8/29/2014

c.1890 British-made Zither 5-String Banjo




This is a customer's instrument that came in for a new skin head, fret level/dress, setup, and the usual etc. sort of work needed to get something up and running. It also came in with something startling for a British zither banjo: a straight neck! I've never seen that. It's shocking!

By the way: if anyone knows what maker built this, please let me know.

Zither banjos are distinct in that they have a tunneled 5th drone string that pops out at the 5th fret. They also tend to have geared (guitar-style) tuners and a head that's stretched over a metal rim that sits suspended inside what on most banjos would be a removable resonator. This all adds up to instruments that have a very different sound compared to most American banjos. I find them a bit more overtone-y, darker (usually), and thuckier-sounding. This can be a big advantage for the player who's over-bright in his/her attack or someone looking for a spooky old folky sound.


The zither-style rim means this is comfy in the lap. My only issue with this construction is that it can often be somewhat unstable over time which is why there's a big old shim at the upper bit of the banjo's heel to cant the neck back enough for a 1/2" bridge.

Because this neck was fine with 10-gauge steel strings on it for the past 25+ years I decided a set of lights (9s on top and bottom) would be fine vs. the normal zither-banjo pack of mixed steel and wound-on-gut basses.


Original bone nut and thick ebony veneer at the headstock. This came with some gross 60s Japanese tuners on it which I've replaced here with a set of 20s Waverly tuners from my parts-bin. It worked out perfectly because the bass-side tuners actually had a 3rd tuner damaged so I just cut it down.

Another curiosity of zither banjos is that their headstocks often had 6 tuners with only 5 used. This was for looks and it drives me crazy because all those #6 unused tuners would inevitably rattle when you hit the right notes. As the British jos evolved they went down to 5 tuners and so I've done the same, here.


The pearl inlay in the ebony board is quite nice. This banjo has a long 26 3/4" scale which is a bit intense for stretching but does give a nice springy tension. Note the tunneled 5th string (ergonomic for sliding-note work) and also how I've moved the pip for the 5th string slightly more outboard from its original seat for better string spacing.


So... there's the shim to cant the neck back but also note that little nut that rubs up against the rim: this is actually an action adjuster! If you "loosen it" towards the rim it pushes the neck back. If you tighten it you get higher action. Not bad, huh? -- but I suggest detuning before cranking it. Currently this jo is setup for clawhammer/fingerstyle 3/32" at the 12th fret but that's really easy to dial down to 1/16" or up higher for a wailing player.


The strings originally went into slots in the rim but I find this tedious for restringing and inevitably one tightens up the head only to have the string ends run right over the skin and damage it over time.




The neck is good mahogany in a sharp V shape and the resonator/body is stained maple.



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