Experimental Bluegrass Banjo #18 181


(click any of the thumbnails for a higher-resolution photo)

This experimental bluegrass banjo features an integral tone ring and flange, and incorporates "stealth" 5th-string tuning, along with a plethora of untried-and-possibly-untrue construction methods. My goal: a banjo with bluegrass tone that doesn't break your back, and that is more playable than the traditional instrument.

Now that the instrument is finished, I can say: mission accomplished!

Construction Photos

Since I was planning on closing down the website, I've taken very few construction photos to this point. Basically, I've constructed a block rim with a maple flange built as part of the rim. The upper layer of the rim is of dense ebony, and the whole thing is topped with a rolled brass ring that has some heft, but nothing like a traditional tone ring. The result is a much lighter pot assembly with mass in the right places, and with no vibration-dampening interfaces between parts. All is topped with a traditional tension hoop and a calfskin head. I love the sound of skin heads; if it proves to be too tempermental with humidity changes, it will be no problem to switch to a more modern design.

The inlay motif is one of barn owls -- flying, sitting, staring, as barn owls do. The entire back of the resonator will feature a life-size owl, all done in wood marquetry. (are you suspecting that perhaps I have too much time on my hands?) The headstock and neck are cut to shape. Binding is applied to the fretboard, and it's glued to the neck. The tiny brass tube that will guide the fifth string from the fifth fret to the headstock, where the tuning machine will be located. is buried within the neck, under the fretboard.

The neck is shaped with planes, rasps, scrapers, and sandpaper. A satin finish is applied to all the wood components. Evo frets are pressed into a thin line of hot hide glue. Tuning machines (count them: five) are installed. Even though the resonator really isn't even started, I'm eager to feel and hear how this baby plays. A tailpiece, bridge, nut, and strings allows me to do just that. Without a resonator, it has that distinctly open-backed sound, but when I steal a resonator from my old banjo and temporarily fit it to this one, I'm delighted with the result.

Even with a hide head, this banjo has a distinct bluegrassy pop, but with an underlying organic growl that I haven't heard before, but one that will be easy to get used to. Also easy to accommodate is not having to work around the fifth-string peg! I've been experimenting with vacuum clamping, and I take my new system for a test run before beginning the decoration on the back of the resonator. The resonator's back is turned from mahogany. My plans are to do a wood marquetry barn owl across the full breadth of the back. The pattern is developed on paper, then transferred with good old-fashioned carbon paper to the wood. The marquetry begins with the largest, most intricate piece, and will work toward smaller, more easily fitted patterns. Each step spends a few minutes inside the vacuum press, then the back is removed and the still pliable excess glue is scraped away.

The marquetry continues, a piece at a time (and there are many). And continiues. When all the marquetry is in place, the back is glued to the resonator's sides. The edges are routed and binding is installed. After final sanding, the addition of some black lines and some judicious application of airbrush shading adds depth to the image. A little setup work, and the addition of tuning machines, strings, bridge, tailpiece, and armrest, and it's ready to make some music.

Thanks for watching this project

All content and graphics © Skipper Custom Instruments