Saturday, August 2, 2014

A New Banjo Joins the Arsenal

I just added a 1929 Vega Little Wonder with Wyatt Fawley conversion neck, from Smakula Fretted Instruments in Elkins, WVA, to my inventory.

That brings my arsenal to a total of four, down from a high of about 40.

The banjo rim started life as a mandolin; its original eight-string tailpiece is riveted to the tension hoop.  Wyatt Fawley made the 24 5/8" scale straight maple neck, which has a scoop after the fifteenth fret and Five Star Planetary tuners. The rim has a 10 1/8" diameter, a 2 3/4" depth, the standard Little Wonder tone ring.

In this video I’m test driving the short scale banjo:


I've taken a fancy to these lately, especially when accompanied by Wyatt's necks.  

I now own three of them.  Two short scales (one strung with nylagut, and this new one bearing steel strings) and one G scale which I keep strung with nylaguts.  

For some reason the slight, light simple rim seems to project a sound that strikes me as truly banjo.

In July 2013, Glenn Carson, an old friend, advertised a Vega Little Wonder pot with excellent Wyatt Fawley maple A scale neck in the Banjo Hangout (BHO) classified ad section.  He touted this as “The perfect travel,” noting that one could “ play this in the passenger’s seat and annoy or delight the driver to no end.”  I had just started playing with a fiddler again, and I thought this was something I needed to have.  It wasn’t very pricey, but it was more than I had in my banjo slush fund, so when Glenn asked me what I might trade I told him about a Nate Calkins fretless, # 20, that I had taken in an odd trade that I had “blogged” about on BHO:

I must confess that though I like playing fretless banjos, none of the sleek fingerboard instruments I’ve owned have lasted very long in my banjo arsenal.  The first fretless I got, sometime in the 1990s, was a Mike Ramsey.  I went through two George Wunderlich banjos, a variety of British built vintage pieces from the 1890s, and even cobbled together one or two of my own.  But I’d bet that none of them lasted longer than six months before they were wrapped into some banjo deal or sold off in the service of some banjo-focused trade.

Glenn wanted the Calkins when he saw it – he stopped at my house enroute to Clifftop in August 2013, to let me see the Vega/Fawley instrument.  When he spied the fretless he tried it and then suggested we had do a simple swap.  He wanted something he could play clawhammer style in tandem with his son Russ’ bluegrass playing, something that would sound unique enough in that combination. 

In November 2013 I sold off a Bart Reiter Standard that I had purchased from Fretwell Music in Staunton, VA, in mid-2013.  With the money that came from the straight up sale of the Reiter Standard I purchased a Vega Little Wonder with a Wyatt Fawley neck, serial number 42780, hooked to a Wyatt Fawley neck, from Intermountain Guitars.  Nice piece of work.


I suspect, on the basis of very competent analysis by the likes of Andy FitzGibbons of Smakula Instruments and Vinnie Mondello, owner of Banjohaven in Longview, Texas, that the G scale banjo pot comes off a mandolin. 

It has a softer voice than the A scale banjo, which is fitted with a modern plastic head; the G scale has a nice calfskin.  That might account for the volume.  The A scale is 10 inches in diameter, and the G scale banjo is about 10.75 inches in diameter.  I have them both fitted with nylon strings.  Both banjos have “standard tension” Nylagut Classical strings. 

Both came to me with steel strings.  I swapped them out for Nylaguts right away.  Old Nylaguts, not the Red Nylaguts.  I’m lately liking the way the note decays quicker on Nylagut, and has that plunky old sound, a sound that to me, behind the banjo, reads more old time.

I spent a lot of time playing 11 inch open back rims.  And I spent a lot of time playing 12 inch rims.  About a year ago I drifted away from 12 inch rims back to the more compact sound of the 11 inch rim, and then recently stumbled into the smaller rims of these two Vegas. 

I feel more comfortable with these slightly smaller rims, and the sound seems much more manageable to me. 

In fact, I get the sense that the sound I hear in the driver’s seat is the same sound that is projected forward to whoever might be listening.  I know that there’s no science to this, but to me the smaller rims seem to give off a more honest sound, a sound that registers the same whether you are in front of the banjo or in the back in the operator’s shoes. 

It's not the profound, beautifully dark and deep echo chamber sound that comes with deeper, larger pots of 12 and 13 inches (I've owned several with those dimensions).  It's simple, bright, clear and melodious.  I know tastes change.  I certainly know that my tastes have changed, and might keep on changing.  I also know I hear things differently with older ears.  So who knows why I've shifted in favor of these Little Wonder conversions. 

I got one “set” of banjos, G scale and A scale, to keep strung with nylon for playing with a fiddler. 

However, my fiddler friend has a few years on me, and swears that he hears the steel strung banjos much, much better over the din of his bowing. 

I got the steel string “set” for playing out and about.

That’s what left in my arsenal: A Bart Reiter Tubaphone, and three Vega Little Wonder/Fawley Necked Hybrid mystery banjos.

Norm Peterson from Wyoming, A good friend and a banjo collector/repairman of note, once said that we never really “own” our banjos.  We just “rent” them for varying lengths of time.

Take care.  Play hard,


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