Dana Bourgeois and Shin Ichikawa partner to restore Bryan Sutton’s historic “Banjo Killer” Slope D.
In May of 2010, the Cumberland River overflowed its banks, deluging large areas of Nashville after receiving nineteen inches of torrential rain over a two day period. Flood waters severely damaged much of Nashville’s historic downtown area, The Grand Ole Opry, and many other sites. Also devastated was Soundcheck, an equipment storage facility used by many of Nashville’s professional musicians.
Among the hundreds of valuable instruments ruined or damaged at Soundcheck was a 1995 Bourgeois Slope D owned by Grammy award winning bluegrass guitarist Bryan Sutton. Sutton’s work with bluegrass bands such as Kentucky Thunder and Hot Rize, his session recordings with a wide variety of artists, and solo recording projects are widely regarded as some of the finest examples of the flatpicking genre. Sutton is a five time IBMA Guitar Player of The Year, bluegrass guitar’s highest award.
The mahogany slope shouldered Dreadnought was the first of several Bourgeois guitars owned and played by Sutton. Prized for its deep bass and exceptional volume, Sutton affectionately named the guitar “The Banjo Killer”. “This guitar is incredibly loud, and it’s blessed with the right mixture of tone,” comments Sutton. “I can hear it clearly in a loud jam session without feeling like I have to overplay, and also enjoy a full and sustained tone when I want to play softly. It always seems to be to able to handle any dynamic level of play.”
Sutton used the guitar for much of his tenure with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder as well as on numerous recordings, including “When Love Comes To Town”, from Sutton’s 2000 album, Ready To Go. “On that recording the bottom string of the Banjo Killer was tuned down to D and the guitar was recorded flat”, reports Sutton. “In the final mix we actually had to roll off the bottom end of the guitar because it crowded the standup bass”.
In 2006 Bourgeois Guitars released a Limited Edition recreation of the Banjo Killer, with a label signed by Sutton and Bourgeois. The 30 piece edition immediately sold out; shortly thereafter the Banjo Killer became a regular Bourgeois model.
Not long after the flood, Bourgeois received a phone call from Sutton informing him of the damaged guitar. Though not entirely optimistic, Sutton hoped that Bourgeois might someday be able to restore the Banjo Killer. “If you decide that restoration is beyond hope, just give it a proper burial”, quipped Sutton. Bourgeois knew immediately that restoration would be far more challenging than building a replacement guitar. Though much of the finish was intact, some wooden parts were significantly distorted, many braces had fallen out, and other original glue joints were fully or partially compromised. The interior of the guitar was covered with mold.
The first order of business was to slowly dry the guitar, which would take more than a year to accomplish. While the Banjo Killer reposed in a climate controlled storage room, Bourgeois and his team planned their strategy. “The approach we decided upon”, said Bourgeois, “is total disassembly, then reassembly of the guitar. That’s the only way to know for sure that every glue joint will be 100% viable. We want to re-use every original brace, purfling strip and lining if possible. Fortunately, the joint between the two halves of the top was undamaged by the flood.” Bourgeois reports that the most challenging aspect of the restoration will be to retain as much of the original finish as possible. “For tonal and historical reasons it will be important to keep the original finish. Some finish touch-up will be unavoidable, but touchup will only be applied to the finish surface.
“If we do the job right, there is every reason to expect the Banjo Killer’s original voice to return. There is plenty of precedence for this kind of restoration in the violin world. After Bill Monroe’s mandolin was badly damaged and totally reassembled Ricky Skaggs told me he couldn’t detect a tonal difference. Tony Rice’s ’35 D-28 was also restored after flood damage; Tony once told me that though it’s somewhat less stable than before, the original tone did return. ”
In reality, Bourgeois’ greatest challenge would be finding enough time to properly execute the restoration. “The last thing I wanted was to get partway into the work, then lose rhythm and concentration due to the inevitable distractions of running a shop. This project deserves 100% of my concentration.” The problem was solved earlier this year when Bourgeois discussed the project via email with Shin Ichikawa, a Japanese luthier who specializes in difficult restoration of valuable guitars. Ichikawa is also an accomplished flatpicker who commissioned a copy of the Banjo Killer prior to Bourgeois’ introduction of the Limited Edition. After viewing photos of the damaged original, Ichikawa commented that he wished he could participate in the restoration. Bourgeois immediately invited him to participate.
Ichikawa will travel to Bourgeois’ Lewiston shop to work on the Banjo Killer restoration between late June and mid July. Because of Green Card restrictions, Bourgeois will be unable to compensate Ichikawa for his time. “I’m very impressed that Shin offered to do this on his own dime.” Commented Bourgeois. “That shows incredible commitment.”
Bourgeois has prepared a work space and specialized tooling to facilitate the repair. It is anticipated that Ichikawa will execute most of the hands-on work, assisted occasionally by Bourgeois and Cary Clements, Bourgeois’ most senior craftsman. Bourgeois and Clements have exhaustively discussed the sequence of operations and specific techniques between themselves and with Ichicawa, though expect that many aspects of the project will need to be dealt with on the fly. “We’re just going to have to put our heads together once we get into it”, said Bourgeois. “Complicated restorations always resemble reality shows, at least to some extent”.
“We have a lot of confidence in Shin’s talent. In many ways, he’s the perfect guy to handle this. As the owner and expert player of an exact copy of the Banjo Killer, he has intimate knowledge of the guitar’s construction and how it’s supposed to sound. And he’s one of the most accomplished restoration experts I know. This is going to be a lot of fun for all of us.”