3/13/2015

1950s Hollywood Bajo Quinto Conversion






This came to me as a 12-string bajo sexto ("bass six") but I've done a lot of work and then converted it into a bajo quinto-style instrument ("bass five") instead. Update: This can, however, be setup however the player desires: standard "A" bajo quinto is easy enough to swap around to, with or without unison upper register strings.

While the original tuners and tailpiece hardware on this instrument suggest 1940s manufacture, this is probably a '50s instrument just judging by the finish style. It's really rare and also really curious! Uke players know the "Hollywood" brand with its distinctive banner as a high-flight uke brand but this is certainly not made in the same workshop as those ukes, though it was probably sold through the same distributor.

It was most definitely made by a Mexican-raised or Mexican-taught craftsman as it has the traditional build for a bajo sexto/quinto instrument except... it's tailpiece-loaded rather than glued-bridge-loaded. What this means is that overall the build was lightened-up vs. other bajo sexto/quintos and so the top vibrates incredibly freely while still being stiff enough to take the tension. Acoustically it's a very successful instrument (which I cannot say about most bajos I've encountered).



Bajo quintos and sextos evolved with Mexican border music and Tejano music especially. They often play a baritone lead/counterpoint role in modern music but "back in the day" they provided the warm bass part and the punchy guitar part (at the same time) for backing accordions and fiddles. The earlier ones lacked cutaways for extra fret access (like this one) and (like this one) had deep, huge bodies. While the lower bout on this is "just" 16" across, the depth is 4 1/4" (with a slight taper to the upper bout) and the body length is 22"!

The reason for the blown-out proportions is that originally (in its 12-string, bajo sexto format) this would've basically been tuned like a 12-string guitar but down an entire octave with the lowest note the same as a bass guitar's E. The difference, like an 8-string electric bass, is that the octave notes give a distinct punch and drive to basslines and push more volume out, too. When rollicking with this you get the distinct impression that you're playing a massive acoustic guitar with a low octave pedal applied to the mix.

So, why'd I convert it to a 10-string bajo quinto format?

The neck was fairly warped when I got this and the 2" nut width is almost unplayable for the giant strings of a full 12-string set. Most sextos have 2 1/4" to make enough room and the quintos tend to have 2 1/8" as more or less standard. My work then included pulling the frets, planing/leveling the fretboard, refretting with medium frets, filling of two (already cleated) hairline top cracks, a new (compensated) bridge and then conversion over to 10-string format.

What I didn't do is use the traditional quinto tuning of just lopping off the lowest course. Instead, I tune this like a bajo sexto without the top high course. Why? Because this body has enough air and power to get a nice warm low E. It would be a shame to lose that! I also didn't tune the two high courses (G&C in this case) in unison... rather I strung them up octave like the rest. I've never liked the way the strings run from octave to unison on bajo instruments... it's jarring to my ears when I'm shifting chord patterns this way or that way. In effect this is tuned like a 5-string bass with a low E as a starting point: E-A-D-G-C all in fourths.


The slotted headstock is grand. That's the original bone nut, too, but shaved and then readjusted.


Originally this Brazilian rosewood board had a thick coat of varnish over it (typical of Mexican instruments). Thankfully, when I leveled it off, I retained the option to just polish it up like we do "up here." This looks great and feels a heckuva lot better. In addition, after the high polish, the giant original pearl dots really pop out.

I refretted with a nice medium guitar wire.

The string gauges look like: 46w, 100w - 36w, 80w - 26w, 56w - 19, 36w - 11, 26w and they're all nickel-wound or plain steel strings which is similar to the usual nickel-wound sets you find for sale. I put my set together from mixed strings in my "single string" bin and that afforded me the option to lighten the octave strings while fattening the bass strings. Usually a bajo sexto's low E would rate at about a 90w which isn't tense enough to get good drive to the top. Even this is pretty slack.

On the other hand, usually the upper-courses of bajo instruments are super-heavy-tension as the tradition has now shifted to a lot of melody or counterpoint playing on the higher strings so punch is needed there rather than in the low end. Many players simply take off the low E course from modern 12-string bajo sextos.


Inlaid rosette... and wood purfling/binding. The top is solid spruce while the back, sides, and neck are all some form of mahogany. There are two repaired (old cleat job, but a good one) hairlines running the entire lower bout -- one being the center seam and then a crack alongside it. I simply filled them in since the cleats were holding them nicely.


The floating bridge setup also afforded me the option to make a new, lightweight (= more power!) rosewood bridge... and a compensated one at that. You never see compensated bridges on these guys which is why they often sound somewhat out of tune as the player advances up the neck. My ears are thanking me for this mild adjustment...

By the way, the scale length is 25 1/4" -- which is rather standard for bajo instruments.


This is a standard tailpiece from the era but it was drilled for 12 holes. The lowest 4 have been enlarged for the big wound strings.



Despite the size, this is actually a quite lightweight instrument. It's easily lighter than most of the Martin guitars in the shop.






The big pearl face dots required pearl side dots... so I installed some of those.




After chopping off two tuners, I lubed the sets and reinstalled them. They're happy.


I had to re-hang the tail a little.


A wise man's first thought would be: but where do I find a case? Thankfully, an old chip one that (amazingly) fit came with it!


Here's a size comparison with the Guild D4-NT in the shop.

3 comments:

MdJ said...

Dear Jake -

i would very intresested in a bajo quinto (like this one) tuned in 5ths ...FCGDA for example.... Or CGDAE....

Would you have any interest in doing another one of these conversions if an appropriate instrument could be found?

This one looks just perfect....

All the best,
MdJ

Jake Wildwood said...

MdJ -- sure -- actually any of those jumbo tailpiece style 12 string guitars from the 60s should do a reasonable fifths tuning 10-string like CGDAE starting at cello pitch. The low F would be harder to pull real sound out of. The only reason this one works for the low E bass course is because it's so lightly built compared to other bajos.

MdJ said...

Thank you Jake! I will start lookin'.....

More soon,

MdJ