I expect to get more than a few catcalls about this one!. As I am a mandolin picker, I have enjoyed picking my mandolin banjo, mostly at home, but I take it to jams, as well. Are there any more folks here who might be brave enough to admit ownership of one?
I own three of them and use them all the time. I have two set up as "Lead banjos" which are the same thing but only four strings instead of the double courses. Setup is very important with banjo-mandolins. If set up well, they are wonderful instruments.
I happen to have a mid-1970's Sicilian made Miroglio zither mandolin-banjo which has formerly been my dad's. When I was a boy he decided to resume playing having been a decent mandolinist during its French stay in the forties before giving up due to other interests surfacing. He did not buy it in a regular music store but in one of those curious Asian bazars that sell «by the pound» household appliances, cheap watches, whatnot, and consumer electronics. At first he chose a classical mandolin, but the poor tater bug arrived home with many broken ribs on the back and a badly warped neck. For some obscure reason instead of demanding a direct replacement my father accepted to swap it with a mandolin-banjo which revealed itself even worse because of both too shallow neck-to-pot angle and peghead-to-neck angle, requiring a skimpy ¼" height bridge -thus with almost no pressure on the very thick calfskin head- which resulted in an utterly dull, unsympathetic tone...And here we are. As a matter of fact, that's the first skillet-shaped instrument that I ever had the pleasure to hold in my hands before the next year I bought a proper banjo, one with 5 strings attached... Er, let go "proper"; sort of a mock up, just enough to learn the basics.
Nowadays a serious health condition hindered my dad's playing abilities and the banjo-mandolin has become a piece of decoration in my parents' house. As a matter of fact the instrument is really nice: mahogany neck with 17-fret rosewood fretboard (brass frets) and bone dot inlays, maple pot with alternate holly/walnut veneer and a gorgeous woodcut scene on the resonator's back, inlaid with the same woods, depicting a rooster on its perch and a lyre, 7" head in aluminum frame with 10 top tension bolts, mandolin tailpiece. I am planning to restore it to give it the sound it never had and this will require a radical job: take apart the neck and recut the heel (being a zither banjo the neck is screwed and glued to the resonator wall), cut and wedge the peghead, change the too-thick head with a lighter one, refret it with 19 regular frets (there's plenty room at the fingerboard's end), and put on a bridge of correct height. Let's see what's gonna pop up...
I am really curious since I play mandolin as well, and a different color on my palette surely would be a good thing. Of course I consider it a different sort of mandolin, not a banjo... So I feel terribly off topic here!
I'm curious Mike, how would you set one up as a lead banjo? Is it a matter of simply putting on single courses and a four-string bridge? I had a friend (who plays five-string and mandolin) tell me that there is nothing more annoying in the world than a mandobanjo, but they just look so neat!
I make banjo ukuleles and 4 string lead banjos. I was surprised the first time I put on steel strings and put it into mando tuning. Its sounds very good and is fun to play. www.thebeansprout.com. Aaron
I'd certainly add a banjolin to my herd if and when the right one comes along and it coincides with me actually having some money! There's someone selling a 1920's Gibson banjolin on the Mandolin Cafe classifieds right now actually. A pal of mine found an old Washburn (I think) banjolin at the thrift store where her granny worked - she got it with original case for about five bucks if I remember correctly.
There may be significant satisfaction in updating an old mandolin banjo, particularly if it is not very expensive to begin with. I recently acquired an improved neck, had it refretted with fat frets and I installed new tuning machines; I added a fiberskyn head, improved bridge and an adjustable tailpiece. You may have to experiment with various striing sets as well. These improvements made a very playable insrtument and provided enjoyment during the whole process. eBay is a pretty good source for mandolin banjos if the bidding doesn't get out of control.
I laid out $200.00 for a Vega banjo-mandolin a few years back after having seen and heard a fellow playing his Gibson trap-door mandolin in a bravura manner at the Seattle Folklife Festival. The bridge for the Vega is somewhat strange, consisting of a tiny aluminum I-beam supported by triangular composition feet at either end. The tone is pure banjo, not mandolinish at all. I have to say it's not my favorite instrument to play - I prefer my regular f-hole mandolin for comfort and ease of playing.
Marc, I agree that this mini-monster is not the favorite in the arsenal. The best way I can describe it would be a "utility" instrument, to be used sparingly. They do have their place, but finding it may be a little difficult; they do work well in a jug band. Some folks think they are obnoxious, but I really enjoy picking mine.