Hawthorn Banjos: A Gift to Bluegrass

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Hawthorn Banjos: A Gift to Bluegrass

By: Shelby C. Berry

No sound is quite as iconic to bluegrass as the strum of a banjo—a sound most of us remember hearing for the first time—whether it was from a Bill Monroe performance, bluegrass records, or music festival. One man unlikely to disagree with that statement is Glenn Bradford, an owner and founder of Kansas City’s Hawthorn Banjos.

Until retirement at age 68, Glenn was a trial lawyer who sang and played bluegrass as a hobby. A collector of mandolins, banjos, and guitars, Glen knew he wanted to do something different as his law practice slowed down. That something different changed his life.

Glenn’s friend, Mark Franzke, who was already a well-established builder of his Franzke Stringed Instruments, was interested in having a shop. So, in late 2014, Glenn and Mark decided to open an acoustic stringed instrument shop. After acquiring their initial inventory—banjos, mandolins, and guitars—they decided also to build their own. The Hawthorn brand was born, and the Bradford & Franzke Fret Shop opened for business in June 2015. Named after the Missouri state flower, the Hawthorn line includes the highest quality banjo, guitar, and mandolin tuners and parts. With time, the Hawthorn instrument line added new partners and new products.

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For all Hawthorn instruments, Luthier Randall Wyatt of Arkansas creates the pearl inlay on a CNC machine. Ron Coleman of Georgia joined the team to create and build all of the banjo necks. Eventually, Hawthorn instruments had signature bronze alloy banjo tone rings and brass top tension banjo metal parts with Glenn’s foundry patterns.

“Many builders buy a lot of the parts for their banjos,” said Glenn. “We try to make as much of our instruments as possible. I coordinate everything with all of the parts, and we have all of our local partners who assemble and stain.”

People say we are living in the golden age of banjos, especially with Hawthorn Banjos. Following traditional Martin and Gibson styles, Hawthorn improves on its designs where possible. Glenn’s vision for Hawthorn Banjos is to focus on the older banjo style design being built these days, like top tension banjos and bowtie models. Hawthorn currently offers seven distinct models of five-string resonator banjos.

“We use only the finest tuners and other commercially available products in our instruments,” said Glenn. “If a top-quality piece isn’t available, we will make it ourselves.”

After years of artist inquiries, Wes Corbett became Hawthorn Banjos’ first endorsed artist. Professor of Banjo at the Berklee College of Music and a member of Molly Tuttle’s band, Corbett wanted a banjo of maple.

“We made him a custom banjo, and once it was finished, he played his first show with it in the Kansas City area. And he’s been playing it ever since,” said Glenn.

Since then, Hawthorn has endorsed Cassie Sibley and Phil Easterbrook.

Mark retired a few years ago from Hawthorn and the Bradford & Franzke Fret Shop to focus on instrument building and has been remarkably successful with his custom Franzke instruments. Glenn partnered with other talented builders to ensure the Hawthorn brand quality lived on. Glenn decided to close the retail shop in latter 2019 to focus primarily on promoting the Hawthorn brand at events such as IBMA and SPBGMA.

Glenn joins The Bluegrass Standard to talk about the Hawthorn brand, the banjos, and what makes them different.

A Bluegrass Standard Interview:

The Bluegrass Standard: Why was the Hawthorn brand named after Missouri’s state flower?

Glenn Bradford: The way that happened was in 2014 when Mark and I were building. We were going to build production instruments, but he wanted to reserve his name for his building of instruments that he had already been doing. Our first thought was the sunflower because of it being the Kansas state flower, but another similar company had that name. We went through other names as well before deciding on Hawthorn.

BGS: What about the Gibson banjos made Hawthorn model theirs after the Gibson?

GB: Gibson set the standard for mandolins and banjos before World War II. The styles and quality were enduring, and, of course, Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs were the great Bluegrass pioneers who both played Gibson instruments, mandolin, and banjo, respectively. That was a big factor in Gibson’s long popularity. Our observation has been that banjo players in particular are a traditional lot and want to play a Gibson or something that looks like a Gibson. We haven’t tried to build exact replicas of Gibson banjos, but we shoot for the general overall look and then add our changes and hopefully improvements where we can. We use a lot of block rims, for instance, that Gibson never used. Our proprietary top tension flange is a good example. It looks like a one-piece Gibson flange on the outside, but it’s sand cast and CNC machined out of brass rather than the pot metal that Gibson used. Our flange is also thicker for more bolt threads to avoid the stripping issue that the old Gibson’s had. So, it looks like a Gibson flange but the appearance is superficial. We will also use stains or coloring schemes in ways that Gibson never did, such as an Argentine gray tiny on our RB-7 style banjos.

BGS: What is your favorite Hawthorn banjo and why?

GB: I have two favorites – our top tension models, of course, that we are known for and our “Bowtie” models that we build out of mahogany, maple, and walnut. Gibson built a few maple RB-500 Bowties but no walnut Bowties to our knowledge. A walnut Bowtie with an arched ebony fretboard and a Randall Wyatt birch block rim is a pretty radical take on the old Bowtie concept. We like to use the new Reissue Kluson stairstep tuners with the keystone buttons on most of our Bowties that we feel gives a nice homage to the classic Gibson Bowtie design. Cassie Sibley of Alan Sibley and the Magnolia Ramblers plays a custom Hawthorn Walnut Bowtie.

BGS: What makes Hawthorn banjos so compelling and how do they enhance technique and performance over other products?

GB: I’m not sure how “compelling” our banjos are, but we use the highest quality wood and parts. The only people who touch them in construction are all topflight luthiers in their own right. We don’t cut corners to save on expenses. Our banjos are the absolute best instruments that we can possibly build. And accordingly, they are not cheap. We have assembled an ensemble of the best banjo builders going in my opinion. It’s not everyone who can produce a beautiful instrument that also plays easily and has good volume and tone. I think ours meet that standard. Part of my job is quality control, and I’m picky about what goes out the door under the name Hawthorn. As a lifelong, if mediocre, player, I think the reality is that every stringed instrument is a thing unto itself. You can generalize to some extent about particular builders or brands of instruments, but I believe that each stringed instrument is unique and stands by itself. Past the point of basic quality of parts and construction, the player evaluates a particular instrument based on his own hands and ears. I will say it this way – certain very good players have appreciated their Hawthorn banjos based on their criteria and musical tastes. This sounds like a lawyer’s answer, doesn’t it! Old habits die hard.

BGS: Finally, how will Hawthorn banjos stand the test of time in today’s world?

GB: An interesting question! Our banjos, as well as our guitars and mandolins, have been well built and should last 100 years or more. We have been fortunate to have Wes Corbett and our other endorsers showcase our banjos. If Wes Corbett turns out to be the 21st Century Earl Scruggs, Hawthorn may go down in history! We have built about 60 Hawthorn instruments, and I’m hoping to keep active doing it for another 10 or 15 years. At some point, my son Hunter will have to carry the ball. Our company is Bradford & Son LLC after all.

www.hawthornbmg.com.