c.1920 Lyon & Healy "California Style" Banjo Ukulele

While I usually associate this type of banjo uke and headstock shape with Harmony products from the teens and 20s, the L&H patent pegs on this and slightly different build suggest this was made by that firm or its usual "jobbers." These type of banjo ukes (with their "inline" head and top-tension design) were marketed as "California style" banjo ukes from time to time in mailorder catalogs of the time and for what it's worth, I like this terminology so I use it, too.

I'm pretty sure this has something to do with the early Keech and similar banjo ukes (Rolando, to name one brand) coming out of Cali in the teens.

At any rate, aside from the new Grover bridge on it, this uke is entirely original and in good order. My work included a light fret level/dress, cleaning, and setup. I also built up a damaged slot in the nut. It has that great, loud, projecting, but curiously sweet tone I associate with the better versions of these ukes. This one is also a little fancier than normal with a 2-piece (plus 3-piece center strip) mahogany neck and good turned mahogany pot.

Cool headstock shape!

The nickel frets were set into the face of the neck slightly angled (someone must have had the neck not perfectly in the slotting jig) but that just means I needed to angle the bridge slightly. Intonation is still good and it has a 15-fret neck and a 13" scale. Note that there are no frets at the end of the board -- this is a carry-over from 5-string banjos of the late 1800s whee a space was left for picking/strumming.

I love the painted hearts and parrot on that original skin head. Too cute!

Thee are a couple of scratches across the head but they're stable and the head itself is ready to go for the next 100 or so years.

This uke has a nice inlaid stripe down the side of the rim, too.

These Lyon & Healy patent tuner pegs are my favorite "simple friction peg" of the time. They have brass shafts and the buttons barely ever break down. They also tend to turn more smoothly than other old friction pegs.

The neck is attached to the pot with a big screw on the inside. You can loosen this screw and add shims if you want to increase neck break-angle, but I tend to like to have a lower bridge with a shallower angle on these guys so I can keep the head under medium (rather than high) tension which sounds better to my ears.

The mahogany-veneer resonator backplate gives this thing more punch and cut, but if you really wanted it to be "openback," you could just take it off.

The simple tabbed, nailed-on tailpiece allows knotted nylon or gut strings as well as loop-end steel strings. Many banjo ukes from this time have necks that are plenty strong enough to take a light set of steel. I would think you'd want to string it with gauges 12, 20w, 16, 11 or thereabouts in steel for reentrant GCEA on this scale. I have a set of Martin fluorocarbons on this right now and they sound great, though!

1 comment:

hemingray 9 said...

These are cool fer sure. I finally got mine up and semi running. I had to add the bridge as well. Not sure if it's wide enough, though, as the strings don't quite mimic the widening of the neck like yours. And it has Waverly tuners that look pretty fancy, but act a bit wonky. Probably change them out. I also have the original, albeit deteriorating case!