Czechs are among the greatest lovers of bluegrass, says world-renowned banjo maker from Brdy

Rostislav Čapek

Rostislav Čapek is an internationally renowned instrument maker, who specialises in crafting banjos and mandolins for bluegrass musicians. A great fan of the genre, he also helped produce a Grammy nominated bluegrass album and regularly organises bluegrass concerts for american musicians in the Czech Republic.

The son of the famous musicians Jan “Krisťák“ Čapek and Jarka Čapková, Rostislav Čapek grew up around country music. However, despite being a capable banjo player himself, he chose to create instruments instead. The decision, he told Czech Radio, was inspired by his childhood experience.

“My dad founded [the legendary Czech country band] Schovanky. My mum played a five-string banjo and she may have actually been the first five-string banjo player in Europe, so there was no real escape for me from that music. However, it also meant that I didn’t really see my parents and that made me sad. I therefore decided to make instruments and try to be as good as possible in that craft.”

Photo: archive of Rostislav Čapek

In 1985, while still a student at the Arts School of Musical Instruments in Hradec Králové, he made his first five-sting banjo. The year is now also used as the founding date of his company Čapek Bluegrass & Jazz Instruments.

“I have been making instruments for over 30 years now, so I’ve made thousands of them since then. They are all around the world. I’ve made nearly 500 mandolins and around 2,000 to 2,500 banjos.“

Today, Čapek Bluegrass & Jazz Instruments sells its products all around the world. Rostislav Čapek says that they are especially popular in the Czech Republic and in the United States, where they are played by leading artists not just in the bluegrass genre.

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio

“As far as the American stars are concerned, Doyle Lawson has bought two mandolins from me, as well as 15-time Grammy Award winner Ricky Skaggs. Ned Luberecki, the 2018 Banjo Player of the Year, has a five string banjo from me. I’ve also made instruments for Andy Statman and Peter Rowan, a big legend who wrote songs for Joan Baez. David Wisman has a cute little mandolin banjo from me. These come to mind right now, but there are many more.

“When it comes to Czechs, actor, singer and composer Marek Eben has one of my instruments and, of course, the [famous country musician] Ivan Mládek has several instruments from me. My instruments are not just used by bluegrass musicians. For example, Czech big-beat bands Lucie or Kabát use them, as does [jazz and swing singer] Ondřej Havelka.”

Ivan Mládek | Photo: Rostislav Čapek

Aside from the US and Czechia, Čapek’s instruments have also found themselves in the hands of country musicians in Slovenia, Sweden, Norway, Germany, or the United Kingdom. In Taiwan, his mandolin is even used in the country’s grand orchestra.

The instrument maker says that it is meticulous attention to detail that plays the biggest role in crafting a good product.

“Knowing various relevant skills is also important of course, which is why we regularly travel to the United States – the birthplace of these instruments. I also make ukelele banjos, mandocellos and octave mandolins. Those are instruments used in orchestras. You don’t just have to play bluegrass with them. That said, most of the instruments that we make are intended for bluegrass music.”

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio

Bluegrass, he says, is a very popular music genre in the Czech Republic. Indeed, the country’s annual Banjo Jamboree is the oldest bluegrass festival in Europe.

In 2019, Čapek leveraged the popularity of the genre in his home country to invite bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his Quicksilver band to Prague. The album received a Grammy nomination a year later.

“For us it was a miracle. My wife Iva and I were credited as the producers of the album, but it goes beyond that. We came up with the whole thing. We persauded Doyle to be the first American bluegrass musician to record an album of that genre in the Czech Republic.

“However, we had no idea that it would end up being such a success. The CD was released here and in the United States and then we suddenly started to get these emails from leading people in showbuisness. We didn’t understand what they were congratulating us about, so my wife had a look at the Grammy nominations and we were there!

“We named the album ‘Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver: Live In Prague’. In America they added ‘Czech Republic’ to the name, to make it clear that it was recorded here in Europe.”

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio

The album ended up missing out on the Grammy award, but was awarded Album of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Awards.

“We didn’t win the Grammy, because Michael Cleveland, who is by the way also a fantastic violinist, released a new album that year and ended up getting the prize. However, half-a-year later, we got into what was for us an even more prestigous competition [organised by the International Bluegrass Music Association] for the best album of the year. Micheal Cleveland was there too, but we ‘beat’ him on that occasion. Doyle won the award and we were the producers of the album.”

Čapek says that bringing American bluegrass musicians such as Doyle Lawson to the Czech Republic has been a great pleasure for him and his wife.

“Not just for us, but also for the fans of bluegrass here. The Czech Republic is internationally unique in this respect.  No other country, except for the United States of course, has such a large bluegrass audience. People really understand this genre and that makes it possible for us to organise concerts like this.”

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio

The Czech craftsman and music producer says that it has become virtually impossible to bring American musicians across the pond in the times of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, one positive things that the frequent lockdowns have led to is Čapek being able to focus even more on making instruments. This, he says, resulted in one of the best banjos he ever made.

“Sometimes bad things also lead to good things. We got this request to build a five-string resophonic banjo for our friend and president of the Czech Bluegrass Association Petr Brandejs for his 50th birthday. Back then we were still planning to go to America, as we do several times every year, but then the pandemic came. However, it actually led to us putting even more work into the project and we ended up creating what I think could be one of the best resophonic banjos in the world. That was only possible, because we had the necessary time to do it.”

Asked about the average length of time that it takes him to make an instrument, the Czech instrument maker says that a Banjo usually takes around 2-3 months, while mandolins can require over a year of work.

Photo: Barbora Kvapilová,  Czech Radio

Despite his successes, Jaroslav Čapek insists that he is just a craftsman. However, he does say that some instruments can approach the category of a work of art, if they are beautifully decorated.

“For example, we have a banjo here that was the brainchild of a French designer. He asked us to build a five-string banjo for him and we agreed that we would incorporate his design into it. He is a lover of [Czech artist Alfons] Mucha and created a black-and-white Mucha-style layout for the fingerboard of the banjo. It’s absolutely beautiful and I think that was approaching a work of art. However, we ourselves as a company just focus on making the best quality instruments that work.”

A well known personality among Czech fans of bluegrass, Čapek and his wife also host their own show on Czech Republic’s Country Radio. Known as the Čapek show, or the “direct line from Nashville”, it features the duo interviewing leading American country musicians during their frequent visits to the US.

Born in Prague, Jaroslav Čapek now lives in the Central Bohemian hill range of Brdy, a place in the Czech countryside with which he says he formed a special relationship during his time in a Native American re-enactment club.