The Story – Part 3
Continued from part II
Bob: How’d you get the word out?
Bill: Earl was using them on his public appearances and on TV. People saw and heard him, especially in the South. This became great ‘word of mouth’ advertising. We had a good response from advertising in “Sing Out” magazine, which reached an additional audience of people in the North and West. There was also a lot of local interest in the Boston area, as well as the folk scene in the Boston-New York corridor, Chicago, Denver, Berkeley, and LA.
Bob: How successful were you?
Bill: At the time, we had no idea how popular these tuners would be. We thought the demand might peak and then drop off. But, as it turned out, the demand didn’t drop off very much. It became clear that we couldn’t continue assembling them in Dan’s garage, so we moved into a small building in Cambridge. Our new company also sold some other banjo parts and accessories, and for a few years even manufactured pewter plates, cups and candle sticks, pursuing an interest of Dan’s.
A few years later, the company moved to Newburyport, Mass. and in the mid-seventies, moved to Putney, Vermont, where some of Dan’s family lived. During much of this time period, I was less active in the daily business of Beacon Banjo because I continued playing music and touring with various bands.
During the seventies, Bluegrass music was growing in popularity and the tuners were selling pretty well. But, in the late 1980’s, sales had fallen off and Dan wanted to pursue other interests. So, I decided to buy his shares of the company and become sole owner. I moved it from Vermont to my home here in Woodstock, NY. The following year, Dan died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. It came as a shock since he seemed in such good health and had had no history of medical problems. It was just one of those things you could never expect.
Bob: So, how many have you made since production began in 1964?
Bill: Based on the registration numbers on the guarantee card we include with each pair, we are now over 27,000, which doesn’t include the custom orders we have done for Gibson and the ones we currently provide to Fender and Ovation and others. During our 38 year history, I estimate the total number to be about 30,000 pairs.
Bob: How has the price varied over the years.
Bill: The first pairs sold for $50.00, which, at the time, seemed expensive to Dan and me. By March of 2000, the price had increased to $200.00. But, compared to the increase in price of a car or a gallon of gas over the past 38 years, the tuners haven’t gone up nearly as much.
Bob: How well have they held up?
Bill: From our first production run, we were very pleased with their durability, so, we gave them a five year guarantee. We later lengthened that guarantee since very few were returned because of manufacturing defects. I think that if they are well cared for, the tuners could outlast us all.
Bob: I take it then, that you also service your D-Tuners?
Bill: Yes. When the tuners stop working properly, it’s usually because the grease has dried out. We are using a new grease containing teflon. For a small fee, we clean and lubricate them. We also install new leather friction washers, test them out and send them back to the owner.
Bob: Has there been much competition from other makers?
Bill: These days you hardly ever see cam-style tuners anymore. There are copies of our tuners made in Germany, “Schaller,” and in Japan, “Gotoh.” I’m sure they have cut into our market share, but I have also heard from a lot of people who have had problems with those copies. They might be less expensive, but they don’t have our quality or guarantee and they don’t seem to hold up very well.
Bob: Are there any recent developments you’d like to talk about?
Bill: Earlier this year, I began selling the tuners ‘direct,’ taking orders by fax and phone and accepting credit cards. We are still supplying Gibson, Stelling, Fender, Deering, OME and other makers and luthiers. And, soon you will be able to purchase the D-Tuner through our web-sites: “beaconbanjo.com” and “keithtuners.com”.
And, it’s still fun to meet new players and hear new ways they’re using the tuners. Both Allison Brown and Casey Henry have written tunes using the D-tuners. Check out Alison Brown’s “Girls Breakdown” and Casey’s title track from her new album – “Real Women Drive Trucks.” Bela Fleck has written, recorded and arranged several original tunes and a remarkable arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” using tuners on all four strings. And, check out “Katmandu” on Bela’s ‘Tales From the Acoustic Planet Vol. 2’ album!
Bob: What are you doing these days?
Bill: Presently, I am very excited about a new book coming out that I co-authored with Jim D’Ville, titled The Natural Way to Music. It is modeled after my banjo class. You can find out more about it from “www.naturalwaymusic.com”.
I also teach students here in Woodstock. And, I travel to various locations around the country to teach. In July, I will be at Alan Munde and Joe Carr’s Bluegrass Camp at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas. This year alone, I have already taught at the Maryland Banjo Academy, Banjo North and Westminster College in Western Maryland. In addition, I also conduct banjo workshops at some bluegrass festivals.
I’ve done some recording lately. At the end of May, I went to DC to work with Frank Wakefield on several cuts for his new album. And, in April, I went to Nashville to record with a Japanese group.
Bob: In closing, is there any one story that comes to mind that you’d like to share that would wrap this interview up?
Bill: Even though it has been almost 40 years, I still stay in touch with June Hall and her husband Loring. During a recent visit, June mentioned that her great nephew was working in Nashville “in a band with a funny name.” She mentioned that he played saxophone. On an outside chance, I asked: “Does he play with the FleckTones?” And, she said – “Yes! His name is Jeff Coffin.”
It seems amazing to me that the great nephew of the woman who inspired me in the melodic style and the man who built my first two prototypes is playing with Bela Fleck, who does such extraordinary things with both the melodic style and the D-tuners. It sure is a small world.
Bob: Bill, thanks so much.