1860s 6-String Fretless Mini Minstrel Banjo

This insanely-cute little "minstrel" banjo has 5 pegs at the headstock and 1 on the side of the neck. It was probably built somewhere between 1850 and the mid-1860s, as it's built in that style. Weird string arrangements were nothing out of the normal for the period, though from a modern perspective it's totally weird. How should one even tune this instrument? It's like a very, very mutant form of a banjo ukulele in terms of size and feel.

It came via Intermountain Guitar & Banjo and I made it a functional instrument for its new owner. That meant removing or modifying some of its historical aspects, but the end result is something that's a lot of fun and a nice head-clearer for any banjo player who has "normal 5-string" fatigue. I get that a lot when I play 5-string for any length of time. Stuff like this gets you thinking.

The "position markers" (for "frets" 5 and 12) seemed to suggest a 14 3/4" scale length, so that's where I set it. I used an 8-string uke string set and tuned it gGBDGB low to high, though there are plenty of alternative tunings to use with this string style. How about fFBbCFC? Or maybe g#EBEG#B? Or gGCEGC? I like my G-tuning best, but it does involve two thirds in the open tuning to wrap one's head around.

The sound is warm, mellow, and decently-loud for its style. These old fretless banjos are far too soothing. They're why I got into instrument repair "for real" in the first place, so I'm always enamored of them.

Work included: a new nut, new bridge, new tailpiece, install of Pegheds 4:1 geared tuners throughout, a new skin head, new 5th pip, cleaning, and a setup. The neck has minor backbow so action has to be a little over 3/32" at the "12th fret" position. That's pretty normal for a period banjo, though, and doesn't feel bad at all.

I used an old translucent skin head to replace the torn one that was on this when it came in.

The brass rim is so thin that you basically have to tension this up when you install the skin and then cross your fingers. Tensioning it up afterwards pulls the shoes at an angle and doesn't seem too healthy for the rim. Note all my added washers and spacers to help support them.

The bone tailpiece was cute but it snapped as I'd cut it too thin. This actually got a larger, rosewood one in the end... of the same general shape. My 1890s tailpiece hanger (the hook/nut) is non-original and not correct for the period, but it will make the life of the banjo's owner a lot easier down the line.


Warren said…
Wow! Love this!