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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: S.S.Stewart Special Thoroughbred Hardware I.D. questions...Thanks!

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35planar - Posted - 03/28/2021:  07:57:07

Hello All,

I bought this S.S.Stewart ST from someone who'd played it for decades. He bought it like it is. My question is about the tension hoop, hooks, nuts and tailpiece. This Special Thoroughbred, like most or all STs, has a 10 1/2" pot. I'm not nearly as well versed in banjo history as many BHO members. My guess regarding the oval storage box attached to the back of the headstock is that it might be for strings; the four 1/16" holes, who knows...It almost looks like strings could be fed from the holes on the sides of the closed box, then through the holes beside each tuner--maybe a professional in an orchestra or combo who needed to change broken strings as quickly as possible? Hmm...banjo archaeology.

Thanks for any information!

Edited by - 35planar on 03/28/2021 08:05:59

csacwp - Posted - 03/28/2021:  08:14:31

There's all sorts of strange stuff going on with this banjo . . . the brackets and tension hoop, the case on the back of the peghead, the tailpiece (homemade?) and those holes. The neck also looks to have been reset for a modern bridge height and/or steel strings.

Whoever made the tension hoop and brackets was on to something. It'd be easy to install the hoop and you wouldn't have to worry much about the hooks being out of alignment. 

Edited by - csacwp on 03/28/2021 08:16:20

Bob Smakula - Posted - 03/28/2021:  08:32:04

That banjo was sold through my shop long enough ago that I do not have easily accessible records. Our opinion on the metal box on the back of the peghead was the same as Mark's; used as a place to store strings and maybe useful, with the slots in the box and corresponding holes through the peghead, in a quick change during a performance. Of course if it was a great idea, they would be on every banjo ever made.

Andy FitzGibbon may have some solid memories and opinions of the unusual and likely unique hook attachment style.

The nuts are commonly seen on Lyon & Healy's Washburn branded instruments. I don't remember seeing them on any other S.S. Stewart banjos.

There can be plenty of speculation on this banjo's details, but we'll really never know how and why it came to be the instrument it is.

Bob Smakula

Edited by - Bob Smakula on 03/28/2021 08:33:30

35planar - Posted - 03/28/2021:  08:33:01

Thanks John! The banjo had a 1/2" bridge and light gauge steel strings when it arrived. It sounded great, but I restrung it with Labella 17s and added an old Bart Veerman X-2 5/8" bridge. I'm not used to classical style yet, so it's giving me a little extra clawhammer height for now.

35planar - Posted - 03/28/2021:  08:36:13

Thanks Bob! That's great it came through SFI.

Edited by - 35planar on 03/28/2021 08:36:59

csacwp - Posted - 03/28/2021:  08:46:52


Originally posted by 35planar

Thanks John! The banjo had a 1/2" bridge and light gauge steel strings when it arrived. It sounded great, but I restrung it with Labella 17s and added an old Bart Veerman X-2 5/8" bridge. I'm not used to classical style yet, so it's giving me a little extra clawhammer height for now.

In the photo the action looks OK for classic style with the 5/8" bridge and would likely be too low with a 1/2" one, hence my thinking that the neck was reset. 

Andy FitzGibbon - Posted - 03/28/2021:  08:50:52

Nice to see this banjo pop up again. It's one of the more interesting Stewarts I've worked on.

The nuts, shoes and shoe bolts are all Washburn "Imperial" hardware. What's interesting is that the rim has no imprint of the traditional Stewart shoes or shoe bolt washers, which implies that the Washburn hardware was installed at the Stewart factory. I've seen a handful of other Stewarts with non-Stewart hardware that appears original, so perhaps they occasionally bought from outside sources if they were short on their own hardware, or maybe it was a custom request.

My theory on the metal box and holes in the peghead is the same... someone's idea for a quick-change string system. I suspect whoever made and added the box also made the tailpiece (which is not a casting, but is brass elements silver brazed together).

I think the tension hoop setup is also homemade, likely by the same person who did the box and the tailpiece. It's a pain to remove and install. Getting all 28 bracket rods aligned with the Imperial shoes is a three-handed job.


35planar - Posted - 03/28/2021:  08:56:40

Thanks Andy, and thanks again John!

Joel Hooks - Posted - 03/28/2021:  09:48:34

Stewart was either dying or dead (likely dead) when this banjo was built.

The peghead overlay was either sourced from the same place R&L were getting theirs, or made by R&L. I presume part of George Bauer’s firings included the inlay worker.

One correction, the Special Thoroughbred was introduced in 1893 as the signature Farland model Special sized banjo with a three octave neck. In very short time, the Thoroughbred was offered in 11” with a three octave neck and also called a “Special Thoroughbred”, though it was not Special sized. Later the “Special Thoroughbred” was also offered in 11.5”.

The Special model (sized as yours is) was designed to be pitched one step above standard C for more volume, brilliance and carrying power for stage solo work.

So, there is no telling what the story is behind this one. It could be that a skilled machinist got parts from Stewart and Bauer and built it from there. They could have gone to S&B with parts and told them what they wanted. It also could have been a prototype for a new model built by George Bauer’s workers.

The string guess is as good as any, though I can’t imagine the holes has anything to do with it. Broken 1sts was a problem. Van Eps worked out a tailpiece and tuner peg combo for quick string changes, though he would keep the strings on the floor in front of him or in his pocket.

Sometime good ideas come along too late. Van Eps put a collet in the rim that held wrench that adjusted everything on the banjo. This should be a standard thing today.

The tailpiece looks like it is based on the A. G. Wood patent. I bet the “proper” way to string it would be to wrap the ends around the lower lug in the “no knot” method and let them pass through the upper lugs for alignment with the bridge. If you put on the first string last, it would be easy to replace with the large lug.

35planar - Posted - 03/28/2021:  10:23:09

Thanks Joel!

Bob Smakula - Posted - 03/28/2021:  15:52:22



I read your original post and saw the part where the person you bought it from had "played it for decades". Well, not exactly. I was able to find its final presence  on my website; February, 2010. So barely more than one decade. But I guess time flies when you have a weird, yet cool S.S. Stewart Thoroughbred banjo.

This is how I described it back then;

1900 S. S. Stewart Thoroughbred. This banjo is a few years newer than the previous Special Thoroughbred. After S.S. Stewart died, the banjos manufactured by his former company changed a little. Most noticeably the peghead inlay went from the 30 pieces of pale abalone to a combination of 24 pieced of pale abalone and 10 pieces of German silver and copper wire. Very attractive if I dare say so. The ebony fretboard has a 26 1/4" scale and the spun over rim is 10 1/2". One remarkable detail on this banjo is the hardware looks like it came from Washburn as it has the ball shoes and nuts that Chicago manufacturer used. But the tension hoop has no grove or notches for the hooks to attach. Instead there are 28 lugs for the hooks to screw in. I guess they are not "hooks" rather head tensioners. If that isn't weird enough for you, there is a 1 3/8" round box with a hinged lid screwed to the back of the peghead. There are 4 notches cut into the box that correspond to small holes in the peghead near the tuners. Our only guess as to reason for this modification is a quick restringing apparatus. It didn't catch on, but is a great place to hid important items like plastic ants or breath mints. This banjo is in excellent condition and plays great with its original screw tension tuners. $1,200 with a modern hard case.


No new developments in the 11 years that have passed since I last had that banjo in my shop. Its history is still speculative.

I vaguely recall that I bought this banjo on eBay and John Bernunzio was the underbidder. After receiving it and realizing what a pain it was going to be to make the hardware work, I wished I had bid a few dollars less to let it be someone else's project.

Bob Smakula

Edited by - Bob Smakula on 03/28/2021 16:01:04

35planar - Posted - 03/28/2021:  16:27:05

Thanks so much Bob,

Memory is a funny thing, especially my own. The guy must have taken good care of it. Your old description is accurate even now. This thing sang with the corroded light steels. The Labella 17s sound great, but I'm used to a '61 Tubaphone. Going to give Classic a try, ragtime. Not a collector, but the weird potential history of this SSS is intriguing--mostly for what the box could've hidden over the past 121 years: 22cal. rounds, $100 bills, contraband, strings, and definitely plastic ants, or breath mints!

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