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Mar 6, 2021 - 1:58:48 PM
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13476 posts since 6/29/2005

Will it ever be spring here in northern PA?


 

I finished this instrument a little while ago, built for a BHO member, but have been having challenges getting a case shipped to me  because of the ice and snow— Fedex and UPS won’t come up my road for good reason, my mailbox is 1/4 mile away and I don’t want a banjo case to be left in the snow overnight—a problem I’ll have to solve, as I have many instruments to ship out very soon.

Meanwhile, this is a very cool and unusual instrument, so I'll show some details of it.
It’s a “banjo lute” as I have been making them, roughly designed after the Jackson Pollman banjo lutes made by August Pollman in the 1880s, but with a lot of modern construction techniques, and they have become very popular in my practice—I have been making six of them which has caused big delays in my banjo schedule, for which I apologize, but the shop has to be set up in a different way for these than for banjos— they are more like a banjo resonator or guitar than a banjo pot.

The body is  a very stiffly braced construction, inspired by classical guitars made by Australian luthier Greg Smallman, which supports an extremely thin top braced with a lattice structure  reinforced by carbon fiber. The rigid body thin top design is more like a banjo than a guitar, and snarky critics of Smallman's guitars have described their sound as "banjo-like"—they are louder than typival classical guitars.

So here's my construction:

the stiffly braced carcase

the 1.5mm top with carbon fiber reinforced lattice bracing:

a picture showing how thin the top is:


In a nutshell, a banjo lute is more like a very large and deep mandolin body, like an octave mandolin or mandola but deeper, with a banjo neck, so if you can play the banjo, you can play this with no “extra training” and get a different sound.
They are much lighter than a banjo, and not as loud, so that solves a couple of problems for some banjo players right out of the gate.

Normally, the ones I build have a 26.25” scale, but this one has a 23.5” scale, so is actually a perfect “A” scale.
Here’s a rough drawing I did just to get the proportions worked out.

The dotted line red circle is the outline of a typical banjo resonator (these are designed to fit in a resonator banjo case).

Beyond the drawing, at the request of the client, BHO member Andy Fults, the 5th peg is at the 6th fret, which is a nice feature, especially if you want to capo at the 5th fret, which would turn out to be G in C positions, D in G positions.

I have made a few banjos like this and it works great as long as you have a good inlay at the 5th fret so you don’t get confused—you’ll hear on the sound files where I got confused—once you get used to it, it’s wonderful, probably better than the normal 5th peg position. Vega did a longneck like this in the 60s, which they called the “Exel/Excel”.

The peghead has a star-of-Bethlehem design made from maple and walnut, the logo is copper and the peghead veneer is applewood.

The back is made from curly cherry quarter cut, and Andy didn’t want it to be stained, so it has a nice natural cherry color, which will get darker over time.  The binding is curly maple and padauk

The top is old growth Douglasfir, which produces a clean sound, more aggressive than spruce, so well suited for a small-bodied instrument like this—I was lucky to get a few boards of this and will never be able to get any more exactly like it.
The binding on the top is curly maple with herringbone purfling:

You may be wondering what the black piece between the neck and body is—it’s a carbon fiber interface made to allow two things:
(1)  can adapt any kind of neck, from a 4-string to an 8-string, like a mandola or octave mandolin, to a 9 string with the same basic body. and (2) it allows adjustments to the neck fit—I have used somethiung like this on some 6-string banjos and it works where the fingerboard overlaps the body and the neck can't be easily re-cut.


—the neck is bolted on like a banjo or bolted-on guitar neck, so can be removed for resetting, etc.

The bridge  is compensated as it would have to be with an instrument that has this much sustain.  I have it strung with ball-end Lawrence Juber guitar strings- 11-14 plain, 18-24 phosphor bronze wound, 11 plain, so they are pretty heavy, with 88.6 # of tension.

I developed a pickguard for these because the one I have at home gets scratched from my fingerpicks.  It looks like this, and I made a mold and have made some prototypes

So far nobody has wanted that option, but it’s there in case anyone does in the future.

Here you see the armrest I use on these instruments—the top, being a scant 1.5 mm thick needs to be protected from surface marring.


Here’s a picture of the instrument, front&back:

 

and a detail of the bridge and endpin—you can also see a little bit of the arm rest.

I tried to make some sound files, but my dog loves to sing along with this instrument, so they are not too hot, but you get the idea. It’s strung normally and tuned as if it was an A banjo.  It has a percussive sound, not unlike a hammered dulcimer that comes through even with the short scale.

Andy is going to frail on it or use a clawhammer technique he has developed.  I hope he posts some sound samples—meanwhile here are some less than great examples of my own playing with fingerpicks.


Edited by - Ken LeVan on 03/06/2021 14:02:34

Mar 6, 2021 - 2:07:28 PM

PaulRF

Australia

3183 posts since 2/1/2012
Online Now

Amazing Ken and like all of your work beautifully finished.  They sound great in the sound files as well although I did noticed a bit of howling in the first and one final howl right at the end of the second. smiley  Do they cost more than your banjos?

Cheers, Paul

Edited by - PaulRF on 03/06/2021 14:10:12

Mar 6, 2021 - 2:15:24 PM
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13476 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by PaulRF

Amazing Ken and like all of your work beautifully finished.  They sound great in the sound files as well although I did noticed a bit of howling in the first and one final howl right at the end of the second. smiley  Do they cost more than your banjos?

Cheers, Paul


Paul,

You did hear the howling.  My dog really likes the sound of these instruments, and when I try to make a sound file, I have to play it over and over until he gets tired of singing along.

The price of these is similar to banjos.

I'll be posting pictures of more of them very shortly, as I have made a few.

Mar 6, 2021 - 3:54:55 PM

41 posts since 12/27/2019

Brilliant engineering, attention to detail, and execution.

The sound files with the hounds were fun!

One thing that comes up for me is being worried by the thinness of the top.

Thanks for sharing!

Mar 6, 2021 - 6:06:51 PM

8385 posts since 8/28/2013

With the bracing, I would see no problems with the thinness of the top as far as it getting broken, although I could see a definite use for a "pick guard." The main thing about a thin top would be the possibilty that it might wear through a little faster, and look like Willie Nelson's guitar in a short period of time. That works for Mr. Nelson, but it might not work so well for the average picker.

By the way, our family dog took to howling when a banjo was played. After a while she went deaf, though. She wouldn't howl then unless she actually saw the banjo. Sometimes it didn't even have to be played; she'd sing along anyway if she just saw the thing.

Mar 6, 2021 - 6:07:51 PM

13476 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Silver_Falls

Brilliant engineering, attention to detail, and execution.

The sound files with the hounds were fun!

One thing that comes up for me is being worried by the thinness of the top.

Thanks for sharing!


The lattice bracing with carbon fiber reinforcement and double layer on the top part around the sound hole creates plenty of strength.  My tops are thicker than those of most classical guitars built by that method, which use balsa wood as the braces. I use spruce bracing and have never had one belly below the bridge or crack.

Mar 6, 2021 - 6:08:04 PM

Foote

USA

451 posts since 3/25/2009

Beautiful, looking and sounding. Does the dog come with it?

Mar 6, 2021 - 6:43:32 PM
Players Union Member

blazo

USA

281 posts since 5/16/2017

Ken LeVan, looks great. I've been thinking about one of your banjo lutes for a while. I recently picked up a Gold Tone Banjola (for a really good price, couldn't pass it up). I bought it mainly so see if my interest in the instrument would eventually send me your way again for a much better instrument than the GT.

Do you build these in just one size? I'm assuming your lute is ~11". Have you done a 12"? If so, is it comparable to the difference between an 11 and a 12" banjo? Would you know how the volume & sustain compare to the GT? I'm guessing your lute has more of both (sound files certainly appear to have increased sustain over the GT). The GT is pretty quiet.

Edited by - blazo on 03/06/2021 18:44:11

Mar 7, 2021 - 5:16:29 AM
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13476 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by blazo

Ken LeVan, looks great. I've been thinking about one of your banjo lutes for a while. I recently picked up a Gold Tone Banjola (for a really good price, couldn't pass it up). I bought it mainly so see if my interest in the instrument would eventually send me your way again for a much better instrument than the GT.

Do you build these in just one size? I'm assuming your lute is ~11". Have you done a 12"? If so, is it comparable to the difference between an 11 and a 12" banjo? Would you know how the volume & sustain compare to the GT? I'm guessing your lute has more of both (sound files certainly appear to have increased sustain over the GT). The GT is pretty quiet.


Hi Blaise,

They are 14" across and fit in a standard TKL resonator banjo case.

I have never heard a GT one, so have no idea what the difference in sound would be.  Several years back, I made several with standard guitar X bracing and they were slightly smaller and shallower.  I always thought the harplike sound was wonderful, but they weren't loud enough to play in a group,  which was what led me to the larger deeper construction with the Smallman  lattice bracing.

Mar 7, 2021 - 5:37:49 AM

13476 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Ken LeVan
quote:
Originally posted by Silver_Falls

Brilliant engineering, attention to detail, and execution.

The sound files with the hounds were fun!

One thing that comes up for me is being worried by the thinness of the top.

Thanks for sharing!


The lattice bracing with carbon fiber reinforcement and double layer on the top part around the sound hole creates plenty of strength.  My tops are thicker than those of most classical guitars built by that method, which use balsa wood as the braces. I use spruce bracing and have never had one belly below the bridge or crack.


I should also mention that Douglasfir is very strong—a modulus of elasticity stronger than maple walnut or ash as evidenced by the chart below, while spruce and red cedar are much weaker.

When I make a cedar or spruce top, they are made thicker, especially cedar, which is also softer. I also make the bracing on cedar tops from tulip poplar, which is very stiff yet light.  You have to dimension different species of wood differently.  As an example, for steel string guitar tops, which are much larger and under more stress, the standard thickness for sitka spruce is .100" of 2.5 mm, whereas red cedar is .12" or 3 mm.  It would be difficult to get a suitable piece of douglasfir for a guitar top, so I don't know how you would thickness it—guessing around 80 thousandths or 2.25mm.

Plus, dougfir is much more scratch resistant than spruce, cedar is very soft.

Mar 7, 2021 - 6:06:37 AM

8385 posts since 8/28/2013

Interesting that guitars made with lattice tops by others use balsa for bracing. Balsa is soft, and I'd guess that its softness would have a slight deadening effect on the actual top. I know that with most soundboards, the braces are not sinply structural, but help in the transfer of energy across the wood. This is particularly a noticeable thing with different guitar bracing (ladder or X) and withn pianos (part of what distinguishes Steinway is their use of sugar pine for soundboard "ribs," where most others use spruce.)

For that reason, and for the added reason of strength, I would certainly follow your example and use almost anything but balsa,.

Mar 7, 2021 - 6:17:03 AM

13476 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by G Edward Porgie

Interesting that guitars made with lattice tops by others use balsa for bracing. Balsa is soft, and I'd guess that its softness would have a slight deadening effect on the actual top. I know that with most soundboards, the braces are not sinply structural, but help in the transfer of energy across the wood. This is particularly a noticeable thing with different guitar bracing (ladder or X) and withn pianos (part of what distinguishes Steinway is their use of sugar pine for soundboard "ribs," where most others use spruce.)

For that reason, and for the added reason of strength, I would certainly follow your example and use almost anything but balsa,.


Personally, I think the balsa is overkill, and I don't have the courage for that, but that's the way most of these guitars are made.

Here's a video showing construction:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwg0mlm12vI

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 03/07/2021 06:20:11

Mar 7, 2021 - 6:28:52 AM

13476 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Ken LeVan
quote:
Originally posted by G Edward Porgie

Interesting that guitars made with lattice tops by others use balsa for bracing. Balsa is soft, and I'd guess that its softness would have a slight deadening effect on the actual top. I know that with most soundboards, the braces are not sinply structural, but help in the transfer of energy across the wood. This is particularly a noticeable thing with different guitar bracing (ladder or X) and withn pianos (part of what distinguishes Steinway is their use of sugar pine for soundboard "ribs," where most others use spruce.)

For that reason, and for the added reason of strength, I would certainly follow your example and use almost anything but balsa,.


Personally, I think the balsa is overkill, and I don't have the courage for that, but that's the way most of these guitars are made.

Here's a video showing construction:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwg0mlm12vI


If you look at that video, you see that the very rigid carcase is similar to a piano frame— I think there's some crossover there, and I don't doubt that Smallman had looked at pianos—I wonder if a lattice braced piano top would work.  I will build a braced banjo rim with that carcase construction at some point (when I have the time) ha ha.

Mar 7, 2021 - 9:44:16 AM

8385 posts since 8/28/2013

quote:
Originally posted by Ken LeVan
quote:
Originally posted by Ken LeVan
quote:
Originally posted by G Edward Porgie

Interesting that guitars made with lattice tops by others use balsa for bracing. Balsa is soft, and I'd guess that its softness would have a slight deadening effect on the actual top. I know that with most soundboards, the braces are not sinply structural, but help in the transfer of energy across the wood. This is particularly a noticeable thing with different guitar bracing (ladder or X) and withn pianos (part of what distinguishes Steinway is their use of sugar pine for soundboard "ribs," where most others use spruce.)

For that reason, and for the added reason of strength, I would certainly follow your example and use almost anything but balsa,.


Personally, I think the balsa is overkill, and I don't have the courage for that, but that's the way most of these guitars are made.

Here's a video showing construction:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwg0mlm12vI


If you look at that video, you see that the very rigid carcase is similar to a piano frame— I think there's some crossover there, and I don't doubt that Smallman had looked at pianos—I wonder if a lattice braced piano top would work.  I will build a braced banjo rim with that carcase construction at some point (when I have the time) ha ha.


There have been dozens of piano soundboard bracing systems, but I don't know of any using a lattice structure, and I doubt it would be an improvement. There has been a movement toward laminated boards, though (although the first of these was actually done in the 19thn century) and there have been ones with ribs on both sides. There have been arrangements where the ribs were in a fan, or parallel to the grain rather than across it. I believe that a lattice could work, but the conventions of piano construction these days would prohibit that from a sales view, unless it could be done more cheaply than a conventional board (that's the reason for the use of laminated soundboards-there is no acoustical advantage).

I do see the resemblance to piano rims with Smallman's method. It does add rigidity, which should force the top to do its job better. However, like just about everything, it's a bit of a balancing act. Some pianos from the late 19th century were so heavily constructed that the rim's rigidity actually dampened some of the overtones, producing a very nice mellow tone that lacked a bit of sparkle--more of an "O" than an "E"--that didn't project well in a large concert hall.

Mar 9, 2021 - 10:28:33 AM
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3967 posts since 5/12/2010

Wow Ken!

I haven't been on BHO for a few days, just been busy, and what a surprise to find this!

She sure is a beauty, but for some reason I haven't been able to get the sound files to work on my computer, will have to try from another one.

Waiting for this makes me feel like a kid waiting on Christmas.

Mar 9, 2021 - 11:30 AM
Players Union Member

Lew H

USA

2618 posts since 3/10/2008

I've thought of getting a banjo lute or banjola off and on for several decades. I tried a Gold Tone a few years ago, and thought it was too quiet. Your mp3 files sound louder and great. My voice has grown weaker in my senior years and I have to mute or stuff my banjo to sing with it, but you have piqued my interest with this design.

Mar 9, 2021 - 2:02:33 PM
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25 posts since 7/2/2018

Wow! Another beautiful masterpiece Ken. Your craftsmanship is the top of top shelves. Hugo's singing to the sound clips should make anybody smile.

Mar 9, 2021 - 2:05:55 PM

13476 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Lone Walnut

Wow! Another beautiful masterpiece Ken. Your craftsmanship is the top of top shelves. Hugo's singing to the sound clips should make anybody smile.


Thanks, Kirk,

I keep expecting to see you so I can make you a new bridge—I just went by your house twice today.

Mar 9, 2021 - 2:11:06 PM
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13476 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by OldPappy

Wow Ken!

I haven't been on BHO for a few days, just been busy, and what a surprise to find this!

She sure is a beauty, but for some reason I haven't been able to get the sound files to work on my computer, will have to try from another one.

Waiting for this makes me feel like a kid waiting on Christmas.


Andy,

I'm hoping you will make some sound files that are better than the ones I made.  The snow is now melted to the point that UPS/Fedex will come up here again so I can get a case and ship this out to you.  Actually, I'll miss it—I really like the short scale.

The other two I'm about to ship out are both going to be nylon strung.

Ken

Mar 10, 2021 - 5:26:07 AM

3967 posts since 5/12/2010

It was Dwight Diller who got me to start building banjos with 23 1/2" scale, and even two that were 22 1/2", also his idea to place the 5th peg on the 6th fret. Once I started building, and playing them with those features I also grew to prefer that over a "standard" design.

I am excited about this banjo lute. It is the first instrument I have bought from someone else in a dozen years. I can build a banjo that suits my purposes, but this is something beyond my pay scale.

Edited by - OldPappy on 03/10/2021 05:29:20

Apr 8, 2021 - 2:37:38 PM
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3967 posts since 5/12/2010

When this thread was first posted I could not listen to the music files because of firewall restrictions on my work computer.

Retired last week!

So, had to buy my own home computer and only now got to hear what this wonderful little banjo lute sounds like. I really like the tone of it seems to have a very nice bass response and a soft warm tone. Sounds perfect for what I have in mind for this instrument which is small gathering music around campfires and on the back porch with friends.

Apr 8, 2021 - 7:42:53 PM
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3967 posts since 5/12/2010

I can't wait to have this beautiful instrument in my hands. I will be going up to WV sometime in the next month or two to visit Dwight Diller and Ralph Roberts and hope to have it to take along on the trip. I think it will be perfect for accompanying them on fiddle, and I bet it will get some good response from them as well.

Apr 9, 2021 - 10:02:11 AM
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7915 posts since 1/7/2005

Hard not to love that sound. A perfect cross between a banjo and a guitar. The sustain is incredible.
There is a lot of music in that instrument, waiting to get out.

Impeccable workmanship as usual. Two thumbs up.

DD

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