Sunday, March 10, 2013

Banjo Reclamation

Now for the unveiling of my second winter banjo project. This is a late 19th or early 20th century banjo with a lightweight metal clad rim and a paddle headstock that I picked up at a festival in Pennsylvania about ten years ago. It's very light, has no tone ring, and is a shorter 25" scale. It needed a lot more attention than the Minstrel Boy did. I replaced the violin-type wood tuners with a set of Grover Sta-Tite friction pegs. The bridge and tailpiece were missing so I put on a modern, repro, No-Knot tailpiece and a standard maple ebony topped Grover bridge. I also replaced the broken skin head with a Renaissance synthetic head.

This little baby is equipped with 38 hooks and brackets! Apparently, back in the golden days of yore, brackets were a major banjo selling point, the more the better, kind of like gigabytes, watts, and horsepower are these days. 38 brackets is a lot of brackets. My Minstrel Boy Banjo has 10 brackets and my Wildwood Troubadour Tubaphone has 24. Getting all those brackets off and back on made changing the head a lot more work than I was expecting. I eventually got everything put back together and the little guy is a quite playable, basic no frills instrument. I call it my Quaker banjo. Not very loud and definitely not a gigging banjo, but fine for late night picking and to play while giving lessons. Here's a short sound sample of my new, old, lo-fi, Quaker banjo.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Minstrel Boy Banjo

Last year I used our midwinter downtime to put together my banjo book, Ragged but Right: The Ungentle Art of Clawwhammer Banjo. This year I have kept busy singing the Snow Shoveling Blues while making maple syrup, mead, and hard cider. I also decided to take some time to fix up a couple of old banjos that were in varying states of disrepair.

Yesterday I changed the head and restrung my Minstrel Boy banjo. This banjo, based on a mid-nineteenth century banjo made by William Esperance Boucher, was built in 2003 by Randy England. Randy made these historically accurate instruments to be used by fellow Civil War re-enactors. I played it quite a bit in school programs and fairs that featured Civil War encampments, as well as for a series of shows I did at The Long Island Museum at Stony Brook while they were hosting Jim Bollman's banjo collection in an exhibition entitled "America's Instrument - The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century." Two of the gut strings had broken and the calf skin head had a hole in it that was threatening collapse. I replaced the strings with a set of synthetic "Nylgut" strings and replaced the head with a synthetic "Renaissance" head. I guess it is no longer historically correct but it stays in tune better and should be more durable. I made a quick recording of myself noodling around on this low tuned banjo. I'll need some time to regain the touch required to play these lower tension soft strings, especially the short 5th string.

P.S That's Georgianne accompanying me on rattling silverware, banging pots, and running water.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Bump Banjo Case

I was looking for a new case for my Wildwood Troubadour 11 inch open back banjo. My old case had served me well, putting in thousands of miles on the road over the last twenty years. I think the old case was a TKL, though heavier and sturdier than any of the current models. Like I said, the case had been through a lot and gotten to the point where there was more duct tape on the outside of the case than the original vinyl/leatherette covering. The inside had also gotten pretty worn, but worst of all the latches were not staying properly closed. I had nightmares about grabbing my prized banjo out of the back of the van and watching it crash onto the pavement, so I began a quest for a new case. I liked the look of  the Saga/Superior "Bump" case and Mark Platin, the builder of Wildwood banjos had mentioned it in a list of case options he sent me, but when I read reviews I noticed several people had complained that it was too short or too narrow for their banjos. I was concerned that it wouldn't fit my Wildwood, which is 37 inches long, but when I saw one pop up on Amazon, for $20 off the regular price, listed as "like new open box" (returned by someone whose banjo didn't fit, no doubt) I decided to take a chance. I figured if it didn't fit the Wildwood I could switch it out with my 35 inch long Mike Ramsey fretless banjo, which was resting nicely in a TKL Professional arch top case. 
I got the case. The box was trashed, and had obviously been repacked, but the case is in perfect condition and looks like new. My Wildwood fits, but it's a pretty tight fit, only about a half inch between the tip of the headstock and the end of the case. I'm going to use it for the Ramsey, but I thought I would post this review to take some of the mystery out of buying this banjo case for the next guy who's wondering wether or not it will fit a particular banjo. 

Here are the interior dimensions of the "Bump" case:

Length - 37.5 inches with a little extra cutout for the tailpiece. (the TKL is about 40")
Neck Width -  4.25 inches (before the bump in), at the 5th string peg
Headstock Width -  3.25 (after the bump)


1. Light weight and compact
2. Lots of padding around the pot
3. Looks great
4. Very reasonably priced


1. Maybe too light weight and compact. Not sure what this case is made of, but it's a bit thinner than my newer TKL and Much thinner and lighter than my ancient TKL. 
2. It has only one neck "cradle" at the head stock end and none on the other side of the string compartment. It came with a padded wedge velcroed into the head stock section of the case. With the wedge in place, the planetary tuning pegs prevented the neck from resting in the cradle. I took the wedge out and put it at the other end of the string compartment where it gives the neck some needed support at that end of the banjo.

Bottom line, the Bump case is a good, but not great, fairly sturdy, arch top open back banjo case. It doesn't seem to be as well made as the TKL arch top case but it's about half the price, less if you get a deal like I did.

Maybe I will fill the old case with CDs, photos, and memorabilia then bury it out in the backyard like a time capsule to be discovered by some future generation of pickers who will be amazed by the tank like construction as they try to envision the he-man banjo player who was strong enough to haul it around for twenty years. : )