Bob Rock Banjos
Ask any Bedford County native about banjo history and you will hear the name Bob Rock. He was a true “hammer and anvil” blacksmith in Ashcom, a small town between Everett and Bedford. As I interviewed many folks about Bob, it always brought smiles to their faces as they remember their time spent with him. Most speak about his skills to fix most any metal item and make something out of whatever he had lying around. People gladly put aside their rushed lives to reminisce of the many stories and tales about Bob. They would talk about how he ran everywhere he went, once running home from Fox Motors on the north side of Bedford after dropping off his car for work there. His charisma drew people to simply stop by his workshop and chat. Bob always had a smile and a story, and considered by most as a local folk hero.
Born in 1906, Bob Rock built hundreds of “Rock Wagons” (farm wagons for bales of hay) and dump carts (to pick rocks off the fields before planting) for the local farmers. He started making banjos around the early 1950’s. In his 94 years of life, Bob made slightly over 800 banjos, with his son having the last one he crafted. The majority of the banjos were arched-top resonator 5-strings. There were reportedly 20-30 tenor banjos and a very few of them with resonators. He also made a few 5-string open backs. There are 3 known child’s short scale banjos, one of which is left handed. There is evidence of him making some necks for existing pots and a few necks that were never installed. Bob kept a book of names of who bought his banjos, but it doesn’t have how many of each style or inlay pattern.
Bob did several patterns, but the most interesting is the Big Chief peghead and Indian inlay pattern. I’ll add more about these patterns at a later date. He had his tone rings poured in Derry Pennsylvania then turned them to size on his lathe. They were aluminium and all arch top. They made very loud banjos that had more treble but less bass and sustain than the normal bell bronze purchased tone rings. His necks are laminated, often with contrasting strips of stained pear wood showing on the back of the necks. Two prominent features to confirm you have a “Rock Banjo” are the hooked handstop and the anvil inlay on the 7th fret. I’m working on compiling a list of current Rock Banjo owners and interesting stories about Bob, so please help me by sending any info to me.
Another person in Bedford County banjo history is Eugene “Corky” Wirick, Bob Rock’s nephew. He moved from Florida back to Bedford County after retiring. Corky had learned to play 8 years earlier and started to build his first one in Bob’s shop. The first ones were pretty much like Bob’s banjos, but started to evolve over time. This was due to most of his customers already knew how to play, and desired the Gibson bluegrass sound in the banjos that were being custom made for them. The name Corky gave his banjos was “Woodsong”. As the wood boards come to be a banjo, the music comes forth. He made 142 banjos over the years of which about 10 were tenors and 10 open backs. Some were shipped to Germany, Australia, British Columbia and Canada. He finished his last one in the spring of 2009 while taking time to show me how to do the specific steps.
Corky laminated his necks with metal bars and epoxy for strength until the last 8 years when he changed to adjustable truss rods which the customers desired. Another advantage of a Woodsong Banjo was the option of any artwork in the inlays the customer desired. He’s done a tractor for a farmer, wrenches and a rollback for a mechanic, Maple leaves for a customer in Saskatchewan.
After returning to Bedford, Corky started playing with the band “Allegheny” with Connie Claycomb, Dave Miller, and Kevin Mallow. They played at Fall Foliage Festival for several years. His most fun (and also most requested) song was “Dueling Banjos”, while his personal favorite is “Dear Old Dixie”. When asked about his playing, he said “the best part of making music is that something happens once you play with the same people for a while and you get the right components.” He further explained that the group’s music starts to “click” the longer they play together. The group gets into the “groove” and the music flows effortlessly (my words of his explanation.) Corky now spends his time making sculptures and turkey hunting. He can often be seen happily visiting with friends at Wendy’s over a Frostie, or at Landmark Restaurant with an apple dumpling.
I have not located anybody further back than Bob Rock in my banjo history investigation. I am aware of several people, including John Dively, who have made banjos for themselves and friends, but not to the extent of Bob and Corky. If you know of more Bedford County banjo history, please pass it on to me.