"What the heck IS that thing?" was my initial reaction when I first saw Scott Vestal playing one of his Stealth banjos. It didn't look like anything I'd ever seen before, but it sounded awfully good. I was confused, but everyone else seemed to know what it was, and I didn't want to display my ignorance, so I didn't ask. I have since found out what it is, played one, and bought one for myself.
Despite its modern appearance, the Stealth is really just a regular banjo. It has all the parts, they have just been rearranged. Scott designed the neck, inspired by an old English zither banjo that someone gave him. The fifth string runs through a brass tube underneath the fingerboard from the fifth fret to the headstock, where it reemerges and is tuned with a tuner there. The peghead is designed to look sleek, and that it does, providing an unbroken visual line all the way up the neck. Further contributing to the visual effect is the absence of inlays. Scott has been heard to say that this is because he wanted to be like Tony Rice. In any case, there are dots on the side of the neck, so you won't be completely lost. Playing the Stealth is an exciting experience. Having no inlays made me trepidant at first, but once I got used to looking at the side of the neck for clues I was off and running. It is very easy to play, having an arched fingerboard and fairly low action. The string spacing is wider than on most banjos, which takes a little getting used to, but leaves room to maneuver and is good if you have large fingers. The unbroken expanse of neck is very liberating. It emphasizes the fact that all the frets are there to be used, not just the first three and the 9th, 10th, and 11th. It inspired me to try and use all those in-between frets. As always, the sound is the most important thing. It really sounds wonderful. Scott uses Curtis McPeake tone rings in each banjo, and assembles the pots himself. The Stealth is very responsive, especially in the low-to-mid range, with a strong warm sound sure to please.
When I debuted my banjo at IBMA this year, I got many compliments on how it sounded. The tone is clear with good separation between notes. It has a lot of sustain but no overtones so it mikes very well. It really cuts through and reveals every nuance and subtlety present in your playing. Scott sets each banjo up personally with a 3/4" Snuffy Smith bridge curved to match the radius of the fingerboard, and a Presto tailpiece.
The neck and resonator on mine are made of walnut, the resonator of a particularly beautiful piece of burled walnut that is a joy just to look at. The banjos are also offered in mahogany for all you mahogany types and I feel confident that they sound just as good. The mahogany Stealth lists for $2500, and in walnut, $2600, with a hardshell case which is a great deal for a high quality banjo which sounds this good. Give one a try. You will be pleasantly surprised, and you'll certainly make a splash at your next jam session when everyone asks you, "What the heck IS that thing?"