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Mar 4, 2021 - 6:03 AM
116 posts since 9/30/2016

First, I admit to sacrilege, but reversible sacrilege!

I have been playing with/struggling with my late Dad's 1920's Stella tenor, which he used for Dixieland/light jazz/folk tunes, but only rarely in my recollection. I inherited, and tried it for Irish. At a Catskills Irish Arts Week class (90 degrees and 95% humidity) the old skin head sort of "melted" and sagged to the point it couldn't be tuned/played. I put a new mylar head on, and swapped back and forth nylon guitar strings and steel strings. I could only keep it tuned in nylon, 'cause the old friction tuners were a constant hassle. Basically, with disassembly, cleaning, additional fibre washers, etc., they would not hold for steel, unless I tightened the main body screw to the point I could barely turn them. Not worth the trouble, it seemed.

Some months ago, on the side of the street on trash night in my home city of Hartford, there appeared a busted up older Takimime (spelling?) guitar. I grabbed it thinking I could use the neck and tuners for some sort of big cigar box creation later. Yesterday, I took one of the tuners from it, and held it up to the banjo for diameter comparison. Looked close, and when I removed one of the banjo tuners, it turned out the guitar tuner was a perfect fit. So, I swapped 'em all, no reaming or drilling or scratching (I just tightened the new ones with the post nut, and didn't use the little screws that would make it "permanent.") Labeled and bagged the originals for safe-keeping.

Result: Perfect tunability (compared to what I had) and easy install of D'Addarion j80 octave mandolin strings, GDAE tuning. Looks a tad dorky, with too-white buttons sticking out too-wide at the side, but perfectly playable. I don't take it out anywhere, anyway. Now, if I really take to the setup, the 65 dollars for a neater-looking set of GoToh or similar can be choice based on knowing I like playing it without spending more time tuning than playing.

So, for those who have been sympathetic to the improvements that happen with geared tuning, my cup is raised to you. To those who have rather dismissed the desire to swap, let me simply say "I tried, and failed" to use the originals. Now, I have a banjo I can play, for whatever that's worth.


Edited by - dcolpitts on 03/04/2021 06:17:31

Mar 4, 2021 - 6:16:36 AM

6097 posts since 9/21/2007

The original use of friction pegs on tenor banjos was 100% price point driven. Friction pegs were much cheaper than geared.

I don't see a reason to keep them on tenor banjos.

5 strings, now that is a different story.

Mar 4, 2021 - 6:26:10 AM

116 posts since 9/30/2016

Thanks, Joel. I appreciate the historical note (which I didn't even consider....)

Now, I have a priceless family heirloom in a usable configuration. My guess is I'll get used to the look, even. Actually, if the buttons were more "ivory" than stark white, it'd be fine. Now, there's just a bit too much contrast between the white buttons and the mid-20's Jersey City "mother of toilet seat" neck. Might be lipstick on a pig, but it's my pig.

Mar 4, 2021 - 6:30:23 AM

116 posts since 9/30/2016

And, Joel. Is it really a different story with 5-strings? Or is it a little facetious nod to the longer history of such? Just curious...

Mar 4, 2021 - 7:14:21 AM

6097 posts since 9/21/2007

Originally posted by dcolpitts

And, Joel. Is it really a different story with 5-strings? Or is it a little facetious nod to the longer history of such? Just curious...

Good 5 string banjos with friction pegs were intended for gut strings.  The exception to this are the cheapest budget banjos produced for selling by "jobbers" at or around the turn of 1900.  There were low end regular banjos sold before and after WW2 that had friction tuners, but again, I believe those were built to sell and not actually play.  

Before WW2, high quality regular banjos (though production of them had mostly stopped by then) were still intended for gut strings.  Friction pegs and gut (or post WW2 nylon) work just fine and are my preference.  Some very high end regular banjos did come with geared tuners after those came on the market before WW2, that was also price point driven. In that case the price point was a higher one and they were chosen because they cost more.

Mar 4, 2021 - 4:58:36 PM



969 posts since 11/30/2015
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Hi David, glad to see you're still playing the banjo, and now enjoying it in it's improved state! My philosophy on reaming pegheads for planetary tuners is this (vintage tenors for trad is my specialty), if the banjo is not rare enough to be one a collector would want in 100% original condition or belong in a museum, then it's going to be played. And if it is going to be played, and enjoyed, planetary tuners must be installed!

Mar 5, 2021 - 2:03:24 AM
Players Union Member



13812 posts since 8/30/2006

For planets, the 3/8" hole is easy to drill out to 10mm which is just slightly bigger.

Agree with the Gotoh tuners Bob and Bill mentioned for the same reasons. I have ordered several Gotoh sets from Bob's and I am completely satisfied with the tuners and his service. banjered.

I gave up after 12 years on entry level planets. I put Rickards on one Sassafras banjo and got the snakewood buttons, the customer was very exacting and they worked for him.

I finally bought Gotohs from Bob Smakula and got the amber buttons. My banjos sound much better. Especially with the ambers.!!

These are the ivoroid buttons. 

Edited by - Helix on 03/05/2021 02:05:04

Mar 5, 2021 - 5:30:23 AM

116 posts since 9/30/2016

What a great site for information and collaboration! Thanks, Joel, for the historical bits...very good to know. And Dan, yes, still messing about with the banjo...I suspect you were in the Catskills when my first attempt "melted." And Larry, I will plan for Gotohs when I am motivated, but the geared guitar scavenging takes care of me for now, since I can actually tune the thing with steel strings.

Historical side question: Did the mid-1920's Oscar Schmidt/Stella models get shipped with gut? Steel? A choice? While I may put nylon back at some point, I certainly will keep mechanical tuners. Even with nylon strings, it was a huge pain to keep tuned.

Thanks again to all for pitching in.

Mar 5, 2021 - 6:26:01 AM

13476 posts since 6/29/2005

I am assuming that the tuners from the guitar were the "out-to-the-side" worm and gear type. These work better than the planetary ones and are essentially foolproof, using an ancient technology probably invented by Archimedes.

I have never understood how the fussy planetary "straight out" kind came to be the norm for banjos—path dependence from friction tuners, I guess, although I'll readily admit I greatly prefer the 4:1 ratio of the planetary ones, but that can't be the reason for the switchover, since I'd bet that people who use digital tuners would like the 14:1 ratio better.

In the 60s, when I started to play, all folksingers used the guitar type, which are 14:1—any folksinger who was learning to play the banjo would go out and buy the Grover Rotomatics and the "perma-tension" 5th tuner, which was eventually replaced by the worm-and-gear capstan type.  Eventually the Rotomatics became a standard on Vega banjos and were standard on ODE banjos.

I'll also admit I use the planetary ones on banjos I build, because that's what people expect, but almost always put Rotomatics on longnecks for the sake of tradition.

ALSO, if you use the guitar type tuners, an openback banjo can fit into a flat rectangular electric guitar case, and a longneck can fit into an electric bass case.

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 03/05/2021 06:33:07

Mar 5, 2021 - 7:08:47 AM

116 posts since 9/30/2016

Yes, Ken. The "out to the side" kind. I never noticed any at sessions, and am pleasantly surprised by your documentation on their proliferation! Maybe I won't change 'em at all, but will get a yard-sale guitar case to carry the thing in, if I need to take it out.


Mar 5, 2021 - 1:21:38 PM
Players Union Member



13812 posts since 8/30/2006

I like the ingenuity

the 4:1 is for orchestra, one twist of the wrist


Edited by - Helix on 03/05/2021 13:31:36

Mar 5, 2021 - 2:13:33 PM
Players Union Member



13812 posts since 8/30/2006

it is my privilege to show what some fondly refer to as the Vernetta 

this one came to us , neck straight with steel and planets

This Kentucky model longneck from Stamm came with planets

Mar 5, 2021 - 2:31:18 PM
Players Union Member



13812 posts since 8/30/2006

Genetic lift with a few tablespoons of desire
Mike Gregory tunes with dice

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