The D.C. Ramey Banjo Orchestra was built using parts from older machines, including a banjo from the extremely rare Englehardt Banjorchestra. A piano was used from a Seeburg KT Special (copied from an original Seeburg). A new tracker scale was incorporated as well, reproducing the Western Electric roll frame with 100 keys, nine to the inch. The larger tracker bar allows for greater use of the piano, such that melody and accompaniment are better exploited. The Rameys built the box for the machine out of quarter-sawn white oak (a style of cutting the wood that better preserves the grain and makes for stronger wood, but is more wasteful than flat sawing. They are more resistant to warping and shrinkage.)
Art Reblitz, a prominent name in the automatic industry world, designed the rolls specifically for the machine using a MIDI system. For production, the O.S. Kelly foundry casts the piano plates – the only foundry in the U.S. still making such pieces. One major update on the new machines from the originals built in 1915 is that, instead of a single-belt system to run it, a variable speed friction drive system has been incorporated. As of 2009, 25 Ramey Banjo-Orchestras were produced (three of which featured a mahogany cabinet), as of 2016 there were thirty produced, with the thirtieth one selling for $78.000.
Dave Ramey, Sr. founded his company in 1955, with the vision to restore old-time nickelodeons. In 1978, he began manufacturing new automatic musical instruments with his reproduction “Encore” Automatic Banjos. They proved more popular than he had anticipated and it remains in production to this day. His son, Dave Junior, went to art school for scene design, but returned to the family business during the summers. He never made it to the theater, since he continues to keep the company going full time with one full-time employee.
The Rameys made their first Banjo Orchestra in 1994, inspired by the design of a machine made in 1914 for which no known examples survive. The Banjo Orchestra displayed at the American Treasure Tour is one of the earliest machines Ramey constructed. These are custom ordered and hand made (ours comes from a senior center that had theirs on display for a number of years). Anyone can order their own Banjo Orchestra off the Ramey Piano Company website, but do not expect it to be ready for immediate pick up. It takes one thousand man hours to make the mechanism for the machine, and another thousand man hours to make the case for it. The machine is neo-classical in design. The majority of the thirty machines are currently in private collections across the world. One is on display at a Columbus, Indiana ice cream parlor.
The machine has a multiplex unit that allows the playing of all forty-four banjo notes, sixty-one piano notes, and all the other instruments. The banjo is very similar to a ‘plectrum banjo.’ It is a four-string banjo tuned with C, G, B, D, from lowest to highest open string notes. An “open” string is a string sounded without any fret stops pressed down on it. Each string has ten fret stops. The banjo head is new, and there are more holes in the tracker bar dedicated to the banjo than there was in the original.