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Thread: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

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    Registered User Monkshood's Avatar
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    Default mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    I went into a music store that I've driven by a hundred times but never visited just to test drive their mandolins. But I walked out with this. A Vega/Fairbanks SN of 51xxx indicates a ca 1921 build, I think. The shop owner had just finished refurbishing it. It plays strong.
    I don't know too much about the mandolin banjo and would be happy to hear anyone's two cents on the instrument.

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  3. #2
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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 ˘

    That's a Vega Little Wonder, which is a mid-line model. It was the middle of the line between their low end models and the Tubaphone and Whyte Laydie models.
    It's a good quality instrument with a tone ring. Fairbanks/Vega was perhaps the best open back banjo maker of the period.
    I haven't owned a mandolin-banjo, but many people who have experience with this sort of instrument recommend light or extra-light strings to keep the tone from being too piercing.

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    I believe the Little Wonder was the lowest-priced Vega with a tone ring. I own one, and as noted above, it's a well-made instrument. Yours looks to be in nice shape.

    When you say it "plays strong," you're dealing with the plus-and-minus aspects of the mandolin banjo. Most of them have a raucous, assertive tone that some find, well, annoying. I use mine sparingly, for ragtime, jug band, or blues, where that particular sound suits the music. On the other hand, I play in a Celtic band where much of the melody's carried by Mark, who put together his own mandolin banjo, with a larger banjo body and a resonator, and the tone's not as treble-y and piercing; works well in that context. I also used mine on some more "jazzy" klezmer tunes, when I was in a klezmer band briefly.

    Looks like yours has had a new plastic head installed. If you want to moderate the volume, you can use lighter strings as suggested above, stuff a hand towel or similar soft cloth between the dowel stick and the head under the bridge, or experiment with other types of head, like Fiberskyn or similar. Relaxing the tension on the head through loosening the bracket nuts slightly, will also decrease volume, though you should be careful since it also lowers the bridge, which affects the action.

    I'll defend the mandolin banjo against all its detractors; it's a specialized instrument with a specialized sound, but it's excellent for the purpose. You have a nice one, and I hope you enjoy it.
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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    I do like mine (see my avatar)
    New to mando? Click this link -->Newbies to join us at the Newbies Social Group.

    Just send an email to rob.meldrum@gmail.com with "mandolin setup" in the subject line and he will email you a copy of his ebook for free (free to all mandolincafe members).

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    Professional Dreamer journeybear's Avatar
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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    I used to have one of these, back in the 80s-90s. It had belonged to a friend of mine's sister - no idea why - and she wasn't using it. Half a C-note made it mine. At the time I was playing in a jug band, and it was just the thing for the up-tempo, ragtime numbers. (I believe these saw some use back in the original jug band era.) It had a plastic head, and was loud as all get-out. It really didn't need any miking through the PA. I referred to it as being "utterly devoid of subtlety." Fearless leader called it "the happy sound." I was able to learn how to play it a wee bit softer over time so it wasn't quite so harsh, but there was a fine line I had to watch. I never did try lighter strings - this was well before the internet and I knew nothing about such things, so it was what it was. What I really liked about it was the purple lining in the case.

    Somewhere along the line I came across another banjolin with a much smaller head - 6-8" - made of skin, rather than this one's plastic. This had a much softer, sweeter sound. I traded for it. I liked it so much more, I really looked forward to doing its numbers. One sad day the skin broke, and I brought it in to my luthier. He said it had bigger problems - a warped neck that was even starting to twist, frets that needed replacing - much more costly than I'd have liked. I think by this time or soon after I was dismissed from the band, so without financial incentive to motivate me for the repairs, I kind of walked away. It may still be in his basement. I don't know and I haven't asked.

    So yes, I'd second the motion to get a skin head. Try lighter strings, too, but I'll bet the head will make a bigger difference.
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Oops, not sure what happened there.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    A skin head will soften the sound, as well as the lighter strings. Remember a skin head does not like humidity and will go out of tune waaaaayy more than a plastic one. You can bridge the difference by getting a fiberskyn head. It's still plastic, but with a skin coating to soften the sound between the plastic and skin. doesn't change like skin head do tho. A mandolin is hard enough to keep in tune let alone a mandolin banjo, let alone a mandolin banjo with a skin head. Years ago I took the skin head off my 5 string banjo because in the summer you couldn't get thru a song and still be in tune. Sounds great in the winter, but hard to deal with. If you keep tightening it up you'll tear it and it will be junk. Good luck and have fun, these are fun instruments.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Mandolin banjos are great. Lots of fun to play.

    There was a fellow I met at Clifftop (who may be out there reading this!) who refurbishes old mandolin banjos, and strings them with nylon strings. They have a really beautiful pretty subdued sound, not what you expect from a banjo, or a mandolin for that matter.
    Life is short, play hard. Life is really really short, play really really hard.

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    Mandolin banjos are great. Lots of fun to play.

    There was a fellow I met at Clifftop (who may be out there reading this!) who refurbishes old mandolin banjos, and strings them with nylon strings. They have a really beautiful pretty subdued sound, not what you expect from a banjo, or a mandolin for that matter.
    I’ve bought a couple of Gretsch banjos from that guy, including a mandolin-banjo. He had strung it with Nylgut strings, which really helped mute the harshness of tone you'd get otherwise with metal strings. The other one was a six string guitar-banjo, strung with nylon guitar strings. I already had a Gretsch tenor banjo, also with nylon strings, so now I’ve got a family..they all have maple/mahogany/maple/ mahogany/ maple laminated necks, rosewood veneer headstock with the same small medallion-looking inlay.
    I’d recommend the nylgut strings on the mando-banjo if you don’t want to be too obnoxious in a band or jam setting.
    Pete

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    If you’re going to get rid of the plastic skin (for social reasons), then you could cut a hoop in thick, good quality cardboard that’s the same outer diameter of the inside of the banjo, or a bit smaller. Then glue it to the inside using artist spray glue on the card. You can try different sizes of internal size hole for tone and sound reduction.
    I did that on a banjo years ago and some said it sounded better than a fibreskin, more like an animal skin but without all the issues.

    Another is to cut a piece of matteress foam for the inside. Try it, your friends will thank you.

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    I had a '23/24 Gibson trapdoor MB-2 some years ago. I never really connected with the MB-2 tone, but admired the trapdoor resonator and rim-mounted pickguard/finger-rest ideas...

    Vega did a much better job for tone with their open-backs; in my view, though Gibson started with their banjos in 1918, they really weren't very serious about banjos in general until 1925. But mandolin banjos were the big thing among early 1920s jazz mandolin and violin players -- an easy way into jazz for 5ths tuning lovers, and the Vegas were snappy and loud, and very popular.

    I'd recommend, before changing out the plastic head -- if you're doing it for tone -- try pressing a goodly sized dry sponge between the dowel and the head just under the bridge. That will tame down the overtones pretty nicely, and your jam/band mates will really appreciate it.
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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    When you say it "plays strong," you're dealing with the plus-and-minus aspects of the mandolin banjo. Most of them have a raucous, assertive tone that some find, well, annoying. I use mine sparingly, for ragtime, jug band, or blues, where that particular sound suits the music.
    I too own a Little Wonder, and agree with Allen's assessment. I use mine for the same types of music. If you listen to such music from the 1920's and 30's, you'll find that mandolin banjos were popular instruments. Check out the CD, Rags, Breakdowns, Stomps & Blues:Vintage Mandolin Music 1927-1946 for examples. The Little Wonder is an enjoyable instrument, loud, aggressive, and "utterly devoid of subtlety," as Journeybear puts it in Post #5. (I hope my choice of this instrument shows a balance to and not an extension of my personality.) The Little Wonder isn't everyone's cup of tea, but some of us enjoy it very much. Let the good times roll.
    Last edited by Ranald; Jul-09-2022 at 11:37am.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    The OP didn’t say if he/she was familiar with banjos: that would be helpful. My intro to the banjolin was discovering that 8 strings on a soft membrane is a lot different than the same strings on something a bit more rigid; so tuning is recursive and more work. The second, non-mandolin aspect is that the neck is adjustable, which is handy if you do something like go to nylon or alternate tuning. Another non-mandolin aspect is that there is no resonant cavity so the frequency response of that head is not subject to the same constraints: consider it a loudspeaker cone without an enclosure, so it seems to work at lower ranges, albeit that the strings can get sloppy and might need changing. Lots to experiment with.

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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    If you want to moderate the volume, you can use lighter strings as suggested above, stuff a hand towel or similar soft cloth between the dowel stick and the head under the bridge
    You do have to wonder though when you buy a new instrument and your second piece of advice is Put a sock in it!
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Quote Originally Posted by Ranald View Post
    You do have to wonder though when you buy a new instrument and your second piece of advice is Put a sock in it!
    Little wonder, in this case.

    Reading through these suggestions on how to tame the beast ... I wish there had been something like the interweb back when I had one. I had no idea how to modify its brash nature, and even though some of this advice sound obvious, none of it occurred to me. If I'd known or thought about it and tried this or that, I'd probably have kept it and would still have it today. It was a sturdily-built instrument, and would most likely have stood up to whatever I might have done to it. Oh well!

    Not that I'm about to go looking for one now. But you never know ...
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Quote Originally Posted by journeybear View Post
    Not that I'm about to go looking for one now. But you never know ...
    A left handed compliment, no doubt. Given the fragile nature of my friendships these days, I wouldn't subject them to the agony of s mandolin-banjo. i might be sent to the corner for that. Besides I don't like banjos

    Len B.
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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Here's Charlie McCoy of The Mississippi Mudsteppers playing banjo-mandolin:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drru...Steppers-Topic



    and a contemporary musician, Dennis Pash, playing some ragtime with Meredith Axelrod:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_C88...thanthraxelrod

    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Quote Originally Posted by lenf12 View Post
    A left handed compliment, no doubt. Given the fragile nature of my friendships these days, I wouldn't subject them to the agony of s mandolin-banjo. i might be sent to the corner for that. Besides I don't like banjos

    Not really. Just as sometimes thinking gets you to talking, sometimes talking gets you to thinking. All this talking about ways to ameliorate the audaciousness of a banjolin got me thinking I might not have given the instrument enough of a chance. And even though I'm not in a band that requires its pugilistic pungency, there may come a time .... And since it's not just a banjo, but has chiming double strings and fabulous fifths, it's a step or two up from the same old same old gourd-goober. I'm not saying it will bawl the blues like BB or sustain sweetness like "Santa Lucia," but it stands a better chance of doing so.


    I thought I was done with MAS - and I think I still am - but this is a different voice, something that can't be accessed any other way. So ... Well, I'm just thinking ...
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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Quote Originally Posted by Monkshood View Post
    ... But I walked out with this...
    Nice, that’s what it’s for. It’s a very happy, spiritually uplifting and appreciated acoustic instrument -when played outside.
    And was often admired by people who didn’t live, or even have an 'inside'.

    I’d like to build one of these some time, mainly because I dont think the drum head is ever big enough. I think it should have 1 1/2 times the diameter of a standard tenor banjo.

    But people can be very conservative. Seriously, can you imagine the emotions at a session if someone turns up with a big bodhran that has a short, fretless neck stuck to it?
    And it plays bass lines, but it isn’t a double bass?

    -I guess it’s understandable though, unless the (attentive) player has impeccable rhythm and a play/socialise ratio of about 1:3.
    Last edited by Simon DS; Jul-10-2022 at 2:28am.

  34. #20

    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Sounds awful to me.

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    Registered User Simon DS's Avatar
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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Hanson View Post
    Sounds awful to me.

    Dave H
    Photos, please.

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    I love mandolin banjos. Like any instrument in the world, what comes out of them depends on the performer, the music, and the instrument's set up. A mando banjo with the right strings, pick, and performer can produce an "O mio babbino caro" every bit as sweet as, say, Grisman could do on one of his wooden wonders. Or, well, a mando banjo can sound like a tin can being flogged with a metal cat-o'-nine-tails-- don't have to look far for an example of this.

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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Quote Originally Posted by Simon DS View Post
    Photos, please.
    Quite a few in Post #1.

    I've posted this MP3 several times, in discussions about mandolin banjos, when complaints about "raucous –– agony -- sounds awful" proliferate. It's my band Innisfree playing a medley of jigs, with Mark Deprez playing lead on an instrument he largely built himself. It has a larger "pot" then most such instruments, and a resonator, and I think it's a fine melody instrument, well suited for Celtic tunes.

    Irish Washerwoman/Swallowtail Jig/Saddle the Pony

    By the way, other innisfree members are Barbara Jablonski on hammered dulcimer, Kathleen Cappon on 12-string guitar, and myself on (Sobell) mandola.

    Sometimes it's not the instrument itself, but how it's played: what kind of music, how the player approaches it, skill level etc., as Joe B says in Post #22. Even the much-maligned mandolin banjo has a role to play, and can be a satisfying addition to one's musical toolbox.
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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Quote Originally Posted by Simon DS View Post
    I’d like to build one of these some time, mainly because I dont think the drum head is ever big enough. I think it should have 1 1/2 times the diameter of a standard tenor banjo.
    I am not so sure about that. I only own one of these BION but have played lots. I bought mine, a Weymann with a 7” head, about 40 years ago. It is one of the more melodic MBs. It does have a skin head but that was because it was very difficult to find a plastic head years ago in that size. A friend had one with a much larger head and it sounded terrible. We used to call it the percolator. More percussive than melodic.

    I do believe that the lighter strings do make a big difference. I think using a membrane as a sound board vs. carved wood. It needs much less force to drive it.
    Jim

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  42. #25
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    Default Re: mandolin banjo - anyone's 2 cents

    Yes, I agree, large head banjos would probably have more of a bodhran/alternating bass role.
    Could sound cool actually played half of the time as a bodhran. Sparingly.

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