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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Fred Van Eps's Banjo - Looking for possible repair


Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link: http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/359606

vaneps-granddaughter - Posted - 12/18/2019:  08:15:40


Hi All,



I am new to the forum and not a banjo player. My Grandfather was Robert Van Eps (pianist/composer). His father was Fred Van Eps. I have recently inherited his banjo. I don't know much about it - but it is 5 string, and has (what I think is) an unusual electrical component. Two small light bulbs inside the head. My mom (his granddaughter) says he used it to 'warm the instrument to create a richer sound'? The skin is torn and I am maybe interested in having the instrument repaired. Though I am very reluctant to take it to any ole banjo shop - and realize that perhaps a repair would not be a good thing? The banjo seems to be in otherwise excellent condition. Anyone out there a Van Eps expert or enthusiast? I am looking for guidance.


Edited by - vaneps-granddaughter on 12/18/2019 08:16:12


5stringpicker2 - Posted - 12/18/2019:  08:27:58


Looks to me like you said the banjo is in good condition seems all it needs is a new head on it. you could go back with a skin head or a more modern mylar/plastic one. from what I know it has a calf skin or such head and the 2 light bulbs were to heat the head to keep it tight and from stretching and causing sagging in the head.



( I  )=====----<: :}


Edited by - 5stringpicker2 on 12/18/2019 08:28:28

Joel Hooks - Posted - 12/18/2019:  08:31:40


Hi Kerianne,



I am the Executive Secretary of the American Banjo Fraternity.  The ABF was formed in 1948 as a sort of Fred Van Eps fan club and special interest group for what we now call "classic banjo".  You may know that Fred and Robert attended many of our Rallies.  I am also friends with one of Fred Van Eps' last students (who is still playing in his 90s).



Please private message me and I can help you with your banjo (information and who can repair it) as well as I would like to "meet" you in general due to your family connection to our organization.



Thanks,



Joel Hooks


Edited by - Joel Hooks on 12/18/2019 08:34:07

saulsmanb - Posted - 12/18/2019:  08:34:59


Kerianne



Contact Joel Hooks. He would be a good resource. (Oops cross post)



All the best

Saulsman


Edited by - saulsmanb on 12/18/2019 08:46:16

Joel Hooks - Posted - 12/18/2019:  08:39:10


I forgot, please do not take this banjo to ANY music store for work. I will give you some leads on who could work on it. There are only a couple of people that are qualified to work on one of his banjos.



This banjo is historically significant to some of us. It may have some value but the historical value is very high.



Could you look at the side of the dowel stick (wooden rod that the lights are clamped to inside the drum rim) and provide us with the date he made it? It should be written in pencil with his initials.



Thanks again.

 

csacwp - Posted - 12/18/2019:  09:40:50


Welcome! There are very few people out there who know how to set up a Van Eps banjo. Joel and I are two of them. Do contact Joel and come to an ABF rally if you can. It'd be incredible to get this banjo playing again. It's a very valuable instrument.

vaneps-granddaughter - Posted - 12/18/2019:  10:03:33


Thanks all! I have DM'ed Joel. Your help is much appreciated!

Alvin Conder - Posted - 12/18/2019:  10:56:55


That really is a beauty.

Absolutely stunning and a very rare instrument.

I very glad that you took the time to do a little research before you took this instrument to just any music store. People who don’t know these instruments can destroy them as quick as a qualified luthier can bring them back to life.

Follow Joel’s and John C’s advice and you won’t go wrong.

If you could post a few more photos, that would be really great. If you have one of your Grand Father playing this instrument , that would be even better.

Emiel - Posted - 12/18/2019:  10:57:03


Yes, this banjo is, of course, historically very significant. Rely on Joel and John, they know what they're talking about.

Bob Smakula - Posted - 12/18/2019:  11:28:48


In case the point gets lost in the shuffle, the Christmas tree lights were used to warm the calf skin head to dry it. When humidity is high, calf skin heads absorb water from the air and sag, creating a dead tone. A dry head helps produce the snappy sound preferred by classic banjo players. Using the lights is not necessarily creating a "richer" sound, but definitely brighter and more articulate.

Bob Smakula

Dan Drabek - Posted - 12/18/2019:  11:34:35


Congratulations on your inheritance. Joel and John are the resident Van Eps experts and you can trust their suggestions. 



I'm curious about the tune penciled un the underside of the head. It may have some significant historical value in itself.



It looks like the top has enough Van Eps DNA for a positive ID. smiley



DD

Joel Hooks - Posted - 12/18/2019:  11:40:15


These photos were shared from the collection of a member on the Classic Ning site.  I do not know if this is the same banjo...



That is Robert at the Piano.



Below is a recording from his self published record with Robert playing the piano part.





This photo was published in the ABF 5 Stringer Newsletter.





This photo is from his 1923 folio of music Van Eps Banjo Solos.




Edited by - Joel Hooks on 12/18/2019 11:42:03


Alvin Conder - Posted - 12/18/2019:  11:53:44


Joel...That is awesome.

I’m sure the original poster will really enjoy seeing those.

Thanks for posting!

Texican65 - Posted - 12/18/2019:  15:39:29


A very warm and hearty welcome to you Kerianne! We are very pleased to have you here, and greatly appreciate you choosing to share your great-grandfather’s banjo with us. Fred was an iconic banjo player, and is still revered by many of us to-day. His playing was of the upmost quality and skill and is unmatched by anybody today. I look forward to seeing, hearing, and just finding out what other info you and all of us can about this historic banjo. Again...thank you for coming here...this is the right place!

Dow

Lyndon Smith - Posted - 12/20/2019:  04:51:46


@Joel Hooks



That looks like a scalloped fingerboard on that Van Eps banjo.



@vaneps-granddaughter



Are the frets flush with the surface of the fingerboard and the area between the frets (concave) scalloped? I am a big fan of scalloped fingerboards and Van Eps were one of the earliest makers of this type of fingerboard.



Here's one of my creations:-



Scalloped fingerboard on Zizicote banjo

rudy - Posted - 12/20/2019:  05:37:57


Hi Kerianne, Another thanks to you for sharing such a treasure!  There are very few historical examples by any maker that have withstood the ravages of time as well as this banjo, so it's a real treat to see it.



@Joel hooks (or anyone else that's a fan...)



Anyone have a link to the original patents for this instrument?



There are a few features that I'd like to see the design explanation for in the original patent documents.  The lights are a fairly common sight for professionally played hide headed banjos, but a few other features are not so self-evident.



Among those items are the short transverse "brace" (head mute?) against the head, the portion of the tone ring that has a flat section under the tailpiece location, and the use of only 4 points to support the tone ring.  There may be a patent explanation for the location of the front markers as well.



All in all, an excellent example of the Van Eps banjo!  This one also looks to have the "trademark" Van Eps scalloped tension hoop with angled holes as opposed to the route choosen by most other makers of nothing the top of the band.  It's the feature that's probably most often referred to here on the hangout when tensioning systems are discussed.


Edited by - rudy on 12/20/2019 05:46:00

Joel Hooks - Posted - 12/20/2019:  07:15:24


quote:

Originally posted by rudy

Hi Kerianne, Another thanks to you for sharing such a treasure!  There are very few historical examples by any maker that have withstood the ravages of time as well as this banjo, so it's a real treat to see it.



@Joel hooks (or anyone else that's a fan...)



Anyone have a link to the original patents for this instrument?



There are a few features that I'd like to see the design explanation for in the original patent documents.  The lights are a fairly common sight for professionally played hide headed banjos, but a few other features are not so self-evident.



Among those items are the short transverse "brace" (head mute?) against the head, the portion of the tone ring that has a flat section under the tailpiece location, and the use of only 4 points to support the tone ring.  There may be a patent explanation for the location of the front markers as well.



All in all, an excellent example of the Van Eps banjo!  This one also looks to have the "trademark" Van Eps scalloped tension hoop with angled holes as opposed to the route choosen by most other makers of nothing the top of the band.  It's the feature that's probably most often referred to here on the hangout when tensioning systems are discussed.






Hi Rudy,



These late FVE banjos were not Patented.  FVE's playing was best known for his arrangements of popular pieces for banjo.  I like to think that these late banjos are "arrangements" of the best features of many different banjos.



I'll start with the rim.



The scalloped bezel or stretcher hoop came from the English banjos. FVE claimed that this reduced the weight.  I don't doubt that.  The rim itself is made up of several different designs.  It is laminated wood.  The top edge is beveled based on the Alfred Farland "Beveled Edge Rim" banjos. Over that is a "Regent" style (often called a "Little Wonder") half clad and wire "tone ring".  The suspended ring was designed and patented (by the time this was built-- expired) by FVEs playing partner William Farmer.  The hooks going into holes in the side of the bezel came from Lyon and Healy.



The tailpeice is all FVE.  Some of these (like this example) have what most people might think is a "fine tuner" on the first string.  That is not was it actually was for.  Gut or silk strings would wear out at the fret points or developed flat spots.  This device allowed one to move the string so that it would last longer and spread the wear out.



The turnbuckle neck support came from the device S. S. Stewart used in the 1890s.  FVE was a big fan of Stewart banjos and many of his early banjos were very similar to Stewart Thoroughbred banjos.



Inside the rim is a wrench held by a collet.  Why all banjo builders don't do this is beyond me.  The wrench will adjust all the parts of the banjo.  I think this is pure genius.



The scalloped fingerboard likely come from the "Lion" banjo patent.  



The tuners and tailpiece are designed for rapid string change.  There is an often told story of how FVE would keep pre-stretched first strings on the floor in front of him on stage.  When he broke a string, the piano player would vamp while he replaced it.  They would then pick up where he left off.  What a great piece of showmanship!!



The cross bar or "paint stick" as it was called was something that came much later, 1950s I think,  Made of balsa wood or very light pine they became a sort of fad with members of the American Banjo Fraternity.  I use a shorter version on my Gariepy/ Van Eps flush fret banjo.  It takes out some of the echo and increases the clarity.  A wine cork in the same place will do something similar and was popular in the late 19th century.



Van Eps did not start building this particular banjo model until the 1930s.  His production banjo company was gone and these were all one off.  He made these fretted and "flush fret"-- I own an early fretted version and I know of another.  By the time these hit the market, the 5 string was out.  The production was very limited.  He made this model, a few at a time, until he died in 1960.



 



 



 

Joel Hooks - Posted - 12/20/2019:  08:41:58


quote:

Originally posted by Lyndon Smith

@Joel Hooks



That looks like a scalloped fingerboard on that Van Eps banjo.



@vaneps-granddaughter



Are the frets flush with the surface of the fingerboard and the area between the frets (concave) scalloped? I am a big fan of scalloped fingerboards and Van Eps were one of the earliest makers of this type of fingerboard.



 



 






Hi Lyndon.  FVE used heavy nickel silver bar frets set flush with the fingerboard and he scalloped up to them.  The bar frets are necessary to stand up to use.  Even with the bar frets (and only using nylon strings), I have read that FVE's banjos (and a few others) would show wear to the frets and fingerboard.



Below are photos of my Gariepy/Van Eps that I wrote the story of on another discussion.  I have also included the catalog page showing the detail of the fingerboard.  I'll see if I can take better photos this weekend.



 







 

rudy - Posted - 12/20/2019:  09:37:23


@Joel Hooks



Thanks so much for your time and effort to pass those details along.  Very informative!

Lyndon Smith - Posted - 12/20/2019:  10:49:00


@Joel Hooks

Thanks. Very interesting. I use phosphor bronze bar for the actual fret which is a good deal harder than nickel silver, I believe. But I would only ever use nylon strings as the fret metal cannot be replaced. Making each scallop by hand would be a very time consuming job. It takes quite a while on my CNC...

spoonfed - Posted - 12/20/2019:  11:06:25


Joel, the tailpiece on your banjo is obviously the inspiration for the Colby repro that I have currently on my Whyte Laydie, what is it made of ? is it lightweight alloy like the Colby or something heavier like brass ?

Joel Hooks - Posted - 12/20/2019:  11:20:12


quote:

Originally posted by spoonfed

Joel, the tailpiece on your banjo is obviously the inspiration for the Colby repro that I have currently on my Whyte Laydie, what is it made of ? is it lightweight alloy like the Colby or something heavier like brass ?






Pete Colby was a New England gunsmith and banjo maker.  He worked for a time at Vega in the early 1960s.  The "Colby" tailpiece was his version of the FVE tailpiece.  He went to several American Banjo Fraternity rallies and I am certain got to play more than a few FVE banjos.  



All of the FVE made tailpieces I have seen were made from aluminum. He incorporated a version of Fred Bacon's invention of the "no-knot" to attach strings (and not just pegs like the Colby).



My Gariepy/FVE was bult for use with nylon.  It was ordered with 2 to 1 Grover "pancake" tuners (friction were still an option).  Art Gariepy changed the tailpiece to have little tie on pins more like the Colby.  He also made his from brass.



I'll post some better pictures of the tailpeices later this weekend.



 

spoonfed - Posted - 12/20/2019:  11:26:47


cool, thanks for the info, as soon as it arrives I have a Pisgah Hawktail to try out, interested to see what the extra mass does for me.

The Old Timer - Posted - 12/20/2019:  12:35:25


Reading this excellent thread makes me feel like watching PBS' "Antiques Road Show" when something really breath taking comes in the door and all the cognoscenti get the vapors! It's very very enjoyable to see.

Once again, the Banjo Hangout proves "the place to go"!!!

Thanks Kerianne, Joel and John and everyone who enriched this great thread.

spoonfed - Posted - 12/20/2019:  12:46:42


I agree great thread ! I would earnestly desire to be allowed to follow progress of this instrument as it is hopefully returned to playing order with as much detail as possible culminating in a video of one of our competent guys playing something suitably period on it and, with Keriannes permission that could be the thrill of the decade ! I nominate Joel to play the smiler on this fine instrument for us to share. how about it ?

Aitor Eneko - Posted - 12/20/2019:  13:40:19


Very nice thread. Thanks for showing that piece of history

csacwp - Posted - 12/21/2019:  14:33:33


I own another of Fred's flush fret banjos made in 1935 and will post some photos here when I can (I'm currently abroad). Most of the flush frets were made later and I think these early ones are the finest banjos that Van Eps ever made. I've been trying to find a modern maker who will make me a Tubaphone or B&D Silver Bell with a similar fingerboard. They are a dream to play on!



Most of the Van Eps estate ended up in England, and it makes me very happy to know that this particular banjo remained in the hands of his family. 


Edited by - csacwp on 12/21/2019 14:37:23

Joel Hooks - Posted - 12/21/2019:  14:38:04


Attached below are photos (posted with permission of the owner) of another banjo FVE built in 1935.  He supposedly built two 6 string banjos that year that were flush fret (5 long, one short).



This one has the neck width of a normal 5 string and shows no sign of being "cut down" as the myth says.  FVE turned changed the nut and put a bolt where the peg was in the middle of the peghead.  A previous owner had the hole plugged.  The position makers had also been moved on this banjo.



I have played it and it is one of the best.



















 

Joel Hooks - Posted - 12/21/2019:  16:34:51


Also with permission, I present another fantastic FVE banjo from the "flush fret" era. This one is spectacular in that it is gold plated and has an unusually fancy fingerboard. It also has normal raised frets.  The date on this one has been rubbed off at some point in it's life.



 





















 

csacwp - Posted - 12/21/2019:  19:03:56


Thanks Joel for posting these. Fred gave this 1935 flush fret (#5 in the series) to George "Colonel" Collins (one of the two founders of the ABF) in the early 1950s. Regarding the gold plated example, it was made in the 1950s for Harry Bowen's nephew.


Edited by - csacwp on 12/21/2019 19:04:14

spoonfed - Posted - 12/22/2019:  09:16:00


very interesting, some of the features look almost "naive" like prototypes or experiments, whats with the rather cumbersome fifth peg or, what looks like a fine tuner at the tailpiece? where these production models available for sale ?

Joel Hooks - Posted - 12/22/2019:  10:31:57


quote:

Originally posted by spoonfed

very interesting, some of the features look almost "naive" like prototypes or experiments, whats with the rather cumbersome fifth peg or, what looks like a fine tuner at the tailpiece? where these production models available for sale ?






Hi Nick, please read my earlier post where I explain what the thing on the tailpiece was for.  There is no need for a fine tuner with nylon or gut.



No, these were very limited production and depending on who you ask there were only 24 or 25 of them made. FVE made pretty much every part on them in a shed behind his house in NJ.



The 5th peg is not cumbersome, it is a beautiful solution for rapid restringing, again please read my earlier post where I explain this.   All the pegs had been designed to be adjusted with the wrench included in the rim and to make string replacement faster.

spoonfed - Posted - 12/22/2019:  12:25:43


Joel, I have just re read your earlier explanations of those features also, I read some of your other articles about nylon strings, bridges etc pertaining to the classic era, all very informative, thanks. I still think some of those old FVE innovations look just a bit "over designed" even dare I say a little "Heath Robinson" but I guess if they work all is good.

csacwp - Posted - 12/22/2019:  14:30:40


quote:

Originally posted by spoonfed

Joel, I have just re read your earlier explanations of those features also, I read some of your other articles about nylon strings, bridges etc pertaining to the classic era, all very informative, thanks. I still think some of those old FVE innovations look just a bit "over designed" even dare I say a little "Heath Robinson" but I guess if they work all is good.






They are simple, elegant solutions to problems faced by professional classic banjoists back in the day. I don't think they are "over designed". If anything Van Eps banjos are understated. 

Joel Hooks - Posted - 12/22/2019:  15:38:52


Yeah, they are not for everyone. Most people are shocked by what it feels like to play a 28.5" scale.

I believe that FVE was using his experience as a professional banjoist and machinist/watchmaker to make the ultimate banjo for that style. Most of his features make the banjo more user friendly.

While they are very fancy and look good on stage, the small squares for position markers are easy to replace if they fall out. Everything is thought out.

bubbalouie - Posted - 12/22/2019:  16:37:04


Wow! I just climbed out of the Van Eps banjo rabbit hole! There's a lot of beautiful engineering going on here! 



 

Dan Drabek - Posted - 12/22/2019:  16:51:53


The virtuosity displayed in the audio examples uploaded by Joel is amazing. The classic technique is totally different from traditional bluegrass banjo styling, but somewhat similar to the more progressive "melodic" bluegrass style.

At the risk of blasphemy, I would love to have heard FVE play something on a bluegrass banjo and wearing fingerpicks. While his technical skill is fabulous, I can't help but wish to hear at least a little sustain in the banjo's tone.

I get somewhat the same impression when I hear Django Reinhardt's Selmer guitar sound compared to, say, Tony Rice on his Martin Dreadnought.

DD

csacwp - Posted - 12/23/2019:  01:45:52


quote:

Originally posted by Dan Drabek

The virtuosity displayed in the audio examples uploaded by Joel is amazing. The classic technique is totally different from traditional bluegrass banjo styling, but somewhat similar to the more progressive "melodic" bluegrass style.



At the risk of blasphemy, I would love to have heard FVE play something on a bluegrass banjo and wearing fingerpicks. While his technical skill is fabulous, I can't help but wish to hear at least a little sustain in the banjo's tone.



I get somewhat the same impression when I hear Django Reinhardt's Selmer guitar sound compared to, say, Tony Rice on his Martin Dreadnought.



DD






Bill Keith was a fan of Van Eps and a member of the American Banjo Fraternity. I don't think it is a coincidence that some of his licks are similar to those of classic style. 

Ken LeVan - Posted - 12/23/2019:  05:10:31


Everything about that banjo is unusual and very cool.  I have never seen anything like the indent scalloping on the tension hoop, which looks like a 3-D version of the engraving Gibson did on Granada tension hoops, and that tailpiece is also quite amazing.

Joel Hooks - Posted - 12/23/2019:  06:09:37


quote:

Originally posted by Ken LeVan

Everything about that banjo is unusual and very cool.  I have never seen anything like the indent scalloping on the tension hoop, which looks like a 3-D version of the engraving Gibson did on Granada tension hoops, and that tailpiece is also quite amazing.






I am not sure exactly when the English started doing the scalloped bezel thing but I like it.  The earliest issue of the BMG that we have that shows it is 1911.  Cammeyer was doing something similar earlier.  It is certainly a English design idea.



If you are interested I'll post some photos of my Clifford Essex banjos in the coming days showing the scalloping that they did. 

Ken LeVan - Posted - 12/23/2019:  06:31:22


quote:

Originally posted by Joel Hooks

quote:

Originally posted by Ken LeVan

Everything about that banjo is unusual and very cool.  I have never seen anything like the indent scalloping on the tension hoop, which looks like a 3-D version of the engraving Gibson did on Granada tension hoops, and that tailpiece is also quite amazing.






I am not sure exactly when the English started doing the scalloped bezel thing but I like it.  The earliest issue of the BMG that we have that shows it is 1911.  Cammeyer was doing something similar earlier.  It is certainly a English design idea.



If you are interested I'll post some photos of my Clifford Essex banjos in the coming days showing the scalloping that they did. 






I'd love to see them!  I've never warmed up to the holes-in-the-side-of-the-tension hoop system, but the scalloping adds some real interest.

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