8/28/2016

1890s Buckbee-made Dobson "Great Echo" 5-String Banjo





This banjo is everything I like about the best period 5-strings -- it's innovative, odd, beautiful, and sounds like a million bucks. It also has that wider 1 1/4" nut width and soft-V medium-sized neck that fits the hand just-so. While Edgar Dobson's banjos aren't as well-known as the George Dobson ones, they're just as interesting and were also made by Buckbee in New York (my personal favorite maker of the time).

This one is -- let's say it -- stunning. It came to me in quite rough shape but I've sorted it out and now it's a healthy, happy old banjo. Its most interesting feature is an all-metal rim -- in this case nickel-plated brass. It's two layers of the stuff which makes a giant "reverse donut" tonering as an integral feature. Couple that to a gorgeous mahogany neck with a pearl-bedecked ebony fretboard and you're talking about something sitting in the professional end of the market (for its time). The necks on these are certainly not ok for steel, so it's strung with nylon in lieu of using actual gut.

The rim/tonering arrangement gives this banjo a warm, full, rich sound and plenty of volume. I'm predominantly a 2-finger picker and throw a bit of frailing into the mix and that style perfectly suits an instrument like this. It's not ideal for a heavy-handed clawhammer type (no scoop, gentle string tension) but if you're an articulate player more on the fingerpicking side, something like this feels wonderful. It's a full-size instrument with a 26" scale length and 10 3/4" rim.


My work included reheading (with very thin goat skin), a fret level/dress, some curator-style work in preserving the fretboard (it was dried-out and chipping here and there), a fill of the 5th peg hole and then a redrill/reinstall of a 5th peg, adding a brand new set of hook/nuts (only a few original brass ones remained), a new bridge, ebony nut, and the usual setup work.

It plays right-on at 3/32" action at the 12th fret (you'll want no lower for light-tension gut/nylon, and I have a 2nd, taller bridge spec'd out for it).


Someone had reamed the pegholes out rather large in the past and so I actually replaced the missing tuners with geared ones from my parts-bin. You'll see that the high D tuner is slightly recessed due to the thickness of the headstock -- no issue. I also rebuttoned these tuners with early-1900s ivoroid buttons to keep a more period look. At 4:1 these tuners essentially feel like 12:1 or more with the nylon strings on them.

And, oh, right -- more to the point -- check out the inlay! This stuff was almost certainly done by one of the scores of Middle Eastern pearl-workers employed in the trade in New York.


The ebony fretboard, while a little worn at the edges, is a lot thicker than your average Buckbee make. This suggests it was a bit upmarket.


Don't you love that 5th-fret inlay?


...and it only gets better. The neck has about 1mm of relief overall, but it absolutely does not effect the playability.



The new goat skin head looks (and sounds) excellent. I've used an all-maple 3-foot bridge to keep this "period-style." Note the original No-Knot tailpiece and how I've used the "anglers" on top to adjust side-to-side pressure... just as intended.



See that? The interior of the rim has some nice engraving, too, and the dowel is wrapped in nickel-plated brass as well. Here's what's going on inside this rim...


You can see that the top edge (where the head rests) is curled-over and makes a tonering, essentially. The sidewall then goes down and curls back up, making a bit of a "chamber" inside. It reminds me of Bacon Professional instruments... but in metal. The interior bit does not make contact with the head but sits below it about 1/8" or so.



Because the neck is attached with two screws that are inaccessible when the head is on, most of my neck angle adjustment was done by strong-arming a shim in at the top of the neck joint after reheading it.


The mahogany in the neck is pretty stuff. The tuner buttons, at least, keep the eyes away from the chrome of the units themselves.


All the finish is original, for sure.


Ignore the small bit of foam stuffed under the dowel -- it's not necessary but I like to clean up the overtones on banjos just a tad no matter the make. It's just my preference as a player. It sounds good either way and, since it's such a small pad of the stuff, doesn't hurt the volume at all.


The interior engraving looks great -- the wifey said, "I love the surprises on the inside of old banjos."





While all the hook/nuts are new, they look appropriate. All the rest of the rim hardware is original, though, with the exception of one shoe (but that's an older replacement, anyhow).






1 comment:

Warren Grice said...

Very nice work Jake, you sure get to work on some interesting pieces!