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Mechanical Tuners

 Guitars  have had mechanical tuners from as early as the 1820s, but few if  any pre-Civil war banjos had anything but friction pegs. The exception  is Ashborn, who used mechanical tuners as early as the 1850s, but his  banjos were high quality, professionally made and expensive.  They had  unique adjustable tension rods mechanisms and other clever innovations  to their design.  Ashburn also made fine guitars and had a team of  skilled workers producing his instruments in almost a modern assembly  line type of environment.  The other exception is the banjo illustrated  on the cover of Briggs Banjo Method from the mid-1850s.  It has a  slotted peg head with geared mechanical tuners.

Until after the  Civil War most banjo makers were slaves, carpenters or drum makers. In  general, professional luthier's with access to mechanical tuners, fret  wire and the skills required to install them, did not get involved in  banjo making until somewhere in the 1870s.

I try to produce  "period correct" instruments for living history re-enactors. If you are a  modern musician and you are not concerned about historical accuracy  then anything goes. The banjo is first and foremost a folk instrument  and I have no objections to modifying it according to your desires. I  completely sympathize with the desire to achieve the sound of the  fretless banjo without the inconvenience of things like friction pegs.

Planetary  tuners have something like a 4 to 1 ratio, that is you have to turn the  adjusting knob four times for the tuning post rotate once. A set of  five mechanical friction pegs will set you back about $60. A set of  better quality planetary pegs will cost $100 or more.  There are even  planetary pegs made to look like old ebony friction pegs, also over  $100.00 a set. Please inquire if you have interest.  Please click on the  "Mechanical Tuners" link above to see pictures and descriptions of the  various types of mechanical tuners.

The bottom line is that  mechanical tuners will not change the tonal quality of the banjo. Adding  frets will make some of the string sliding techniques more difficult  but not necessarily impossible. Whether it is an acoustical gourd banjo  or a wooden shell minstrel variety, you will still receive that  wonderful lower pitched 19th-century tone. 


 

Types of Mechanical Tuners

Mechanical  tuners come in two basic types; the adjustable friction type and the  geared type which provide a mechanical advantage (typically 4:1).

The  friction type have a set screw in the button which can increase or  loosen friction when turning the peg.  There is very little mechanical  advantage, but if slippage is ever a problem you can just tighten the  set screw.

The geared tuners come with exposed gears or gear  boxes, or with the gears concealed in the shaft of the peg.  This latter  type of peg is called a planetary tuner and the type I am most commonly  asked for on my banjos, when customers request mechanical tuners.

PegHed Tuning Pegs

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  •  PegHeds Planetary Tuning Pegs
  • PegHed  Planetary tuning pegs are becoming increasingly popular.  (Estimate  cost $125.00 per set) Because of the expense, and the fact they install  with a choice of a left hand or a right hand thread, depending upon the  selected peghead style, I do not stock these, but order them as  required.  Depending upon my supplier's inventory, this may add a few  days to delivery.
  • In this picture you see a rosewood friction peg  of the type I usually provide, an ebony peg in the middle and a PegHed  planetary tuning peg to the right.  The PegHed has an ingenius 4:1 gear  reduction built in to its shaft. 
  • The advantage is that they look  like old time wooden pegs, but never slip and are capable of effortless  fine tuning.  I have them installed on one of my personal performance  banjos and can verify that they function exactly as advertised.  If you  are interested in this option, please mention it in the Comments portion  of the order form.
  • (FYI:  If ordering these optional pegs for a  banjo kit, since I special order them, it can add about a week to your  delivery time.) 

Economy Geared Tuners

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  •  Geared pegs are completely appropriate for mid-19th Century  banjos, although you usually see them in conjunction with a slotted  style peg head.
  •  These are only available with trapezoid or  rectangular style peg head. These are, relatively speaking, low quality tuners, but will function fine. This option is available for $35.00. 
  • Note:  The 5th string peg will be a friction side mounted peg.   The pegs come up through the peg head and the tuning knobs stick out to  the side of the peg head. 

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Peg Head Shapes for Minstrel Banjos & Gourd Banjos

Historical Accuracy vs. Modern Convenience

Options  and prices are listed with each banjo type and again on the order  e-form.  If you want an option that is not listed, please contact me and  we can discuss it.

If  you are looking to use your banjo in a living history context geared  specifically to the 19th century, then most of my standard options would  apply. Please feel free to contact me if you require any advice on what  an appropriate instrument might look like for any particular character  that you are interested in portraying.

In  the case of Gourd banjos, things such as rosewood finger boards and  special rosewood tail pieces or bridges might appear slightly out of  place for the 19th Century, but in the case of wooden shell minstrel  style banjos, just about any carving, inlay or other decoration might be  completely appropriate.

If  you have something very specific in mind, please contact me and we can  discuss it. If you would like a copy made of a banjo that you've seen in  a photograph and you can possibly send me a copy in either the mail or  e-mail I am willing to attempt almost anything.

Frets
I  can do frets, but they involve a fair amount of extra labor and that is why I avoid them. However, everything has a price and if frets are what  you are interested in, then let's talk. Frets were not all that common  on banjos before the Civil War, but they did exist. I have seen some old banjos where the frets are simply flush markers inlaid into the surface of the fret board of the neck. There are examples of fretless banjos being fretted for the first three, four or five  stops. It was not common to have frets down the entire neck until the  1890s. This is about the same time wire strings begin to proliferate.

You  have to realize that the placement of the fret is contingent upon  multiple factors. It is not just the length of the string from the nut  to the bridge that matters. (Once you have frets, your bridge placement  is fixed and you can no longer move it around.)  Equally important is  the diameter of the string and the tension required to depress it to  where it engages the fret. The first and second string of the banjo are  not that different in diameter and therefore will fret at about the same  place. The third and fourth strings however, are usually a heavier  gauge and would accurately fret in a different place.

In  establishing fret placement on any instrument without an adjustable  bridge, a compromise has to be made on where to place the frets and  accurate fret placement is dependent upon the type of strings used. A  significant change in either diameter or in tensile strength of strings  would mean that the frets would be in the wrong place. Though gut or low  tension nylon strings are less affected by these factors, steel strings  are very susceptible. This is the reason why modern electric guitars  often come with individually adjustable bridges for length at each  string.

Your Choice

 Peg Head Shapes
Except  for my kits, there is no charge for any of the following common peg  head shapes.  If you have another shape in mind just send along a sketch  or a picture.