“I’ve always loved the banjo,” Charles Gilbert says. He moved to Rutherford County following military service in the Navy during World War II. Since 1980, he has been building and restoring banjos. He has built and worked on about fifty instruments, which he sells from his home and from B-Sharp Music shop in Spindale.
Charles grew up in Polk County, where he heard early country and mountain music on the radio. His favorite performer and banjo player was Uncle Dave Macon. “I used to listen to him in the late ’30s, and I loved every sound he made,” he says. Charles had a banjo when he was a young teenager, and he learned to play from his father, who had a frailing style. When an accident took part of a finger on his left hand, Charles sold his banjo and gave up playing for many years.
Eventually he noticed that many banjo players did not use the finger that he injured, and that prompted him to get another banjo. Although he plays the instrument, he considers himself a builder, not a performer. “My age kept outrunning my progress,” he says of his playing. “But I kept my interest in the banjo.” After he was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, he combined his skills working with wood and his passion for the banjo, and he began building and restoring the instruments. “I bought a bunch of old banjos to see what made them tick, and I just started messing with them.”
Charles Gilbert makes his banjos particularly for old-time styles. “They are more or less for clawhammer playing,” he says. He creates some unusual features for his banjos. On some, he runs the fifth string through the neck so the tuning peg is on the peghead instead of on the neck. He also includes unique backs on his banjos instead of including a resonator or keeping the back completely open. “Over the years, I have determined what you need in a banjo to make it sound good,” he says.
Charles Gilbert sells his banjos from his home and at B-Sharp Music in Spindale, North Carolina. He considers requests for lessons and demonstrations.