1890s Todd & Douglass 6-String Zither-Style Banjo

This is one of those fascinating oddball instruments that warrants a headscratch. At first glance, it looks like a typical late-1800s British zither banjo. Once you look at it more closely, though, and spy the label on the interior of the resonator, you realize it's an American take on a zither banjo design -- this one labeled "Todd & Douglass" out of San Francisco, CA.

It's also just a great, old, weirdo instrument, too, being a 5-string banjo with an additional low string added at the headstock. These days that usually means we tune this as an extra low G, so gGDGBD tuning low to high. It takes a few minutes to get used to the extra string but it really gives you a lot more 

This instrument has already found its way into the hands of my buddy Bow Thayer (who almost always plays a 6-string-ized-5-string these days) by way of him asking if I had any cool old smaller gut-strung 5-strings hanging out for sale. I said no and then quickly called him back right away when I spied this headstock sticking out of a pile of recent arrivals. Destiny intervenes!

I don't have it in the hands at the moment, but as I recall the head is roughly 9" and sits in a brass top-tension rim/tonering. The pot is a thick-walled, ply-maple resonator with a mahogany back. The neck is mahogany-like with a rosewood-like (but probably not) veneer fretboard. Amazingly, the neck was straight and so it just needed fret seating and a level/dress job to bring it in line.

I added relic'd Gotoh 4:1 banjo pegs throughout (friction pegs are a beast so I knew Bow would have the same feeling I have about them) and strung it with Aquila Nylgut strings plus a wound D string from a classical guitar set for the low G note. I think this has about a 26 1/2" scale length so that suited the tuning and tension along with the Nylguts. I even managed to fit a railroad spike capo so he could pop the drone into A, though I couldn't get a B or C one due to the shallow frets.

I wish I'd had the time to snag a good-quality video, but the short one I did at the bench will have to suffice to get an idea of the tone. It's lovely odd instruments like this that got me interested in instrument repair in the first place, so it was nice to do an odd one up. Lately it's been guitar-guitar-guitar and I enjoy that, too, but weirdos bring the spice!


Banjo Willie said…
Love that you did this review. I also have a William Todd banjo that I had to put back together. It was William who had the patent and built the banjos. He later teamed up with Douglass who was more of a promoter of the banjo. It is hard to find info on the unique banjos.