Uncle Jaque's Soap-Box

My Favorite Banjo…

Posted in Antique Music by Uncle Jaque on 11/15/2009

(In response to a thread on   The Mudcat Discussion Forum about “What is your Favorite Banjo?”)


Being a cheap Yankee, when I developed a passion for the old Minstrel style, I took my Brother’s old Sears and Sawbuck 5-string that was probably made in Japan, back when Japan was making all of our cheap stuff for import, and dismembered it. About the only lessons I had was that red book of Pete Seeger’s which I never got all that far into to begin with.

First I carved a hard maple fretless neck for it, with a head stock for friction pegs which I made from black walnut.
Our Drum Major (3rd Maine Infantry Field Music – CW reenactment) had a busted hide bass drum head which was big enough to cut a head out of and he helped me hoop and stretch it to replace the farby white plastic head it came with.  Man; what a job that is!

Gut strings came from “Boston Catlines” – the fellow who makes the strings for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  “Chris Olav Henrecksen” or something like that as I recal.  Is he still in business?  I’ve busted through several of my 3 meter lengths and need some more.
Oy!; those things do NOT come cheap!  That’s what the Old Timers used though, and they do have a unique action and sound.

So my bodged-together “Banjer” isn’t 100% authentic (it only has an 11″ hoop; most of the minstrel jobs went as big as 14″ or more) but it is a lot of fun and I don’t have to worry about taking it afield on reenactments and such as much as I would if I had a gen-yoo-wine antique or legitimate repro like Wunderlich or Flesher make.  Not that I could afford one of those, of course!

Uncle Jaque Performs in the Pavilion

Oh Mah Dahlin' Nellie Gray, They has Takey You Away...

Someday I hope to start from scratch and build a proper one or find an affordable wreck that I can restore.

Back when we lived in the Portland area – again a dozen or more years ago – I found a Vega “Folkmaster” in a little music and antique shop that has long gone out of business – the Rose Cottage Shop I think it was…

The fourth string had a nasty habit of buzzing on the lower frets, and no one wanted it.  Since the chap who ran the place was willing to let it go for around $50 (complete with a cardboard case no less!) and I like to tinker, I took it home.
After considerable diagnostic examination, I discovered that the neck had been installed cockeyed – twisted down a little – which is why the action on the trebles was fine while the bass buzzed from being too low.

“Well Sha-zzamm” I said (or words to that effect) as I slipped a thin wooden shim under the bass end of my bridge.
That Vega and I have been getting along just fine ever since, twisted neck and all.  As I see the term “Vega” mentioned in here a number of times, I guess that I got a pretty good deal after all.   Don’t see many “Folkmasters” though.
Not a fancy banjo by any means, but good and sturdy and plays about as well as a hammerhead like me needs it to.
I’ve never known mother-of-toilet-seat inlays and gold plated farb-de-ralls on an instrument make it sound any better, but if that’s what chimes your G-string and you can afford ’em, then by all means have at!

Much as I have a beat up old Russian WW-II surplus Mosin Nagant M-44 carbine as my “Truck gun”, the Vega is my “Truck Banjo” and serves most credibly in that capacity.

Back in the early 1960s when I was a kid and in love with “Joannie” Baez, I saw one of the Kingston Trio guys playing a long-neck 5 sting.  Not sure just what kind it was, but I immediately took to lusting after one.
Even back then they were scarce as hen’s teeth and expensive as hell if you could find one, and I don’t think that anyone has made one since the Weathermen were blowing things up.   Eventually I just gave up on the idea.

All these years later though, I have idly pondered the utility of one of those long necked critters; since I like to play in the Minstrel tuning (with the “C” stepped down to Ab or G#, whichever you prefer) I could tune one down to that for the old “stroke” style and then capo up about 3 frets (?) to do standard modern tuning.   And I very well may string it up with nylon, as for one it’s cheaper than gut strings and they have a nice “folksy” sound to them.  Have you ever tried ’em on yer banjer?

I have an album by a chap name of “Levy” i think it was, called “That Old Gut Feeling”.
He’s apparently a cheap booger too, as he cops out and strings up with nylon in stead of the real deal.  He provides a guide as to what guitar nylons to subsitute.

Pete Seeger mentioned gut substitutes too as I recollect, using fishing leader of various tests and a tennis racket string (for the “C”).  Back when I was hanging out with the Ken & Marie Vinyard Family (God rest their dear Souls!) up in Crystal NH, he came by an old Civil War period minstrel banjo – probably the first one I’d ever seen – which we strung up that way, and it sounded pretty decent!   Had a hard time keeping it in tune though as I didn’t know about how they tuned ’em down back then.

Don’t you wish they taught banjo and fiddle in stead of the bloomin’ clarinet and saxaphone in school music programs?

I think that school whould be a hell of a lot more fun if they did!  Lord knows those Jr. High School bands couldn’t possibly sound much worse!   [‘{8^{D~


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