Greeting lads and ladies! Dow here...years ago I started a quest to find/piece to-gether the right gut-string banjo to replicate that old Ossman twang. Work and life distracted me and I never pursued it. I Bought a no-name antique 11 1/2" archtop pot with a "homemade" neck and I pieced it to-gether and called it a banjo. Well, I'm ready to step it up a little and get the "right" banjo for proper classic picking! I've played bluegrass style for around 15 years, and have several banjos from the genre. I do favor a brighter, twangyer 5 string with plenty of volume, and not the more mellow dull sound. That doesnt necessarily mean I favor steel strings though. A man once told me if I wanted that sort of bright sound with gut strings...to go after a smaller pot banjo, and one that has a metal ring between the head and wood. I prefer a smaller scale neck also, just so I can really reach those hard to get chords...and....my Baldwin nylon string guitar is short scale and I'm used to a short neck. With that, I've been looking at various pony banjos by different makers, and a few different Stewart banjos, specifically the "Amateur", "Stewart Lady" and or "American Princess".  I've talked with Marc about these significantly, and was wondering if anybody else had any input as to how these Stewart banjos play and sound, and if anybody has any recommendations as to where to find beauties like this that are looking for a new home. Maybe one of you kind gentlemen or ladies have an old pony banjo or Stewart short-scale that's not being played quite as much as it ought to be? Well, I have got the gut-string banjo ich again and the flame has been re-kindled. Looking forward to some respectable speculation and discussion here. I am definately not up to par with my classic banjo knowledge, but I'm learning and enjoying every minute of it.  Thanks,

Dow

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Dow, a small pot banjo will not yield the Ossman sound no way nohow. A Stewart with a pot of 11 inches or more is good. If you want an easy neck and fingerboard I suggest trying a Farland. They are not expensive and they sound very balanced, with bass, mid, and highs all responding well. Definitely not dark and thuddy but not over bright. The scale is average, not long or short, but the neck is easy.

 A small pot will give a thin sound and a quiet sound but it won't be bright, it will just be lacking in the low end. The open secret about a bright crackling banjo sound is two footed bridge without an ebony cap.

Attached are two pictures of Ossman, one from the (available online) cover of the December 1898 Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal holding what appears to be a Stewart Thoroughbred (which was advertised regularly “as played by Farland”) but before that he appeared to have shilled for Morrison, which of course Stewart’s profile makes no mention of — see also attached photo of Brooks, Denton and Ossman with unknown standing man; Ossman seems to be holding a Morrison, which I believe was made by Buckbee; the moon and mirrored first fret/peghead inlays are sort of telltale, though they were also used on other banjos that Buckbee manufactured, such as the “Celebrated Benary,” etc. Stewart Thoroughbreds are generally readily available at most dealers and have a solid, rounded tone and quality heft to them.

I believe Farland banjos were made by Rettberg and Lange (which bought out Buckbee in 1897) and later made Orpheums, Paramounts, etc. Vess Ossman’s son, Vess jr. played an Orpheum in the 1920s (see also attached.) These are easier to find than Farlands, which are very similar though Farlands have no metal tone ring, just a naked wood hoop, over which, if one wanted to follow the full instructions, could be stretched a stainless steel head. The Orpheum Brass Band and the highest-end Farland share a very similar extended 29 fret/three octave fingerboard and sometimes even the same peghead.

Edit Ian: I have added the photos for clarity. I can't make out exactly what the signature says though.

Very best,

Chris W.

Attachments:

The Farland pots are beveled and this gives them a unique tone.

Ossman's signature reads: "For Sam & Nadine, Not so bad for an old timer, Eh? Vess"

Farland steel heads weren't stainless, they were annealed or "killed"steel with enamel baked on. I've played a couple of them and I thought they sounded good.

I disagree with Jody about the small head banjos being quiet and 'not bright'. The rest of his comments are spot-on. My experience with the smaller headed banjos is that they get piercingly bright the smaller they get...and with a tight head and light bridge, they're LOUD. However, that may simply be (as Jody sez) that they're so unbalanced towards the treble that they can be heard above everything else.

I'll reiterate what I have said in the past: I tend to sound like myself on just about any size banjo. A Stewart ST or Morrison or whatever will not make me sound like VO. Studying his phrasing and attack will do more than anything.

I would not disregard the small rim banjos. I think the 10" Dobsons sound excellent and a Stewart AP is a versatile instrument (though limited by compass). Still, you're never going to know until you actually get your hands on one!

Here are more pics of Vess, with different makes of banjo.  They are typically  large rimmed, 12 inch nominal, with 19 or 20 fret necks. He was a Fairbanks endorser, and he did actually perform with his Whyte Laydie, most notably before  Edward VII (King of England).

On his recordings, made over twenty plus years and likely with several different banjos, he always sounds like Vess. The sound starts with the player first,  the banjo and its setup second.

If the Ossman cachet is still too alluring to pass up, try tracking one of these down. Advertised by jobber Jos. W. Stern as being made by Mr. Ossman himself:

It is interesting to see how close to the bridge Vess Snr. is picking.... but Jnr isn't.

Perhaps I have been getting that bit right?  Now just the rest to sort out and I will sound like Vess Ossman.

;-)

$75 was no small amount in those days, what would be the current  cost be based on that value?....Steve.

Hi Steve

It's probably more useful to look at pricing of competing brands at  the time, 1903 or thereabouts.

$75 would buy you Fred Bacon's second best banjo, the Bacon Professional No 2 Special, introduced in 1905. It featured straight-grained maple neck, backstrap, carved heel, fancy flowerpot peghead inlay, and internal resonator rim.  Bacon's best, the Professional No 3, (Chubby Dragon) was $90.00.

The Fairbanks Whyte Laydie No 2 and No 7, arguably the best production banjos made in America at the time, were net cash priced at $50.00 and $90.00 respectively.

In over a decade of banjo collecting, I've not seen or heard of an Ossman Special turning up. I suspect very few were made. Vess was just too busy, building repertoire and performing, to find time shaping necks for Mr. Stern. :-)

Ian, you are right about Ossman picking closer to the bridge. He is on record saying he liked that position for the greater tautness of the strings, allowing him to really get on them.

Hi Shawn, I don't know what people earned in the USA in those days but based on the average weekly wage, an equivalent price today must run into many hundreds of dollars...Steve.
Shawn McSweeny said:

Hi Steve

It's probably more useful to look at pricing of competing brands at  the time, 1903 or thereabouts.

$75 would buy you Fred Bacon's second best banjo, the Bacon Professional No 2 Special, introduced in 1905. It featured straight-grained maple neck, backstrap, carved heel, fancy flowerpot peghead inlay, and internal resonator rim.  Bacon's best, the Professional No 3, (Chubby Dragon) was $90.00.

The Fairbanks Whyte Laydie No 2 and No 7, arguably the best production banjos made in America at the time, were net cash priced at $50.00 and $90.00 respectively.

In over a decade of banjo collecting, I've not seen or heard of an Ossman Special turning up. I suspect very few were made. Vess was just too busy, building repertoire and performing, to find time shaping necks for Mr. Stern. :-)

Ian, you are right about Ossman picking closer to the bridge. He is on record saying he liked that position for the greater tautness of the strings, allowing him to really get on them.

Hi Steve

In 1901, the average US household annual income was $750.00 and often took a working spouse or working  kids to meet that.

To get a 21st century cost, think of the Ossman Special as the equivalent of more than a month's average wages. In today's dollars, you are looking at thousands. Not really suited for the average person's budget.

The Stern ad was up front in advertising it "for high class trade".

Thanks Shawn, that puts things into perspective, could the average man in  the street afford to buy and play banjo?..I suppose there must have been low end instruments available so how many banjoists would there have been back then among the general populous?..Steve.
Shawn McSweeny said:

Hi Steve

In 1901, the average US household annual income was $750.00 and often took a working spouse or working  kids to meet that.

To get a 21st century cost, think of the Ossman Special as the equivalent of more than a month's average wages. In today's dollars, you are looking at thousands. Not really suited for the average person's budget.

The Stern ad was up front in advertising it "for high class trade".

In the US, the banjo boom started around 1880 and lasted about 30 years. The banjo became the most popular instrument in the country. During this period, over 10,000 pieces of music were written or arranged for the instrument. Having a banjo in the front parlour was more common than having a piano. Inexpensive banjos were churned out in the thousands annually by companies like Buckbee in New York and Lyon and Healey in Chicago. 

The more reputable makers, such as SS Stewart, Fairbanks, Cole and later Bacon, offered lower end products at modest prices, but made their reputations with higher quality products and, in most cases,  innovative rim designs. These instruments, which catered to the well heeled amateur and professional banjoist, were expensive to produce and priced accordingly.

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