When it comes to getting yourself a new musical instrument, there are generally two paths you can take. You can pick up something factory-made (generic and reliable), or you can buy a handmade product with no true duplicate. The latter instrument won’t look or feel “standard,” not for a second. The difference is in the details — tiny quirks envisioned by the artist who made the piece, an artist who dared create sound where there once was none. It’ll be riddled with odd nuances, but it will have a story.
Tom Larsen has known stories (and music) his whole life. His family passed down songs the way other families hand down heirloom silver. He was also raised to love woodworking, which he learned from his grandfather.
“My first job was working for my grandpa,” Larsen recalls. “He taught me how to use tools and work the saws.”
This dual-heritage sparked a love for both music and craftsmanship in young Larsen. In his mind the equation was obvious: wood working + music = making instruments. He became a luthier and the banjo his instrument of choice.
There’s something magically bucolic and subtly sophisticated about the banjo. What instrument is more quintessentially American? It scratches that lizard-brain itch to spark up a campfire, tell stories, sing songs, and pick errant notes with friends gathered close.
To see a Larsen banjo is to understand love at first sight. There’s the soft wood finish, the slightly mussed brass hardware, the opaque skins, and the neck inlaid with songbirds and sparrows. But this art takes time. Larson is no factory. He cares. He deliberates over every aspect of the instrument and makes sure to attend to every detail.
Every step of the way, each piece must have a story. One of Larsen’s favorite banjos was made with his father-in-law in Slovakia, from tree his wife played under as a child. That’s a uniqueness no factory-made instrument could ever hope to replicate. That’s a story you can tell around the campfire while picking a good tune.
Of course, the path of the artist who cares deeply about details has never been an easy one. Larsen still has to hustle to make ends meet, working a full-time day job in food safety. His passion for banjos is relegated to nights and weekends. But that hustle, and the strain on his time, doesn’t discourage Larsen. He remains focused on his art.
“The most fun part about building is being able to take these natural materials that are all around us and piecing them together in a way that produces a sound that I love,” he says. It’s an endless pursuit, but a deeply rewarding one.