c.1920 Windsor "Whirle" Junior Gem 5-String Banjo

This is an English 5-string banjo, made by Windsor (in Birmingham and is one of their "Whirle" Junior Gem models. I'm guessing this was made about 1920-1930 or so, judging by hardware and build style. This one was obviously made for straight steel strings considering the slotting sizes of the original nut. This is important to know in regards to English instruments because it was popular to string some courses with gut and some with steel over the pond on earlier English banjos.

At any rate, this one is made from oak and sports some pretty quartersawn figure on the back of the headstock. It has the very cool "tunnel" 5th string which tunes at the headstock and passes through a tunnel under the fretboard, popping out just above the 5th fret... so... it plays and sounds and tunes just like a normal 5-string but has no 5th peg jutting out from the neck. This makes it a quick player and gives it a slick look.

Also cool about the design is the simple hollow-core archtop tonering which is suspended above and inwards of the wood rim by some brackets mounted to the inside of the rim opposite the shoes. This design gives a warm, focused, and very pretty airy kind of tone to the instrument so it sounds somewhere between a hybrid of an openback banjo and the volume and focus of a resonator instrument. I like it quite a bit -- it's a joy of a tone to work with because there's very little extraneous clashing overtones to deal with.

Check out that cool tunneled 5th string! Also, the Winsor Whirle medallion is too awesome.

Oh! As far as work done -- the usual fret level/dress, cleaning, setup, new bridge, hardware cleaning, yadda yadda. Pearl dots in the (thin) ebony board.

New Remo Renaissance head is weather-stable and sounds like skin, but louder.

Note the fun tailpiece which allows for muting of the extra string length with a bit of foam under its cover.

The hooks and nuts are all period, but only half appear to be original. I'm wondering if they used a bunch of mismatched ones from the factory or if they were replaced later -- as no one would know since it has a resonator on it anyhow! It's just odd to see all typical period hooks with some mismatched. In addition the 5th peg (center of headstock) is different from the other 4 but is original to the banjo judging by drill hole and wear marks. Maybe 4 came in a set and they grabbed the 5th from another already open set?

Cool quartersawn oak!

A nice boat-shaped heel.

Despite being a resonator banjo, this is pretty lightweight and comfortable.

The tailpiece is mounted independently of the dowel, which allowed it to be installed offset to match the neck's string line right from the factory.


Anonymous said...


Can you give us a little more schooling on how the manufacturer accomplished that tunneled 5th string? Did they route the wood under the fretboard or install some kind of tube in the neck? I think that design is fascinating.


Antebellum Instruments said...

Ben: That's exactly how it's accomplished. Routed under the board, thin brass tube, backfilled to lie flat with the top of the neck, board installed over it -- then either end of the tube is leveled with the facing wood.

Anonymous said...

I am the purchaser of this instrument. It is everything Jake described it to be. Really quite a joy to play. It weighs a tad more than a Goodtime but with plenty of volume complemented with a nice tone that you'd expect out of an 80 or 90 year old instrument. I have instruments that cost 3x as much and don't sound as good. It was a pleasure dealing with Jake. I'm sure I'll be back again.

matt cowle said...

I have one but the 5th string peg is popping out of the side of the neck.
just wondering a rough price these go for??
thanks a loy, matty.