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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Gifted banjo - advice please!

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:

Guitar_goob - Posted - 04/24/2022:  20:36:56

Friend gave me a banjo passed down to her. Nobody plays in her family and she heard me mention I was interested in the instrument.

The instrument is a May Bell Style A and it seems pretty nice, but I'm definitely out of my element here.

I thought I would at least post some pics and see what you folks say before I talk to someone about repair.

mike gregory - Posted - 04/24/2022:  21:28:25

Go to your home page, click on the picture, click on COPY IMAGE LINK, come back to THIS page, click REPLY and click RICH TEXT and click on the icon, 4th from the right, which looks like a picture of the moon over the mountains.

Paste the image link in there, then hit PREVIEW, and you should see your picture.


and EVERYBODY can see the picture, here and BIGGER.

mike gregory - Posted - 04/24/2022:  21:29:07

Just another Old Guy, trying to help the newcomers.
Welcome to the HangOut.

rcc56 - Posted - 04/24/2022:  23:19:15

That is a tenor banjo, probably from the late 1920's or early '30's. The May Bell line was built by Slingerland, which was a well-known drum company. Most May Bell banjos were well built, but not particularly valuable. Yours appears to be one of their fancier models.

Guitar_goob - Posted - 04/24/2022:  23:45:43

The fret board has come off at some point. Somebody tried putting putty of some sort to MacGyver it together.

Sorry Mike I tried following your directions, but I'm not the best with my phone - thanks for the welcome and the effort nonetheless. 

Some more pics


rcc56 - Posted - 04/25/2022:  00:10:09

I see from the picture you added after my previous post that the fingerboard is loose. It is very important that you loosen the strings so that the neck does not warp.

A little bit of research indicates that this was built as a professional grade model, with a good tone ring and an interesting engraved tension hoop. It would probably be a pretty good instrument if competently repaired. But you would have to evaluate the cost of repair against its market value. Most May Bells that I see are student models and worth only a few hundred dollars. This one would be worth somewhat more, but I can't put an accurate dollar value it. Since the demand for tenor banjos is limited, it is not a high dollar instrument.

Edited by - rcc56 on 04/25/2022 00:11:08

AndrewD - Posted - 04/25/2022:  03:57:19

This looks like one of the better ones with a tone ring and a grooved tension hoop. To get a ballpark value: I have almost exactly the same banjo (a bit less decoration, no engraving, simpler fretboard inlays) but the same attributes (mine has geared tuners and a backstrap - which I assume yours also has). It's in very clean condition and was playable out of the box. It's also a much more desirable 5 string. I paid just under £400 (about $500) for it on Ebay about 4 years ago. I was very pleased with my purchase but didn't think I'd got an absolute steal.
As it cost you nothing it would be worth getting the fretboard removed, cleaned up and reglued professionally.

Helix - Posted - 04/25/2022:  04:01:41

I have that resonator, I bought it at a wake sale after Piper died. Your banjo looks like it's been too dry for too long.
I've never seen a Style A.
She could benefit from care and cleaning.

beegee - Posted - 04/25/2022:  06:07:46

This is one of the better models of Maybell. I have a lower end banjo. It is definitely worth restoring. If it were mine, I'd make a 5-string neck for it, but that's just me. These are not especially valuable, but nonetheless a part of banjo history worth restoring/preserving.

Jbo1 - Posted - 04/25/2022:  07:12:32

That's an interesting way to lower the string action: raise the fretboard!

You say you are out of your element regarding the banjo. What kind of music makes you interested in playing? Bluegrass, Dixieland, Irish, old-time...? Answering that would help you to determine if you want to play a four string (like you have) or a five string (for Bluegrass/old-time). You have a very pretty banjo, and if five-string is what you should be playing, a neck could be made for your banjo.

Where are you located? With that info someone here could direct you to a (hopefully) local luthier or repair person, and maybe a teacher. Good luck.

Guitar_goob - Posted - 04/25/2022:  13:05:55

Thanks for all the responses guys! I loosened the strings to reduce tension.

I'm an acoustic guitar player and love acoustic instruments - got a mandolin in high school and a banjitar in college. Honestly I regret the banjitar - I should have gotten a real banjo instead which makes this gift all the more exciting.

I live in Washington state/Seattle area. I will definitely look into repair.

I'll start looking up differences between 5 and 4 string banjos. Is it possible to swap necks back n' forth between 4/5?

The tuners are in good shape too although I'm missing one of these 4 in the pic.

Jbo1 - Posted - 04/25/2022:  15:56:03

The missing thumbscrew is used for adjusting tension on the string, not so much used for tuning, unlike a violin's fine tuning adjuster. Perhaps Bob Smakula would have one. Incidentally, if you do convert to a 5 string, you would need a new tailpiece to accommodate the 5th string.

Necks can be swapped between 4 and 5 string banjos. That's one of the beauties of the instrument. Before WW2 Gibson made many more 4 string (tenors, with shorter necks like yours, and plectrums, with longer necks, similar in length to 5 strings and guitars) than they did 5 string banjos. However, due to the popularity of bluegrass music, many of those 4 strings were converted to 5 string necks. Mating the neck to the pot (the round part of the banjo body) is critical for the best sound, very much like a guitar. So you won't be able to slap just any 5 string neck to your pot. That's where a luthier will come in.

DSmoke - Posted - 04/25/2022:  16:10:50

I'm a fan of Slingerland banjos, especially the nicer models. Sadly, the name really limits it's potential value and could cost more that it's worth to restore it. I can tell it doesn't have the high-end tone ring Slingerland used. Maybe this is a "donut" ring? If you unscrew the screw in the center of the back of the resonator you will be able to see inside. Can you post a picture of the inside for us?

Guitar_goob - Posted - 04/25/2022:  21:00:22

Got the back off.  A couple of braces (?) were loose or I guess it's what the rim/ring is seated on. 


stevo58 - Posted - 04/26/2022:  08:56:14

Before you go slapping a five string neck on it, consider what sort of music you want to play. Bluegrass, ok, you’ll need a five string. But if you play mandolin, then you already play an instrument tuned in fifths and shouldn’t have trouble playing a tenor in standard tuning - CGDA, a fifth down from standard mandolin tuning. You might not be able to play bluegrass, but you can play a lot more than just “Saints” on it. Check out Don Vappie or Jimmy Mazzy for some things you can do on a tenor. I especially like Jimmy's album with Eli Newberger, "Shake It Down."



Edited by - stevo58 on 04/26/2022 09:03:30

Gitfiddle Emporium - Posted - 04/26/2022:  09:09:18

This is the more Bacon silver-bell style ring. Super cool banjo though - very high end for Slingerland.

G Edward Porgie - Posted - 04/26/2022:  14:07:56

think there are more problems with the neck then just the loose fretboard. n one photo, when enlarged it appears to have some cracks/splitting along the back of the neck (I suspect the fretboard came loose due to a sharp blow to the neck).

If you plan to play bluegrass or clawhammer, you should have no qualms about having a 6-string neck installed, as that 4-string neck might prove to be a difficult, or maybe even impossible repair (personally, I'd charge quite a bit simply to remove that putty). Cleaning up amateur repair jobs can be worse than cleaning a public restroom!

DSmoke - Posted - 04/26/2022:  15:58:41

Thanks for the interior pictures. This is very interesting to me and I was surprised to see that it wasn't a "donut" ring. But, I've seen enough Slingerlands to never be really surprised. I wish someone gave me this banjo!

Gitfiddle Emporium The tone ring you're referring to I typically see overlapping the top of the shoes on the outside of the rim. This one does not.

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