5/26/2015

1890s/2015 Buckbee-made Wurlitzer Fretless 5-String Banjo




I spied this nicely-made (but plain-Jane) Wurlitzer-branded 5-string and picked it up, though it did have 2/3 of its (thin) fretboard missing at the time and also lacked a tailpiece, head, and bridge. I knew I was going to convert it to a fretless from the get-go and did so by swapping in a nice slab-style (5/16" thick!) old rosewood board that was sourced from some sort of closed German guitar factory (my guess: Framus). The conversion went well and the neck has a good, stable, serious feel to it with the big board installed. It plays spot-on and looks authentic enough, too, though the all-plain Aquila "Reds" give it a definitive modern touch (though vintage sound).

I'm almost certain this was made for Wurlitzer by Buckbee in New York, but I could be wrong. It's just very much after a Buckbee fashion with a double-edged spunover rim (its nickel-plated brass "sleeve" is curled-over on either side which creates an integral "tonering" on the top edge) and "figure 8" headstock shape. The neck carve, dimensions, and original fretboard material also all point to Buckbee to my eyes. The main departure, however, is in the fantastic neck brace mechanism which is my favorite from the time and more often seen on British banjos than American makes.



Even though this is a fretless, the banjo has an approximately 25 1/4" scale length which puts your "G note on the D string" right at the 5th string "pip" -- ie, the "fifth fret." This is my reference point for locating bridges for fretless banjos as it's a common reference point on fretted ones.

This has a 10 7/8" rim and a brand new Remo Renaissance head (my favorites).


I also added a new ebony nut.


The friction pegs are interesting early versions of Grover Champions with the Wurlitzer logo of the time molded into them. I reused the original fifth "pip."



I added a nice old parts-bin (period) tailpiece. These are really only "rated" for gut/nylon/nylgut strings and tend to snap with steel... so be warned! That's what they're made for, anyhow, so you can easily tie them off in the little grooves for each string.

The bridge is fiddle-stock maple and also from some closed old German factory. It's "good stuff" and looks very period to this instrument.





This probably had a heel cap which is long gone.


Note the good, sturdy construction.


There's the Wurlitzer brand on the dowel and the nice neck brace gizmo. This needed no dowel reset.



All the shoes on the rim are original but only about 2/3 of the hook/nuts. The last 1/3 are hook/nuts from the 20s or 30s.

See how nice and tall the bridge is? The big old fretboard helped insure that without even any shims at the heel. Action is quick and fast and roughly 1/16" at the 12th fret area.


I love how the nickel-plated brass has aged-in on this rim.




I used an old Weymann hook to mount the tail as it was the only thing right-looking but long enough that I could find in my parts bin.

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