2/18/2012

c.1890 Lyon & Healy Fretless 5-String Banjo





This is a Lyon & Healy 5-stringer from around 1890-95, and unmarked. There is also supposition that Regal (at that point in Indiana) made these for L&H. At any rate, this would have been an intermediate model and has a 10 5/8" thin maple pot spunover on the bottom side in "German silver" for strength.

When this came to me it was filthy and downtrodden with damaged and/or worn frets and also a slight warp to the neck in the first 5 frets. I've since cleaned it up a bunch and converted it from a fretted banjo to a fretless one by removing the frets, backfilling them some, and then sanding down and polishing up the neck. This has helped remove a small amount of relief to the neck, but has also made any remaining relief essentially irrelevant, so as a fretless this has turned out to be a real nice and fast player. The old fret-slots also give one a roadmap to work from while playing as well in the same manner as old flush-fret 'jos from the 1870s and 80s.

Of course, this is strung with Aquila nylgut (synthetic "gut"/nylon) since it would have originally been strung with gut strungs and doesn't have a strong enough neck to deal with steel's tension.


I also replaced a missing bridge with this recut Grover one.


The headstock bears 1890s Champion pegs -- probably unoriginal to the banjo -- but very cool.


Here you can see the backfilled fret slots and silky-smooth board. The 5th peg is a replacement friction type I had in my parts bin. I used an older (more yellowed) button on it to try to get it closer in looks to the pegs at the headstock, though.


It's got a nice cut to the neck.


The rim hardware, save for the bolt, hook & nut that hold the tailpiece, is all original. This stuff was so grungy beforehand that it was barbaric. A friend of mine saw me take this one out of the box and, remarking on its condition, said, "You're really not afraid of anything, are you?"

All they need is some TLC!


Here are those cool Champion pegs. These are my favorite type of friction tuner because they simply hold so well and require very little adjustment.




"Boat heel" shape. I like the way these feel when you get up the neck, and the old-timey appearance as well.




This rim is spunover only on the bottom edge. The top edge is bare wood which gives this an almost 1860s timbre to it since it's fretless. Very warm and plucky and fun, but still pretty darn good volume with that new Remo Renaissance head on it. The rim is 11" diameter.



Having an original tailpiece on these is really nice! They're almost always missing. You can load this in a number of different ways but I prefer to knot it and pass the strings under the bar which provides nice down-tension on the strings similar to an adjustable tailpiece from the 1920s.

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