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Move to the Dark Side - My First Open-back

Posted by MrNatch3L on Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Just kiddin' friends and neighbors! I've been picking away with 3 fingers and resonator banjos for quite a while and I wanted to give clawhammer a try with an open-back banjo. Also wanted a more plunky, woody sound for some of my own tunes. I was watching the BHO classifieds RSS feed and several dealers, thinking about kind of thing I'd like to pick up.

Tenor potThen one day comes an ad for an older Vega tenor for sale in Europe that seemed to be in pretty nice shape. At least it looked a lot like a Vega. But even if it's not, it seems to be a decent older pot and the price was good enough I started thinking 5-string conversion. 

With me so far? American nut case, living in Russia, finds alleged American-built Vega tenor banjo for sale pretty cheap in Germany. No way was I having it shipped thru Russia's Customs service (baaaad experience!), so it shipped to one daughter who lives in Paris. Where it is as of this writing. The timing was pretty good because we were plannig to visit her in October to meet the family of her boyfriend of more than 5 years. They think it's time - but that's beside the point... well, not totally.

While the banjo was in transit I start badgering BHO forums looking for a luthier in Europe who could make a 5-string neck. Got several recommendations I felt would be equally good. But it turned out that Eric Stefanelli lives just a couple of klicks off the main road we'd be driving from Paris to the boyfriend's home town. If you follow the link, you can see he does some nice open-back work, and his quote was competitive. But by that time it already was starting to have that "this is the way it's meant to be" feeling.

So are you still with me? Same American nutcase living in Russia has bought purportedly American Vega banjo in Germany, shipped to France to avoid shipping thru Russian Customs (due to previous attempt to extort $10,000 USD on a pallet shipment of old books that came from Russia in the first place, used towels, chipped dinnerware and worn kids' clothes - thwarted when wife recognized as prominent journalist... but I digress)... hires French luthier to make 5-string conversion neck.

Still working on the problem of a case for the conversion. Neither M. Stefanelli nor I can find anything available in France or other EU countries made specifically for open back banjos. He usually provides his customers with a case made for resonator banjos and does some extra padding. But this will work out. I may bring it home to St. Petersburg well packed in a box and have a case made for it here. I know several people who have had nice custom banjo cases made locally for far less than you'd pay for a good Calton or something. Maybe I'll just do that and add one more international bit to this seriously international banjo.


Well, the saga continued. In October 2011 I visited my Parisian daughter, took the banjo and headed for Besancon with a short detour through Courcelles-Fremoy in the heart of Burgundy, where I had a nice visit to Eric Stefanelli's workshop. Lunch at an old inn in a nearby village was memorable, as was Eric's 400 year old stone house, not to mention his collection of old American banjos plus the ones he has built for himself. 

Eric was able to confirm that my banjo was indeed a vintage Vega style F ca. 1923-24 in near mint condition. One prong on the tailpiece was damaged. It  turned out to have an old Rogers signed calfskin head in good enough condition to leave on. Could be the original head. So I left the old tenor with Eric, along with some tuners I'd ordered from the U.S. and an older No Knot tailpiece that a Canadian BHO member traded me in exchange for a St. Petersburg t-shirt. At that point I had no clue when I'd be able to take the finished conversion, so I told Eric he need not hurry.

As it turned out, the banjo made one more journey getting into my hands. I was in Prague on a business trip just at the time the conversion was finished, so Eric shipped it to me there and I then hand carried it on the plane back to St. Petersburg

The new conversion neck is a beautiful piece of work. The neck is Martinique mahogany, which I'd never seen before. It has some beautiful grain that seems like it has streaks of sunshine peeking through. The fretboard, peghead overlay, and heelcap are Madagascar ebony with a sandwich of American maple between it and the mahogany. The finish is a French polish (what else?!) with Eric's own finish concoction containing Burgundy wine distillates. I don't usually go in for inlays, but I made an exception here. I selected Vega style inlays but went for a look that I liked rather than authenticity. M. Stefanelli added some nice engraved dots. 

 I'm still very much a clawhammer/old-time newbie, but I'm finding it a very relaxing and satisfying style to play even if I don't do it very well yet. This new-old banjo with it's long history and many journeys and counties involved (USA - Germany - France (Paris) - France (Burgundy) - Czech Republic - Russia, plus Nova Scotia, Canada whence came the tailpiece) makes it even more interesting.

Grain in the conversion neck wood Finished conversion Rough-cut neck Conversion peghead work

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