11/20/2011

c.1890 Lyon & Healy 5-String Banjo (fretless conversion)





Lately I've had a lot of folks asking after 5-string banjos... so here's one for ya!

This banjo dates to around c.1890-95 or so and was built in Chicago by Lyon & Healy (check out the obvious headstock shape, pot build, hardware, etc. with other period L&H to confirm). It came to me with a lightly warped neck, bad frets, and a chipping-out fretboard (which happened to be less than 1/16" thick ebony)... so I did what I'll usually do in that circumstance and converted it into a fretless neck.

It's converted well, plays nicely, and because it has a nice double-spun 11" pot it's quite loud for a fretless as well. This banjo has most of its original hardware though the headstock pegs are replacements as well as the tailpiece, head (a new Remo Renaissance masquerading as an Elite), and end-bolt hardware.


The original ebony nut was good to go. Those replacement tuners are c.1960s Grover Champions and work perfectly for the Aquila Nylgut strings this is strung with (note: only nylon/gut/nylgut, etc. for this banjo -- no steel!).


To make the 'jo fretless I removed the old board along with its pearl inlays and frets. I back-filled the fret slots with the fretboard leavings (ie, sandpaper-dust) and also back-filled the old holes where the pearl was installed. After that I simply planed/leveled/sanded the remaining board residue down until I was more or less on the top of the neck wood (in this case, nice-looking cherry!).


After that, I sanded finer and finer and micro-polished, then rubbed in a few coats of gel varnish to seal the neck. The result is a faux-fretted vintage-looking (because I left a little grunge rather than sanding toooooo much off) neck, that's super playable, that easily marks out where your fingers should be while playing. No need to stress out about off notes, here!


Nice 11" double-spunover rim with thick metal cladding. The curled top edge of the cladding makes an integral tonering that ups the volume and sweet resonance.


I used an ebony-topped maple bridge to focus the tone as fretless 'jos can get a little muddy at times. This one is crisp and sweet, though, with tons of volume. I like!







I absolutely love "boat heel" cut necks like this.



Here you can see the previous owner's "dowel adjustment" mechanism. I works, and had already been done before, so I left it. Convenient.


Like most c.1880s/90s banjos, the "neck brace" mechanism on this is simply two big wood screws joining the neck to the pot. This is plenty sturdy for the tension of the nylgut strings.



The previous owner also had been using this newer repro No-Knot tailpiece, so I re-used it as it works perfectly fine with the Nylgut.

Overall, I'm very happy with this 'jo. It has a really nice feel and tone coupled with a quick-playing, 24 3/4" scale (I typically play a 24" scale Buckbee from about 5 years earlier than this model), and sweet worn-in looks. And how many old fretless 'jos are out there, anyway?

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