in that vague way artists have of knowing but not quite being able to say exactly how their art comes to them.
But he isn’t stingy with his craft. He’s taken on several apprentices and taught many a banjo student. “I usually have them on a kind of work-study program,” Traynham grins. “They chop wood or do other chores on the farm for a few hours then I teach them for a few hours.” Wayne Henderson said Traynham’s instruments come out so good because of his mastery of the music. “He’s an incredible banjo player and that’s a lot of what makes him such a good banjo maker.”