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Meet the Builders - Chuck Ogsbury, OME Banjos

Chuck Ogsbury, founder and builder of OME Banjos, started out musically playing guitar. “A poor teacher and a poor guitar ended my first attempt.” It wasn’t until he moved to Colorado in 1956 that he really got into playing music. He “came across a fellow frailing an open-back five-string banjo - I’d never seen that done before. It was hard to tell how he was getting all those notes out of that banjo. His name was Darius ‘Diz’ Darwin, a relative of Charles Darwin.” It was his friendship with Diz and another banjo player (Al Camp) that got Chuck playing the banjo.

Chuck says he "grew up intrigued by building with metal and wood and began learning vintage design techniques with those materials.” Later in college he “started picking up old instruments in the second-hand stores and pawn shops in the Denver area. I would bring these old beauties back up to Boulder, make them more playable if necessary and with a few lessons turn my engineering classmates on to playing guitar and banjo. This turned out to be a very fulfilling experience for me.”

He considers himself first and foremost a designer and builder. "That is what I really love to do. Building musical instruments is especially rewarding because of the music involved. Designing with sound adds another dimension that I have a special interest in. The banjo in particular is such a wonderful instrument to work with. Its construction allows for so many possibilities - just about anything goes.”

chuck ogsbury ome banjosThe Early Years
Chuck started building banjos about 1960. “One of the reasons I’ve been able to do it for so long is I do other things like designing and building buildings, like some mountain houses. And my partner and I do light industrial flex buildings for small businesses, really nice spaces. We build buildings that are environmentally friendly and we’ve had good luck doing that. I’ve been building solar cabins for fifty-some years in the mountains west of Boulder, CO. I go back and forth between doing that and building banjos and enjoying my life. We do quite a bit of traveling and outdoor stuff - that keeps my sanity. The music business is wonderful but it’s a hard way to make a living, especially building banjos and probably working in most music. I’ve been fortunate to get into this real estate building business too.”

These days Chuck is part-time at the banjo shop. “I go in cycles. When I first started building banjos in 1960, I worked sixty-plus hours for six years straight. I got really burned out. I sold the business and did other things. Later I got back into building instruments and my partners moved the business to Boulder. We’ve gone through a lot of changes, but life is change.”

The Return of ODE Banjos
Chuck’s youngest son Zen is now building his original line of banjos (ODE) which is “one of the favorite instruments of the folk revival era. In his first life as a maker Chuck produced around 1,900 ODE banjos, ranging from basic aluminum pot long-necks to fancy bluegrass models.” Zen (and his partner Zoe) are “building in the original shop which was built fifty years ago. I ended up getting the original ODE trademark back. Zen’s building the ODEs in a whole new line - the design is different but the name's the same.” (read more about the history of ODE here)

OME Banjos
Chuck’s daughter Tanya manages the business end of OME. “She works there with two thirty-year employees – Rich and Gustavo. Unfortunately, we’ve found it’s become difficult to produce banjos. Building banjos is more complex than building guitars. Getting parts, supplies and new help has become difficult.”

Nature Provides Inspiration
Chuck’s banjo designs are inspired by his love of the outdoors. “I do most of my designing in my head when I’m out in nature. Designing is a big part of what I do and bringing those designs to life. Banjos are a niche instrument, bluegrass being the biggest one in recent years. Bluegrass banjos are different than what young people are using right now (more of a folk-type of banjo) which is mostly where my music roots are."

“In the late ‘50s to the end of the last century, there was a lot of interest in Dixieland jazz (that’s a four-string banjo) and that’s a whole different world musically. Now you’re finding the tenor banjos used by Irish players getting more popular. Then you have the old-time music crowd who use the five-string open-back banjo, but it has more flexibility and it’s used by a lot of younger people. It’s also been nice to see a lot more women getting into playing the banjo. The banjo has got an interesting history tied into American culture. Music goes in cycles. I kind of go along with the cycles. I always come back with renewed interest. That’s why I’ve been able to do it for so long.”

Chuck is excited about revamping ODE. “I love what we’re doing with ODE. The four-string banjo for instance, they got very elaborate and fancy and bluegrass tended to get very fancy also. But the folk instruments are simpler. The crash of ’08 kind of devastated the high-end market. So people started creating instruments that were less expensive and simpler. Musically they would work just fine if they were designed and built right, but they cost a lot less. That’s primarily what we’re doing at ODE. There are a few small companies that make high-quality American instruments and we’re one of those. Where we go from here, who knows. We will see what happens.”  

Learn more about Chuck and his banjos visit OME and ODE.