6/15/2012

c.1895 Cole Melody Banjo ("Banjolin") Conversion




This came to me as a somewhat injured Cole banjo-mandolin (8 string) from around 1893-4 according to various serial sources. It features a typical Cole-style wooden rim with half-spun top (identical to Vega Little Wonder tonerings) which gives this banjo better volume, ring and a sweeter tone compared to many period wood-rimmed banjos.

My work on this included cleaning, a new bridge, fret level/dress, a metal bracket I installed to re-attach the broken-off fretboard extension, and conversion at the headstock into a 4-string "melody banjo" or "true banjolin." This means 4 strings tuned GDAE exactly like a mandolin. I decided on this configuration since the heel on this had been broken and repaired previously and I wanted to keep excess tension off. Since I know these little guys sound great with either 8 or 4 strings, I figured losing half wouldn't matter in making this a viable and cool instrument.

So, history lesson here -- 4-string "banjo mandolins" were marketed as "melody banjos" or "banjolins" and sometimes "tango banjos" at the end of the 1800s. Full, 8-string versions were known as "mandolin-banjos" or "banjo-mandolins" and have been ever since.


Old string post holes were covered up with pearl dots. This looks more cute in person. Note the rosewood headstock veneer.


The fretboard is some sort of dyed hardwood. The pearl inlay in it is quite nice, though, and looks snazzy. Frets are thin and small but feel good under the fingers.

This has a long 13 3/4" scale which gives these light-gauge (32w, 20w, 13, 9) strings good tension. Action is 1/16" at the 12th -- just right.


This has an original skin head (this measure about a 1/4" under 10" in diameter) with lots of fun signatures and dates all over it.


This is a replacement Grover 2-foot bridge in maple/ebony.


It's a classy looking job with the black-painted rim and natural-finished mahogany neck.


All the hardware is original and in good shape save the newer (1960s?) replacement tuners and bridge.



V-shaped neck profile is comfy and sturdy. The tuners, while not original, do fit right in.


Can you see that design influence that later was featured in Fairbanks/Vega instruments?





I always liked the look of Little Wonder-style tonerings with their "half-spun" skirt hanging halfway down the rim's exterior.


The mandolin-style tailpiece is unfortunately missing its cover.


"W.A. Cole" branding on the dowel.


Here's the neck brace. It works OK but I decided to reinforce it with a screw into the heel as well, since the attachment didn't seem good enough otherwise.


Note the split-and-fixed heel. Whoever did the job certainly did it nicely enough.

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