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6 July 2014

Marvin Walker

Today I continue my infrequent series on luthiers who amaze and inspire me. Today's post is on a gentleman called Marvin Walker. I had the good fortune of meeting Marvin just recently after he dropped a comment on this blog. The topic of conversation was Dixie banjoleles, but it wasn't long before we were talking builds. It turns out that Marvin has used the Dixie pot as the basis of a couple of his early builds. That's pretty interesting, but nowhere near as interesting as some of the other things he's been up to! ;-)

Here's "Marvelous" Marvin Walker hard at work shaping the neck on his last build. Why is it that when I do this sort of thing that I end up covered in sawdust. Marvin's spotless.... he's got the magic touch for sure! :-)

The observant amongst you will have already spotted a key detail in the picture above that demands explanation. See the neck. It looks sort of concert ukulele scale, but hold on a second... what's that odd lump half way up?

YES! This is a banjo neck! But it isn't a neck for any old ordinary banjo... this is for a mini banjo!

Here's a picture of the finish instrument. Isn't is beautiful! Marvin calls it the Tom Berghan Mini Banjo. I'd never heard of mini-banjos before talking to Marvin so wondered if he invented them. Marvin modestly says that he didn't. Yes, sure you did Marvin... you've just forgotten that's all! ;-)

The mini banjos that Marvin makes are obviously a shorter scale than conventional banjos. He tunes them Open "G", one octave higher than standard.

I love the attention to detail. I would give my left arm to get anywhere close to the quality of build that Marvin is achieving. He really is a talented guy.

Take a look at these. They are called Pinewood Derby cars and they were also made by Marvin. I've never heard of Pinewood Derbys. Sometimes I feel like I was born on another planet. Ha ha.

Marvin patiently explained to me that the cars are made from wood and are raced down an incline. The cars pictures are some of the cars that Marvin has entered into a derby run by his local Royal Ambassadors group. If I entered the Pinewood Derby, I'd definitely want Marvin on my side!

Back to banjos!

I mentioned earlier that Marvin has used a Dixie pot as the basis of some of his earlier builds. Check this out. This is Marvin's first ever mini banjo build. Do you recognise the unmistakable chrome pot? Yep, that's from a Dixie! I love the understated elegance of the design. The choice of wood and colours are exquisite, and to my mind the inlays are perfect. Marvin has an eye for form and design that I really admire.

I've joked in the past when writing about some of my builds that sometimes I've done things simply because I've liked the look of a design or I've been captivated by a concept. I really am an advocate of instruments that are as beautiful to hold and admire as they are to play. If only I could make an instrument as compelling as this little banjo I would be a very happy man.

Before I forget, I'm going to share some links where you can find out more about Marvin Walker and see more of his builds. You can find him on Facebook. He's also on Banjo Hangout, can be found on YouTube as well as a website. What a web presence!

Marvin is a player as well as a builder. I know that you'll be as intrigued as me to hear what a mini banjo sounds like so I've included a video of Marvin playing Fire Ball Mail on his Mickey Zacharias mini banjo.

You know that I'm a novice when it comes to banjos so I'm keen to pick up whatever hints and tips I can whenever I get to talk to anyone who shows an interest. Marvin informs me that he's playing what is known as "three finger Scruggs (Earl) style". Something to investigate further!

I want to show you some details on my favourite of Marvin's builds. This is a full size banjo that Marvin made in remembrance of his mother Lydia Mae Teague Walker. What a beautiful tribute!

I think that the carving is outstanding and wonderfully in-fitting with the overall design. The carving especially on the heel simply blows me away every time I look at it. For those of you reading this with a ukulele hat on, could you imagine this sort of effect perhaps with hibiscus flowers to give a fantastic Hawaiian feel to a ukulele. I reckon the first person to get this right will find a huge market of appreciative buyers.

Seeing the detail in Marvin's builds got me wondering how long it might take to make an instrument of this difficulty. I think each build takes 6-7 months to complete.

You knew that I would get here eventually... I love workshop photos. Here's one of Marvin's band saw. I wish I had a band saw! I just tried something very similar on my Highwayman Banjo build with nowhere near the same success as can be seen here. The interesting thing for me in this picture is that Marvin has left a little block of wood beneath the nut to help him to cut the sides easier. I did this too! I didn't realise that it was a "proper" neck-making technique.

Marvin says that he doesn't have an elaborate workshop. He's enclosed a room on the side of his house that used to be a porch, and he's got a room on the side of his garage. He says that there's not a lot of room in either! I know exactly how you feel Marvin!

Here's an interesting idea that scares the pants off me. I'm not sure what Marvin is doing here. I can't see me trying this, no matter how much you pay me to try. 

Right, that's your lot. I want to say a huge thank-you to Marvin for taking the time to talk with me and to let me share a little of what he does with you. I could have gone on and on, but I think it is time to close this off. I never got to mention the wonderful inlays or that Marvin makes most of his metal parts. Perhaps another time? I think you've probably picked up by now that he's quickly become one of my heroes. Check out the links I've shared in the post for all sorts of wonderful insights. Until next time...


  1. That jig saw was used to cut out the brass parts (flange, armrest, etc) from sheet brass. I used this set-up for several builds until late last year when I found a Rockwell table top saw made like my rigged up table saw. It is a little bit more stable!

  2. Check out my latest Cigar box banjo at

    My youngest grand daughter, Ella, is dancing to Cripple Creek!