3/05/2016

1890s B&J-sold "Lester" 5-String Openback Banjo





Update 4/13/17: This banjo is now wearing Aquila Nylgut strings and the bridge has been swapped to a standard 3-foot, ebony/maple unit -- but is otherwise the same.

Update 3/9/16: I changed the tailpiece situation on this banjo and added the inside adjuster nut for the coordinator rod. I've updated the post where necessary and added new pics.

A "Lester" banjo? Weird. Big catalog retailer B&J sold this one and I have absolutely no idea who actually made the darn thing. It's almost certainly East Coast (Boston or New York) judging by the "double-spun" rim and cut and styling of the neck, but I can't place it. There are Lange-ish features in the heel shape, Stewart-ish features in the headstock and neck shape, and Fairbanks/Cole-ish features in the way the board is stacked in layers to give it some class. In the end, however, it simply comes across as a well-made banjo that's obviously seen plenty of love in its life (note the worn fretboard).

I bought this one and it came with a nice, straight neck (shock!), but missing useful tuners at the headstock, a sloppily-repaired dowel problem, and need for a new head, bridge, nut, and tail. I've leveled/dressed the frets, changed the neck-attachment from dowel/neck brace to coordinator-rod style, and replaced what needed replacing. My estimation of build puts this in the 1890s-1900s and it was definitely intended to be strung with gut -- so I've strung it with nylon. It plays perfect (I set nylon strings for 3/32" at the 12th fret), has that "classic banjo" tone with gusto, and -- thanks to the coordinator-rod -- can be adjusted for any action you like with a simple twist of a hex bolt under the tailpiece.


This has an 11" rim with a longer, 25 3/4" scale length. I've replaced the old, torn skin head with a new Elite-badged "Remo Renaissance" synthetic one.


The headstock veneer is rosewood and the nut is bone. The neck has a fast, smaller C shape to it and is dead-straight.


The fretboard itself looks like it's made from dyed pearwood or maple and the color is worn-out where it's been played most-heavily. The pearl inlay is all folksy and cute, featuring hearts, circles, stars, and vaguely-floral "wings."

The frets are all-original and have plenty of life left. The 5th-peg "pip" is a new tiny screw I added to replace a chipped-out original bone one.




The bridge is a nice German old-stock fiddle-maple unit and the strings are the standard LaBella nylon banjo set. I went back and changed the way the strings anchored on this as I originally had a tailpiece -- but after playing it some I decided to drill some holes through the top of the tension hoop to mount the string-ends instead (like on many European banjos from the time and some banjo ukes).

I like the tidy look, the nice straighter string pull, and the ability to mount knotted "ball end" style or "tie-on" style. It's an improvement.





The tuners at the headstock are 1920s ones from my parts-bins but they do look the part and have ivoroid buttons. The pegs on this banjo are all 1:1 friction pegs and work just swell for nylon stringing.



The neck looks like it's made from walnut to me. Note the extra "lining" under the fretboard and headstock veneer -- quite classy.

The finish appears all-original, too.



Note that the rim is "double spun" with the nickel-silver cladding covering the thin-wood rim both on the outside of the pot and on the inside. It's then "rolled over" two brass hoops on both the top and back edges. The top edge becomes, thus, an integral tonering.

In the above two pictures you can also see my "coordinator rod" setup running below the original dowel. I will explain the need for this setup in just a bit. I'm always looking for an excuse to install it on old banjos, but very rarely have the need to.

Again -- for those not in the know -- the best bit about coordinator rods is that they both stiffen-up the banjo's neck/rim join, provide a lot more stability across the rim (and are subject to less fuss when the weather changes), and also provide an easy way to adjust action.




All of the hooks, nuts, and shoes on the banjo are original.





There's a tiny area of fill in the fretboard right in front of the 5th peg (and under the 5th-string pip/nut) where the old bone one had split-through the edge and the board needed repair.


See the little dot with the surface/finish tiny hairlines next to it on the heel? Someone attempted to "repair" the dowel's end going into the heel via "pinning" it in the heel. The two little lines next to the pin are just surface hairlines in the finish -- nothing in the wood itself. They did a sloppy job of fitting the pin/dowel as well and the result is that the dowel is loosey-goosey and too wiggly for structural use. I could spend an absurd amount of time remedying this problem, or I could...


...install a coordinator rod!

There was a screw-hole in this location when I bought the instrument... presumably to make-up for the fact that the old dowel repair was ineffective and the neck brace wouldn't keep the heel tight against the rim. I enlarged the hole a little in the heel, tapped it, and then installed a hanger-bolt Gibson-fashion. After that I cut a threaded rod, connected it to the tightening-nut for the hanger bolt, and passed it through...


...under the tailpiece. This hex-nut on the outside end, when turned "clockwise" from the outside, will crank action down as it pulls on the rim/heel towards the tailpiece. When turned "counter-clockwise" it will release some of that tension and let action rise again. You can further adjust the internal nut "tighter" to crank action up if desired. It's currently set at 3/32" overall at the 12th fret which is as low as I like for nylon/gut strings.

This same exact rod setup (with a dowel and single coordinator rod) can be found on early Gibson banjos and is just as easy-to-use, functional, and stable as it was when they were first made. There's a reason it's now the standard attachment system in use in the banjo world.

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