3/23/2011

c.1910/2011 Gretsch-made Fretless 5-String Banjo


This headstock shape is associated with Gretsch/Clarophone, and more than likely was made by them. At any rate, it probably dates around c.1910-1915 or so, and originally sported celluloid violin-style pegs and was intended for gut strings, steel strings if you like your pegs to break under the tension...!

Neck and pot are maple, the neck is a 3-piece with a rosewood strip down the middle, and all of it had been stained a dark mahogany-ish, walnut-ish color, and when I picked the banjo up... everything... fretboard included... had gotten a heavy hand of gobbery varnish all over. In addition the fretboard had "curled" and warped.

So, this turned into a project banjo: I removed the fretboard, made a new fretless cherry fingerboard (I've polished it up nice and it's smoother than a baby's behind), installed it, found some suitable ebony violin pegs to replace the half-broken, half-missing celluloid pegs, installed a new 5th string nut, new bone nut, scrounged a parts tailpiece, new Remo Fiberskyn head, and put it all back together in this form.

I tackled the gobbly finish problem by steel-wooling it down everywhere and then polishing back up. The result is a very fast-feeling neck and nicely aged-in looking pot and finish in general. Perfectly acceptable!


Cute headstock. I slotted the ebony pegs in the fashion of old-school 1850s fretless banjos.


It's strung with nylgut strings and sounds wonderful, Civil War-ish-y.


New Grover non-tip keeps the bridge upright and also imparts just the right tone -- ebony-topped bridges and nylgut/gut strings don't mix too well -- tone gets slightly harsher.


Head is a standard 11" type.




Various nicks and dings throughout.




Simple neck brace works just dandy.


Amazingly, all the hardware on the rim is original save this (period) Elite tailpiece, from my parts bin. It's slightly damaged but a-ok for this purpose.




This is one of the most comfortable fretless banjos I've played and I quite like how it turned out. Neck is quite sturdy and steel strings could probably be used on the banjo if desired, but I'd keep it light gauge. Action is around 1/8" a little beyond the 12th "fret" postion, which is spot on and slick feeling.

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