1/11/2017

1890s Fairbanks Special No.1 5-String Openback Banjo





This A.C. Fairbanks was built by the firm themselves -- rather than in cooperation with Vega -- if I'm remembering my history correctly. It has the usual 1890s features of a Fairbanks, too, with a good-quality spunover rim full of rugged hardware, an ingenious (for the time) shoe-mounted "neck brace" on the dowel, the typical Fairbanks-style headstock shape, and a sturdy "Boston" build.

Strung like they were intended, for gut or nylon (nylon is on it), a banjo like this one simply sounds full, glorious and feels great under the fingers. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to turn these into steel-strung "old-time" banjos, and so often lose the point of this sort of design in a tone that might get a bit muddy or saturated with overtones. Not to mention, steel tends to warp the neck on a banjo of this age after a while.

I worked on this for a consignor (as it turned-out... I forgot at the time that he'd wanted to sell it!) and it received a new Remo Renaissance head, a fret level/dress, and a good going-through and setup. Everything on the banjo is original save the head, 1920s-era two-foot bridge, tailpiece, and strings. As it is now it sounds and feels awfully close to what it must've been like when it was new. I set the action for gut/nylon-strung banjos at 3/32" at the 12th fret, though the 1/2" bridge leaves some room to come down to 1/16" at the 12th if the player has a very light touch.


This is a full-size banjo with a 26" scale length, 10 7/8" rim, and 1 1/4" nut width. It's got a no-frills look but is certainly a quality build.


Amazingly, despite years of service running a light set of steel strings, the original celluloid violin-style friction pegs remain in good shape and keep the banjo nicely in-tune.

The fretboad and headstock veneer appear to be ebony, though there's a chipped-out area of the headstock veneer just north of  nut under the D&G strings which I repaired.


The original bone 5th-string "pip" (nut) is still extant. I didn't want to level the small original frets entirely down, so while the neck is essentially dead straight, there's still a ~1/64" overall relief in the neck if you measure it. This does not effect playability in the least.

The board has pearl dots inlaid and the neck profile is a medium-sized soft-V/U hybrid shape.


When I set the banjo up, I added a couple of shims for extra back-angle at the top of the heel. These days I layer-up sticky-backed pickguard material to the tension hoop so that it doesn't move around if you need to remove the neck for some reason.


The 1920s two-foot bridge came with it and I reused it after work. It sounds great! I did some bridge-swapping and liked the direct, warm tone of this one over my usual all-maple "minstrel" bridges for this application.





The neck looks like it's made from dark-stained maple.




It's nice to see all that hardware in such relatively good shape. A lot of banjos from this era get pretty grungy.




Here's the cute little neck brace you see on many old Fairbanks builds. This is a far more practical way to keep a neck tight to the rim compared to the usual "hammer in some shims" neck brace of the same period.


The replacement tailpiece is a No-Knot repro that came with the banjo and it has a new hanger-bolt, too. The endbolt is original but I've added a spacer-washer to allow the tailpiece to rest more appropriately.

1 comment:

Polly Wilson said...

What a beauty, and lovely sounding. (How many banjos does a banjo player need? One more...)