2/06/2016

1950s Kay 5-String Openback Banjo




This old 5-string was made by in Chicago by Kay (and has their gizmo-tastic neck adjuster mechanism) and probably dates to the early 50s or late 40s. Here's a similar-period tenor jo for example. It originally had a skin head, straight bridge, and friction pegs at the headstock. As usual for a Kay 5-string, the scale length is "extra long" at 27 3/16" and the nut width and string spread is fairly narrow (bluegrass style) at 1 1/8" at the nut. It's therefore a sort of peculiar instrument that doesn't fit into the standard-issue categories of "old time 5-string" or "bluegrass 5-string." Obviously it fits more into the mold of the former, however.

Work included adding a new head and compensated 5/8" bridge, some new guitar tuners at the headstock (Kluson-style as seen on later-50s Kay banjos), a very light fret level/dress, and a good setup and cleaning. It has a straight neck, 1/16" action at the 12th fret, and a fast, easy feel.


The pot is multi-ply maple and 11" diameter. I've added a new "Elite" Remo Renaissance head. The rim has a smaller hoop-style tonering.


The original nut is bone and I've re-slotted it in a couple places to give the strings a more even spread.

The new silly "keystone" Kluson-ish tuners are fun because...


...they fit-in with the original silly "keystone" 5th string peg.

The frets are medium-sized brass and in good order. The rosewood board has dark staining here and there but is also in good shape.



The brand-new compensated ebony/maple bridge keeps the banjo in tune up its neck.





The neck adjuster mechanism, supposedly, allows for easy "reset" of the neck angle. In reality these slip a bunch so I shim the joint up with shims before tightening in addition just as I'd do with any regular banjo. I also had to slightly cut-down the metal plate for the adjuster to keep it from interfering with the tension hoop's movement.


The "single coordinator rod" construction allows slight adjustment to overall neck angle but because it also serves as an endbolt-holder on the outside, it's not as adjustable as a Gibson-style version of the same.


This banjo has way too many hooks! It's sort of a throwback to the 1890s idea of "the more hooks the better." This would do just fine with half as many in use, but it does look cool.



The only thing I could find with matching threads to the original hooks was one of these old 20s banjo shoes -- so I replaced a missing nut with this for now -- and it also serves as a place to clip or tie your strap off.


The standard-issue tailpiece allows loop or ball-end strings. This currently has a set of 9s on it and that's where I'd leave it considering the long scale length. The tail is slightly "leaned-over" to align a bit better with the neck. It also has some foam muting under the cover to mute the extra string afterlength.


An original chipboard case comes along for the ride.

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