1930s Unmarked Student Banjo

Update 7/2020: I did a lot more work on the neck to pot fit on this one, and plugged a hole that had been drilled long ago when the dowel was shifted high on the pot. This banjo appears to have been made with zero neck angle, which is what I set it back to. I’ve updated the post and photos to reflect that.

This is a mid-1930s unmarked student-grade banjo. The pot is 3-ply (possibly pine) with a maple veneer on the outside, and the neck is maple. The fretboard is just the top of the neck, painted black. It has only 8 hooks and brackets, and the original skin head.

When I got this, the first 6 frets were worn significantly lower than the upper frets, due to use. The frets were typical of low-end instrument from the ’30s: thin and narrow and all around small. I pulled the first 6 frets and frets 16 and up,. Then I installed a brass plate the same height as the frets (.032″) until the 7th fret. The plate tapers to a knife point at the 7th fret, so the fret remains playable. I’d always wanted a semi-fretless, and I didn’t feel like refretting this whole thing when the frets were just stuck in the top of the neck. I hate refrets on maple.

For the upper frets over 15, I just scooped the fretboard. I like to play over the neck, and it can be hard to do with frets and a full-height fretboard in the way. Then I leveled frets 7-15 and repainted the whole board. The white dots at 10 and 12 are original.

I pulled the original skin head for a good cleaning. I also cleaned rust off the steel tone ring, and coated it with paste wax before reinstalling. I also cleaned finish and glue and rust and dirt out of the tone ring groove.

The banjo has a replacement Elton tailpiece.

The heel joint on this banjo was a complete mess. I spent a few weeks carefully laminating up shims from birch laminate and sanding and fitting to get the heel to fit properly against the rim. Originally, I opted to shim the heel out about 1/8″, and added a corresponding dowel stick shim, so the bridge was just a hair further from the tailpiece. Eventually the neck angle was a problem with both the fretless and fretted portions, and I removed the shims and recut the heel and add one small shim on either side to get the banjo back to the original zero neck angle it had when it was new.

Since the heel had a big chip in it and a bunch of shims visible against the pot, I added a walnut heel cap. The dowel hole had been cut an 1/8″ too tall to accommodate the new position the neck had been put in to give it an angle. I also made a replacement wedge to hold the neck more securely to the the neck, and added a screw from the inside of the pot into the heel, which wanted to rock back and forth in the (still slightly oversize) dowel hole in the pot.

The strange thing about banjos is that the neck actually needs to be a hair “off center,” since part of the neck has 5 strings and the other part only has 4. The 3rd string, which is the middle string on the bottom part of the board, is your center line. It should line up centered on the tailpiece. This banjo was not put together that way, it was all crooked, because it was set up to have the space between the 2nd and 3rd strings be the center line. So, to get the neck in the right place the dowel attachment was moved over a hair by a previous owner, securing it with a screw. The tailpiece still is mounted in the original hole at the center of the pot, about 1/4″ from where the dowel now connects. I added some more secure attachments to the tailpiece and added a proper threaded dowel bolt from Elderly to hold the dowel. Ugly and silly looking, but it plays great!

It has the original friction tuners and ebony nut. The neck is a comfortable v-shape (my favorite), and it’s got that plunky old-time tone I’m always looking for in banjos.

Once I set the neck back to the original zero neck angle, I made a new ~5/8″ bridge from maple. The action is higher than you’re used to if you play modern banjos, a hair over 3/16″ at the 12th fret.

Here’s a sound sample with some sloppy playing. Notice that the brass scoop’s fretless section aids in the plunky sound – notes in the fretless section don’t ring as brightly as those on the fretted section – that’s because my finger is taking the place of the fret. If I wanted, I could adjust my playing to use more of my nail in fretting to get a better ring.

This banjo will be listed on Reverb for sale shortly.

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