c.1925 Tonk Brothers "Sterling" Tenor Banjo

While branded "Sterling" with TB Co (Tonk Brothers) on the headstock, this model (and its family of models) tenor banjo was built in Chicago most likely by Regal (the new Bob Carlin book on Regal credits them with this build). Similar models (and identical models) of this banjo come in tons of different brand names -- Slingerland, Concertone, May-Bell, Lyon & Healy, and fancier models of the same basic instrument even sold under L&H's famous Washburn name.

This is a no-frills tenor banjo with a sturdy multi-ply maple rim, simple hoop tonering, one-piece maple neck, and very spare ornamentation (pearl fret dots).

My work included a light cleaning, fret level/dress, and setup. Aside from one nut and the bridge, the banjo is all original, as well. It has a nice punchy, loud tone but like most openback tenors is mellower and warmer than its resonator-backed cousins.

Original skin head is in great shape.

Fretboard is some sort of ebonized hardwood. Pearl dots.

This bridge is a little under 1/2" but there's still plenty of pick/string clearance from the head.

Check out the pretty birdseye maple veneer on the outside of the rim.

The neck is luckily extremely flamed down its entire length. This is unusual for this model of tenor as most of them have very plain-Jane maple for their necks. In addition, the neck profile is fast and slim.

Original friction pegs work fine.

Here's another shot of some more of the flamed maple on the neck. Nice!

Good neck brace.

Simple Waverly tailpiece. It's slightly "leaned" to the treble side to provide a centered string mount. When this banjo came in, the tailpiece had been bent all funny. Fortunately I knocked it back to its original shape without incident.

c.1900 Clarion Diatonic Cajun-style A Accordion

Here's a cool 3-stop Cajun-style, German-made diatonic accordion (well, technically, these are melodeons) in the (pretty rare) key of A. It's built very simply and only has two bass/chord buttons and a single row for the melody side. The "3-stop" refers to the 3 reedblocks for the treble side -- so when they're all "active" (each block can be engaged individually) each treble note has 3 reeds playing. Two of the reedblocks are tuned to the same pitch and the third (middle) block is an octave lower. This octaved treble is what gives Cajun-style accordions their signature tonality. When one disengages the lower octave reedblock the tone reverts to the same tone one hears on a typical button box.

Moving on -- I still have to rewax the reedblocks but aside from that, this fella is all ready to go. All the valves have been reglued which was mostly what this needed. Unlike newer accordions it has brass reeds (most have steel, now) which gives a slightly different tone.

On boxes like this the whole button/lever system is exposed on the outside.

Here are the stop controls.

It has cute tin hardware all over (as typical for this style).

This box was definitely made in Germany (this style is typically German) but I'm not sure by what factory. Just like with the fretted brands of yesteryear, the name on the box is very rarely the actual name of the factory that built it.

Cute bellows!


c.1895 Vega Bowlback Mandolin

This is an early Vega bowlback in incredible all-original condition. The serial number 12xxx dates it to around 1893/4 but I put the "circa" at 1895 because serial number information isn't exact science for Vegas at that point.

My only real "work" on this instrument was to lightly level and dress the frets and clean the instrument. The setup right "out of the box" was spot on, even after 115+ years. In addition the only crack is a not-through tiny hairline to the treble side of the pickguard. I always see them in this spot and I assume it's a pickguard-area shrinkage crack that'll probably seal up in the more humid summer months.

All in all -- a good find! ...and I may have to hold onto this one.

Woods are pretty "standard" for mid-grade Vegas -- ebony fretobard, rosewood bowl and headstock veneer, spruce top. One interesting change vs. later Vegas is that the interior doesn't have any paper or cloth backing so you can see the rosewood back right through the soundhole. It has a couple of thin "straps" of fabric in the middle but is otherwise held together simply by the glue at the rib seams.

The scale is a hair over 13" -- also note that unlike later Vegas the bridge is on the "top" side of the cant.

I've strung it up with a spare set of Thomastiks. Ebony nut. Ivoroid tuner buttons.

Pearl dots in the board and original, tiny, bar frets.

Nice herringbone rosette. The binding has aged to a cream color. The pickguard is inlaid celluloid in a "tortoise" look. Pretty typical.

Original ebony bridge.

Unlike most cloud tailpieces this one has an aluminum cover with some stamped ridges on the bottom edge of it.

The finish polished right back up with a little buffing from a soft cloth.

Pretty rosewood!

Waverly tuners work just fine. I lubed them, too, for easy turning.

Here you can see the "ridged" tailpiece cover. This tailpiece also snaps on from the sides rather than slides down from the top. It's a curious alternate version of the very-successful cloud tailpiece.

Here's the label (it's a reflective gold/black) and you can see those exposed ribs in the back. A nice touch and certainly removes a little weight. This thing is light as heck.


Ephemera: Banjo Mando in Action (c.1910)

Contrary to popular belief, banjo mandolins were, well, quite popular. Here's what appears to be an Oscar Schmidt banjo-mando in action around 1910-15 or so. For some reason they just look so good in sepia.


Gauges: Tenor Guitar & Tenor Banjo Tunings

I have been getting tons of calls over the past few weeks regarding tenor guitars. I mean tons. What the heck is happening? I thought there were only a few of us funny tenor-fans out there plucking away and restoring these oddballs.

At any rate, I asked one caller why so many calls and... she said: probably the reason for the surge in popularity is the surge in popularity of ukes and uke-family instruments which make tenor instruments (both guitar and banjo varieties) easily adaptable for uke fingering. So I remembered... even back in the day the manufacturers of tenor guitars advertised that they could be tuned like ukes!

So... that got me thinking: time for a new "segment" on this blog -- gauge and tuning recommendations for various instruments -- and we're starting today with tenor-scale (4 steel strings and 19-23" scale) instruments.

Note that the below suggestions can be modified up and down gauges to suit the needs of your instrument's build and your playing style but are generally applicable. I also always write tunings out "low to high."


Regular 20" Scale:
36w (C) 26w (G) 16 (D) 10 (A)
Regular 23" Scale: 32w (C) 22w (G) 14 (D) 9 (A)
Celtic 20" Scale: 45w (G) 32w (D) 20w (A) 13 (E)
Celtic 23" Scale: 40w (G) 30w (D) 16 or 17 (A) 10 or 11 (E)
Slinky Celtic Set: 38w (G) 28w (D) 15 (A) 10 (E)


Low G 20" Scale:
24w (G) 16 (C) 12 (E) 10 (A)
Low G 23" Scale: 20w (G) 14 (C) 11 (E) 9 (A)
Re-Entrant 20" Scale: 11 (G) 16 (C) 12 (E) 10 (A)
Re-Entrant 23" Scale: 10 (G) 14 (C) 11 (E) 9 (A)
D-Tuning (ADF#B): Adjust above gauges lighter by 1
Baritone 20" Scale: 32w (D) 22w (G) 16 (B) 11 (E)
Baritone 23" Scale: 30w (D) 20w (G) 15 (B) 10 (E)
Re-Entrant Bari 20" Scale: 13 (D) 22w (G) 16 (B) 11 (E)
Re-Entrant Bari 23" Scale: 12 (D) 20w (G) 15 (B) 10 (E)


Plectrum 20" Scale: 34w (C) 24w (G) 16 (B) 12 (D)
Plectrum 23" Scale: 30w (C) 20w (G) 15 (B) 11 (D)
5-String Banjo / Cavaquinho: Use above strings for DGBD


Open C:
Use regular 5ths set and tune CGCG ("sawmill C")
Open C Guitar Style: Use bari uke tuning and tune CGCE

Open G:
Use Celtic 5ths set and tune GDGD ("sawmill G")
Open G Guitar Style: Use bari uke/plectrum tuning and tune DGBD.

Open G High:
For 20" scale only -- GDGB (24w, 15, 11, 8)
Open F: Use low G uke set and tune FCFA
Be creative!

c.1905 "Monogram" 5-string Banjo

Update 2014: I'm not sure of the maker. I assumed this might be related to Lange-made products originally but now I really don't know. It may actually be closer to an early Oscar Schmidt build with its curious fretboard and heel shape.

Readers of the blog know how I tend to get these simple old 5-strings in fairly often. They make great old-time banjos as the necks are strong enough for steel and fast enough for modern playing styles... and combined with their generally-excellent tone, I find them first choice for "budget" vintage 5-strings.

Work included a fret level/dress, cleaning, dowel reset, new nut and bridge, replacement peghead tuners, and setup. It plays nice and fast now -- and joyfully -- due to the lightweight build.

The scale on this guy is a full 27" and the rim is a smaller 10 1/2" which makes this less cumbersome in the lap while still retaining good tension on the strings.

New bone nut. Both the headstock veneer and fretboard are actual rosewood rather than dyed pearwood, maple, or the like which one usually finds on non-fancy early-1900s builds.

Apparently the "Monogram" mark was a Stewart & Bauer trademark according to Mugwumps. This shape is similar to the many "trade" instruments made by Buckbee in the late 1800s but is quite a bit wider.

Pearl dots in the board. This 5th peg is a 60s-style all-metal one that's screwed-in and then shimmed with a cut-off small screw to keep it from moving. It works well and is in securely but was installed with a bit of back-angle (towards the bottom of the neck) and there's a little gap at the top of the mounting hole.

This original skin head is in great condition and sounds nice.

New maple/ebony Grover bridge.

Here you can see some filled tuner-screw holes. This appears to have had 50s-style Kluson guitar tuners installed at one point. It came to me with dilapidated ivoroid-buttoned friction tuners but I replaced them with some all-metal 30s pegs to match the 5th peg a bit better.

I installed new neck brace shims (ebony) as well.

Here you can see the spunover nature of the rim with the integral "tonering" on the top edge against the head. The rim it self is one-ply maple.

All the rim hardware is 100% original.

It's also got a nice Elite tailpiece (original as well).