1/15/2013

c.1930 Slingerland "May-Bell" Openback Tenor Banjo


So -- this tenor banjo is certainly not "as it was" when it was first made. This came to me as a neck, pot, tuners, and tension hoop. There was no tonering and originally this instrument would have had a one-piece flange with full resonator build. This one has a "May-Bell" label on the back of the headstock which means that this was a Slingerland-sold model, probably from the late 20s or early 30s. I have a feeling the instrument itself may have been made by Regal for Slingerland, though. There was definitely some crossbreeding, there!

What I've done is add mounting hardware for the rim (hex shoes) along with hooks, nuts, a parts-bin Remo head, parts bin hoop tonering, tailpiece, old bridge, etc. and spruced it up to work as an openback tenor banjo. I also did the other usual stuff: a fret level/dress, cleaning, and replacement of some missing pearl dots in the board.

This is a very lightweight instrument, plays fast and easy (good straight neck), and has a sweet, rich, and fairly loud (for an openback) tone. The slightly smaller head size (10 3/4") and hoop-style tonering make this a good instrument for standard (CGDA) or Chicago (DGBE) tunings, but a low G as found in Celtic/octave mandolin GDAE tuning isn't up to snuff in my opinion. The long scale (22 5/8") also means that standard and Chicago tunings are great for chord-melody applications and cases where you want chorded stuff to sound nice and sustained/meshed, though of course solo work sounds good, too!


By the way -- that's not a hole in the head, it's just a bit where the thin white topcoat was scratched off of the mylar head.


New bone nut, original friction pegs, cool pearl inlay in the headstock.


Some replacement pearl dots, frets dressed up nicely, and the neck is slim and quick. Action is 1/16" at the 12th fret (spot on).



The hooks, shoes, nuts, and tailpiece are new hardware but the tension hoop is the original.






Cute label.


Here's the only reason this is obviously a "parts" make. This heel has a cutout that would have originally facilitated a one-piece flange and resonator. I was tempted to pop a strap button in there to make it useful, but I sort of think the obvious "modding" is cute. Note the good, heavy-duty neck brace which keeps the neck tight to the pot.

And, if you're wondering... yes, it's just as stable as if it were a solid hunk of wood. In effect, this is how it would have been tensioned up, anyhow, even with the flange in place.


I had 12 spare hook/nuts in my parts bin of matching style, so that's what I put on it. 6-a-side is easily plenty of tension to keep a Remo head nice and snug.


The repro No-Knot tailpiece is simple but works just fine -- and if you're into gut/nylon strings -- you can mount them, too! I used an old 1930s Non-Tip bridge from my parts bin, as well.

This is a great 'jo for folks who want a lightweight (very lightweight) but responsive and sturdy instrument with the openback design. Because there's less rim hardware and bulk this thing weighs in at about the same as a "parlor" guitar. No backaches, here!

1 comment:

Daniel said...

I am totally in love with this light, resonant "parlor banjo"--I cannot put it down! I've settled it in Chicago tuning for now--it just seems really happy there, and I've wanted to play around with that tuning on a banjo. I wedged some rawhide up under the strings at the edge of the rim where the tailpiece runs over (got the idea from your blog) and she's singing very nicely indeed! Thanks for your wonderful work. Now I want one like this with a 5-string neck so I can try out nylgut banjo strings....