For Shawn, the Restless Biologist, and Eric: The REAL Ultimate Classic Banjo...???

On this rainy Saturday, I've been mounting the neck back on a Gibson Bowtie after a lot of heel surgery while listening to Alex Magee's cut of "Jolly Darkies" which has been on repeat for about an hour and a half (I like Vess's playing a bit better on brown wax, but Alex's minor part is just great), and maybe it was all the mahogany dust and opining the fact that I can't make the ABF Rally (again) next week, but I realized this may be of interest to some.

Keep in mind, the guys and I were cussing and discussing this banjo under Gad Robinson's 2nd floor teaching studio (by the way Jody, Robinson's, though metallic don't sound metallic....they sound more like Fred Van Eps if he played a Gibson Mastertone flathead) on Boylston standing around beside the street car bench (we of course let the ladies sit on the bench while waiting...that' me in the bolar crossing the street early to meet the guys...some of the guys are still in the Tremont Spa) just over from Tremont and Court Streets (where some...ah...OTHER banjos were made), and the consensus was that Alex didn't really like this banjo very much, and when he did actually play it, he removed the resonator as in the 1927 Gibson catalog picture of him with it (don't ask me how the guys knew this 30 years earlier, but that's another story).

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I had similar thoughts. 

Chris Cioffi said:

Van Eps?

His Old 12" Orpheum he mentioned in the letter?

It's some raised head large pot thing like that with ornate peghead......

board extension...all things considered...I say 12" or 13" Orpheum....fifth fret inlay looks like the Orpheum #1 style inlay (I remember cause I just sold one)....blocks must have been added later......????

Given Alex's apparent size/build, that does look 13" to me, so I say Orpheum...

Orpheum would be my guess ... I don't think he was necessarily favorably inclined to the Van Eps sound, and I don't believe he owned a Van Eps banjo. Didn't William Farmer design and patent the tone ring that was later incorporated into the manufactured Orpheum? It would make sense Magee would get an early version, given that Magee admired and knew him. And that they were both plumbers; maybe the idea for the tone ring came from banging on water pipes.

Magee compliments Frank Bradbury as a kind soul whose musicianship and personality he admired and respected -- he (and claimed many other banjoists) considered Bacon talented but "conceited." As you can see from the letter, he wasn't a fan of Farland's Rettberg and Lange banjos, either. George Gregory was his hero and role model, it seems.

Anyway, very glad it's all of interest!

Very best,


Well spotted Chris, Jody and Chris.  I was recently restoring tracks off a "voice-spondance" reel tape made by an ABF member back in 1960. He describes Alex as  "one of the bright spots at the rally", remarks on how "Alex' banjo rings out above all the others" and later mentions his banjo is an Orpheum.   

Well, the banjo disappeared from being for sale a few weeks ago now....don't know what happened to it.

Does anybody?

In the meantime, I found this July 1962 BMG featuring a cover shot of Burton Gedney....holding....a 1925 Gibson ball bearing RB-4 or Granada.  Some "English" pearl positions, and looks like one altered inlay.

It looks like a standard 11" head, not like Alex's.

I read somewhere that another shot of Burton holding what sounds like from the description this same banjo, either in a 50's or 60's Harmony or Mape's String Catalog, and the same shot may have shown up in another trade magazine.

Maybe Burton bought/endorsed his in tandem or at the same time as Alex's banjo situation with Gibson being that they were musical partners and the banjos are the same year.

A bit more insight into Gibson Mastertones being acceptable for classic banjo.

(Also trying the picture post button as I'm not used to it, so forgive me if this shows twice).


Oh, and Joel.....

......there's another Hartnet Tone Bar for you.........

CW-I think that the tonering you mentioned was Bill Bowen's design that ended up in some Washburn banjos and the Lyon and Healy "Own Make" banjos from the early-mid 20's.  I just got an "Own Make" tenor I'm going to convert to 5 string, and the Bowen patent number is stamped in the rim like most of them.  The patent shows that Bowen was not Bill's real name...his real name I think was a German name; possibly he changed it to be easier to spell as a stage name.

The ring in the patent and on the "Own Make" banjos is a 'flathead' and the points that the ring/hoop sits on are flat metal plates standing vertically, as opposed to the Orpheums which are raised heads with "staples" to support the ring, as well as the outer skirt that rests on the shoes, but really, pretty similar.

I read somewhere a connection between the Lange Triple X banjos and Bill Bowen's design patent, and read somewhere else Bill Farmer was involved, but I if I remember right, Farmer's name is not on the patent.

Incidentally, the exact patent Bowen tonering on the "Own Make" L&H banjos has a "Van Eps" style tension hoop.

Not surprising since Van Eps and Bowen were duet partners at least in 1903-4 judging by records I have/researched recording/release dates of.

Seems obvious circumstantial evidence that these guys all knew each other, played together, and must have talked banjo design together.

If the cylinder duet of them was 1904-ish, and the Van Eps Meal Ticket banjo was being used professionally by 1907, and Farmer was making records with Ossman on the same lables, then...I'm supposing they all talked banjo design with each other.

I keep bringing this up, a young Gedney took personal instructions from Frank Converse.

Chris, thanks for posting this photo!  What is interesting is that it looks like the neck was set proper for a 1/2 inch bridge.  I'm surprised about the tailpiece being a non pressure.  Kershners are nice but prestos tend to cut up strings, but no pressure?

To further drift, the subject of old banjos come up all the time.  I'm of the opinion that the "old time" banjos being made today are far superior for "old time" music than classic era banjos.  I'm also find it strange that at a certain point innovation seems to stop.  Proportions change (short scales, bridges in the center of the head, etc.) but the designs remain basically the same. (I do have a point).

It is not surprising that these guys would be playing newer style banjos (or at least endorsing them).  They were playing music not being living museums.

I may have mentioned here that I bought a former ABF members Vega mid 1960s "Wonder" banjo at the last rally.  I initially though it would be a good "kitchen/shop" banjo as it is pretty worn out.

After taking it apart and giving it a complete scrubbing (it was filthy) and a new head, it turned out to be a fantastic banjo (though not very attractive).  It needs a neck reset/heel fitting.  Vega got creative in the 60s and had the necks adjusted with allen screws.  The heel rests on screw heads and a metal plate instead of the rim.  That needs to be corrected.  I also bought another "Colby" tailpiece from JP music to put on it (those are my favorite now).

I guess what I am trying to say is that my ears are now open to different banjo formulas.  Now if the various gibson copies weren't so dang heavy!

Hi Joel-It's like our emails about the Van  Eps/Bowen theorized connection in my previous post.

I agree....the only real banjo innovation since prewar days is the Stelling pot assembly, or possibly the Nechville, the only real innovation in that which is the head tensioning, more of a gimmick in my mind.

The Vega you describe.....

I have played the 60's Rangers, and they are surprisingly good bluegrass banjos....of course with a stigma of appearance and maker to the standard "image".

No surprise about your Vega story.

I've re-worked/restored 60's Vegas before as you describe.  I re-set the neck to basically be a solid heel to rim connection which disables the allen screw adjustment which really is a tonal detriment to those banjos.  I leave all the apparatus in place, just the screws are backed off to not do they are still there, all looks and is stock, but the metal protector between the heel and the screws is removed (and saved in the case, but it's not seen with the banjo together stock anyway).

The neck to pot connection is one of the paramount things in all banjos that can either make or break the banjos' voice.

I'm a huge proponent of this concept, as it's proven with every banjo I've worked on with before and after comparisons. 

Also the neck/fingerboard relationship in elevation to the tonering/head plane...that needs to be dealt with on a lot of banjos as well as it affects string break angle over the bridge, which affects down pressure on the bridge, which of course alters tone and projection.

I could help you with that Vega if you decide to do anything with this situation you describe with the neck.

Many years ago, I corresponded with Eli K about banjos, and he basically said the old fancy banjos are great, but really, any decent banjo can be set up to be an acceptable classic banjo.

The older players.....not sure if they were endorsing things because of the press they got, getting a free banjo, or what.

But there is an obvious "break" in design style between the old, lighter built, great open backs and then the "riding the wave" that five strings in the classic realm rode on with many players as the Jazz age banjos came in....heavier, more substantial tonerings, and integral to their design resonators.

It's interesting that back then, the players didn't really have serious opinions or objections to these evolutions...they just accepted them and played Paramounts, Gibsons, late model heavy resonated Vegas, Silver Bell's,  and of course things like the CE Regal.

I think there is an obvious difference in classic banjo playing between an 1890's ACF Electric and a 30's Silver Bell, for an example.

But they both sound really great...maybe the later banjos have a bit more volume, or not depending upon each individual banjo and set up.

But some of the lighter older banjos do really well in this realm with the right resonator and set up.

Like Tarrant JR. or George Morris who continued to play their Weavers/CE's open backs, and just opted for the add on CE resonators when they came out.

I'm still building some Gibson based project banjos right now, as I'm just interested in exploring this more with them.

The main difference in the Gibsons compared to the others,with the possible exceptions of the Paramounts and Epiphones, is that the Gibsons have much heavier rims...and being thicker, the air chamber for the same comparative 11" banjos would then be smaller in the Gibsons.

A ball bearing Gibson like Alex and Burnton were using are more like a Paramount in their design than the later heavy cast tonering Gibsons.  The ball bearings had much less wood in the rim than the later Gibsons as well.

There does seem to be a wood to metal ratio (between tone ring and rim) that is reflected in tonal character, so this is something as a luthier and classic player I've always been interested in experimenting with, which is what I've started doing lately.

Now if I can just get my 27" fingerboard slotting issue resolved, there are like 4 neck billets waiting for them for some of these initial projects.

This way, in comparing an ACF Electric, a Robinson for example, and a Gibson "thing", if they all had basically 11" heads and the same 27" scale, it might make for a more equitable comparison, so that's how I'm approaching this.

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