There is a Firestone ad out in which an owner of a vintage car happily passes up car dealerships because his vehicle has been taken care of by the Firestone store. The gist of the ad is that the best car is the one you have.
So it is with Irish Tenor Banjo. For whatever reason, an obsessive desire to sound like Barney McKenna has never erupted amongst Irish banjo players. Any banjo that sounds decent (a relative term according to fiddle players) will do as long as it is playable and loud enough to be heard in sessions. Oh, there is a Holy Grail - the Essex Paragon - but only because BMc played one (with a Gibson style tone ring) for a while and because it is a quality banjo. Almost any good banjo will do subject to the tastes of the owner. Which brings me to my main point.
I've gone through a lot of banjos since I started playing Irish music. This is due to a combination of Banjo Acquisition Syndrome (BAS) and a curious mind about banjos. I played the five string banjo for years and only had two banjos the entire time, both Gibson Mastertones of some sort. Since then I have either owned or played a variety of banjos including Epiphone Recording As, Paramount A-C, various Lange built, Vega built (including Style M), B&D/Bacon and Gibsons of all sorts. I have settled on what I call Gibsonoid banjos as my day to day players.
The obvious rhetorical question is: "Why Gibson?" It's not because it is the best sounding banjo (doesn't exist since it is a matter of taste) nor is it because I fell totally in love with the banjo. The main reason is that more is known about the Gibson style banjo than any other thanks to Earl Scruggs and if you want a good banjo that will not break the bank, you can actually make them up from parts that are easily obtained. Hence I have a number of banjos made from the Gibson pattern.
The vast majority of banjos sold in the past 50 years have been five string banjos. Of those a huge number have been built on the Gibson pattern that started in the late 1920s, the one piece flange (OPF) double coordinator rod eleven inch head banjo. Almost every modern banjo is a variation of this model including a few that look as if they have dowel sticks but really have a coordinator rod imbedded in a dowel stick.
Throw in the American desire to sound like Earl and you have a number of converted banjos (from tenor to five string) resulting in a surplus of tenor banjo necks designed to go on a one piece flange patterned pot. Basically the tenor neck was taken off and a five string neck attached.
Of course it is not as simple as that, the neck has to be fitted to the pot, but it is almost as simple as swapping out parts.
Once I realized this, I decided to try my hand at building a Gibsonoid banjo - I say Gibsonoid because rarely are there original Gibson pots involved - with a TB-7 neck given to me by a friend. I used a vintage Gibson rim, top of the line parts and a lot of money with the resultant banjo being a killer. Ironically I don't travel with this banjo anymore because the parts alone are worth a lot of money and it looks just like an original TB-7 which go for nearly $80K these days. Too many people have tried to take the banjo from me.
My next step was to try and find a way to make a similar banjo for less money. I needed a travel banjo that would not break the bank to replace and if it was broken by the airlines would not break my heart. One of the virtues of the Gibson system is that you can take the banjo apart by removing the neck and put it in your luggage surrounded by clothes and bubble wrap. It has a much better chance of surviving than even in a Calton case. Plus, it is probably cheaper to fly on Frontier that way.
I went to the Banjothon several years ago where I discussed this issue with a few of my five string friends. (The Banjothon is a private gathering of original pre-war Gibson five string banjo owners.) It was pointed out to me that First Quality in Louisville, KY has a huge collection of tenor necks obtained during conversions and that they would be glad to sell me some of them. I called Eric Sullivan about my project and ended up with several of the lower end TB-0. TB-00 and TB 100 necks that they had. Every neck was at least fifty years old and made from very good wood. They also fit the Recording King OPF rims I found at Banjo.com.
I made a very nice banjo from a 1954 TB 100 neck and an RK pot but then a funny thing happened. RK banjos became so popular that the parts became scarce due to demand. There were no spare rims left.
As you may know, it is more expensive to buy almost anything part by part than to buy the object itself, but the RK pots were a bargain at just a little over $600 unfinished and undrilled. I was able to do all of drilling, staining, finishing and aligning in my shop but it did take time and some tooling. Nonetheless the result was a significantly better banjo than could be bought at that price point.
It turns out that the five string banjo made from the RK pot, the RK-R35, can be bought used for slightly more than the parts on ebay if you look. I bought one and swapped out the necks. Instant (ish) tenor banjo. And I have a banjo case I can use for the tenor banjo at no extra cost so the overall cost is actually less.
Here is a video showing you how to take apart the RK-R35 and add a tenor neck. Warning, it is long:
The trick is to learn how to adjust the neck with shims or if you are really bold by changing the neck angle with a jig and a sander. The banjo comes with all the parts needed including a set of Chinese tuners and an adequate but not great tailpiece. These latter two parts are always cheaply made in Chinese banjos but they work, more or less. One thing you have to do with some of these old necks is to enlarge the tuner holes to 3/8" to fit the tuners. I also had to add a washer to the tuners to make them fit properly but that was an easy thing to do. Enlarging the holes takes a little work but if you are meticulous, there is no problem.
Here is how to do it:
1) Buy a plumber's reamer and a 3/8" drill
2) Ream the holes from both ends until the hole just accepts the tuner. You can eyeball this and when you work the other end of the hole there will be sawdust on the reamer that shows you where to stop.
3) The hole will still have some material that has to be drilled out to make sure there are parallel walls. There are two ways to accomplish this: hand turn the drill or put your electric drill in reverse and slowly let the drill take away the wood. I mean SLOWLY or you will chip out wood or otherwise screw up.
Setting up your banjo is a little bit voodoo, a little bit science, and a lot of musical feeling. While there are well known algorithms for this kind of setup (Here is an excellent version), they are all geared towards sounding like Earl and you may not like that sound for Irish music. Here is a video showing how to set up the banjo and how to shim the neck.
The overall cost for doing it this way, if you figure in paying for the drilling and your hourly rate is less than getting the raw parts and putting it together yourself. And you also have a five string banjo that is fairly decent if you reverse the process.
3 August 2014