One guitar and one banjo: Jason Romero remembers the fire

by • November 9, 2017 • BC Musician News, BC Musicians, Current Issue, Front Page, Instrument Makers, Instrument stores1209

Jason Romero. Photo Pharis Romero

In June 2016 J. Romero Banjo Co. lost everything in a house/shop fire, and so did the people who built it, Juno award winners Jason and Pharis Romero of Horsefly, BC. It took them nine months to get back, a story not too tall, but too long for this tome. Jason jammed with editor@large Craig Gilbert.

CG: Tell me what happened.

JR: In June (2016), we lost everything. It’s a pretty intense story. We were up and running in nine months. It was terrible. We’d ripped off half our house to build a giant log home, and so we had started then the shop burned, so we had to keep going with the house build while we were rebuilding the shop, and deal with insurance companies. It’s a long, long story.

CG: When a luthier shop like yours goes up, what do you lose?

JR: Everything. Under the rubble, I saved some of my bronze and way over in the corner in my wood room, under all the ashes when the roof fell down, there is some insulation I think. I got enough wood for 10 banjos. My first banjos were what I called ‘out of the ashes banjos’ only from wood that survived.

It was a couple hundred thousand dollars. Just our vintage guitar collection alone was worth $70,000. That was covered so it covered the shop because they denied us on the building. So we don’t have our collection anymore. We saved enough to buy one awesome one for Pharis and my prize guitar was in the back of the truck. One guitar and one banjo survived.

CG: One gun added on….

JR: So the whole attic, which was full of our personal belongings because we had nowhere else to store them, so we lost all that. And all my tools, and I had two years’ worth of wood because I knew I wasn’t going to the States anytime soon. So I thought ‘I’m going to buy extra.’

Copper salvaged from the shop post-fire.

CG: Did this summer’s wildfires affect your business?

No. Other than having to be gone more this summer. Luckily, we had gigs that were already booked elsewhere during the heat of it. When every area around us was evacuated, we were already down on the Island, so the biggest inconvenience was having to stick around in the city for 10 extra days. When we came home, we took the backroads because you couldn’t drive through an evacuated area. There were some ridiculous rules.

I’ve used local birch for some banjo cores, but that’s about it. The pine is my firewood.

CG: So we’re talking also because there are new customs rules coming into effect for all rosewoods, both raw lumber and finished products. Will that present any challenges to your business?

JR: There aren’t any challenges other than we might be getting some pickier customs guys. If I’m not using it, I don’t have to say I’m not using it, but I may put a note in it with the customs forms because I’ve had instruments scratched before.

Michael Jerome Browne went in and registered all his instruments. But he tours so much in the States he was worried they would get confiscated by them. They put these big obnoxious stickers inside his instruments.

CG: How about in terms of building?

JR: The only one that I would like to keep using is cocobolo. I had a bunch before the fire but I replaced it about a year ago. I probably have about $700 worth sitting there waiting to be turned into fingerboards.

CG: You said earlier you’re working toward more North American sources. Is that going to help?

JR: I’m looking at some woods I’ve used in the past, one’s called Chichen, one called grenadio, cardaloche, they’re Mexican woods. I want to find a good, ethical source for them. Where I source, Gillmore Hardwoods in Portland, he’s been stockpiling woods for 40 years. He’s got warehouses of wood that I’m buying that he bought 20 years ago. Who knows how it was harvested? Most people who are in the wood business, they’ve got this wood they’ve been sitting on forever.

With a banjo, for neck and rim, unlike guitars, I’m using maple and walnut and cherry. The only wood I use for the main body is mahogany. I get FSC-certified Honduran mahogany out of Washington State. Rosewood, I would only ever use that for a fingerboard, but for a guitar builder, it’s back and sides. It’s a lot.

I used to use a lot of Honduran rosewood; they use it for marimba keys so it’s really tonal wood, it’s a dense wood. I went to Bolivian rosewood, which isn’t actually a true rosewood (it just resembles it).

Also, I use Richlite, it’s a paperstone, it’s a FSC-certified composite that looks jet black and they use it for countertops. A few people have been onto this for about 10 years. It’s a little harder to glue but as far as ebony substitute goes, if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know.

Frets salvaged from the shop post-fire.

CG: So how are you now?

JR: Things are great. We’re very, very lucky people. Busy as hell, we’re recording a new album here in December. We have gigs booked for two years now. It’s crazy busy, every minute of the day is spoken for. We have a full-time nanny helping out with the kids, because we have a five year wait-list for banjos.

I actually don’t want any orders, I might not even open my list this year. Five years is ridiculous. I want people to be excited about an instrument. I take 25 orders a year, I open on Jan. 1. I didn’t want to close it, I didn’t want to raise my prices so high that I had zero orders coming in, so I thought I’d limit it.

Last year, people were setting their computers. By 12:01 a.m. on January 1, I had 80 orders and I had to write 50 people: “Sorry, I can’t build you a banjo for 2022 because you didn’t make my 25.” That doesn’t sound right to me so I might not open it this year or next so I can take a bite out of it, get it down to two years.

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