This remarkable banjoist was born in Somerville, New Jersey on December 30, 1878. On his father's side, he was a descendant of early Dutch settlers in New York's Mohawk Valley. His mother's lineage began in America with the emigration in the 1600s of a man named Hansen from Bergen, Norway. His name was erroneously given as "Van Epps" at the turn of the century by Edison's company. In the early 1920's, he began the making of his Van Eps Recording Model Banjo and received custom orders. The June 1921 issue of Talking Machine World states, "A new instrument firm to be known as the Van Eps-Burr Corp. has been formed under the laws of the State of New York with a capital of $50,000. The incorporators are H.H. McClaskey [Burr], M.T. Kirkeby and F. Van Eps." The Van Eps Recording Banjo was modeled after the one he used in his recording and concert work. It had an aluminum resonator with a sound hole in the head, which was made of calfskin. He spent much time marketing and promoting the banjo, which remained on the market until around 1930. By then electric recording had become nearly universal and the loud volume produced by his model was no longer necessary.
Despite competition from such accomplished banjoists as Ossman, Ruby Brooks (a member of the vaudeville team of Brooks and Denton), and the banjo duo of Cullen and Collins, Van Eps' cylinders sold well. He supplemented his income by teaching and playing with local orchestras. Edison company literature often gives his name as Van Epps. In 1900, a New York City musical instrument dealer, John A. Haley, reprinted a letter by the banjoist which endorsed Haley's products and he signed the letter "Fred F.Van Epps, Banjoist. Studio, 60 Westervelt Avenue."
Though Van Eps made his last 78 rpm records for Grey Gull in 1927, he continued to give banjo lessons during the 1930s. In the 30 years Van Eps had already been recording, he had managed to produce hundreds of individual titles that may well number over a thousand issues.
According to Heier and Lotz's The Banjo on Record: A Bio-Discography, the instrument was falling out of favor with the general public and he eventually could no longer earn a living as a musician. In the 1950s he attempted a recording comback. In the April 1952 issue of Hobbies, Walsh announced, "Mr. Van Eps,...whose address is R.D. 2, Plainfield, New Jersey, has made a new album of six recordings, which he is issuing under the 'Five String Banjo' label. Accompaniments are by his son, Robert, a brilliant pianist....If this album meets with the success it deserves he undoubtedly will issue others. Meanwhile, he has a large business, manufacturing radio equipment at Plainfield." The recordings were made in 1950, followed by more. Heier and Lotz state, "In 1956 Fred Van Eps recorded an LP...that was issued on his own '5 String Banjo' label." This recording made his 59-year recording activity one of the longest in history. Although in sheer technical terms Van Eps surpassed Ossman -- Van Eps could play 14 notes in a second -- many ragtime fanciers preferred the crude muscularity of Ossman's performances. Van Eps also never approached the harmonic complexity of his younger contemporary Harry Reser, and unlike Reser had no interest in sinking into the texture of a jazz band, preferring to work primarily as a soloist.
Van Eps died in Burbank, California on November 22, 1960, at the age of 85.