1960s Kay 5-String Openback Banjo

This is almost as pedestrian as it gets for '60s Chicago-made banjos. The only thing more pedestrian is a bottom-rung Harmony from the same era -- you know, the kind with synthetic rims! This one is well-worn but has held-up well and came to me with a straight neck and most of its bits. These are no-frills banjos sporting an 11" (masonite?) composite rim with a simple hoop tonering, a poplar neck with mystery-wood fretboard, and geared tuners at the headstock.

My work included a fret level/dress, new "Elite" Remo Renaissance head install, new geared 5th peg (with vintage button), rehab of the headstock tuners (3 shafts were missing but I had spares in my parts-bins), a new compensated bridge, new no-knot tailpiece, modification of the coordinator rod to a proper rod system, step-down from 30 hook/nuts to 16, and then a good setup. Its neck is straight, it's strung-up with lights (9s on the thinnest strings), and has a nice, mellow, old-time tone.

The handling specs are a little different from most "modern" openback banjos as the nut width is 1 1/8" and the 27 1/4" scale is pretty long. The neck has a medium C/V shape to its rear and the board is flat. Combine all this with no "scoop" at the end of the fretboard and you have a banjo that handles more like a 1920s/30s instrument. I like the feel -- but then I default to a hybrid style somewhere between fingerpicking and clawhammer.

The old brass frets are low-ish but, then again, they were to begin-with.

Obviously, this instrument is covered in the "typical Kay grime" that I associate with long-term garage-workshop storage. It's got paint flecks all over and has plenty of "mojo" to offer.

The adjustable heel/neck angle gizmo on these works after a fashion, but once I lock them in at the angle I like I secure their position with a bolt under the main bolt. I don't like my necks rotating or moving on me by accident.

Once the angle is set I can then fine-tune action adjustments via the tailpiece-end of the coordinator rod.

The foam stuffed under the main bolt mutes the overtones just a hair.

Here's the coordinator rod adjustment bolt -- tighten to lower action and loosen to raise it.

So many of the little plates and shoes were totally rusted-out or on their way there that I removed almost half of them and reduced the number of hook/nuts to 16 in total. This is plenty of even tension for a modern, synthetic head. I filled the empty holes with some small screws.