c.1930/2013 Antebellum Fretless Banjo-Guitar

What a weird project, huh?

I bought this 18" bodhran rim at an antique store (knowing it wasn't that old, maybe 1970s at the earliest...) and intended it to hang out here as a drum. But, you know me... tinker, tinker! I had an old 1930s "parlor" guitar neck hanging out in the parts bin (sans functioning fretboard), a number of 20s/30s tailpieces to choose from, and of course... curiosity.

So, this is what came out!

The instrument is incredibly light due to the tack-head rim, quite loud, and for a banjo has plenty enough bass to support a guitar's low E (or low D, depending on the tuning). I'm a big fan of old minstrel-era fretless banjos but I'm also a fan of Turkish and Middle Eastern music and I'm totally aware of the cumbus (fretless banjo-oud) and fretless classical guitars from Turkey so that was the inspiration, here.

The tone came out just as I wanted -- deep and rumbly but also oud-like in the highs.

Parts-bin 60s/70s tuners, old celluloid nut, and of course the slotted headstock completes the "vintage" look.

I removed the remains of the old fretboard and planed this poplar fret down level. I left some of the leavings of the old fretboard in the grain to give it some "vintage character," then polished it up and finished it with some rubbed-in gel varnish. I added clay dot markers to the side for "frets" 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12. I've specified a 23 1/2" scale (like an old Japanese electric) so that one can hit an octave note way up at the end of the fingerboard.

This short scale coupled with the electric 10s for strings (46w-10) is what gives this immediate, easy playability with tension in the realm of a classical guitar (which is what this neck wants). The thin gauges give it a proper banjo tone as well and can be bent and slid all day without effort.

The bridge is (currently) a 5/8" height one. I figure in summer or places with lots of humidity this might need to change to something taller and in really dry, winter places it might need a 1/2" bridge instead. As-is, the action is 3/32" at the 12th "fret" -- perfect for fretless!

Note that I've strung the ball ends "upside down" to give better down-pressure and make sure that the bottom of the tailpiece doesn't rub up against the head (which would mute tone).

It's really a cool, folksy-looking instrument. The green and gold rim is too fun!

In addition, this isn't a clumsy instrument at all. It plays quickly and feels good under the fingers (that's sort of the point, though, heh heh).

The neck-to-pot joint is very simple. This one big bolt does most of the work.

You can see that under the bolt are two smaller screws that are there simply to stabilize the neck from any sideways twist.

...and if you look carefully here, you can see two screw heads jutting out from the end of the heel. These are adjustable for depth so if you take the neck off, you can actually control how much back-angle you want to put on the neck by either tightening or loosening these. I have it set well enough that a good, tall 5/8" bridge is in use. Players may want taller or lower bridges, so I think this makes modification (and adjustment through the years as the rim changes) very easy.

Teens/20s tailpiece works great and looks "period!"

Can't beat the cool factor of a giant 18" rim. It's slightly awkward to play at first, but once you realize it works best in "classical" position with the neck angled more up in the air, you'll be playing this fast as heck.


bev said...

Very cool sound!

Antebellum Instruments said...

Thanks! I think it's pretty fun, myself. :)