c.1890 F.O. Gutman "The Wonder Royal" Banjola

While there's much debate between various (self-important?) modern makers as to who came up with and coined the name "banjola" -- the fact is that it's become the standard modern use name for a 5-string banjo neck on a wooden, mandolin-ish shaped body. There's also no doubt to the fact that these instruments have been around for a long, long time under a variety of different names. Here's a video of it:

This one, presumably made in Cleveland, Ohio by "The Royal Music Company" -- is definitely a strange, simplified knock-off of an August Pollman "mandoline-banjo" (the forebear of modern "banjola" type instruments) -- or is it just a spin-off concurrently built at the same time? In many ways, though, this instrument is much more like a cookie tin, cigar box, or old Appalachian style banjo in its construction.

First off, it's very thin, has a very small soundbox (due to the neck's "block" coming right up to the soundhole), and the neck and body as well as the top are all one single piece of wood. One would think that this would sound terrible, but like many of those funky handmade Appalachian-style banjos, it has a sort of pleasing, nasal quality to it that sounds excellent on minor tunes and vaguely dulcimer-ish.

My work on the instrument included gluing up parts of the back (the seams had separated near the neck and on the "lower bout" in places, a fret dress, replacement of one fret, replacement (maple) bridge, replacement nut (a bin-found old bone one which I recut -- it's funky enough to look sort of right), and replacement 5th peg.

Before anyone harangues me for the modern geared 5th peg -- I've had a hard time getting new friction 5th pegs recently (the only kind I typically keep around) and strangely enough, had this geared one on hand and it fit perfectly in the 5th peg hole without any reaming.

These peculiar friction tuners have adjustable tension from the TOP rather than the rear. Also, because the peghead is cut flat instead of on an angle, one needs to really make sure to load the string so it winds directly to the base of the tuner shaft, otherwise there's not enough downpressure on the string behind the nut. I may "solve" this problem yet, however, with a simple eye-hook "string tree" for the G&B strings.

Clay dots in a ?? hardwood board. Looks sort of like an inexpensive grade of rosewood. Frets are nickel-silver, though.

This was an ebony-topped maple bridge I had hanging around in my parts bin. I converted it to plain maple and recut it for this instrument and it looks the part and sounds better than a thicker bridge did. Note that, helpfully, the "maker" stenciled a "place bridge here" on the top. Convenient.

Details like these all add up to a definitely catalog-sold instrument... and the "25c for lessons" promotion in the soundhole sure seals that deal.

This has a nice sort of rustic look and sound.

The neck has a 1/32" warp to it, but it plays just fine for old-timey and clawhammer styles. I wouldn't want to do any speed picking on it up the neck, though!

The truly bizarre design element for me, personally, is that the neck is made from the same quartersawn softwood as the top of the body. While it seems stable enough (now) I would think that this would sap volume somewhat, but that hardly matters when one considers the rest of the build, I suppose.

Cute, funky old tuners.

Like on many instruments from the time, the back and neck are all painted black.

The mandolin-style tailpiece leads me to believe that steel strings were intended for this instrument. I have light gauge "09s" on it.

Here you can see how the neck "block" goes right to the soundhole. The rest of the body is cutout right from that, with a roughly ukulele-sized sound chamber cut out from the sides.


oldpuppy53 said...

For sale? How much?

oldpuppy53 said...

For sale? How much?

Antebellum Instruments said...

I could do $300 shipped to the lower 48, but that's the lowest I can go. Thanks for the interest!


Jos said...

Is this banjola still for sale? I'm quite interested! I live in The Netherlands, but I'd gladly cover the extra shipping expenses. I was wondering though, would it be possible to add nylon strings instead? Or would that not resonate enough with the smaller chamber?

Thanks! :)

Antebellum Instruments said...

Sorry, long since sold, though gut/nylon strings would have probably sounded just fine on this.

Jos said...

Aw, that's a bummer! Do you get banjolas often? I'd really like to have one in my collection. :)