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Banjo Invasion

JohnInKansas 21 May 04 - 05:56 PM
JohnInKansas 21 May 04 - 05:58 PM
JohnInKansas 21 May 04 - 06:02 PM
Amos 21 May 04 - 08:23 PM
JohnInKansas 21 May 04 - 08:51 PM
Lin in Kansas 21 May 04 - 09:00 PM
Amos 21 May 04 - 09:38 PM
GUEST,BIG ANDY 22 May 04 - 04:00 AM
JohnInKansas 22 May 04 - 05:23 AM
bigchuck 22 May 04 - 08:44 AM
JohnInKansas 22 May 04 - 01:07 PM
Amos 22 May 04 - 02:45 PM
JohnInKansas 22 May 04 - 04:51 PM
Lin in Kansas 22 May 04 - 05:17 PM
Amos 22 May 04 - 05:44 PM
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Subject: Banjo Invasion
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 21 May 04 - 05:56 PM

The Background (mostly):

When my former employer informed me I was too old to learn anything new (exact words – to "justify" not giving me a raise I very much deserved) I got ticked off and took an early retirement.

I told them I was going to quit and go learn to play the mandolin.

After a half dozen years, SWMBO says "They were right, weren't they?"

Mostly, to prove that she just did not appreciate the progress(?) I had made, I got myself a fiddle, and after I had practiced diligently for , …oh, maybe six or seven hours, … it was requested by all in the immediate vicinity, and from some fairly remote places, that I return to playing my 'beautiful music on the mandolin."

The next time I found my "beautiful mandolin playing" mildly disparaged (%#@$ guitar bangers!), I made the offhand remark "just wait 'till I get my banjo."

Although I received much encouragement, probably based mostly on the hope of getting me to quit playing my mando, I managed to avoid actually getting "my banjo" by insisting that I wanted a four string (which I knew were harder to find around here) and by insisting on "waiting 'till I find a real bargain."

Well dark clouds gathered and burst upon me. My son, the fingerpickin' pot-bellied bald-headed ex-truck-driver motorcyle mechanic, decided he wanted to play the banjo! He traded in a rather nice Gibson guitar (he has several others, so no real problem) and showed up with a pretty decent 5-string banjo a week or so ago. Later, he informed me that "Cliff wouldn't dicker on the price, but I got something to boot," and presented me with my very own semblance of a 4-string banjo.

I'M GIFTED(??????)

The point (sort of):

I've got it, now what is it?

Do they really expect me to play it, or are they just trying to see if I'll embarrass myself in public?

More to come.


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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 21 May 04 - 05:58 PM

Brief description of the new toy is:

4-strings, open back (no resonator), woodwork is all "blond," minimal inlay work.

About 21 inch string length (bridge to nut) although I haven't checked the bridge position and it seems to be a little off. I'm guessing about 20 5/8 inches would put it in better tune.

17 frets. Fingerboard stops at the head ring – no extension.

Neck appears to be very straight, although one or two frets are lifted under the top string (15th and maybe 16th frets).

Head may not be evenly tensioned, but appears to be in good shape. About 10.75 inches (inside diameter of the ring). 20 Clamps. The head looks like hide(?) but I haven't had a chance to look too closely.

Ungeared friction tuners, seem to want to slip but are probably adjustable/fixable? I haven't brought it "up to tune" so they may be about right once there's more string tension.

Strings are "in place" but that's about the only compliment I can give them. Replacement due. I don't get good intonation with a G-D-A-E "Irish" tuning, but they seem to be about right at C-G-D-A. (Suspicion is that the low string is a "salvage" from an electric guitar.)

All the joints seem tight, and no scars except a smallish chip/scratch at the top of the peghead.

Original(?) case is/was "cardboard," and came in 4 or 5 pieces, with some gaps if you try to fit them together. Even duct tape probably won't make this one usable.

Bridge appears to be new, "in the white" single piece with no inserts. Possibly not original, although I can't find a current luthier that sells one without inserts – with the exception of a couple of "$40-magic" ones made all of exotic woods. This is $2 one.

I haven't determined what's very slight corrosion and what's just dirt on the rest of the hardware, but there's little of either.

No sign of wear on the wood finish, so the instrument has had very little use.

The only markings are on the back of the peghead: "T B Co, Sterling, Trade Mark" in a sort of "heart shaped" outline with a "lady's head" at the top. The tailpiece (adjustable) is marked "Grover Patent Presto." (Presto in flowery script.)

Obviously a Tenor Banjo, but that's about the limit of the findings from the "physical inspection."


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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 21 May 04 - 06:02 PM

What I've found so far:

(Note that I'm mainly researching this as a means of putting off those who expect me to play the thing. I really need to do the research before I start the setup.

Neither T.B. Co nor Sterling turned up much useful on first search. There are too many "sterling performances" and too much (banjo related) "sterling jewelry," both associated with things payable in "pounds sterling."

A connection from info on Cubley banjos turned up an example:

"This dowel stick is stamped "STERLING", a trade name of the Tonk Brothers of Chicago indicating that this instrument was probably built by Cubley for sale by them."

(The above "built by them" is in reference to the example, not to mine.)

Unfortunately, mine is apparently not a "Cubley." The Cubly banjoes do seem to be known and somewhat in demand; but further digging led to the information that Cubley was not active after about 1890 (one site says 1888, another 1893) and they were still using wooden clamp rings then, at least on the samples I could find.

The Tonk Brothers, probably the "T B Co" on my prize, were apparently not instrument makers, but were marketers/sellers only. At least one site indicates that "Sterling" was a brand name they used from 1880 to 1940. (They may also have "owned" the Washburn name briefly, but that's a side trip.)

A "banjo tailpieces" site identifies the "Grover Patent Presto" tailpiece as "often used on mid-priced to better banjos," and implies probably a 1920 – 1940 era piece, but doesn't actually give a date range. There was an earlier "Grover Patent," and the same tailpiece sold as the "Presto" was also sold with marking as the "Presto Ideal." Again with no dates, so I don't know whether the two were sold at the same time, or if adding the "Ideal" was a sequential change. It's also not evident whether the "Presto" was a new patent, or just a different configuration based on the earlier one.

The "Sterling" brand name indicates (probably) 1880 to 1940. The "Presto" tailpiece possibly puts it after 1920 or so, although this is sort of "fuzzy." So I guess I probably have a 1920 – 1940 instrument.

I suspect that the friction tuners were pretty much supplanted on all but the cheapest banjos sometime before 1940, which might narrow the range or put it back a little further, but I haven't found anything very definite there.

Any one have info or opinions on when the geared pegs were common? (Or more specifically, when the friction pegs became uncommon. Are they still used?)

I actually have little need to know any more about this thing than what I've already found; but any (constructive) comments would be welcome. It never hurts to know something about the reputation of a new "sweetheart," before the last and final commitments are made. Right now I intend to try to clean it up a little so I can start torturing the livestock.


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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: Amos
Date: 21 May 04 - 08:23 PM


Congratulations!! I am sure you'll be making in no time.


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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 21 May 04 - 08:51 PM

Actually, Amos, for the last two weeks I've managed to stall anything too painful by pretending I have to make a case for it before I can go "consult with my banjo experts." The situation is getting somewhat desperate, however; as I believe I've managed to use almost every tool I own (the main thrill in building things) so I may have to actually finish it up fairly soon - unless I can think of a new tool that I really need (and can pretend is necessary to this project.)

I managed to get a couple of days out of the short circuit in my "bender," (sparks and smoke). My jury-rig thermostat hung up, overheated, and burned the insulation of a couple of wires - not too hard to understand since it's been about 6 years since I turned it on. And of course bending particle board for the case isn't quite like making sides for a new guitar...

The tuners cleaned up fairly well just by taking them apart and brushing out the bores (.22 pistol brush works just about right). The tuning is very sensitive with the slack strings I get when it's tuned down to "Irish," but I've found a set of possibly decent strings so I'll see if I can get it to "banjo tolerance" in-tune once I get them on - before looking at geared machines.

Intonation is way "off on" the first fret low string, but seems ok everywhere else. Of course I don't want to adjust the nut until I've got it restrung with proper size strings. The raised frets knocked back down nicely, and only took a "bare touch" with a file.

I figure at least a week talking to all my local experts about what fine shape it's in, before they can pin me down to actually trying to play something, but of course eventually I'm gonna run out of excuses. Anyone got any new ones?


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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: Lin in Kansas
Date: 21 May 04 - 09:00 PM


Don't let him "string" you along like that. He's enjoying this whole thing immensely, and the homemade case is a true work of art. The bald-headed truck driver motorcycle mechanic is going to be bragging about the "find" he made for Dad for a long, long time, I think!

Lin (looking forward [yes, really] to actually hearing the thing)

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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: Amos
Date: 21 May 04 - 09:38 PM

Well, you're probably a high-school graduate, so counting 1-4-5 is not gonna cut it as an excuse. Unless you pretend to be doing it in binary, and have trouble finding the 10th and 11th notes on the scale...


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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
Date: 22 May 04 - 04:00 AM

Yep I did something like that started off on the mandolin. (Have you noticed that your other half starts turning the telly up and making as much noise as possible when your practicing, and giving out little chuntering sounds.) But years later I'm getting paid to play with bands.
          So imagine our lasses surprise when I bet her home from work one day, to find a 5-string banjo. Ho yes there were tears that day. I didn't think she'd be that pleased, the way she looked at it broke down and fled upstairs
Cant wait to see her face when I get my bag pipes

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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 22 May 04 - 05:23 AM

I'm beginning to think I'm about to run out of excuses, so I may have to actually start trying to get the new toy set up. I've done a little bit of fiddlin' with the tuners, and I think I've got the tension about where it will hold and I can still turn them.

With the strings that are on it, it's a long ways out off good intonation when I tune it down to GDAE where I'd like to use it. The low string is about 3/4 tone off on the first fret. Tuned up to CGDA it's about where it should be, although I think the bottom string is still a little slack. I'll get some matched strings on in a few days and see what happens.

The case has turned out quite nicely, except for a fair bit of "fur" that raised up under the paint job. Particle board (high tech cardboard) just doesn't finish like real wood.

The decoupage turned out pretty nice except for a few pieces that apparently swelled a little when I started the cover coats. I had to do some pretty tricky glue injection to get one of the naked ladies stuck back down without breaking the top coat. (I figure the case decorations are worth a few hours discussion with my consultants, before I have to start trying to play.)

Our local faux-Irish group is supposed to be going to the campground for Memorial weekend, so maybe I'll get enough together to take it out. (But I think I'll still take my mando, just in case someone needs some proper annoyin'.)


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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: bigchuck
Date: 22 May 04 - 08:44 AM

John, sounds like fun. If you want to pursue "Irish" or octave mandolin tuning you'll find that heavier gauge strings are pretty much a necessity. Try to find a GHS Octave Mandolin set, they ought to work pretty well, and they'll give you 2 sets for the price of one. Have you measured to set the bridge position yet? That could be the cause of some of your intonation problems. Also the head needs to be fairly taut to give good results. Have fun.


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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 22 May 04 - 01:07 PM

bigchuck -

My local suppliers didn't have octave mando strings or, of course, the "G" tenor banjo strings that I understand can be found. I was surprised, in fact, that I didn't have too much trouble finding a set of tenor banjo strings for standard tuning.

The option I plan to try first is to use the low three from the standard tenor banjo, moved over one step, with a heavier string on the low position. I was shooting for a low string at about .042 inch, but the closest I could get in a good match to the rest of the set was .040. That should be close enough to tell whether I can get by with the nut slot as it is, or if I'm going to have to lower that bottom string a little.

I may have to open up all of the slots, bridge and nut, when I move the strings, since the slots seem to be good fit (tight width) for the strings in standard position. I may want to replace the bridge. I suspect that the original fell out and got lost in someone's closet, and whoever put the new one on cut the slots deeper to get the string height instead of shaving the feet.

The bridge position that someone had marked with pencil on the head was about a quarter inch off. I've moved the bridge to where it gives a true octave fret on all strings; but I haven't changed the marks since the best spot may change when I get the "right" strings on. With the existing strings, it would take a lot of angle on the bridge to compensate the low frets on that bottom string. I don't think it will need much, if any, compensation with strings at proper tension.

Head tension looks good as is, at least for now. I'd guess that the dealer adjusted it - or had one of his "banjo buddies" do it when one wandered into the store.

The biggest change I may consider is replacing the straight tuners with a geared set. Tuning is pretty "twitchy" with the straight ones, and my ear isn't good enough to "hit" the spot easily with the 1:1 twist. Since a decent set of geared tuners is probably about as much as the banjo is worth, I'll probably try living with what's there for a while, and ride on the tradition that the two states of a banjo are "tuning" and "out of tune." (But I don't own a three-piece suit, and I refuse to get one.)


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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: Amos
Date: 22 May 04 - 02:45 PM

I reckon you'll save yourself all kinds of hassles going for geared tuners, John. Besides it's a good excuse not to play for a while yet...


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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 22 May 04 - 04:51 PM

Well Amos, at least you got the point of all this.

I do have a set of geared banjo tuners that I got from a junk box at a festival. I originally intended to use them on another lap dulcimer. I suppose I could slip them in - pending a benefactor or a lottery win to finance a good set; but I haven't really checked the junkers out to see why McSpadden was selling them for 90% off.

I suppose a thorough performance analysis and testing could maybe keep me off the strings for a month or two(?). Of course I might need to build some "test fixtures" and possibly acquire some "precision measurement instruments," so I might be forced to get some new tools if I "try to use the old ones."

Tough decisions to make.

Actually, I have sort of tried it out a bit, but it's inconvenient to have to sneak it out when no one is around, and the stocking cap pulled down over my face is kind of warm with the weather we've been having.


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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: Lin in Kansas
Date: 22 May 04 - 05:17 PM

Now wait just a darned minute! What do you mean, you need some new tools???!!!!! I went along with the "you can never have too many clamps" excuse, but you're going to have to come up with a REALLY good one this time.

Actually, JIK, why don't you consider building your new tools? That should add another couple months to the lag time...


Lin (the garage has started to overflow into my craft room!)

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Subject: RE: Banjo Invasion
From: Amos
Date: 22 May 04 - 05:44 PM

LO!!! UHohhh!! BUSted!!!

Is that banjo practice I hear?


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