I have an early-mid 1920s Vega Little Wonder tenor banjo w/ 11 13/16" head and a wooden resonator that my great grandfather gave me years ago. It's been collecting dust since I was a kid, while I pursued learning the 5 string banjo instead.
It's killing me that I've got his beautiful banjo collecting dust, so I'd like to get it up and running. Only thing is that it needs a new head skin. Does anyone know who in the Connecticut/NYC area could set me up with a new head skin and a proper set up. 11 13/16" seems to be an odd size by today's standards.
Other thought of mine - though I could learn tenor banjo and possibly love it to, my passion is in old time banjo. Instead of frailing away on my entry-level deering goodtime, I'd also love the possibility of converting my grandfather's tenor into a 5 string banjo. I'd love advice on whom I could seek out in the CT/NYC area to convert a vintage tenor banjo to a 5 string. Would this always require a new neck made from scratch (sounds pricey), or are there salvaged necks from old vega 5 strings that could be used?
A replacement neck would be preferable. However, there was a banjo maker here in NZ who spliced an extra piece of wood onto a Vega Whyte Laydie tenor neck down to the 5th fret to enable him to frail it. He did a really fantastic job. Matched the wood perfectly.
Thanks, I wondered if adding a splice to the existing neck would be a possibility. It’s a short neck, but I guess it could still be tuned to an open G tuning. Tough part may be finding someone who could do that.
It's possible, and has been done many times. But the Little Wonder is a fairly simple pattern and it would probably not cost much more to have a new five string neck made to match rather than splicing and grafting. There wouldn't have to be any compromises on shaping or string paths, and the end result wouldn't look like a Frankenbanjo. For a replacement head, look up John Balch for a pre-made skin head. and Smakula Fretted Instruments for an odd-size mylar head. A skin head would be more authentic, while a plastc head is more stable and less expensive. Stewart McDonald sells unmounted skin heads if you want to roll your own. It's not particularly difficult, and can save a bit more money if that's a factor.
Your are better off having a neck made by somebody who specializes in conversion necks. Learning 5 string takes all your time, plus the fact that 4 string banjos are becoming more and more obsolete as the years go by. I have a 1929 Epiphone Concert Recording tenor, that I have'nt touched in 15 years, sitting in my closet. The 5 string monopolizes all my time and interest.
I have done both. I have shipped everything but the neck to Arizona, but shipping costs both ways and insurance can be about $160.00. The other time I drove about 4 1/2 hours to South Georgia to Ron Coleman to drop off and pick up, he does good work at reasonable prices. In Virginia there are a couple of guys, Don Embry in Fredericksburg that build conversion necks, that would be within driving distance for you. If you ship only the neck it is about $25-$30 one way, but you have to do the neck attachment and setting up.
Another possibility is Mark Hickler, he makes Vega style necks all the time at reasonable cost, I am sure he could make the perfect fit too, he will be familiar with your pot and, he ships his necks everywhere. Ron Coleman made my conversion neck and, because I am in the UK he worked just from pics I emailed him plus his own extensive knowledge, the neck bolted straight on without any problems.
To fit a new neck, it's preferable to send the entire banjo so that the neck builder can do the fitting to the rim more accurately. Also, make sure to save the tenor neck so that the banjo can be converted back if you later choose to try tenor or decide to sell the banjo.
I short scale tenor neck is not a good candidate for "splicing." It would be entirely too complicated and probably more expensive than a new neck to attempt adding wood for the fifth string and to lengthen the scale to get any kind of decent tone.
Thank you all for the advice and recommendations of luthiers. I've begun reaching out. My plan is to have a new 5 string neck made and to keep the old tenor neck, so that that banjo could be played either way in the future.
You might consider sending it up to Bernunzio's in Rochester. He has repro Fairbanks (Vega) necks made to his spec's by Eastman in China, and I know his shop has fitted them to a lot of old rims (banjos thus constructed/converted are often offered for sale on his site).
I really like those large-size LW's. Vega did make 5-stringers in that size, with necks scaled proportionally a bit bigger than they put on standard-size pots. I'd recommend using a standard-size neck for a conversion, though, especially for clawhammer style playing. It positions the bridge closer to the center of the head, deepening the tone some.
If you don't find a luthier you are satisfied with, there is certainly no reason you couldn't buy a semi-finished neck and fit it yourself. Especially if you have any woodworking experience. We all had to start some place, and you would only be risking a replacement neck.