1900s Windsor No. 4 Zither 5-String Banjo

British-made zither banjos remain rare on this side of the Atlantic, but they're a lot more common in the UK. Ones in this format are really just 5-string banjos with the European-style ("zither") rim/resonator construction and feature a tunneled 5th string that runs under the fretboard from the 5th fret and pops-out at the headstock for tuning up there. This gives these instruments a sleek feel and a clean look. They also almost always used guitar tuners, too, with an extra (useless) tuner post remaining un-strung at the headstock.

Originally, these instruments used a half-gut, half-metal stringing. These days most folks string them with steel -- but that's usually a problem as the necks don't often like all-steel. This one had minor relief/bow tuned-to-pitch with a set of light steel on it when it came in, but with them off it snapped-back to straight. When I set it up, I used Aquila Nylgut (nylon/gut-tension) strings instead and the neck has remained nice and straight at pitch. For this reason, I often suggest gut/nylon/Nylgut for these banjos over steel. They also sound nicer with them, too, because with steel they can be a bit zippy or shrill but with nylon/gut they sound accurate and a bit warmer and fatter.

This one arrived via a consignor many moons ago and I finally got around to getting it spruced-up. It's relatively clean save one patched area of fill near the neck joint where some trim went missing and the usual use-wear throughout. It has all of its original fittings except, perhaps, its bridge.

My work on it included a fret level/dress, replacement of the 2nd fret with vintage stock (it had a split 2nd fret with compensation on it for the high string -- yikes), general cleaning, and a good setup. The tuners are original but I did remove one of the post/knob/worm units. Someone had removed the post beforehand and it was damaged anyhow, so as it's surplus to function, I figured why not just remove it entirely so it doesn't rattle?

It plays spot-on with a straight neck, 3/32" action at the 12th fret, and a good, snappy tone. These instruments are nice to hold as there are no hooks and nuts to gouge your leg and you get a resonator banjo tone and cut without the size, weight, and head-killing volume/super-punch of a traditional resonator sound.

Woods are: mahogany neck and rim, rosewood veneer for resonator and rim, and ebony fretboard. The frets are nickel-silver.

Specs are: 27 3/8" scale, 1 1/2" nut width (1 1/4" comparable, really), 1 1/16" string spacing at the nut, 1 3/4" spacing at the bridge, 8 3/4" head diameter, and 2 1/2" side depth. The neck has a flat board and a medium-depth, V-shaped rear.

The original skin head sounds good and is going strong. Thankfully, because it's only an 8 3/4" size, it also stays nice and tight, too.

Oh, right! I also added a new bone nut, too.

There's an original bone pip for the 5th string as well as nice inlay on the neck.

Isn't that original hardware pretty wonderful? It's so classy and steam-age.

The tailpiece has a down-pressure bar that is wonderful to have on a period 5-string.

Here's a close-up shot of the tunnel at the headstock that the 5th string runs into. Did I mention that having all-geared tuners makes for easy tuning compared to the typical friction pegs of the time?

The tuner buttons are bone, too. I would almost expect these tuners to date from the 1890s, but I can't really peg this instrument from then for sure.

Note the little sound-slots cut into the side of the rim.

I added side dots as well.

A later-era, British-made banjo case comes with it. I'd expect that had a resonator tenor banjo in it at some point.


Nick R said…
The case is a Reliance- also made in Birmingham and it is a TYPICAL guitar/banjo case and from the 1930s. A specific banjo case would probably be end-opening- not that it matters. To my eye, those tuners look to be German. Windsor probably bought the units in, as Germany was a huge maker of guitar style tuners. I would imagine it is probably early 1900s. I have a Windsor mandolin that I think is pre-1914 and it was made in Markneukirchen, Saxony and the tuner units have similar looking plates in terms of style. Of course, Windsor was Britain's biggest stringed instrument maker but retailed guitars, mandolins and tenor guitars made elsewhere in Europe although I think in the early 1900s some of its mandolins were made domestically.