John “JD” Dennis ’79 crafted functional art all his life. Then, he found his passion for creating banjos.
By Robyn Rime
Fun fact: You can create a superb musical instrument without knowing how to play a single note.
John “JD” Dennis ’79—co-founder of Hickory Street Banjo and maker of sought-after hand-crafted banjos—is emphatically, unabashedly, not a musician.
“Nope, not at all,” he says with a grin.
Which probably explains why Dennis didn’t start making instruments until later in life. Most of his professional career has been spent instead making just about everything else—from ceramic vessels to urban clocktowers to interactive educational displays.
Whatever he makes is as much art as craft, as beautiful as it is functional. For Dennis, craftsmanship is about a careful, thoughtful process; artistry is found in the one-of-a-kind details.
“I enjoy learning how to handle different materials and make them work artistically,” Dennis says. “It’s about problem-solving, not about one medium or one way of doing things. Once you learn how a material behaves—whether it’s wood or metal or clay—you can use it in different ways.”
A strong desire to work with his hands—and NOT to go to work every day in a sport coat and tie like his engineer father—led Dennis to a double major at Geneseo in technical theatre and studio art. He loved the challenges of building cool sets (“How do you make it rain onstage?”), of throwing ceramic pots on a wheel, of seeing a vision and making it real.
Bringing visions to life was practically part of his position description at what is now the Strong National Museum of Play, where Dennis worked for two decades building exhibitions during the institution’s transition from a museum of material culture to a museum of play.
“My job was to interpret the ideas of exhibition designers and make them into something that 500,000 kids could play on and not destroy,” he says.
How did a builder of pretend taxi cabs for children become a maker of exquisite musical instruments? The way Dennis tells it, it was part artistic curiosity, part professional challenge. One day, he says, his longtime friend David Frenzel went to a workshop to make a mountain banjo, “and he came back with a really crappy banjo and asked for my help.”
Their skills dovetailed, and as maker and musician, Dennis and Frenzel work well together. Their inaugural banjo was eventually purchased by award-winning banjo player Ben “Benny Bleu” Haravitch, and hearing it played for the first time was an epiphany for Dennis.
“The Zen of making things was always my gig,” he says. “I’d finish a project and be on to the next one. Now, for the first time, I experienced someone making magic with something I created. Dave and I looked at each other and said, why wouldn’t we do this?”
And Hickory Street Banjo was born.
Making banjos is very different than, say, throwing pots or building sets. “With pottery, stuff isn’t made to keep—all ceramics break eventually,” Dennis says. “With theatres and museums, you strike the set, you take down the exhibition, and the work is gone. You can’t get invested in the end product, so it’s always more about the process.”
Creating banjos has upended Dennis’s vision, shifting it from process to product, and the pair has finished 11 banjos in the past five years. Dennis claims to give every project 110 percent, but that estimate sounds low to those who work with him. “JD has a standard of excellence that not many people aspire to,” says Frenzel. “But that level of precision and attention to detail is exactly what it takes to create a fine instrument.”
Making a banjo is only half the job, of course. Making it sound good is the other half. “You have to play them in,” says Frenzel, whose musically educated ear can detect the differences between the warmer sound of a cherry banjo and the brighter tones of one made from maple.
“I’ve learned that instruments are meant to be played, they NEED to be played,” says Dennis. “The more they’re played, the better they sound. I don’t understand it, but it’s part of the magic.”
No, he may not be a musician, and making music may always feel mysterious to him. But any musician will tell you they are only as good as the instrument they use—and making THAT kind of magic is something Dennis understands very, very well.