In the 1950’s, a 6’-1” 175 pound point guard they called “The Houdini of the Hardwood” led the Boston Celtics basketball team to six national championships. His quick footwork, textbook ball handling and accurate passing redefined his position and perhaps the pace of the entire league, taking it from a chess-like tempo to the faster paced game that persists today. Thousands in his wake mimicked his moves, but there is one thing that they let pass into history – his shoes.
Bob Cousy’s shoes – the PF Flyer All-Americans – are as classic as he was. They represented the best athletic equipment thinking of his day. By today’s standards, however, they are slippery on the court, lack support, and are poorly ventilated. One would have to descend to the ranks of elementary school blacktop ball to find an equivalent pair of PF Flyers, which are still sold today, even under the Cooz’s name. With what takes place on a basketball court, it should come as no surprise that when it comes to equipment, a ball players shoes are to a player what a banjo is to a banjo picker. I daresay that I might even have a chance of beating Shaquille O’Neal in stilettos.
So, this question begs to be asked: Why have Bob Cousy’s shoes evolved so much while the classic pre-war banjo is replicated as if it were the summit of thinking?
I’ll accept that the golden age of banjo making – the pre-war years – was a summit or sorts, because it was followed by many years of mediocrity. Where that summit was in relation to where we stand today, however, is another question that I will not accept so easily.
I have recently been introduced to a banjo design that daringly deviates from the traditional pre-war design that is so commonly mimicked. Tom Nechville’s stress-relieving banjo geometry and two-piece Heli-mount aluminum frame, which purportedly replaces over 70 parts (seehttp://www.nechville.com/heli-mount_design.html) takes the banjo to a more technologically superior level, while faithfully producing banjo sounds (under the right fingers) of the highest quality.
I believe that we are in an instrument building renaissance today. There are, perhaps, more quality affordable banjos available than at any other time in history. I also believe that the Nechville banjo has the potential of writing the next chapter in banjo-making history. However, it will not do it selling $2,000+ banjos. There are a lot of people interested in playing banjo, but are intimidated by the complexity of setup and relatively high price of entry for a quality banjo. The Nechville banjo has the ability to save tremendously in labor and materials while bringing the science of setup down to a common man’s level of understanding. My hope is for Tom Nechville to collaborate with a manufacturer who can use his ideas to do $500 banjos that blow everyone out of the water. Game over.
The PF Flyer’s days are over. Their place is in a display case next to black and white photos of the Houdini of the Hardwood. Perhaps this is where pre-war banjos, with all their outdated technology and unnecessary complexity, belong as well. Only time will tell.