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Sep 11, 2019 - 7:03:24 AM
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12057 posts since 6/29/2005

Same size as a resonator banjo, fits in a standard banjo case, any banjo player can play it, sounds great, probably won’t cause a divorce or eviction notice.  At the end you can watch a video of the construction and some sound samples.

Back in around 1961, I bought an album called “Ballads and Bluegrass” by Walter Forbes.  It was a collection of traditional bluegrass tunes—Take this Hammer, Pretty Polly, Whoa Mule Whoa, Willow Garden, Cumberland Mountain Deer Chase, Fenario, Poor Ellen Smith, Ballad of Lost Jimmy Whalen etc etc.

Featured on the album was a dobro, a Gibson Florentine that had been modified into a longneck (this was 1961) and an instrument called a “Jackson Pollman Banjo Lute” made in the 1880s.  At the time, as a kid, I figured that all bluegrass bands had one of these, and didn’t think much of it.  Later on I realized it was unusual, but the tunes played on it stuck in my mind.  I know what you are going to say— it’s a “banjola”  I have to say, I hate that name, invented recently  and sounds like some calliope-like machine in an amusement park, connected to the merry-go-round that plays Happy times are here again really fast. Sherlock Holmes to Watson: “Nobody heard the gunshots, the banjola was playing”.

Anyway, around 1964, I made one, not too sophisticated, and showed it to my neighbor in Brooklyn, Eric Weissberg.  He said if  Imade some modifications, he would buy one. I was a student, had to do my school work and long short short, I never made another one—a lost opportunity.

Several years later, after I was out of the Army, I auditioned for a stage production of “Spoon River Anthology”, and won the audition with my pre-war Granada and the banjo lute— Spoon River anthology is a play about deceased townsfolk in a mid-western town coming out of the grave and telling what they really thought about their neighbors when they were alive.  It’s a spooky play and the banjo lute, with its harp-like quality in a minor key was perfect for this.  It worked like a charm.

I always wanted to make another better one but never did that until 2016—52 years later.  I made both a 5-string and 9-string version with scalloped X-bracing like guitars (which I called the 9-string one a banjo-bouzouki).

It was great for “the Ballad of Lost Jimmy Whalen.

I put them up on my website and sold a couple of the 5-string ones, and various celtic players who came to my studio were sorely tempted—every banjo player who plays them loves them because they can play it right out of the gate—a great second instrument, especially if you are a folk singer or solo performer— they are great for accompanying singing, and great in a studio, BUT they weren’t loud enough for a live band.  
All of a sudden, the interest in them  increased,  and I got three orders.  I thought I better figure out how to make a louder, more assertive one.  This led to some research about the latest guitar building technology, and I was attracted to the work of Greg Smallman, who‘s guitars cost a small fortune, no pun intended.

His thesis is just like a banjo—the top (head / sounding board) is what makes all the sound, and the support structure, the rim in the case of a banjo, and the back & sides in the case of a guitar must be very very rigid so as not to steal vibrational energy from the head / sounding board.

The sides are heavily braced and the top is extremely thin- in the neighborhood of 1mm-1.5mm, and braced with a delicate lightweight lattice- like structure reinforced with carbon fiber.

So, here’s the idea— it’s exactly the same size as a resonator banjo, and fits in a banjo case.

It has a 5-string banjo neck and a 26 1/4”scale.

The body is  a very stiffly braced construction, which supports an extremely thin top braced with a lattice structure  reinforced by carbon fiber


I made three of them—
(1) A cherry one with an old growth douglasfir top (Douglasfir produces a more assertive sound than spruce), and a Chester County “line&berry” inlay fingerboard
(2 )A walnut one with a curly maple neck and an old growth Douglasfir top, with medieval inlays based on patterns in 16th century churches in Norfolk and Suffolk.
(3) A mahogany neck / sapele body one with an old growth western red cedar top, as Smallman uses exclusively on his guitars, and the line&berry inlay

The red cedar top was especially nice.

I thought the various wood tops would alter the sound, but they sound practically identical.  The only thing that made a variation was strings, and at first I strung the Dougfir one and the red cedar one with steel strings - 11-14-16-24(phosphor bronze) -11, and the second Dougfir one with silk & steel - 11-14-16-20 (wound)- 24( wound)-11.
I didn’t like the silk & steel as much, and will go to steel - phosphor bronze wound, but will do a wound third string as well as the 4th, so it would be 11-14-20(phosphor nbronze- 26(phosphor bronze)-11 like the top 4 strings of an ultra light guitar set.

The sound files in my video are all 11-14-16-24(phosphor bronze)-11.

Instead of the usual MP3 sound samples, I made a video showing the construction, accompanied by the instruments in double C tuning (modal), G tuning, G tuning capoed to A, standard D tuning, and G minor tuning, all played with finger style (I am no good at frailing).
 


Edited by - Ken LeVan on 09/11/2019 07:08:37

Sep 11, 2019 - 7:10:41 AM

2679 posts since 5/29/2011

Pure genius.

Sep 11, 2019 - 7:13:29 AM

69852 posts since 5/9/2007

Very nice,Ken.
I saw Sonny Osborne playing one back in the 80s.

Sep 11, 2019 - 10:40:15 AM
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1060 posts since 7/12/2004

Beautiful instruments, Ken. Here's a distant relative built some years ago by Nick Apollonio from Maine. I picked it up in the 90s from his shop. It had been ordered by someone who never picked it up. Nick also used red cedar for the top, with rosewood sides and back. It sounds very similar to yours.  It is very lightweight (about a pound) and minimally braced. 

I just posted a recording of Sally In the Garden played on this in my media library, but I don't know how to embed it here so you'll have to search for it.

Sep 11, 2019 - 10:41:55 AM
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7338 posts since 1/7/2005

Oh my goodness. I am blown away. Maybe the most outstanding post I've seen on the forum. Got to run to a meeting, but I'll be back with full comments this afternoon.

yes yes yes

 

DD

Sep 11, 2019 - 11:50:17 AM

457 posts since 7/10/2012

Outstanding, what a satisfying video to watch. Thanks Ken!

Sep 11, 2019 - 12:24:18 PM

12057 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by waystation

Beautiful instruments, Ken. Here's a distant relative built some years ago by Nick Apollonio from Maine. I picked it up in the 90s from his shop. It had been ordered by someone who never picked it up. Nick also used red cedar for the top, with rosewood sides and back. It sounds very similar to yours.  It is very lightweight (about a pound) and minimally braced. 

I just posted a recording of Sally In the Garden played on this in my media library, but I don't know how to embed it here so you'll have to search for it.


A very nice instrument!

quite unusual and European looking—It looks to be somewhere between a balalaika and a bouzouki —Obviously, I was trying to make mine as banjo-shaped as possible and have it fit in a banjo case.

An interesting and creative aspect of your instrument is the bridge.  As we know, pin bridges glued directly to the top transmit more energy to the sounding board of a flat-top instrument than tailpiece bridges do, but they are not adjustable—archtop instruments like violin family, carved mandolins and archtop guitars use tailpieces.  They operate differently.  The way Mr. Apollonio solved the problem was to have a pin-bridge to hold the ball-end strings, with a second, movable bridge in front of it—very clever and I have never seen that before.

Not wanting to have bridge pins, which I have done in the past, I drilled holes in the back of the bridge— Mr Apollonio has done the same thing. It makes the strings pull more directly horizontally, and I have seen videos of classical guitar builders discussing that.

In my case, I have a removable insert in the bridge, which can be adjusted height-wise and can have various compensating saddles.

The other thing I didn't mention in my thread is that the earlier ones I made had very light bodies, so the geared tuners made them top-heavy and you needed a strap even to play them sitting down because the neck wanted to rotate towards the floor.  The ones made with the Smallman construction weigh a little under 5 pounds, which, while still considerably lighter than a banjo, makes them be well balanced and I have been playing them sitting, not needing a strap, which is a benefit to me.

In this old picture, you can see that the old ones needed to use a strap. The old ones also had tailpieces.,

Sep 11, 2019 - 12:34:39 PM

1060 posts since 7/12/2004

Mine definitely has a problem with weight distribution, especially since I put a standard banjo strap button on the heel. I love the almost weightless feel of it, but I definitely do feel like I have to support the neck when I'm playing.

It's interesting that the sound of mine is so similar to yours, given the completely different construction, bracing and bridge system. I originally was looking for something that sounded similar to a Pollman, but after hearing this one I really liked the more percussive sound of the notes, which seemed closer to a banjo on the attack but with the smoother and longer decay of a wood top instrument.

It was a stroke of genius to make it the right shape to fit in a banjo case. Between that and the bracing it seems like a much better road instrument. I'm always nervous to take mine out of the house since I can only fit it in a soft case.

Unless I missed it, you didn't mention which of the instruments you did the recordings on.

Sep 11, 2019 - 1:02:28 PM
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12057 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by waystation

Mine definitely has a problem with weight distribution, especially since I put a standard banjo strap button on the heel. I love the almost weightless feel of it, but I definitely do feel like I have to support the neck when I'm playing.

It's interesting that the sound of mine is so similar to yours, given the completely different construction, bracing and bridge system. I originally was looking for something that sounded similar to a Pollman, but after hearing this one I really liked the more percussive sound of the notes, which seemed closer to a banjo on the attack but with the smoother and longer decay of a wood top instrument.

It was a stroke of genius to make it the right shape to fit in a banjo case. Between that and the bracing it seems like a much better road instrument. I'm always nervous to take mine out of the house since I can only fit it in a soft case.

Unless I missed it, you didn't mention which of the instruments you did the recordings on.


They are on two different ones— the mahogany one with the cedar top and the cherry one.  They sound practically identical.  While I was making the recordings, one of the silk and steel strings broke while I was changing tunings on the walnut one, which told me I ought not use those, so I went on with the other two.

I HAD, however made 2 recordings with the silk and steel before the string broke, so I can show a comparison between the two.  One is the walnut one with the silk and steel wound 3rd and 4th strings, and the other one is the mahogany one with the cedar top with a phosphor bronze wound 4th string.

One thing I notice is that banjo lutes have a similar distinctive harplike quality to the sound, with a lot of sustain, which you are familiar with. It's harder to parse the difference in projection and volume unless you are doing a direct apples-to-apples comparison.

Here are the sound samples:


Sep 11, 2019 - 1:08 PM

1778 posts since 1/16/2010

Way cool Ken! Beautiful craftsmanship.....beautiful sound! And Weissberg was your neighbor........so jealous! very neat story.

Dow

Sep 11, 2019 - 1:34:25 PM

12057 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Texican65

Way cool Ken! Beautiful craftsmanship.....beautiful sound! And Weissberg was your neighbor........so jealous! very neat story.

Dow


Thanks!

Weissberg lived down the street from me when I was going to school in Brooklyn.  He had a carriage house on my block where he kept his car and other stuff.  He was very approachable and friendly, you could talk to him about music, and I actually got a tour of his apartment and saw his collection of banjos.  Of course, the early 60s was at the height of the folk music boom, and it seemed as if everyone in that neighborhood played some instrument and all the banjo players were learning to play Bluegrass. I can think of three other banjo players besides myself in a two-block area, and plenty of guitar players.

Eric had gone to Julliard, where he studied classical bass, but he was so good a musician and loved traditional music, he played in groups like the Tarriers and the Greenbriar Boys.  He could play practically any instrument,  which is probably why he was interested in the banjo lute.

One of the other banjo players in the neighborhood, Winnie Winston, who wrote and played the theme for "Car Talk" told me that at one point after the folk boom went over the crest of the power curve, any commercial, or film thing using a banjo, would be played by either Douglas Dillard or Eric Weissberg, and of course, Weissberg famously played Dueling Banjos in "Deliverance", and Dillard played all the incidental banjo music in Bonny and Clyde around the old Scruggs recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown.  He matched the sound of the old Scruggs recording using an archtop banjo.  Weissberg and Dillard got into a dispute over Dueling Banjos.

Sep 11, 2019 - 2:39:13 PM

6040 posts since 8/28/2013

I never could figure "Duelling Banjos" being played on one banjo and a guitar. I liked the Arthur Smith original with a tenor banjo and a five string banjo battling it out. The later versions with guitar should be called "Banjo vs. Guitar."

Sep 11, 2019 - 2:40:41 PM

6040 posts since 8/28/2013

Actually, I should also add that your banjo Lute is a commendable instrument, very innovative and well built.

Sep 11, 2019 - 3:21:53 PM

7338 posts since 1/7/2005

Ken,

Thanks for posting such an entertaining thread. Love the instruments and love your presentation. I had that exact same Walter Forbes record back when I first started picking banjo. I learned a few songs off it and it influenced my playing quite a bit. I had never heard of a banjo-lute before that and was fascinated by the concept. But I was too young and too self-taught at the time to build one for myself. I never did run across one in later years, and everything I knew about banjo lutes I got from reading about them.

Your three instruments sound much more powerful than the Pohlmann that Forbes played. They may not be as loud as a banjo, ( what is?) but I'd guess they could certainly hold their own in a jam along with guitar, mandolin and fiddle.

They have gobs of sustain--which I love. I don't quite know how sustain got such a bad rap with some banjo players, but I like it, and always build some into my own instruments. The sustain may limit what banjo licks you can use , but this is not a banjo--it's a horse of a different color. Nobody complains about the sustain on guitars. I think it will open up the banjo lute to slower, more sensitive pieces that tend to sound harsh and clunky when picked on the banjo. From a performance standpoint, it gives the banjo player an alternate weapon without having to relearn the fretboard.

Each one you present is different but all are easily recognizable as your work. Your taste and workmanship is always a pleasure to see, but never gaudy or in bad taste. Over the past several years you have been developing a unique style, that looks very traditional, without slavishly copying vintage brands. You put your heart and soul into your instruments and it shows. Your sense of design has had a strong influence on my own work, as I'm sure it has for other luthiers on the forum.

Eric Weissberg was one of my hero's when I was learning to play. I remember spending many hours working out his tune "Pony Express" and I still think it's one of the most inventive and exciting pieces I know. I demand to know why he didn't live down the block from me? :-< As I recall, you also lived down the block from John D'Angelico. Some guys have all the luck.

Too many details to comment on, but I especially like your use of the binding, and your sound hole rosette is very classy. You should post a closeup of each.

Having played classical guitar, I am very familiar with Smallman instruments. His instrument prices would buy you a nice new automobile, and I think his waiting list is currently the rest of your life plus a few decades. He's a odd character--very reclusive, but he is obviously a creative genius. His style of construction is totally original, and makes perfect sense. But he would probably have few customers if not for the fact that John Williams plays a Smallman guitar. Now everyone wants one. But I've never seen his concepts applied to another instrument as you have done. I take off my hat to you.

DD

Sep 11, 2019 - 3:26:25 PM

8813 posts since 2/22/2007

Ken, did you ever string one with nylon/Nylgut?

Sep 11, 2019 - 4:40:26 PM

92 posts since 1/24/2019

Very cool! Walter Forbes is a friend. I’m sure he’ll be tickled that you were influenced by his album!

Sep 11, 2019 - 5:49:34 PM
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12057 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Bobby Burns

Very cool! Walter Forbes is a friend. I’m sure he’ll be tickled that you were influenced by his album!


You can thank him for me.  I was very much influenced by that album, and it pulled me away from the more commercial folk music of the day. The other albums with banjo playing that came around the same time were a collection called "New Folks" that had the Greenbriar Boys and Hedy West, and another called "Hootenanny", that had a few songs by the Dillards—I internalized all these.  I have to say that The Walter Forbes album, Douglas Dillard and Bob Yellin were a much stronger influence when I was learning than Earl Scruggs and Don Reno.

Sep 11, 2019 - 5:52:13 PM

12057 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by banjo bill-e

Ken, did you ever string one with nylon/Nylgut?


It's a plan I have in mind— I want to make one with a slotted peghead and nylon strings.  When I made these three, I made a 4th body that has no neck as yet— I may make that one into a nylon strung one/

Sep 11, 2019 - 8:27:58 PM

8813 posts since 2/22/2007

If you do that I would like to hear a sound sample. The nylon would be truer to the "lute" part of the equation.

Sep 11, 2019 - 10:03:48 PM

7338 posts since 1/7/2005

The tone quality and sustain reminds me of a hammered dulcimer.

DD

Sep 12, 2019 - 3:14:46 AM

PaulRF

Australia

3028 posts since 2/1/2012

Fantastic work as usual Ken and amazing looking instruments. I really like the sound clip of the silk & steel strings more than the PBs and I am currently trying different strings on my Cort guitar to see which ones I prefer. On my Yamaha, which I just sold the silk and steel strings sounded great but not as much on the Cort. I am trying Earnie Ball 80/20 bronze alloy at present and am enjoying those. Looking forward to more sound files.

Paul

Sep 12, 2019 - 4:17:10 AM

12057 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Dan Drabek

The tone quality and sustain reminds me of a hammered dulcimer.

DD


I hadn't thought of that, but you are right.  I think the earlier ones I made had a harp-like sound, especially if you played them with bare fingers. but these new ones are more percussive, and hammered dulcimers are percussive.

My wife thinks they sound somewhere between a banjo and a guitar, but not like either one on its own.  She also thinks it's equal in volume to her 12" nylon strung goatskin head banjo, and has played them back-and-forth.  I once experimented by putting a sound-post in a banjo, between the dowel stick and the top just under the bridge and that increased the sustain by a lot and reduced the volume by a little.  That's closer to the sound, I think, but the sound of the banjo lute is more complex than a banjo sound, so it's difficult to categorize.

Speaking of sound posts, I read that Smallman puts two sound-posts in his guitars.  When I was building the bodies, they were very lively if you tapped on them and I wedged a spruce sound-post between the center stiffening strut and the center bottom brace and it altered the pitch of the body quite a bit.  Once the body was fully assembled, with the top glued on, I did it again, and this time I got no pitch change.  I even tried one between the bottom and the top as in a violin, and still nothing happened that I could hear.  I even tried it while I was stringing the instrument and had one string, so I could still reach inside and set the sound-post.  Still no change.  I'm probably not putting it in the right place.  I don't know what it would do, anyway.

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 09/12/2019 04:18:57

Sep 12, 2019 - 6:56:36 AM

Banjo Lefty

Canada

1627 posts since 6/19/2014

Ken, are you thinking of making these for sale?

Sep 12, 2019 - 7:03:54 AM

6040 posts since 8/28/2013

I think a sound post is more critical on a bowed instrument due to the different tone production method, but perhaps Mr. Smallman has found a spot  that needs the tiny extra "oomph" or maybe even just extra structural integrity a post might supply in his particular design. It may be entirely unnecessary on a differently shaped instrument like your banjo lute.

Sep 12, 2019 - 7:04:02 AM
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12057 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Banjo Lefty

Ken, are you thinking of making these for sale?


Absolutely! The first three, which are the subject of this thread were made to order, so already sold.  I will definitely be making more, inasmuch as I saved all the forms and templates, and I like making these.

Sep 12, 2019 - 8:44:26 AM

7338 posts since 1/7/2005

I'm pretty sure that a sound post requires a two-footed bridge. The location of the sound post is under one of the bridge feet, which provides a pivot point for the bridge to rock and enhance the sound. Or something to that effect. :->

DD

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