L.J. O’Shea Banjos (and other instruments) – living the dream

By Donna Vaughan

A man and his shed, need one say more? Hours of peaceful pottering and dreaming, pondering and figgerin’. Benches dotted with tools large and small, timber in a range of dimensions, and jigs. Jigs? Isn’t that a dance, or more specifically a tune for a dance? But no, these are specially designed devices used in the making of musical instruments. They come in various sizes and shapes, and they’re used at almost every stage of the building of stringed instruments. In fact there is a joke: how many luthiers does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but s/he will have to make at least two jigs and will take six months to do it.

One such happy man in his shed is Larry O’Shea, now living his dream of making stringed instruments in his custom-fitted shed in Canberra. It all started with bouzoukis in 2001, after buying one of Jack Spira’s, an octave mandolin. In fact, the plan was only ever to make bouzoukis, but that was before old-time American music entered his life, specifically on five-string banjos. Since then, Larry’s range has expanded to four- and five-string banjos, lap-steel parlour guitars and gourd banjos, with gourd banjoleles currently at the ‘figgerin’’ stage. The emphasis is on using Australian timbers and creating instruments with a mellow, woody tone and a ‘vintage’ finish, rather than looking like mass-produced instruments available in most music shops.

Gourd Face

Larry has given his instrument ranges names that reflect his Riverina roots. The Murrumbidgee range includes all the banjos: tenors, five-string, all open-backed, and gourds. In five-string instruments so far, he has produced short-necked A scale fretless, and fretless and fretted old-timey style banjos. Tenors come in both 20 and 22 inch scale length. Pre-American Civil War style gourd banjos are fretless and strung with nylgut strings.

The Goodradigbee range is the lap-steel parlour guitar, with some similarities to a mountain dulcimer, but having six strings, played with a steel slide and fitted with a pick-up. The shape is based on a guitar played by his father in the fifties, now on the wall in Larry’s shed. The Gininderra range includes most forms of bouzouki, aka octave mandolins, citterns, mandocellos and even a gourd Eastern-style bouzouki.

Gourd Back

Bouzoukis and banjos are endlessly variable in style. Having very large hands himself and a liking for thick heavy banjo necks, Larry understands that players have personal preferences for scale length, neck thickness and width, and welcomes requests for customised instruments.

Whilst lone shed work is very satisfying, it was through having a stall in the Instrument-Makers Pavilion at the National Folk Festival in 2013 that Larry met a number of other Canberra-based luthiers, some living surprisingly close by in Belconnen. Experiences are shared through regular dinners and visits to each other’s workshops. Partners/wives are not invited, but then we understand that this is men’s shed business and are happy to leave them to it.

Published with the title ‘Secret men’s shed business’ in Trad&Now magazine, vol. 13, no. 3 (March 2014).