1890s Cluett 5-String Openback Banjo

This is the first Cluett-branded banjo I've come across, but thanks to a YouTuber, I now know why the name rang a bell for me, as the brand was mostly related to a New York-based piano retailer. I've played a Cluett-branded piano in the past! Ding.

Anyhow, I'm sure it was an instrument that wasn't made in-house but simply fit with their branding. I can't put my finger on the firm that might have built it for them, but it's pretty typical of a nice-quality, bare-bones, late-1800s instrument. What makes it interesting is that it's what would have been called a "ladies' banjo" at the time -- it has a 10" rim rather than an ~11" one and a shorter, ~24" scale length. In modern parlance this is an "A-scale" banjo because a lot of folks would retune one of these a step higher than normal (to open A rather than G) these days.

The rim is thin (cherry or maple?) with nickel cladding -- this is called "spunover" -- and the rim is very similar in design-style to Cole or Fairbanks instruments from the time, though it departs from most period makers by using a bare-wood top edge that has a very thin, turned lip that serves as a tonering. The neck is sturdy and seems to be made from cherry. Its fretboard is ebonized maple or pearwood, as is the headstock veneer and heel cap.

Its sound is woody and sweet with a mellow, lingering sustain. It sounds really good for 2-finger picking or lighter clawhammer approaches and a wider nut width and comfortable string spacing make for easy clean notes. When it was built it was intended for gut (modern: nylon or Nylgut) strings, but the neck is sturdy enough to take light steel. It's currently got 9s on it.

Repairs included: a fret level/dress, new aged-finish Gotoh geared tuners throughout, a new Remo Renaissance head, compensated bridge, cleaning, and setup. I replaced a defunct neck brace with simple bolt attachment at the heel. It's sturdier and more reliable, anyway. The neck angle is shimmed-back to "true" with a couple of cherry wedges between the heel and the tension hoop.

Setup notes: the neck is straight and action is spot-on at 1/16" overall at the 12th fret. Strings are steel 9s and can retune to A with no problem. It's currently tuned to G-standard.

Scale length: 24"

Nut width: 1 1/4"

String spacing at nut: 1"

String spacing at bridge: 1 5/8"

Head diameter: 10"

Depth overall at rim: 2 1/4"

Rim wood: cherry or maple

Fretboard: ebonized maple or pearwood

Bridge: maple/ebony

Neck feel: medium soft V-shape, flat board

Neck wood: cherry

Weight: 3 lb 6 oz

Condition notes: the pegs, head, and bridge are all replacements. Otherwise the rim hardware is original, though I'm slightly-skeptical of the tailpiece. It may be more like 1920s-era. The endbolt is also very peculiar but kinda neat. There's a little old crumble/chip-out of the headstock veneer near the B-string tuner and near the washer for the high-D tuner and a little more on the fretboard, but that was all there before I received it, anyhow. Overall it's nice and clean for its age and looks great.


Brandon McCoy said…
Those aged Gotoh's are just the bee's-damn-knees.
Jake Wildwood said…
B: Yep, you totally get what you pay for with pegs... Gotohs are so nice! Got these from Smakula -- Bob is a NICE guy!!!