The Gariepy Banjo Company
By Bob Flesher
One day in 1965 I found a banjo in the window of a store in Garden Grove, California that was really nice for the price, $100 brand new and American made. It was made by the Gariepy Banjo Company in Long Beach, California. I figured, me being a star since I had just been laid off the Andy Williams TV show after being their banjo player for a whole season, this banjo company might be interested in my star qualities so I paid them a visit. It wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned. Instead of a big building with smoke stacks and all, the Gariepy Banjo Company consisted of two fellows, Art Gariepy and his son David working in a tiny little storefront building in the middle of a field that looked like an old-time western store with the big false front. They were mighty friendly until they figured out I wasn’t there to buy a banjo then they went back to work in their little room crammed full of machines so close together they couldn’t walk, banjo parts, finished banjos and plenty of sawdust.
After a few more visits Mr Gariepy finally figured out what a star I was. Well, it was because I told him. So he hired me (for no money) to advertise his banjos on several TV shows he had lined up. Finally, I was a star again.
Actually, Art Gariepy made a very fine banjo except it was light weight and every Gibson banjo picker knows that a banjo can’t possibly sound good unless it is very heavy. The story is that Art purchased from the widow of Fred Van Eps all of his parts, patents and jigs. He had applied all this information, patents, original jigs, and machines to the task of making bluegrass and open back banjos, as well as the occasional tenor and plectrum. He made many of them with the unique “Flush Ftret” fingerboard. This fingerboard looked like a fretless fingerboard that had a square nickel silver fret wire inlaid flush with the surface then the wood between the frets scooped out to form a smooth transition to the top of the fret. That is not how he made them but they looked like waves on the ocean from the side. It was extremely fast to play on. I still have one fingerboard and 20 pounds of fret wire , as well as, the devise to put the knurl in the wire.
One day Art said he was going to move into a larger factory down the street in Long Beach, California and asked me if I would like to set up a banjo shop in the little store he occupied. He said, “I will supply you with banjos to sell and you can do my repairs and keep the people off my back.” Being a star banjo picker out of work and close to starving, it seemed reasonable to me. The adventures I encountered in that shop is a complete different story. Around 1966 the Gariepy Banjo Company was in it’s prime. Art had a production line with half a dozen employees and sales were good. I learned to be a wood carver, metal engraver, and inlay pearl so I did all his custom work except inlay and the spread eagle on the back of his resonator and he taught me how to build banjos. Late in 1966 the Fender Guitar company wanted to sell a line of banjos. They invited the Gariepy Banjo Company to display their banjo models for consideration. They liked what they saw but they wanted to buy the company. Art, being Irish and stubborn said no. So they bought another little company and made their banjos. This would turn out to be the death knell of the Gariepy Banjo Company.
Banjo sales started to decline around 1968 and Art started visiting his friend, John Barleycorn more and taking naps in the afternoon in his shop. Unfortunately, the bills and bill collectors were piling up. Around 1970 he was down to only himself working in his business. He got behind in his rent and the landlord closed the doors and sold off his equipment. A lot of scavengers were eager to rush in and buy as much as possible of his stock and machines but I just could not turn my back on him and scavenge his business. Art went down hill from that point to losing his wife in addition to his business.
The Gariepy Banjo Company built a wonderful little banjo for entry level players. It had an aluminum rim, 24 brackets with a 5-piece laminated walnut neck with a square peghead that retailed for $100 which even in 1964-69 was a real bargain. They are still around and I know some friends who bought them new and refuse to let go of them. If you run across one, scoop it up. His higher priced models always had a 5-piece laminated walnut or maple neck. His tone rings were spun brass which were shaped like a Bacon and Day tone ring. They sat on a round ¼” brass rod which sat on a maple rim made of 1/16” maple laminations and were ½ inch thick. He made the rims right in his shop. The rim cap on the bottom of the rim, heel cap, and the black center stripe in the neck were made of some very tough black paper type material which was about 1/8th to ¼ inch thick. He had a unique tension hoop design he had borrowed from the old Van Eps design. The tension hoop had holes in the side where the round hooks hooked into instead of a groove or notch on the top. He had a great little hot dog shaped armrest which was cast bronze and screwed into the side of the tension hoop. He also had a matching “T” shaped cast bronze tailpiece. The top cross-bar of the “T” was crescent shaped. There was also a variation with two tabs out on the ends of the crescent.
Through the years Art Gariepy has become a dark mystery who many people want to know about. Art was a hard headed Irishman but, was a very talented banjo builder, creating new designs and incorporating past knowledge and designs into his new banjos. He was not as gifted in running a successful business. I had the blessing of knowing Art personally and having a close relationship with him. I know he wronged some customers along the way and I fault him for that but I am proud to claim that he became my good friend.
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