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Classic Banjo - convert one of my banjos or buy something new?

Apr 19, 2024 - 12:44:42 PM

Mivo

Germany

107 posts since 9/13/2017

I've been interested in "classic banjo" for some time and have some questions for those in the know.

From what I understand, music from this period was played on "lighter" banjos with nylon strings and lighter bridges. I currently own two open back banjos: a Recording King OT25-BR without a tone ring and a 12" custom banjo with a Dobson tone ring. The RK has a nut width of 32mm (1-1/4"), the other banjo's nut width is 34mm.

Would it be feasible to "convert" one of these banjos to a "classic" banjo by swapping the strings and the bridge? (Where do I get a suitable bridge?) I'd also be willing to buy a new banjo for just this purpose, but I don't know what I'm looking for. Are there European builders specializing in building banjos aimed at classic banjo players? Did the authentic banjos from the classic era have tone rings? If so, which ones? Vintage banjos may be an option too, but I'm in Germany, so I'd probably have to import something from the UK. I don't know where to look, though.

Does anything speak against starting to learn class banjo pieces on my steel strung banjos just as they are?

I looked a bit at the FAQs over on classic-banjo.ning.com and should probably ask on their forum (it's a little less accessible than the forums here), but wanted to ask here on BHO first.

Thanks for any input!

Apr 19, 2024 - 1:21:32 PM
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GMB

USA

426 posts since 5/29/2009

Contact John Cohen (csacwp here on the hangout). He is very knowledgeable in this area.

Apr 19, 2024 - 1:26:12 PM
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11351 posts since 4/23/2004

Almost any 5-string banjo designed before 1950 was originally designed for classic fingerstyle...even Gibsons.

Yes, pick one and convert. Nylon strings and a very light bridge is all you need.

However, "classic" banjo is, in my mind, less about the banjo and more about the music. IOW, playing on steel strings is no big deal. The music and method of playing doesn't care.

That said, most players use period open-backs. Clifford Essex sells strings, bridges and music.

Do visit us over on the classic banjo site. Anyone interested is always welcome!

Edited by - trapdoor2 on 04/19/2024 13:31:38

Apr 19, 2024 - 2:06:29 PM

15228 posts since 6/2/2008

quote:
Originally posted by Mivo

From what I understand, music from this period was played on "lighter" banjos with nylon strings and lighter bridges.


I doubt that banjos in the original classic period had nylon strings. I believe the alternative to steel was gut.

You can play classic style on steel strings with bare fingers and get a nice sound. But converting one of your banjos to nylon strings sounds like a good idea. For bridges, right there in the EU -- in Italy -- you have Silvio Ferretti, maker of Scorpion bridges.  He's a member here, so you can contact him and tell him you'd like a bridge for nylon strings.

Apr 19, 2024 - 2:32:56 PM
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8262 posts since 9/21/2007

quote:
Originally posted by Old Hickory
quote:
Originally posted by Mivo

From what I understand, music from this period was played on "lighter" banjos with nylon strings and lighter bridges.


I doubt that banjos in the original classic period had nylon strings. I believe the alternative to steel was gut.

You can play classic style on steel strings with bare fingers and get a nice sound. But converting one of your banjos to nylon strings sounds like a good idea. For bridges, right there in the EU -- in Italy -- you have Silvio Ferretti, maker of Scorpion bridges.  He's a member here, so you can contact him and tell him you'd like a bridge for nylon strings.


The other way around... the alternative to gut was wire, and it was considered a compromise.

Apr 19, 2024 - 2:35:22 PM

8262 posts since 9/21/2007

Check out the offerings from John Alvey Turner. While full retail, he currently has a number of banjos that I would consider.

Also, there has been a Grimshaw New Era sitting on eBay uk for a long time at a bargain price. I’d buy it if I live on that side of the pond.

Apr 20, 2024 - 5:40:42 AM

johnedallas

Germany

215 posts since 2/18/2005

Mivo asked: "Would it be feasible to "convert" one of these banjos to a "classic" banjo by swapping the strings and the bridge? (Where do I get a suitable bridge?)"


Yes, it definitely would be feasible!

I remember the first banjo tutor I got - back in the 1950s, published in the UK - mentioned in its foreword that "all the classical solos by Joe Morley can be played on any 5-string banjo." Assuming that you use standard tuning, gCGBD, obviously the same notes are in the same place, irrespective of whether it's an open-back, resonator or zither-banjo. So you can train your left hand on any banjo you happen to have.

The sound is a different matter, and becomes important when you perform classic banjo music in public. "Classic banjo" calls for a "snappy" tone with clean articulation, which you get from nylon strings. Steel-strung resonator banjos are too "twangy", and zither-banjos can be too "ringy" if you're not careful.

Both gut-strung open-backs and mixed steel-and-gut-strung zither-banjos were used in the classic era. I have both (with nylon instead of gut, of course) and I have to remember which I'm playing: you pick the open-back's nylon strings close to the bridge for a powerful tone, but you pluck the zither-banjo close to the fingerboard to soften the tone. They sound different, even when you're playing exactly the same arrangement, but both have their charm!

By the way, my "classic" banjo is a very old open-back that my father had given to him in the mid-1950s in a derelict state. He made it playable, and later on I improved the set-up. It has a vellum head, a simple steel hoop as a tone ring, and friction tuning-pegs. The conversion to nylon strings involved fitting a No-Knot tailpiece and carefully widening the nut slots for the thicker strings. I bought a light, maple bridge from Clifford Essex in England, and also a set of their "classic banjo" strings. If you want to avoid commerce with post-Brexit UK, just buy nylon concert-guitar strings: two E/1st and one each B/2nd, G/3rd and D/4th. I find that they sound OK as gCGBD on the banjo, which has a slightly longer scale length than the guitar.

Cheers,

John

 

PS. Wo in Deutschland wohnst du? Ich lebe im Süd-Westen!

Apr 20, 2024 - 6:23:45 AM

8262 posts since 9/21/2007

The main difference between “modern” banjos and classic era are the neck set and fret size, both were altered to suit plectrum playing as were adapted for “folk” styles.

The biggest challenge to overcome is the neck angle. Most wire banjos will need a 3/4” or 1” tall bridge to prevent the strings from buzzing. This can be awkward for the right hand if you use the pinky anchor. If you float like a Segovia Spanish guitarist or Morley then there is nothing to worry about other than getting a tall enough bridge.

Apr 20, 2024 - 9:48:25 AM

15228 posts since 6/2/2008

quote:
Originally posted by Joel Hooks
 

The other way around... the alternative to gut was wire, and it was considered a compromise.


So wire was created as an alternative to gut, making them alternatives to each other.

Apr 20, 2024 - 3:53:14 PM
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8262 posts since 9/21/2007

Old Hickory when any fad comes along there are companies that make to different price points. Walmart bicycles are designed to be sold and stored in garages by well meaning “I’m gonna get healthy” people that have not real intentions of doing it.

$30 ukuleles and $100 acoustic guitars are the same thing, buy and put away.

During what we call the “classic banjo era” everyone wanted a banjo but not everyone really had the drive to learn to play. Real enthusiasts would buy good instruments.

Wire strings were a price point item. Meant to be sold. They were cheap. Gut were 6 to 12 times the cost of wire. But gut was the “real thing”.

I have a couple of documented references for the substitution use of wire on hot damp days outdoors (a compromise based on the climate).

Wire strings became popular with pick playing because they would not break or wear like gut, and if they did they were cheap to replace. Again, this was a compromise due to wear and tear, and I have enough evidence amassed to support that early plectrum players would have preferred gut if they stood up to the pick.

Eventually pick playing was it and by the time of the post war folk revival, wire was all that could generally be found. Memories were short at that time.

Obviously it is a little more complicated. There were gut string shortages caused by WW1 (the countries that made gut were busy killing each other as well as the material was the same used for sutures). So wire would have been a compromise when gut was not available. It was this gut string shortage that caused violinists to start using a wire first.

Also economics come into play. The poorest of the poor who were keeping a banjo around to click around on might have used wire… but they would have preferred gut given the means and choice.

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