The Current's Guitar Collection: Kate Stables of This Is The Kit - Hobner guitar and zither banjo

This is the Kit perform in The Current studio
Kate Stables of This is the Kit performs in The Current studio (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
Kate Stables of This Is The Kit describes her guitar and zither banjo
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When Kate Stables and her band, This Is The Kit, visited The Current studio, Stables had what appeared to be a Hofner hollow-body guitar, and then another instrument that resembled a banjo but appeared to have six strings. After the session, Stables described the instruments she plays — and the facts were surprising and a lot of fun. Here's what she had to say.

Do you play a Hofner hollow-body guitar?

I'm afraid I don't! I play a Hobner. If you look closely at it, it's called a Hobner, and it's made in India. And it's sort of made of a cardboard-y material, and most people wouldn't go near it with a bargepole if they were into quality guitars.

But I love it! It plays really nicely. The neck is very lush. My dad picked it up at a [rummage] sale. But I changed the pickup — the pickup on it didn't really work, so there's a P-90 on it now. And I've got a weakness for one-pickup guitars. And that is now my dream: one pickup guitar.

So it was just a lucky find at a [rummage] sale?

Yes, lucky find at a [rummage] sale. He even found some weird other Hobner-related coincidences at subsequent boot sales, but I won't go into that.

Did your father know you were looking for a guitar, or did he phone you and say, 'Hey, look what I found'?

He just always buys whatever instruments he finds — and he didn't necessarily buy it with me in mind, but I loved it when I saw it and was so enthusiastic about it, he was like, 'Well, you might as well have it' because he didn't really need it. So I wonder if, technically, I swiped it off him!

Does he run an instrument shop?

No, he started mending instruments for a little second-hand shop in my hometown, but he doesn't run a shop. No, he just likes tinkering.

But yeah, basically, that is my best guitar now.

How long have you had it?

Maybe 15 years or something like that, I think. More than 12 … less than 16!

Having had it for so long, do you primarily write on this guitar?

Yeah, I often do, but I do like to try and write on different instruments I'm not so familiar with, because I feel like that brings out different sort of patterns and tendencies. It's quite easy to get settled into a groove and where your hand goes and stuff — I find that, anyway, with instruments I'm familiar with. So yeah, I try and write on other stuff sometimes; we've got a mixture of guitars at home because my husband [Jesse D. Vernon] plays as well. So it depends for writing.

How much do you and your husband collaborate on music?

There's times of separate projects, mainly because these days, one of us has to be at home to, like, make sure that our daughter goes to school and gets back and stuff! So he doesn't tour in the band any more; I think of him as being in the band, but he doesn't actually play much. But we do a lot of collaborating these days, mainly from his arrangement writing on the records and the live stuff — like, he'll write arrangements for horns and stuff — so that's the main way we collaborate these days. But yeah, over the years, we've done loads of different projects together. It's nice. That's one thing that I really enjoy, is being able to work with him on stuff.

On the machine head of the guitar, you've got a little peace icon.

Yeah, that's right. It's a little badge made by my friend Greg's mum. She's a Quaker, and during the time of the war in Iraq, they were doing protests and made those badges and I really loved it. So that lives under my strings now, on the headstock.

And then you have this instrument — it looks like a banjo, but does it have six strings?

It's another red herring — that one looks like a Hofner but it's a Hobner, and the banjo looks like a six-string but it's a five string. It's a zither banjo, and they sort of mass-produced them in the '20s and '30s in the U.K.

The machine heads come in strips of three, so there's six [tuning pegs] on there, but one of them is redundant. The nut at the top is designed for four strings, and the drone, instead of having a tuning peg halfway up the neck, goes in a tunnel and comes out at the headstock, so it's just a total standard five-string banjo in terms of tuning and playing, but it's very confusing to look at. It foxes a lot of people!

It's very much like a Windsor — I don't know if anyone's heard of Windsor banjos, but it's a zither banjo made in the U.K.

Kate Stables' zither banjo and Hobner guitar
Kate Stables' zither banjo and Hobner guitar in The Current studio. Emmet Kowler for MPR

And yours was made in the 1920s or '30s?

A banjo guy I met sort of diagnosed it as that. And this was actually a present from a friend; I think his grandmother had it in the attic and it wasn't getting used, and the skin was busted up, and the neck was all at a wrong angle. He knew I was into playing the banjo, so he gave it to me, and it's been my go-to guy ever since.

Something that was going on in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in American universities was there were a number of banjo orchestras. Given the age of this instrument, do you know if that was happening in the U.K., too?

I've got pictures of banjo orchestras from about that time. I've got a photograph of the Leyton Ladies Band, so I guess they were based in London, and there are all these amazing-looking women holding different types of banjo. So I think probably, but I'm not an expert, so I wouldn't be able to totally give you any historical source material!

Had you started performing and writing on this after receiving this, or had you been seeking out an instrument like this?

I'd been playing a bit of banjo because my dad had one, because he's got a few instruments rattling around. So I'd been playing a bit and really enjoying that. And then, ever since this one came my way, I've just been playing this one. It's really nice.

It's not too twangy. It sounds quite modest, if that's the right word. I find it so, any way.

Do you have anything else to say about these instruments?

They're old and fragile, so it's really difficult and stressful getting airplanes, but that's the same for any musician, I think! It's just a bit of a nightmare, but so far, they've survived.


This Is The Kit - official site

Hobner Guitars - Facebook fan site

What is a zither banjo? - via Creek Don't Rise™

Leyton Ladies Band, c. 1895 - via History in Pictures

The Current's Guitar Collection - complete archive

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