It’s been a half-century since an enterprising young Colorado university student took his engineering school education, turned it toward his real passion, and an American musical institution was born. When Chuck Ogsbury decided to sand-cast aluminum banjo rims and sell his personal collection of Civil War-era and other rare firearms to finance the production of the first one hundred ODE banjos in 1960, he had no idea he was starting a company that would influence American banjo manufacturing for fifty years and put some of the most innovative and beautiful instruments into the hands of thousands of musicians here and abroad.
“Actually, I never really thought when I did this that I’d make a lifetime career of it,” Ogsbury explains. “ I left it for a while and never thought I’d go back into it. I like to innovate, so if I’m not going to be able to do it better, then why bother? But, when I got into [building banjos], it was a more holistic lifestyle that was fun, and we’ve been constantly improving our products. I’m in a surge now; the fiftieth anniversary got me going again. We’re coming out with some new things.”
Born and raised in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, Ogsbury spent his youth gaining experience that eventually would prove invaluable as he started building banjos: he collected, restored, and sold antique and vintage firearms. “Firearms are similar to banjos; so, I learned how to work in the art form of wood and metal and was a pretty significant gun dealer, rebuilding old Kentucky rifles and Civil War stuff. That carried over to the banjo thing,” he explains.
In 1956, he decided he wanted to experience bigger mountains and moved to Boulder, Colo., to begin studying structural engineering, an educational path that would later prove especially valuable in pursuing his newfound passion for building banjos. “I remember as a kid hearing some of the early bluegrass music being played [in Louisville]. I didn’t get involved, but I did start playing guitar in Kentucky. But, I didn’t get too far with it. It wasn’t until I moved to Colorado that I got involved in the folk music thing. That all started in the late ’50s, and that’s when I got into it. I fell in love with making my own music, so I played guitar first, then banjo. There were some pretty good banjo players at school, but they were mostly old-time frailing, clawhammer players. That was the type of music that was ‘in’—the folk genre and groups like the Kingston Trio and the Weavers.”
The popular folk banjo of the day was the long-neck, open-back Vega model popularized by Pete Seeger. But, a Vega banjo cost over $350 back then, a princely sum to struggling college students in the late 1950s. Taking his engineering background, Ogsbury created a mold for a cast aluminum banjo rim that was inexpensive and sounded surprisingly good. He sold off his remaining gun collection for operating capital, sought out the help of an eighty-year-old Swedish woodworker living nearby to help him craft the necks, and set about creating the first ODE banjos, which sold for just over $70 each. Today, those early instruments, along with the two-thousand-plus banjos made under the ODE name that followed, have become serious collector items, fetching high prices on the Internet, Ogsbury says with some amazement.
The company was officially started in 1960, and production slowly increased over the next few years until ODE was employing six people and turning out a steady stream of instruments. The company expanded its product line to include banjos suited for Dixieland jazz, Irish music, and bluegrass and quickly built a strong following among musicians living west of the Mississippi where access to high-quality banjos and other acoustic instruments was much more limited than it was in the eastern half of the country where bluegrass was born. Sales rose and it seemed that the business was a runaway success.
It should have been an ideal situation for the young entrepreneur who had started out with simply an idea of making the instruments he loved to play. But, in reality, the business was causing Ogsbury more trouble than it was worth.
Every employee had a key to the building and production was often a haphazard affair. As owner, Ogsbury was responsible not only for manufacturing, but also for supervising cash flow and the rest of the business side of the operation. Given the free-spirited attitude of the 1960s (one employee lived in a teepee year-round despite blizzards and hundred mph winds), the operation was a major headache to manage, and Ogsbury soon realized that his dream of running a business making instruments had a dark side that required discipline and careful planning in order to succeed.
So, when he was approached by piano and organ manufacturing giant Baldwin Piano Company to sell ODE as they sought to build a full-line musical instrument manufacturing enterprise, Ogsbury saw it as a golden opportunity and signed a contract that sold ODE to Baldwin and kept him on for six months as a paid consultant to ensure a smooth transition. The banjo operation was relocated from Boulder, Colo., to Arkansas, and Ogsbury (honoring his five-year non-compete agreement) went back to his engineering background and began designing and building homes and commercial buildings in Colorado.
Ogsbury thought his career in instrument building was over. But, as his non-compete clause neared its end, the urge to make instruments returned. He restarted the banjo business in Boulder as OME Banjos, with three partners, and started operating out of a building he’d designed. It was an eclectic operation, but the passion for making fine musical instruments sustained them.
It also led to some interesting developments, such as hiring future mandolin star, Mike Kemnitzer, to design and build a line of OME A-style mandolins. After setting up a production line and building some F-style prototypes for OME, Kemnitzer left to start his career as an independent builder under the now-famous Nugget Mandolins banner.
Today, OME Banjos operates in a small industrial building on the outskirts of Boulder where a steady flow of world-class banjos emerges after a lengthy, mostly handcrafted, production process. The four-thousand-square-foot building is filled with five hundred instruments in various stages of production. Stores of fine tonewoods air dry on the premises, awaiting the day they’re turned into banjo necks and resonators. Instead of the larger staff of his earlier operation, he has three full-time employees, as well as two of his children working in the business today.
When ODE started, the banjo business was remarkably simple. You had Gibson turning out high-end bluegrass banjos on one end, and lower-grade producers like Kay and Harmony producing entry-level instruments at the other end. ODE fit a very specialized niche. Today, with great banjo manufacturers like Stelling, Huber, and others that create world-class banjos, OME has a substantial challenge. But, typically, Chuck Ogsbury says his company has a unique solution.
“I counted on the Internet, and there’s over a hundred people building banjos,” he says. “Most of them are one-man shops or do it part-time. We do high-quality original and custom in several designs. Also, we have a niche in that we excel at three or four types of banjos. We do old-time banjos and have seven different pots that produce seven different tones. We have four-string tenor banjos for traditional jazz and Dixieland. And we have the bluegrass banjos,” he explains.
One thing ODE/OME has avoided, for the most part, is the trend toward copying prewar Gibson banjos. As an innovator, Chuck has always sought to improve the sound quality of the banjo—not copy a sound from the past. But, given the traditional nature of the bluegrass banjo community, he’s recently introduced two models aimed at replicating the hallowed tone of the great prewar Gibson banjos. Using a tone ring formula he calls “Holy Grail,” Ogsbury has introduced instruments that reproduce the sound, but avoid copying the look of the prewar instruments. “We want our banjos to be OME, not a Gibson clone,” he explains. As part of the fiftieth anniversary celebration this year, OME is introducing a number of custom and limited-edition models to give loyal customers the option of buying unique banjos that reflect their personal interests.
Looking back at a half-century of building instruments, Ogsbury says while he never expected his company to last as long as it did, he hopes to see it continue after he’s gone. “I think of the company like a family,” he says, adding that all five of his children have worked there at one time or another. “So, I’d like to see it go on and I have definitely set it up that way. We make top-quality instruments that are built to last and we constantly work to improve them. We’re building quality instruments and always innovating, and that’s the only way I want to go.”
David McCarty is a contributing writer for Bluegrass Unlimited.