1920s Spanish Bandurria

Well, she's done! To see some "in-process" shots of this instrument, click here. This was a pretty challenging instrument to think-up repairs for, as so much of the neck-joint area was compromised. It's turned-out a beauty, though, and very stable.

The owner bought this instrument at a flea market in Seville, Spain, and while on the inside there's 1800s-dating scrawl, I'm pretty sure it actually dates to, at the earliest, the 1920s or 1930s. The construction style, tailpiece type, and modern features (vs. older bandurrias) seems to suggest that. The tuners are later replacements, however, and look to be from the 50s or 60s.

The work included an experimental "neck reset" via the installation of a rod through the body that connects the neck block to the endblock and runs under the top, reinforcement bracing near the neck joint and upper brace, repairs to a cracked soundboard and "crunch" in the soundboard to the sides of the fretboard extension and rosette, seam repairs, a fret level/dress, new side dots, relocation and compensation of the saddle (which included modifying the bridge), and a good setup, of course. Action is on-the-dot at 1/16" at the 12th fret (there are only 12 frets).

Bandurrias are mandolin-like instruments and, historically, are the true inspiration for the "mandolin craze" that swept the United States in the 1880s, 1890s, and 1900s. Folks got the instrument wrong but knew mandolins made that sound, I suppose. The difference with a bandurria is the even-shorter scale (this one is 10 3/4") length and the fourths-style tuning.

Modern bandurrias use the odd tuning of G#-C#-F#-Bb-E-A low to high, but I've tuned this one for G-C-F-Bb-D-G in the soundclip so that I can actually play it. The latter tuning is "guitar" up a minor third (third fret) and then pitched octave up from that. The G note is the same pitch as on a mandolin's G, therefore. I've used gauges 34w-28w-22w-17-13-9. Most bandurria sets are a little heavier but I found that I had problems with the 20w/22w standard gauges breaking like crazy on the Bb course during setup, so I recompensated the saddle and re-strung for the current gauges which match much better to the pitches used.

Compared to a mandolin, bandurrias are a bit more "romantic" in their voice, with a mellower, sweeter low-end and more presence in overtones. Because of the bridge design they also have a more "guitar-like" snap to the notes -- they're more "velvet" than crisp.

The bone nut is original and the brass frets are, too. The board is rosewood. This instrument had seen a lot of playing and I did a pretty heavy level/dress job to remove divots in the frets. They've still got some good height, however.

The rosette looks gorgeous and the repairs have de-funked it. Check the "before" shots of the crunched rosette to see what I mean.

Here's a closer shot of the threaded rod that runs from neckblock to endblock. There's a threaded insert at the endblock and then the tension (towards the neck) on the rod can be adjusted at the tailpiece via a screwdriver. Here's a pic of the access port:

The idea is to put enough tension on the joint to keep the rod a little stiff but not enough to actually push-out the blocks, now that the neck's geometry has been fixed via all the repaired bracing and whatnot. It's just in there to transfer tension off the soundboard so that the same thing doesn't happen again.

I've used this technique in ailing guitars, before, and it works wonders on things that are under-built and finicky.

When I recut the saddle slot I had to move it a crazy amount to the rear. Obviously, no one measured properly when they installed the bridge in the first place! It's now functioning quite well. I like the touch of the little pearl bits on the bridge top.

I think the owner is right and that this is probably East Indian rosewood on the back and sides.

The neck looks like Spanish cedar, too.

The tuners work just fine after a lube, but a set of StewMac replacement 12-string tuners would be awesome on this.


Nicholas Ratnieks said...

The shape of the plates of the tuners- the ornamented shape top and button is identical to tuner plates seen on guitars made in the 1930s across Europe.I assume they were made in Germany- and are typical on German made guitars. Usually, these are brass- I managed to buy two new but old unsold sets on ebay not so long ago from a seller in Germany. I needed a set for an early 1930s Hawaiian guitar made in Catania, Sicily that had nasty replacement units added in the 1950s or 60s. I know the exact age of the guitar as it had been in the same family since that date. The buttons are celluloid and often the metal shaft is visible on the edge of the buttons- which is not the case with this instrument. That leads me to suspect it may be slightly newer than the 1920s or early 30s. You can see that seam in the buttons which you do not see with the celluloid examples- so it could even be post WW2.

Jake Wildwood said...

I agree RE the tuners, but I'd mentioned in the write-up that I think the tuners are replacements. The originals probably had wider shafts and a different plate. Note that the units currently on it have bent bent-over to fit the headstock shape. The buttons are clearly 50s/60s molded on this one. The tailpiece and its plating style appear to be 1920s/30s in vintage.

Jake Wildwood said...

In fact, I detuned half the set, unscrewed, and pried the tuners up a bit to check. The originals left a different imprint under the ones that are on it. It looks Waverly-esque on the ends but isn't a plate imprint I'm familiar with.

Nicholas Ratnieks said...


I somehow missed - or it did not register- that you had written that the tuners were replacement items. It's a shame you did not photograph the imprint mark. I get the feeling that most European made instruments used German tuners in the interwar period. Some Czech- Schonbach made guitars had very fancy tuners that may have been made in Czechoslovakia- or in Germany. I have seen a Clifford Essex guitar from the 1930s- probably made in London by Marco Roccia and that had Grover "TOP" strip tuners.Swedish Levin guitars often had US made tuners as well but I think- given the size of the German stringed instrument business that tuners made in Germany were the most readily available items. It is possible that the company that made them was destroyed in WW2. Dating an instrument from the tuners is often the best road to travel but when they have been replaced it becomes a little more tricky if there are no identifying marks that are definitive.

Robert Gardner said...

Amazing rescue job on this, Jake, especially the fix on the rosette area train-wreck. Looks like a lot of work.