Even without Scott Vestal's creative musicianship, his Stealth Banjo would be noticed immediately, with it's unique and stark yet elegant appearance, as well as for it's incredible tone. Enough banjo players asked him about it that he decided to make some available.
With the final set up in mind, Scott added the old English zither banjo 5th string tunnel and peghead tuner, a comparatively shorter scale compound radius arched fretboard, and different neck heel-to-pot position and angle to the basic Mastertone banjo platform.
Each Stealth banjo is hand made, one at a time, from the fit of the Curtis McPeake Kulesh model flathead tone ring and cast zinc flange on the 3 ply rock maple shell to the neck heel angle-to-pot fit through Scott's final setup and approval. With around 30 Stealths sold, Scott has noticed a high level of consistency between them, with not much sonic difference even between the mahogany and walnut models. The neck is repositioned on the pot with the heel angle cut to allow the arched 3/4'' bridge to provide very low action. "This is a key to the Stealth's tone and consistency; it's much more important than most players realize," says Scott. The neck is the same length as most banjos, but the fretboard scale is shorter by 1/2'' which moves the bridge position closer to the center of the head, having an obvious effect on tone.
The minimalistic appearance is radical by traditional banjo standards. Scott and his luthier Robuin Smith (of Heartland Guitars) wondered just how strong the seemingly petite peghead was, so they put one in a vise and "it took quite a bit of pressure to break it!" The truss rod is accessible through a hole in the peghead that is just big enough to admit the special truss rod wrench (included) if adjustment is needed. The hole is so unobjectionable that there's not even a truss rod cover. "Form following function" seems to determine the aesthetics.
I was always impressed by the fullness and clarity that came through the microphone and/or pickup when I heard Scott play the Stealth in several musical situations in several different venues inside and out over the last two years. This wasn't preparation enough for playing it myself. Physically, the Stealth could be the easiest playing banjo I've ever tried. While the string spacing is close to "standard Mastertone" at the nut, it is wider than most banjos at the bridge; just over 2''. The arched fretboard is compounded to different radii as the string spacing widens up the neck (16'' radius on lower frets; 22'' radius from frets 16-22) to compensate for finger posture. For the left hand, this felt roomy to me but not like a noticeable reach, while the shorter scale makes long stretches a little closer. For the right hand, it gave more room for inside picking patterns. The 16:1 tuners kept it in tune and made fine tuning easier. The intonation was flawless. It's a loud banjo with a very rich and bassy fourth string. Balance is very good string to string as well as fret to fret up the neck, and the treble notes are very sweet. I found sustain to be plentiful, clear, and very enjoyable, making some passages easier to play, especially when involving hammer-ons. This sustain and volume remain strong as you play up the neck making the instrument "feel" easier to play. The sustain is not muddy since as Scott says, the fundamentals are stronger at the expense of "wolf tone" (low end)type overtones. It's a very clear and bright yet full tone, balanced with lots of bottom end.
Personally, I liked the absence of fretboard markers (no inlays; side dots only). Now that I have played the Stealth, I realize that other banjo's markers can be somewhat distracting. The absence of the standard fifth string tuner seemed to add to this new freedom; I found myself paying attention to the tone and how my left hand fretted the strings for consistent sound and concentrating on what I wanted to play, not where I was playing it.
The Stealth is available in mahogany at $2,500 or walnut at $2,600 (hardshell case included, shipping and insurance added to that). It can be ordered from Scott directly, Bill Stokes at Showcase, or from John Lawless at AcuTab, and a deposit is required to place an order. Delivery varies with an average of 4-6 weeks from receipt of deposit. Each Stealth is signed, numbered, and personally set up by Scott with Remo head, 11/12/13/22/11 D'Addario strings, exclusive Stealth model Snuffy Smith bridge, and 5th string capo spikes at A, Bb and B.
"I'm always available to take care of problems for owners down the road," says Scott. "I'm open to custom orders, and I imagine that the Stealth will evolve as I change it to suit my playing. This really is a signature instrument because it's exactly what I play everyday; this is all I play now."