Saturday, August 24, 2013

Building Your Own Banjo

I like to buy banjos (when I can afford them), fix them up as well as I can  and then sell them to young musicians for my purchase price and let them pay me off over a very long period of time.  I do this because I have found wonderful young musicians who are playing banjos that are crap, to say the least, and they need a better instrument.

Lately it has been harder to find good instrument for less than $600 or so. Usually I look at auctions, Mandolincafe and for instruments I know will probably be good from dealers I trust.  I have stopped using ebay and most of the stores I trust sell at retail which is fine for my instruments but out of bounds for a struggling musician.

I was at Banjothon, a private showing of pre-war Gibson five string banjos, this year when it was suggested that I either build a good tenor banjo or have others do so.  Greg Earnest, who is an unquestioned authority on these banjos, mentioned that First Quality Music in Louisville had a large number of tenor banjo necks for sale and that they could be mated to the Recording King PB-680 Banjo Pot Assembly and with a few added parts a professional level banjo could be had for about $600.

These pots (and the other parts needed) can be bought at two sources, and Janet Davis Acoustic Music  and they are considered to be very good for making the Gibson style banjo by the five string makers.  First Quality has the parts you need too but not the pots.

Banjos are an assembly of parts but that assembly has to be precise and you have to setup each banjo for it to be playable.  Nonetheless, putting together a banjo from parts is a lot easier than building a guitar from a kit.  The most crucial part is fitting the neck to the pot and drilling the holes for the various bits to go through.

Here is a list of what you need:

Banjo pot assembly        $250-$260 (includes rim, flange and flathead tone ring)
Banjo tension hoop         $60
Hooks and nuts                $25-27
Resonator                         $60
Coordinating Rods           $15-$35  (remember to ask for the one that fits the pot.)
Resonator hardware         $25-$30
Tailpiece                           $15
Tailpiece bracket               $3
Tuners                                $70 (for Gotoh, the best, from Bob Smakula.  You can find cheaper but not better.
Armrest not needed but     $23

Total                                   $500-$550 (you may be able to get free shipping) not including the armrest.

The expensive part of building a banjo is the neck - most of the time.  If you had a tenor neck made by one of the better banjo makers it would cost you $600-$1200 depending on the maker.  Because no one seemed to want the lower end Gibson one piece flange necks that fit this pot assembly, I was able to get 15 of them at $70 apiece.  So if you are interested in a project such as this, I'll sell one to you for that price.  Some of the necks are in mint condition, some need refretting and a new nut, some need a truss rod cover (or all the above) but they all fit the pot and they are all straight.  Because Gibson used the same blanks for all their pots and necks, these necks are good feeling but don't have the bling of the higher end necks such as binding or inlays.  They come from TB-0, TB-00 and TB-100 banjos.  The latter necks are mahogany while the others are maple.  All the necks are over 50 years old and have the original cut for the pot.

So you can add another $70 dollars and come to a $570-$620 total, a great price for a professional level banjo.

So what is the catch?  There are two.  First the banjo you end up with will be a Gibson style banjo.  It will have a flathead tone ring which some Irish tenor banjo players don't want.  I find that these banjos are powerful and have great bass response depending on the head (another $15, by the way) or the bridge (from free - I make my own - to $30 or so) and especially the setup.  If you hate Gibson, you are SOL for this project. 

Second, you have to make this banjo.  As I said before, it is not that hard.  I think that for an extra fee  you can get the lag bolt holes drilled (about $30) and the accuracy of these holes is probably the most crucial aspect of putting the parts together.  Adjusting the neck is also a little difficult, but I use .010 brass to shim the neck and get the proper angle.  I'm pretty sure that both vendors will cut the neck with their tools - again for a fee which should be reasonable. Constructing the Five String Banjo by Roger Simminoff is a great book to have on hand when you build.

In the end you will have a very good banjo.  It may not look the greatest - you will have to dye and finish the banjo as you see fit - but it will sound great.  In the mean time you will learn a lot about your banjo and will break down those barriers that make it hard for you to tweak the banjo as needed.

Here is video showing one of my banjos made from parts.  Later on I will have a video showing how to take parts and make a banjo.  If you look at the last blog entry, you will see another banjo I made with a TB-00 neck. 

Mike Keyes

1 comment:

  1. Mike, thanks for putting up all the great info in this blog. I just started learning ITM and the banjo about 8 months ago, and not knowing how to really evaluate a vintage instrument went with a lower end new banjo. Eventually I'm going to want to upgrade, and this has given me another direction to think about in finding a reasonably priced quality instrument. I'm also fascinated by the history of these instruments; the popular tenors of the 20s and 30s giving way to bluegrass players doing conversions to 5-strings, resulting in the availability of vintage tenor necks.