1970s Wildwood Custom Balladeer Openback 5-String Banjo

I've had the pleasure to work on several old (and one new) Wildwood banjos. No, these were not made by me, though we do share the name! Up until recently, Wildwoods had been built from the '70s-on. Builder (and all-around good guy) Aaron Keim gave me the sad news that the shop shuttered in 2018. Fortunately, Aaron now owns the lathe that turns his own block-rim banjos, so at least there's some "living history" going forward.

This banjo was made in the early-mid '70s for its current owner and he's brought it in for consignment as he hasn't touched it in recent years. That's too bad, too, because it's a dang fine instrument.

It has a maple block-construction rim with a Vega-style Whyte Laydie tonering installed. It has a single coordinator-rod rim/neck attachment (one of my favorite designs) and the neck is both gorgeous and very much cut along the lines of old Gibson Mastertone necks. It's slim, fast, and stupidly playable. I feel a bit like a superhero on it when I'm not being self-conscious of my deteriorating banjo skills.

Even with the Remo FiberSkyn head on it (which tends to damp tone and mellow banjos out), this instrument is poppy, clean, bright, and loud with a good, fundamental, lingering sustain. I know it sounds like I'm talking this guy up but -- it's just a good machine. I appreciate those.

All the hardware is top-notch and, of course, the other thing this banjo has is scads of unhinged-snake-jaw-dropping pearl inlay in the fretboard and pretty purfling details along the fretboard edges and rim bottom. The neck itself is made of birdseye/flamed maple and is nice and stable (and also easy on the eyes).

My work was light -- I only had to give it a glorified setup before it was ready to shine again. It plays bang-on fast, though the way it handles (bluegrass-fast on the neck and with no "scoop" for modern "old time" clawhammer players) might limit its appeal. At its simplest definition, it's basically a Gibson-style neck feel mated to a Vega-style rim and finish look. Clearly, I have no issue playing it in either fingerpicking or semi-frailing styles (see: video), but I cut my teeth on 1890s-1920s banjos which don't have scoops, either, so I'm adapted to it, but it is worth noting.

Repairs included: a fret level/dress, mild cleaning, restring, and setup.

Rim wood: maple (block construction)

Tonering: Vega-style Whyte Laydie

Bridge: moon-style compensated

Fretboard: ebony w/egads-amounts of pearl inlay

Neck wood: 2-piece flamed/birdseye maple

Action height at 12th fret: 1/16" overall (fast, spot-on)
String gauges: 9, 22w, 14, 11, 9 (custom)

Neck shape: slim C/D

Board radius: flat

Truss rod: adjustable

Neck relief: straight

Fret style: medium

Scale length: 26 1/4"

Nut width: 1 3/16"

Head diameter: 11”

Depth overall at rim: 3"

Weight: 7 lbs 2 oz

Condition notes: oh my, it's clean. It's all-original, too, save a more-recent head (plenty played-in!) and moon-shaped bridge. The frets have plenty of life left in them and are freshly leveled/dressed. The finish looks great everywhere and only has the most minor of wear/tear -- can't really find any, but it's been played. The back of the headstock has an oval shape of residue (can't really see it in the pics) that looks like maybe where a label or shop's label had been at some point.

It comes with: an original hard case in great shape.


Rob Gardner said…
This is a very beautiful banjo, I saw it in the flesh this week. And the whole scoop thing is a relatively modern design element in banjos and shouldn't make any difference for as beautiful and well build item as this guy.