Where Purchased: Directly from Chuck Waldman
Year Purchased: 2009
Price Paid: Don't Remember
Let me begin by stating that I made up the model designation "Wood-O-Phone". I have no idea what Chuck calls these instruments, but they're the result of his own experiments and design concepts. One really has to see the instrument to grasp what he's accomplished, but suffice it to say that he has designed something similar to a Tubaphone tone ring, only the entire thing is made of different varieties of tone wood, in this instance primarily spruce. The resulting chamber is suspended directly under the head and is further subdivided internally into smaller chambers, utilizing the Golden Mean. The sound is simply astonishing--no other way to describe it. Loud, clear and very distinctive. Every time I play it with other people, they ask about it and are invariably amazed that the tone ring is wood--most people assume it's yet another variation of a WL or Tubaphone. Nevertheless, I don't want to mislead anyone, since the Wood-O-Phone has its own unique voice. It has the volume and projection of instruments with complex metal tone rings, but there is a snap evident that I've not run across before in my 35+ years of playing banjo.
Sound Rating: 10
I purchased the banjo from Chuck, after having spent some time with him previously, and finding that we agreed substantially on banjo setup. This particular instrument came with a Renaissance head cranked down just about as tightly as it would go and a bridge of Chuck's own fabrication (maple w/ebony top). I eventually loosened the head a bit and substituted one of Greg Galbreath's fine bridges, which rolled off some of the high end, but really opened up the middle. I have to say I'll probably keep it setup like this, but in general terms the banjo was delivered in perfect, playable condition, with the action just where I would have set it myself, and medium gauge strings.
Setup Rating: 10
This particular banjo is constructed with mostly local California woods (Chuck lives in the Gold Rush region), with the neck and rim being simple, unstained maple accented with black walnut trim, including a short backstrap on the peghead. As mentioned above, the tone chamber is primarily spruce, but I believe the top (i.e., immediately under the head) is some species of acacia. The fingerboard and peghead overlay are plain ebony. I'm not much for inlay, so there are no decorations at all. To my eye at least, this is very much in keeping with Chuck's design aesthetic: clean and simple, letting the shapes speak for themselves--if I didn't know better, I'd think the Shakers had a hand in this one. I suppose if I could change anything, it would be the hooks/nuts/shoes, but only because I think the instrument deserves something less generic. Not a negative comment on function, but simply a difference in taste.
Appearance Rating: 9
The finish is first rate, and I've already hauled this banjo around to a number of musical events with no wear or marring evident, despite having been handled by a lot of different players. The hardware is nothing special, just typical Stew-Mac. I swapped the stock pearloid tuner buttons for some ebony ones, but that's just a reflection of my personal taste, not a comment on the functional quality. The build quality is also of the first order, so I have no qualms about taking this out as my only banjo for an evening of playing.
Reliability Rating: 10
Dealing with Chuck is a treat, no other way to describe the experience. He's one of those individuals who is incredibly enthusiastic about his work, but is also eager to hear other people's opinions. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with Chuck and his wife last summer while passing through his area, and knew instantly that I'd eventually end up with one of his banjos, if for no other reason than wanting the excuse to remain in contact with him! Have to admit we never discussed warranty, but I can't imagine there would ever be an issue should I require service.
Customer Service: 10
As mentioned above, I swapped the bridge and the tuner buttons, but neither of these components was of substandard quality. The most obvious standout on this banjo is the tone chamber, which is the result of Chuck's ongoing experimentation. I guess I've become a bit jaded when it comes to hardware, since there are now some pretty spectacular options available, but all of the stock hardware on this instrument is perfectly functional, and certainly will outlast me.
Components Rating: 9
I've been hesitant to submit this review, not because I have any issues with the banjo or its maker, but because Chuck currently only has one retail outlet, Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, California, and they don't always have one of his banjos available. Moreover, if you search for Chuck Waldman, you'll quickly discover that he's primarily known for his paintings of Northern and Central California landscapes, with virtually no mention of his other passion, banjos. Nevertheless, after receiving nothing but positive feedback from the various builders and players to whom I've shown this instrument, I decided it was time to put Chuck's name out there for folks on BHO. Incidentally, Bob Carlin did a nice interview with Chuck a few years back for Banjo Newsletter, but Chuck's designs have evolved considerably since then. I'll try to post some photos and a sound file on my member page for those who might be interested in seeing and/or hearing the Wood-O-Phone..
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: Gryphon Strings
Year Purchased: 2014
Price Paid: 1495 ($US)
This is a standard scale five string with an 11" cherry rim, raw brass hardware, Renaissance head and No-Knot. The ring is made up of an assortment of hardwoods forming a perforated tube that shows through the head. I don't care for that, but the tone is great so the head stays.
Played anywhere above the head the sound is just average, but played over the scoop it becomes rich, resonant and surprisingly loud with a moderate amount of sustain. I wanted a woody, warm and organic sound free of metallic overtones for my stock Folk/Ragtime/Blues amalgam and the Waldman nails it.
Sound Rating: 10- Kermitthehermit