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.
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.
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.
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.