Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

This is a fortunate time to be involved with this type of music, and I am speaking of the makers of the instruments we play. Although there are many I have not had the privalege of playing yet, I have experienced quite a few good instruments. There are not a lot of "cheap ways in" to playing this music. Getting into it usually involves some sort of research and then a commitment. Some of us luck into it in various ways, but I am glad that there is NOT a glut of cheap imports for this market. Every instrument is SO different...even by the same maker. I suggest an "Instrument Review"....where we just tell about what we have and why we like it. It may help out some people who are thinking of a purchase. I know that I was in that boat a few years ago, and got a lot of good advice from the Briggs site. I will participate,but not tonight, as it is getting late. This is not to edorse any particular maker, but rather to celebrate the MANY fine instruments out there.

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This should be an interesting discussion. Sooner or probably later I will be in the market. I have had a hand in the making of both of my instruments, a gourd banjo, and a scroll head, similar to a Bouche. George Wunderlich made me a new pot for the scroll head, which I am really grateful for (I made the neck). So long as I have kids in college I don't think I'm going to be buying a new instrument...

In another discussion it might be kind of interesting to break things down in terms of what people have on their instruments, materials for bridge, nut, tailpiece, head, neck etc.
One great thing is the connection with the maker in almost every instance. You are able to discuss your instrument with the source person. I'll most likely post tonight. I have a few banjos, so I'll go one at a time.
You are so right, Tim. When I started playing banjo some years ago there were almost no minstrel banjos on the market, at least none that I was aware of. Today, we have an amazingly large selection to choose from. Working with a maker on designing an instrument built just for you is really a lot of fun. Actually, if one goes the tackhead route, the price of admission is surprisingly affordable. As you say, it's a wonderful time to become interested in this music.
I'd like to say a few words and give a brief review of a Menzies Swell Neck Minstrel Banjo.
I worked with Jeff Menzies earlier this year and ended up with an instrument I am quite pleased with. We had great communication all along, and it was really fun. All I requested was the scale length to be 25.5", and let him do the rest. One of the high points of the instrument is the fit of the pegs...it is nearly total perfection. They never bind up, or get too loose. You can easily adjust very small increments under all conditons. How cool! The angle of the strings coming out of the nut slots to the pegs is great. The angle of the headstock, the set of the neck to the rim, and the length of the tailpiece creates perfect tension. The well cut (and I mean VERY well cut) bridge almost never shifts or moves. The skin was mounted nicely. The instrument has a nice boom to it, but is still pretty crisp. The original tailpiece was not quite right, and he quickly made a beautiful bone tailpiece of sufficient length to correct the problem. (This was one of the benefits I spoke of earlier, where the maker is right there with you. ) The curves and angles of the instrument kind of grew on me. I was mostly after function....
The pot is a multi-ply maple rim. I string mine with pretty light tension gut strings.
I chose that scale length because of some bad shoulder problems I was having. That was the reason I gave up my Hartel Sweeney. I am glad I chose that, as it has worked out well, and I am recovering. I like that length.
No reason for the bridge...that's just what he does. It is pretty stable.
I recently sent my Ashborn repro back to James Hartel for some work; it had a glue failure. I had it back in about a week, and that included the Thanksgiving holiday. The repair also included new gut strings and a skin head, for the price of...no charge.

I have found James to be just about the best luthier a feller could ever want to work with. I heartily recomend him to anyone thinking about getting into a top-end minstrel banjo.

And a word about the Ashborn style- James describes it a "the perfect design. I can't improve on it, even 150+ years later."

George Wunderlich, of course, makes great minstrel banjos, too. There may be some issues with delivery and/or turn-around time, but his banjos are just...right. Everything about them is right. Correct down to the millimeter.

If historical accuracy is important to you, you can't go wrong with those two guys.
All very interesting. Can you tell the advantage of having a swell kneck on the first (long) string side? I can see the usefulness of the swells on the bass side, to help point out where the 'frets' would be - good for intonation. But on the treble side, doesn't the swell interfere with movement of the hand up the fingerboard?

PS VERY PLEASED that this site has taken off this time. Many thanks to John Masciale!
I don't think there is any advantage, nor does it hinder anything. Purely esthetic.
Let me add my praise for George Wunderlich's banjos.

I own one of his Boucher models and it is wonderful. Carl is right -- everything is as it should be.

+1 for Hartel banjos. I am continually amazed at the dynamic range of the Ashborn. It can be as soft as "the buzzing of a fly" or loud as a locomotive. Better yet, it makes me sound good!

My first "early banjo" was one of Dan Knowles' (Paris, TN see http://danknowles.net/) creations based on the banjo in the W.S. Mount painting. It was a delight to play and with the fiberskyn head, I had no problems with temp/humidity. Scale length was just a bit long (@ 29") but as my preferred scale is 28", it wasn't much of a problem. Dan is a first class luthier and his banjos are excellent.


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