10 November 2017

Short scale banjos - what's new?

Thanks to Alec Somerville in Co. Donegal for these reflections, born of a lifetime's experience with banjos:

I have been reading lately about a 'revolution' in the five-string banjo industry, attributed to various well known performers, players, and makers... the bent seems to be (a) banjos in which the 'skin' sits directly on the wood rim instead of the usual metal tone-ring (however made or contrived) and (b) banjos which can be tuned DOWN into 'E' or even 'D' using the age-old tuning for open 'G'. They are described as 'traditional', 'low banjos', etc., etc...

Well, I have news for the uninitiated... in a room of my home there are several banjos which fit these parameters; they are are stacked up there... Some of them you play right on the wood, usually maple. Others have a spun overcladding on the wood rim which makes a 'tone ring'. The cladding is either nickel-plated brass or 'German silver', a type of nickel compound much used for watch cases, jewellery, etc. at the turn of the century. The scale is usually around 25 inches, and marked at 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12. The pegs will be either ivory; celluloid, known as 'ivoroid'; or original Champion pegs with either amber, black, or white buttons, and which may have patent dates stamped on the metal parts ('1883' etc.).

These banjos were made to be used with gut strings. Some of them have bone or ivory tailpieces which will not stand the pull of steel strings. They are best strung with medium to light nylon strings. If the head is split, then Fiberskyn or similar are good - or go ahead and wrap a goat/ calf/ whatever skin on the existing flesh-hoop - an adventure, to be sure. I can do it, but I had to learn...

One of mine has an original Rogers signed 5 Star, the others were either damaged or lost and have had to be replaced. These banjos tune in G, if that's what you want. But do try open D, f# D F# A D, and in a 'Mountain C' tuning, capo 2 for D.

Good Luck and lotsa oldtime pickin'!

BIB editor's note: Alec's comments on modern banjos apply particularly to Deering's new Julia Belle model and White Oak range. Plenty of photos of older generations of banjos can be seen at the Vintage Banjo Makers website, and especially glorious photos are in Bob Carlin's recent book Banjo: an illustrated history.

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