Luthier Bill Badeaux (left) joins in on a song with Cowboy Doug Davis, who is picking on the new 6-string banjo - or guitjo - that Badeaux surprised him with recently at Luckenbach. Photo by Phil Houseal
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The sound of the guitjo
by Phil Houseal
Friends, family, and feral chickens gathered at Luckenbach on a cold Sunday last week. As Cowboy Doug sauntered into the hallowed yard for what he thought was his regular evening pickers circle, about 50 folks yelled “Surprise!” That was the cue for Bill Badeaux to step out from behind a giant oak and present Davis with his 6-string banjo. (See 1:48 video below - listen for the roosters!)
For several years, Badeaux and his wife, Suzanne, have been driving up to the Hill Country from his base near Houston. He instantly appreciated Davis’s approach to western music, and they became picking buddies.
“Luckenbach is a place my wife and I love to visit,” Badeaux explained (“Pronounce my name ‘BAD-DOUGH’ as in it takes bad dough to make a good biscuit”). “Being a musician myself, I always bring instruments, and sit in with whomever is playing.”
Badeaux is also a luthier, taking what started as a hobby about three decades ago and turning it into a business. He has built acoustic and electric guitars, fiddles, mandolins, and 5-string banjos.
“Doug has teasingly asked me over the years to build him a 6-string banjo,” Badeaux said. The luthier got to thinking about it, and started collecting pieces from assorted instruments. “I decided I can take that neck, and that pot assembly, and I can build him a banjo completely free of charge. He won’t pay a penny. Of course, Doug doesn’t have a penny!”
Badeaux ended up spending a bit of time and money to create the one-of-a-kind instrument. It was his first guitjo.
“Some people do play them,” he said. “Primarily it is a 6-string banjo, and it is made for someone who knows how to play guitar but wants the sound of a banjo.”
The colorful Cowboy Doug - musician, wrangler, and philosopher - spun his own spin on the instrument.
“I call it a 6-string guitar, but some call it a banjitar. The left hand thinks it’s a guitar, and the right hand thinks it’s a banjo,” he said with a sly smile. “It’s my way to get the banjo sound without having to learn a different instrument.”
Cowboy Doug was suitably overwhelmed by the generous gift.
“This is an amazing instrument Bill made for me. I told him one day I’d like to have a banjo with guitar neck on it. Next thing I know, he tells me he is building me one, and here it is.” He picks a riff, and smiles again. “Oh yeah... this is fun.”
Just as its name is made up of many parts, Badeaux plucked the pieces out of several piles of parts. He got the neck from his son’s electric guitar, found a discarded resonator, and traded some “special beverage” for the stretcher band and flange. Like any father, Badeaux was proud of his creation.
“It’s a hodgepodge, but it came out absolutely magnificent,” he said. “It was one of greatest experiences of my life, without a doubt. It couldn’t have been more perfect.”
The gathered pickers were getting restless to play, so Cowboy Doug shouted, “Hey, can y'all play Down Yonder?”
The musicians roared their assent.
He grinned, and pointed across the creek. “All right, then. Y’all go play down yonder.”
They laugh, then launch into the tune. The twang of the guitjo blends with the crowing of roosters, the clink of longnecks, and murmurs of appreciation from the gathered regulars.
It’s a sound you’ll hear no place else.