Monday, April 22, 2013

Vintage Banjo Ukulele Buying Tips - part 1

I recently had an inkling to share some tips for buying vintage banjo ukuleles.  It's a subject that I admittedly don't know a lot about it, so instead of trying to push forward on my own, I asked for some help from banjo uke guru John Bianchi.  In addition to knowing almost EVERYTHING about old banjo ukes, John is a very fine player.  Thanks John for being awesome and passing along all this buying advice!  This is the first of a two part article.  Click here for part 2 where John breaks down all the different makes and models of banjo ukes!

Check out his blog here.

Check out his Youtube here.

The Banjo Ukulele:

Tips for Buying Vintage

By John Bianchi

If you’re new to playing the banjo ukulele, you may hear more experienced players
recommend vintage banjo ukes as having a different sound and feel than the current
generation of the hybrid instruments. And while its true that vintage ukes have the
potential to be great instruments, it can be daunting to approach buying one. But,
there are a few tips that can help you make the right choice when considering a
vintage banjo ukulele.

The difference between new and old. There is a difference, and it’s more than the
contrast between a spotless, new banjo uke that lands in your hands fully equipped
and set up and an instrument that’s got some road-wear on it and which may
require some work to get it playing to full potential. The fact is, they don’t make
them like they used to.

New banjo ukes tend to fit a fairly similar design, which is geared toward the
current crop of ukulele players. While this isn’t true in every case, new banjo ukes
generally have broader necks than vintage ukes; it makes it easier for a ukulele
player who’s used to the wide neck of a wooden uke to transfer their chops to
another instrument. As a result of their broad profile, new necks are also blockier
in comparison to vintage necks. And it’s true that if you haven’t played a vintage
banjo uke before, you may find when you pick up a Slingerland or Stromberg-
Voisinet from the 20s that the neck is uncomfortably narrow and that your fingers
may overlap the fretboard. The styles of music in the 20s call for frequent chord
changes; if you try playing a tune with a rapid and complex jazz progression using
triplets, triple strokes and fan strokes on a wide, fat neck, you may find it more
difficult than playing the same changes and strums on a narrow neck.

Other differences often include heavier hardware on vintage ukes, in addition to real
skin vellums that need to be soaked, bent, fitted and cut – as opposed to pre-fitted
mylar or fibreskin heads that are easily swapped out when necessary. Another
difference – though one that can easily be dealt with - is that new banjo ukes tend to
be sold and set up with high action and with three-foot banjo bridges, which are less
optimal for sound, volume and action adjustment than a two-footed banjo bridge.

Here are ten tips on what to look for when considering the purchase of a vintage

The “deal-breaker” -

1. Is the neck straight and untwisted? The single-most critical consideration
with a vintage ukulele is this question. If the neck is twisted on a vintage banjo uke,
there’s not much point in buying it. There are those with banjo experience who
may expect that the right neck or a suitable replacement neck can be found, but this
is extraordinarily rare. Unattached Banjo ukulele necks are nearly impossible to
find, and the staggering variation of uke brands’ construction, and further variation
between individual ukes of the same manufacturer’s model, bode ill for the player
who buys a vintage banjo uke with a warped or twisted neck. Save yourself the
trouble and reject the uke out of hand unless you want to buy it for parts.

Stuff that should worry you and may cost you a lot.

2. The condition of the wood should be good. The neck should be free of cracks,
hairline or otherwise – and you should avoid ukuleles that have a neck that has been
fully fractured and repaired. It might have been a clean break, and it might have
been repaired well, but why take the chance?

3. The pot of a banjo uke is almost always made out of laminated wood (except in
a few cases where the pot is metal or in very rare instances where the pot is carved
out of a solid wood block, as in some examples of the UB1) and should be free of
cracks or areas where the laminated surface is pulling up or has been ripped or
broken off. Separating laminate can be glued and clamped, and as long as its not
too extensive, the appearance of the ukulele won’t be marred too much, but the
more widespread the separation, the worse the pot and finish will look. The value
of a ukulele really suffers if laminate separation is noticeable, and if truly extensive
beyond the surface layer, the pot is weaker.

4. The resonator of a vintage uke can fit a variety of styles, from a flush, flat backed
resonator, to a full, metal-flanged resonator. Many resonators are built in pieces
with a back, binding and one or two side pieces glued together. Some are solid
wood, and others are made from laminate. Same rules apply here as for other
wooden parts: avoid a cracked resonator, and avoid one in which the laminate is
badly damaged (ie. pulled up extensively, separating or missing). Some resonators
are built from two or more pieces of solid wood glued together and turned on
a lathe, common with Stromberg-Voisinet and Slingerland ukuleles. If a turned
resonator is cleanly cracked along a joint, and you have both pieces of wood, they
can be glued together easily by a luthier – but again, if noticeable, the value suffers.
Occasionally, you will notice that a resonator isn’t original to the instrument it sits
on; most collectors will reject an instrument with a homemade or mismatched
resonator, many players will not. In this case, value is in the eye of the beholder.

5. Is the metal free of pits and rust? Often, cleaning your uke’s metal hardware
with 0000-guage steel wool will take away tarnish and mild rust, restoring
some shine to the metal parts. But seriously, heavily rusted parts are often
better replaced. The great thing about the banjo family is that instruments have
interchangeable parts, many of which are still manufactured close to or exactly
the way they were in the 1920s and 30’s. Pitted shoes, hooks, and nuts can be
easily replaced, either with clean vintage parts or with brand new ones. So can
the tailpiece – nearly every form of vintage tailpiece is still in production. The one
exception is the bezel ring. If the bezel ring of your ukulele – which holds down the
vellum - is heavily rusted or pitted, you will need to find a new bezel. That’s not
always easy; most uke manufacturers developed slightly different forms of bezel
ring – some have a groove in the center for the tension hooks or holes along the
outside edge, while others have an indentation designed to sit at the base of the
neck. But usually, if the bezel ring is in bad shape, then so is the rest of the ukulele,
so you may not want to buy it. If the uke is in good shape and bezel is shot, you may
need to strip, clean and re-chrome the existing ring.

6. The Fretboard. Occasionally, a banjo uke has been well played to the point
where the fretboard has large depressions in the first position – first through fourth
frets. Ukes that have this kind of wear may sometimes be difficult to play and if so,
they will need to have their fretboards replaced. Also - over time, if a ukulele is kept
too dry, the fretboard will develop lengthwise cracks; often this is a minor costmetic
flaw and presents no real problem, but if the cracks are extensive, and you fine that
piece of the fretboard are loose – you’ll need to replace the fretboard. This will also
require resetting the frets and mother-of-pearl inlays. Fretboard replacement can
be reasonable or costly, depending on how ornate the mop inlay is.

Stuff that shouldn’t worry you too much, but which can cost you a little bit.

7. Frets. Over time, wood dries and shrinks. A vintage ukulele neck is almost
invariably narrower than when it was made. This can be seen at the edge of the
fretboards, where the frets may hang slightly over the edge and can hurt your
fingers. This condition is easily dealt with by dressing the frets, which consists of
filing the edges down. On occasion, you will find a fret or two is projecting above the
fretboard and needs to be tapped in. Unless you have a sure hand and experience,
have a professional luthier handle these jobs.

8. Hardware. See above: missing or rusted out hooks, shoes, nuts and tailpieces
can be replaced, with the costs varying from dealer to dealer – websites like Elderly,
Stew Mac and Ukulele World have the hardware you are looking for. Missing
bridges are even cheaper and easier to replace – you should always keep a few two-
footed Grover bridges on hand, as they can be sanded to the right height. If you
find you’ve sanded too far down, you can’t “unsand”; extra bridges will keep you in

9. Vellum. Often, you’ll find a banjo uke for sale that’s got a vellum which has a
rip or which is missing. Sometimes, you’ll see a banjo uke for sale that looks great,
but on closer examination, you’ll see that it has had its vellum taped from behind
or glued together. These won’t produce any kind of good tone, and you’ll have to
replace the vellum before you can really get a sense of what the instrument really
sounds like. There are several websites and vendors who sell vellums that can
educate you on how to replace a vellum. For many, vellum replacement is easy and
fun – for others, it’s a horrible chore. If you fall into the latter group, have a luthier
handle the job for you. Personally, I find vellum replacement a relaxing job, and
doing it yourself is free; a luthier will charge between $20 and upwards of $50 for
vellum replacement. Vellums are priced depending on quality – and they range
from less than $10 for the lowest quality to up to $50-60 for top quality, white
chalked calfskin. Goatskin is also an acceptable choice, though it tends to be thicker
and more suitable for drumheads.

10.Tuners. Missing tuners – or stripped old tuners – are an extremely common
condition of old banjo ukuleles. Fixing these can cost you as little as $12 or as
much as $400, depending on the tuners you want to use. Vintage tuners in good
condition can range from $20 for simple Elton or Grover friction tuners to several
hundred for a set of geared tuners like Ludwig Planets or Grover Pancakes. On the
plus side – old tuners are easily installed as they will fit the holes already drilled
in the peghead. While new replacements tend to be cheaper and are going to last
for years and years, the one real difficulty with new tuners is that they are made
slightly larger in diameter and will not, in most cases, fit the pre-drilled holes in a
uke’s peghead. The solution is to use Grover’s cheapest ukulele friction tuners – the
Grover 2b or 2w, which are a near perfect fit, only requiring a little beveling at the
top of the hole to seat the tuner. If Grover’s cheapie isn’t to your taste, drill out the
holes to match the new tuners of your choice. Grover, Waverly, and Gotoh make fine
tuners for banjo ukuleles.

Those are my ten tips for anyone considering a vintage banjo ukulele. It’s 10 things
more than you have to think about if you buy a brand new ukulele, but if you’re
interested in the sound and feel that you can only get from vintage, you’re probably
already thinking about them.

.....this concludes part 1 of John's article.  Part 2 here.


  1. Nice, thorough article. I have a new Goldtone and an old Elton and could never quite name why they felt so different to play. Now I know!

  2. I've just picked up a vintage uke in a bric-a-brac shop and the metal parts cleaned up beautifully with Diet Coke and Kitchen Foil see the youtube video here
    I bought a new piece of Goat Skin and its sound lovely now.