10/27/2013

c.1935 Gibson-made Kalamazoo Plectrum Banjo




Update January 2014: This banjo actually has a set of $95 Waverly 4:1 geared pegs installed now as well as some clay side dots installed at the fretboard's side. Nice improvements and the clay dots look like they could be original equipment.

What a cool find! I spotted this and bought it, not quite sure it was a plectrum (from the photos), but when it arrived there was that nice 26 3/8" scale neck staring back at me -- and dead-straight, too.

Kalamazoo-branded (Gibson-made) banjos from the 30s are fairly rare vs. the guitars and mandolins they built under the name, but I've never seen a Kalamazoo-branded plectrum banjo before. Maybe I just haven't been looking enough, but by the 30s, plectrums were already fairly out-of-favor.

This instrument shaped up into a beautiful player with a folky, sweet, warm, but precise tone. Work included a fret level/dress, cleaning, setup, and a new head, bridge, and tailpiece. It sounds sort of like a modern clawhammer-style openback banjo to my ears, actually. More on why I think that is below...




It's simple but handsome and the Elite (Remo Renaissance-style) head looks great on it. The rim is a standard 11" diameter.


The finish is vaguely sunbursted throughout. Here you can see some of that flamed maple in the neck coming through the front face of the headstock. The tuners have ferrules but they're standard friction types. I had to replace one of the buttons but otherwise they're original. Ebony nut.


The flat-profile, rosewood board has those typical thinnish Gibson frets from the time and also pearl dots.


The original tailpiece was a mandolin-style type but it was missing its "cloud" cover. I replaced it with an adjustable repro modern tailpiece that's a lot more practical for the instrument type. Note that I've compensated the slots of the new 5/8" bridge.

Action is perfect and slinky at 1/16" at the 12th fret. I use fairly light gauge strings on plectrums (20w-09) like a light 5-string set minus its 5th and tend to tune them DGBE. I also like CGCE tuning for that chimey open sound.


Typical period Gibson hardware all over the rim...





There's that smallish "Gibson heel" and coordinator rod.



The coolest bit is that the whole length of the neck is one-piece vibrantly-flamed hard maple. I've never seen such a nice material popped onto a Kalamazoo-line instrument like this, though I'm glad they did it -- pretty stuff!


Everything looks original here, except that the screw/threaded end that goes into the lower part of the heel is a (newer) replacement. Works just fine and you can't see it... since... it's in the heel!


The nice bit about a coordinator rod assembly is that action is adjustable (slightly) via adjusting this end of the rod back and forth.



There's that repro Presto tailpiece.


Now here's the reason I think this banjo sounds so good in an old-timey modern way: the rim is 2-ply good-quality maple and has this curious rounded-off upper bit that acts as an integral tonering. Very cool, huh?

I've noticed there are some modern makers of 5-string openbacks doing similar work these days, with good reason: it works and definitely has a tonal edge over the usual sloped-edge wooden rim design while also reducing head wear (no hard angles), too.

No comments: