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Thread: Banjo-Mandolin ID

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    Default Banjo-Mandolin ID

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ID:	159931Need help finding out about this Banjo Mandolin. No name. It came to me strung with only 4 strings that are nylon. The string gauges appear about equal, and wonder if there is a reason why these are on there. The G string is not any thicker than the others and when tuned down to a "mandolin G" it is too loose and rattles. Would like to try steel strings, but don't know if there is a tension issue. It is is good shape and the neck plays clean. Any info or advice is appreciated.
    Last edited by Amandalyn; Aug-10-2017 at 9:07pm. Reason: Add pic
    Teri LaMarco

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    Default Re: Banjo-Mandolin ID

    Hi Teri, That's a clean looking little banjo mandolin. My guess is that somebody attempted to string it like a banjo uke. The floppy G string is probably meant to be tuned higher in the typical re-entrant ukulele fashion.

    Since it's clearly a banjo mandolin, my further guess would be that you won't have any problems stringing it up with light gauge strings.
    Steve



    "They're approaching. That's very forward of them."

  3. #3

    Default Re: Banjo-Mandolin ID

    It does look nice! I have an old Gibson mando-banjo, strung in Aquila Red mandolin nylon, and it is a blast. The 4 nylon strings are easy on the fingers, and the Aquila set makes the tension feel "close" to what people expect. I am told with 4 strings it is called a "melody banjo." I am learning (one year in, only) to play single note melodies for ITM, Quebecois, and Old Timey and the like, and I love it. My session mates don't mind the sound, and the more experienced musicians (both banjo and mandolin) get a charge out of it. For about 7 dollars or less you can string it with the white Aquila "Soprano Ukulele 5ths" string set, which puts it in mando tuning. Just be careful with the high E; they break frequently, so the advice is tune low, rest an hour or so, tune again, maybe three or for steps to get to the E. I actually (since the breakage was mostly near the knot/tail) strip some thin copper wire for the insulation (maybe 3 inches or so) and slip it over the bottom end of the E string, before I tie the knot. Now, I have 4 different instruments tuned that way, and they all hold up (and mostly hold tune) very nicely.

    Have fun!

    David

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Banjo-Mandolin ID

    Any identifying marks inside the shell? If not, it looks like an inexpensive "trade" instrument, as shown by the smaller number of brackets, and the lack of headstock inlay and fretboard position markers. Instruments like this were turned out in large numbers, often without manufacturer's markings, and sold through distributors to music dealers.

    Doesn't mean that it's not a decent playable instrument. I agree with Steve that the previous owner was probably a ukulele player, and strung this one up as a ukulele banjo. If you want to play it as a mandolin, I'd string it up with light-gauge mandolin strings and see what it sounds like, and how it plays.

    Mandolin banjos tend toward the raucous; if you like that, fine. If you don't, you can stuff a towel or other cloth inside the shell and cut the volume down significantly. You can also follow the advice above and try nylon strings, but I'd give it a go with regular steel mando strings first. That's the stringing the instrument was designed for.
    Allen Hopkins
    Gibsn: '54 F5 3pt F2 A-N Custm K1 m'cello
    Natl Triolian Dobro mando
    Victoria b-back Merrill alumnm b-back
    H-O mandolinetto
    Stradolin Vega banjolin
    Sobell'dola Washburn b-back'dola
    Eastmn: 615'dola 805 m'cello
    Flatiron 3K OM

  5. #5

    Default Re: Banjo-Mandolin ID

    Thank you all for the info. Here's the back side.
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    Teri LaMarco

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Banjo-Mandolin ID

    Don't see anything to ID it, but it looks decently made; even a hint of a raised head tone ring. You may have run across a good quality instrument, though the lack of maker ID limits its market potential.
    Allen Hopkins
    Gibsn: '54 F5 3pt F2 A-N Custm K1 m'cello
    Natl Triolian Dobro mando
    Victoria b-back Merrill alumnm b-back
    H-O mandolinetto
    Stradolin Vega banjolin
    Sobell'dola Washburn b-back'dola
    Eastmn: 615'dola 805 m'cello
    Flatiron 3K OM

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    Default Re: Banjo-Mandolin ID

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    Don't see anything to ID it, but it looks decently made; even a hint of a raised head tone ring. You may have run across a good quality instrument, though the lack of maker ID limits its market potential.
    Allen, I could find no ID marks. Strung it up today with light mando strings, just 4 courses, to try. Plays well except for going out of tune easily. Might be better after the strings settle in. Sounds very loud. The neck and fretboard are in excellent shape and it plays easy. The bridge slots and nut could use some adjustments, or changed out.
    Not sure if I will use as a player or just a wall hanger.
    Teri LaMarco

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    Default Re: Banjo-Mandolin ID

    Quote Originally Posted by Amandalyn View Post
    ... going out of tune easily. Might be better after the strings settle in. ...
    Looks like probably a genuine hide head on there. Those never stay in tune very long, regardless of strings. The slightest change in temperature or humidity, such as from the player's hands or body, changes the tension on the head, that in turn either raises or lowers the bridge by nearly imperceptible amounts but it's enough to make the strings go out of tune. It's just one of those banjo 'things'.

    On a damp soggy cool day (high humidity) you might notice the bridge feet seem to sink into the head a little more, because the head has absorbed moisture from the air, and gotten looser (which makes the instrument sound more tubby). On a different day that's more dry with low humidity, the head dries out and tightens up, so the bridge rides a little higher. It's always in a constant state of change, because even in a perfectly climate-controlled house, contact with the player's hands/body can change the head tension and make the banjo go out of tune.

    The lower the head tension is to start with, the more sensitive it is to going out of tune. My experience (eons ago) was that old instruments are more likely to have looser heads because the hide stretches out, over the years just sitting there, if someone hasn't been playing it and maintaining it. By "maintaining", I mean adjusting the metal brackets that control the head tension.

    In the old days we used to keep our new banjo heads cranked down pretty tight because that way they didn't react quite as much to temp/humidity changes. But, CAUTION, on an old instrument with an old head, I would NOT recommend to tighten up the head because there's a good likelihood it might split or start coming apart where it wraps around the hoop thingie (can't remember the proper name) below the tone ring... the hide can get a little rotten after umpteen-dozen years. Of course banjo heads can be replaced, they were designed as expendable parts not made to last forever, but since you've just got the instrument you probably don't want it to start coming apart and needing parts already.

    I don't know what all is available nowadays in ready-made banjo heads as far as different sizes. I used to just buy a blank piece of calfskin and soak and fit and install it myself, but it's a hassle. I don't remember all the details (long long time ago) but I do remember the nuisance part.

    Eventually I got tired of the issues with hide heads, so on the banjos I had that were 'standard' size, I switched to regular factory-made plastic heads after they became available, they come out of the box ready to install and since they're plastic they stay in tune pretty good. Better than hide heads anyway.

    Another advantage to a more stable (i.e., plastic) head is that you can tune the head *itself* to a certain note (I forget which note I chose) to make the banjo sound better overall so you don't get wolf tones or other weird resonances when playing certain notes.

    If your banjo-mandolin going out of tune becomes sufficiently bothersome at some point, you might be able to get one of the modern synthetic-calfskin heads that sort of simulates the hide head sound and appearance, but they don't have any of the issues with going out of tune all the time because of temperature and humidity. Or if you want a brighter sound and don't need the vintage look, the clear see-thru plastic heads will work too.

    I realize you didn't ask for a book-length dissertation on banjo heads, but I figured some of that might be useful info.

    P.S.: There are other things that can cause a banjo or banjo-mandolin to not stay in tune very well, such as an unstable joint where the neck attaches to the dowel thingie, or any number of other reasons, but in my experience the main culprit is usually the hide head.
    Last edited by JL277z; Aug-15-2017 at 1:59am. Reason: Added link.

  10. #9

    Default Re: Banjo-Mandolin ID

    Thank you JL for all that info. I can't tell if the head is natural hide, it's quite thin, has some variations in it like leather, and is stretched tight. It is quite dirty, and don't know if I should clean it or with what to treat it? I don't want to make matters worse. Thanks again, as I don't know much about banjos.
    Teri LaMarco

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Banjo-Mandolin ID

    Quote Originally Posted by JL277z View Post
    ...I don't know what all is available nowadays in ready-made banjo heads as far as different sizes....
    Largest selection I know is at Smakula Vintage Instruments in WV.

    If the head's animal skin (calf or goat skin, generally), you can wipe it vigorously with a damp cloth, then let it air-dry. If it's plastic (you should be able to tell -- look at the "reverse" side inside the shell; a plastic head will be shiny), do the same wiping, and don't worry about it drying, since the plastic won't absorb water.

    Head tightness is kinda a matter of taste, since as pointed out, you get a louder, snappier sound from a tight head, and a more mellow sound from a looser head. Once you get all eight strings installed and tuned to pitch, see how far the bridge feet "sink" by pushing the head down. If it seems that the head is barely dented by the bridge feet, your head's probably at near-max tension. Cranking up the brackets further can split the head.

    New strings and a flexible base for the bridge -- the banjo head = tuning variability. This will be reduced as the strings stretch out through playing, and you settle on a head tension that you like. You will find that if you change the pitch of one string, it will change the pitch of other strings, since the head flexes as string tension increases or decreases. But it's manageable, and handling it will improve with your experience.
    Allen Hopkins
    Gibsn: '54 F5 3pt F2 A-N Custm K1 m'cello
    Natl Triolian Dobro mando
    Victoria b-back Merrill alumnm b-back
    H-O mandolinetto
    Stradolin Vega banjolin
    Sobell'dola Washburn b-back'dola
    Eastmn: 615'dola 805 m'cello
    Flatiron 3K OM

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