boat paddle ukuleles

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Hardware terminology for the banjo ukulele

  Banjo ukuleles have an array of metal parts and almost everyone of them have more than one proper name. The term hardware indicates that it is a removable addition to the banjo uke.
  Starting from the head stock   are the tuning mechanisms.  These are usually friction tuners, or friction pegs on banjo ukuleles.  You may see them called tuning machines and pegs just as frequently.  There are also geared tuners similar to guitar tuners, and planetary tuners.  These two types turn the string at a smaller ratio than friction style tuners and allow precise tuning.  The ratios of these tuners varies and is usually something like 1 to 6, 1 to 10 or 1 to 12.  Precise tuning is entirely possible with friction tuners as long as they are maintained and free of grit, worn lacquer and dust.
vintage Grover,Elton and Waverly tuning pegs

  Many of the friction tuners are constructed to use the back of the peg head as a bearing point and the smoothness of these can be improved by adding washer of various materials.  (I will discuss that later).  Friction tuners might have several parts or be as simple as wooden pegs that are tapered and fit into a tapered hole in the peg head, like a violin.
A tired, yet  restorable set of Grover spring loaded tuners

  The parts of the tuner are:  Button (the part you turn), shaft, washers, bushings and button screws or adjustment screws.   Most all friction tuners can be adjusted by the tiny screw in back of the button and if the tuner remains tight after loosening this screw it should be taken apart and inspected.  There might be something binding that has disintegrated  like a fiber or hard rubber washer.  Another issue might be a rough seat in the wood where the button rests, or the bottom of the button might need smoothing with extra fine sandpaper.
These red Elton pegs would require some finish work before use

 Most buttons are plastic or some form of plastic and have seams from the molding process.   There are also buttons made from various woods, ivory, pearloid, acetate plastics, metal, bone and endless other obscure choices.
   I will probably revisit the tuning mechanism often in this blog with photos of the various brands and suggestions for modifications.
 Next at the other end of the strings is the tail piece.  The tailpiece has two functions, the first is not just to hold the strings (somewhat obvious), but to hold then downward at an angle from the bridge.  This applies pressure on the bridge insuring transmission of vibration to the bridge from the string, and also, pressure on the skin which sets the skin vibrating over it's entire surface.
from left to right: Grover, Waverly,Elton and Grover Tail pieces
reverse order from above 

 A tailpiece that is out of adjustment, or poorly designed, will not put enough pressure on the skin and vibration is lost making the banjo more muted and even causing buzzing sounds and uneven string volumes.  It is possible to have too much pressure on the bridge, for instance when the angle is too acute between the tail piece and bridge.  This angle has been determined in full size banjos but might not be ideal for banjo ukuleles because the distance to a tailpiece from the bridge on a full size banjo would be greater, and need less of an angle to suffice.   I think the best way to start with determining this angle is to picture the angle directly from the top of the bridge downward to the top of the tension ring.  Something near that in a bridge/tailpiece string angle will be adequate for most purposes.  Some tailpieces extend farther out over the skin and would demand an even more acute angle which might prove to be too much pressure on the bridge.  This can affect tone, and quite literally force the feet of the bridge deeper into the skin and damage it by adding depressions in the skin.  There are many designs for banjo ukulele tailpieces and several are still available for purchase.   The "Nashville" design is still in production and were originally included on both Gibson and Stromberg Voisinet Ukes.  they are available from Stewart-Mac and very reasonable in cost.  One word of warning though.  they has two "teeth" that can damage the skin if they are allowed to be set up against it and will puncture it like a snake bit with very small holes.  This can be avoided by grinding or filing off the teeth and polishing the area to a rounded smooth surface.  This might not be an issue depending on the thickness of the tension ring and it's height from the skin.  Also, on the double grooved "elton" tension ring the teeth seem to fit perfectly across and it  probably wont reach the skin to cause any damage.

The next hardware, which is more a permanent part of the banjo uke, are the hook brackets.  This term includes the hex type, or L shoe type of brackets and the hooks that hold the tension ring securely in place and of course put pressure downward on the skin.
both of these flat hooks came off of the same
banjo uke. The left is ready for
polishing and plating.

  This is done by turning the hex shaped nuts at the end of the hooks.  The brackets, both hex and L shaped shoes, are held by a bolt that runs through the rim and it might have a screwdriver slot or a hex head for tightening.
All of these hook nuts fit the same thread size.
The right three are more suitable for banjo ukes

  Care must be taken to have these very tight so that the brackets won't lean inward as pressure is applied to the skin.  This can damage  or lift the veneer away from the rim.
Hooks come in two basic types, J hooks and flat hooks.  They both do the same thing but the J hooks are designed for tension rings that have a notch machined for the curved area of the hook, and often allow it to be near flush to the top of the tension ring.   That being said, very often the J hooks are used on banjo ukes  where they not really designed for.  This is only a problem when the hook can come in contact with the skin and puncture it.  (it does this rather easily because the hooks are sharp on the inside of the "j" area.)
Hooks are most often made of heavily nickel plated steel and this plating corrodes  quickly when subjected to the salt in sweat.
J hooks are designed to fit grooved
and notched tension rings.

They can be de-rusted, polished and re-plated very inexpensively or replaced.  Keep in mind that to my knowledge, there are no actual banjo uke sized hooks being produced currently.  Normal banjo hooks can be substituted but they will extend farther from the brackets and shoes on the rim and possibly interfere with the fit to a flat or flanged resonator.  In that case they can be filed or ground to fit normally.
It seems that every banjo uke I have seen used also has a bent hook near the hex nut and has to be straightened  before it can be removed.
Rust can be removed in one of several ways.  Using an electrode bath with baking soda and a pinch of salt, using a coarse wire brush or motor driven circular wire brush, and with sandpaper of various coarseness.  All of these methods prove effective, but the hook has to be free from all rust before it is plated.
A good friend of mine uses white vinegar and solid nickel coins to nickel plate at home.  This uses a mild power supply and can be very handy for the smaller parts.  I have a brush plater that I have converted to a dip plater and use nickel coins to replenish the nickel ions in the solution.  Most plating shops can do a great job with nickel plating too, especially on larger items like tension rings.  Also, if you string up your polished parts on copper or brass wire, they will plate it all for a reasonable cost.

Tension Rings
This is the wide metal band that pulls the skin tight evenly all around the rim.  These are often made of steel or brass and can be quite heavy in construction or fairly thin and flimsy.  I think heavier tension rings are probably better than light gauge ones, simply because they keep their flatness and are less likely to break at weld or solder joint.  Sometimes they have a small cut away area to clear the path for the strings.  Most banjo ukes need to have their original tension ring because it's usually critical to the uke to have that width and diameter.  If the ring is over sized or undersized it can be a disaster when mounting a new vellum/skin. It might work to switch from another parts uke, but it is most often not.  They can be made by a metal worker that has a ring bender that will shape flat stock.  Roundness and clearance are very important with tension rings.  If too large they will slip over the flesh ring and if too small they will shear the skin off like a paper cutter when mounting.  Most of the time, the weld seam on the tension ring is placed under the tailpiece and sometimes where the neck cut away is.  I think it's better to have it nearer the tailpiece so that the neck can have an uninterrupted section of the curve to come into contact with.  Many feel this contact is important to transfer vibration from neck to the rim.
I've seen flat, grooved, notched, stepped (Gibson), angled inward and double rings that have a higher ring near the skin and lower ring for the hooks.
     Banjo Ukuleles often use the same keys (wrenches) for adding tension and fine tuning the skin.  These can be found at the various suppliers new and often come with a used banjo uke.  The Ludwig key is specifically for Ludwigs and have a square bolt head. The Lange Banner Blue came with a heart motif on the fretboard and head stock and they included the heart on the key that was included with the banjos. The heavily corroded key is a standard Waverly and I believe the key with a circle was a Vega banjo key.
Various vintage banjo keys


Friday, February 04, 2011

                   Tonk Bros. offered a variety of accessories and this was truly in the spirit of the Ukulele.
                                 These were not cheap accessories even at the price per dozen!
Bridges Part Two
  These are a few excerpts from the vintage Grover and Tonk Bros. catalogs.  Grover had the same uniformity to it's bridges in terms of overall design that the company still maintains .  I would love to see a picture of the Grover adjustable bridge if anyone has one.  
In the Tonk Bros. catalog there is an unusual design that I have never seen .  It seems to have a reversed curve cut away and deep string grooves.

Here is the adjustable Grover bridge.  I'm not sure if there is any wood on this design and the bridge is grooved to accommodate banjolins as well as seven stringed instruments.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

David Clarke!
Another great player from the UK.  Very generous with his practice videos singing and working on the solo breaks.  David Clarke was featured on the show "Stars in there Eyes".  This modest mannered young man can transform into George Formby in mannerisms, voice and as you can see, in a fury of virtuoso Banjo Uke playing.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Great Players:  Jonathan Shreeve

Up on You tube over the last month Jonathan Shreeve has posted many informative slow and fast versions of George Formby solo breaks.  Jonathan has a blazing technique and exciting musical style.  He can be seen on various You tube videos singing and playing at the Formby conventions too.  He is open to adding requests to his postings and has already added several that I asked for.  A very generous man as well as brilliant player/singer.   His bird's name is Oscar.

Rust is evil and nothing short of it.  On any musical instrument it can eat it's way underneath plating, right through parts like screws, nuts and bolts, strings, tuning machines, hardware and accessories.  The reason it's so evil is that it almost never stops.  Add 5 or 10 years to a tiny bit of rust and you will have a lot of rust.  Rust, corrosion, is Iron Oxide and is fed by the moisture in the air, made even worse if that moisture contains salt. The moisture finds the iron in steel and oxidizes it.  Basements are moist damp places, perfect to put an instrument in and rust it to death.  Not to mention ruin the wood and finish.
If you care about your instruments, and want to pass them on to family or friends someday, do them a favor and keep the rust in check.
this ub3 ring was covered in rust and cleaned up without replating
 You can remove rust from nickel plated parts with an S.O.S. pad, gently rubbing the pad over the rust until it's gone then rinsing and drying the part well.  Many nickel parts can be restored to a new looking condition this way. For some reason, the rust forms and sits on top of nickel plating, and can be effectively  removed.  It wont scratch the nickel if you are gentle with it.
Now, for the real pest, rusted steel parts.  If you look closely on any banjo uke, at the hooks, tuner screws, resonator screws, bridges, bracket bolts and washers etc. your going to find some rust.  It might be minimal or it might be deep corrosive rust that is eating it's way deeper into the steel.  This is the kind to be concerned about.  It can weaken parts or completely ruin them.
I've mentioned in the blog, there are several ways to remove rust and nothing works for every type of rust. It can be wire brushed, sanded, sand blasted, etched off with acid, removed with electricity and baking soda, dissolved with penetrating oils and on and on..........
Various dremel brush styles
  Pictured above, are the main dremel metal brushes.  The left two are steel and great for removing gunge, minor rust and polishing.  These will not produce a mirror shine on nickel but are safe to use if used at a low r.p.m. and with a light touch.  The middle brush (well worn) is high carbon steel and can cut through almost any rust and even steel.  This will remove nickel plating and should never be used when the plating is still in fine condition.  The brass brushes on the right are the safest to use for cleaning but will not really remove rust unless it is very minor.  Brass won't harm plating but should be used carefully like all of these brushes.  Always use safety glasses and a low r.p.m. with these brushes.  A high r.p.m. causes all of these brushes to release the wires and the middle brush suffered from this.  The steel brushes do not really hurt the fingers if well used like the one on the left when holding parts. Keep the brush moving too, because heat build up will lift plating and it will flake away.  New brushes can cut skin though so be careful.  I don't wear gloves and probably should when using the dremel.
   The thing is, often, even the most rusty items can be brought back to life with some elbow grease and persistence.   Banjo hooks are often extremely deeply corroded underneath the rust.  You can sand them with wet/dry paper in consecutive grades to reach down and remove the pits in the metal.  This is timely work but if you want to restore an instrument with it's original parts it's vital work.  The steel can be polished up to a mirror shine and then plated to look like new, or just left un-plated.  Nickel will keep the parts from rusting quickly since raw steel is the most vulnerable to corrosion.
  Very very heavily rusted parts can be dipped in acid and then polished up.  They will not look shiny until the corroded areas are resurfaced.
Rust is the ugliest of corrosion.  Tarnished brass, copper, bronze get's a patina that is desirable.  Other metals just turn dull slowly.  Rust looks great when it's intended, like modern sculpture and fancy modern restaurant interiors.  Rust, EVIL....
Banjo Ukulele Bridges

The bridge on banjo ukuleles might be considered a bit neglected by the larger manufacturers of banjo bridges.   As far as I know there aren't any Banjo Ukulele specific bridges being produced.  That might not be the case in the U.K. but here in the U.S. the closest bridge for our purposes would be the Grover 30C.  It is a four notched bridge and tall enough to be trimmed down to fit most banjo ukulele set ups.  The spacing is adequate for strumming and picking on these and you can find them with a Ebony saddle (rail) over maple or in solid maple.  There are also the Grover "non-tip" bridges that have an insert to keep the bridges from tipping over when tuning. The problem with having so few commercial choices is that if you need a very low bridge, the feet of the bridge can change considerably while trimming down.
   Everything about a bridge affects the sound on a banjo ukulele.  The footprint, size and thickness of the bridge, the cut outs and overall design, material used, rail/saddle material, glue used for the that, width of rail/saddle and spacing.   It seems complicated, but these variables are to our advantage because it gives options to control an instruments overall timbre, projection and volume.
   Another thing to keep in mind is that bridges can break and it might be a good idea to carry a spare in your case.  If you don't have one, krazy glue can almost always save a bridge if the pieces are intact.  (use very little glue, align well and hold them for 1 minute).  

   Bridge design dates back to the first stringed instruments that were not in the lyre family.  The Baroque violin makers seemed to have discovered very early, that if you have a string directly over the vibrating area of the instrument (ie. the face of the violin, cello etc.) that it isn't the best for the sound.  They came up with very complex cut outs to avoid this direct vibration and they are still used currently.  This concept of latent vibration is being explored by several banjo bridge makers currently.  For the most part, bridge design on the banjo ukulele has been limited to a simpler approach that includes two feet with a cut out in between them of some dimension, and a saddle of ebony or solid maple.  The design of a bridge can enhance certain strings, or de-emphasize them depending on the particular needs of a banjo uke, or player.
  Also, more simply approached, the bulkier the bridge, the darker and less sound it might transmit, and the thinner and more knife like the design, the more edgy and piercing the tone will be.
  A good place to start would be with a Grover style bridge because it will be spaced well, sit flat, lack string buzzes and give a full sound.
  I mentioned in the post's about the Gibson banjo ukes that the bridges that seemed to be included with those instruments were also of excellent design.  Please email me if you have seen these in a vintage catalog.  I suspect that Elton or Waverly might have produced them.    They would appear bulky or stocky since they have more wood on them, but every one that I have tried seem to sound excellent.  It might be a very easy bridge to copy in terms of design, except for the raised saddle.  That could be added from the same wood and glued on, or made from a harder wood than maple if need be.
  If there is a conclusion to this topic it might be said that when you add the right bridge to a banjo ukulele it seems to make the instrument come alive and show it's full character and volume.  Anything less will choke the instrument from it's true potential.

  The bridge above can often be found with the Gibson banjo ukuleles and a few other makers. They are constructed of solid maple in one piece.
Below a variation almost certainly made by the same bridge maker.  It features a rosewood saddle.

This is a vintage Grover non-tip that has a hard rubber insert to keep the bridge upright.  This insert might buzz if loose or if contact with the skin is minimal.  It can be glued in place if loose, or filed to clear the skin if contact is poor.  This bridge was also produced with an ebony saddle.
Another vintage bridge that I have seen.  These are lovely bridges that have a dovetailed ebony saddle and are typically finished by hand.   Most of them have file marks around the cut outs.  Again, please let me know if you have a catalog that lists them.  Possibly Waverly or Elton?  You might notice the array of strings on this uke.  It needed a clearer low string so nylgut was chosen, the high string was "shouty" and popped out almost painfully so a lighter soft nylon string helped.  The 4th string was great with a GHS white nylon and the 2nd string was a bit dull too.  They all balance well with this bridge.  Usually setting up a banjo uke is not this complicated.
These are vintage bridges that are quite high in profile, about 1/2" or more.  The vintage grover catalog has the middle one pictured and it's possible that all three are grover.  None are stamped with a brand.  Spacing is quite narrow on these and make quite a loud slap if they happen to tip over under full string tension. They seem to be solid maple.

This is a vintage Grover #30 or #30C bridge.  It's actually much more yellowed than this but the camera color corrects which bleached it out.  These are ebony saddled and Grover is very specific and accurate about how they cut bridges in terms of grain orientation and precision of dimensions.  I don't think this one  dates too far back when compared to some of their bridges.

A few of my own bridges.  I used the Grover as a basic design but was curious about adding a foot in the middle.  Later, the walnut bridge in front was inspired by a Banjolin styled bridge.  I call it the "Helms Deep" in a reference to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.  I was surprised that this design was so vibrant and was looking for a way to cut down on vibrations in a harsh sounding instrument.  A wider version of it provided the needed effect. The smaller version works quite well to liven up a dull instrument and I have made them with ebony saddles too.  the bridge in back has an area in the middle that drops down but doesn't make contact with the skin.  I use it when the low string on banjo uke is boomy and muddy.  It seems to help clear up that sound which can muddle strumming.  I have an array of exotic and domestic woods, many are aged, that I use for bridges.  I charge about $20 per bridge and need to know the exact height needed along with spacing requirements.  Please email me to order one.  I can copy a bridge that is not currently being produced by any other makers.  

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Unusual Design #1  Wizard

I requested photos for this Banjo Uke after seeing it up for auction several months ago and the new owner was kind enough to let me post them.  It has the remnants of a Wizard decal on the headstock but that is where any similarity to the Wizard banjo ukes ceases.  I have seen many of the Wizards up for auction and they are all a little different from each other in terms of finish color, inlay, the choice of woods used and fret board design.   This one has a nickel plated metal rim that looks like very sophisticated design.  I've never seen another banjo that has the hooks actually piercing through the rim like this one, and the metal must be thick and strong enough to bear the tension of the tightened skin.  Another unique feature is the solid wood resonator that actually has a bolt plug like the Stromberg Voisinet banjo ukes.  This resonator is similar to many of the Strombergs that have come up for auction as well.  Often they are two pieces of solid walnut and have a second area of inlay-ed blonde wood. The peghead on this one has the remains of the diamond decal that many Wizards are seen with too.  It seems to be a very compact model and the flange/resonator are quite minimal in profile.  Peg head cut out is almost identical to the current design found on the recording king mark. As to the maker of this uke, it's really a mystery.   I see similarities to the Strombergs in the resonator , and the heel of the neck as well as the resonator plug I mentioned. It also has the style of tailpiece that the Strombergs came with called the "Nashville" and available new from Stewart-Mac.
Slingerland May Bell

Slingerland, like Ludwig, ended up as the makers of excellent percussion instruments, but both produced Banjos and Banjo Ukes during the 20s and 30s.  From what I have noticed about the May Bell (or Maybell) they are all quite sturdy instruments and made to play.  They seemed to change design almost yearly.  I have seen the May Bell name on brands other than Slingerland also, which adds further confusion to this topic.  Also, there are many ukes that exist that look exactly like the slingerland maybell , but have no stamp on them anywhere. The photo used on the title page of this blog is one such "no namer".  This could have been that they were sold to distributors, or music stores that wanted to put their own name on them.
  The majority of the May Bells were 7" rims, had rosewood fret boards and a flat (or steam formed) plywood resonator mounted on the back.  Many, including the one pictured had a thick steel tone ring that was seated on the outer edge of the rim.  They can be found typically in natural maple or darker stains including black lacquer.  Most have m.o.p. dot fret markers and some sort of stamp on the dowel.  This could have been wood burned like a cattle brand, or ink stamped in a script.  They all seemed to possess a large robust tone that was never shy in nature.  I would consider them fairly easy to find, although certain variations in the Maybell are quite rare.  The construction of the Maybell banjo uke was uniformly excellent. They were also produced with larger resonators, some with flange and some without.

A reader sent these photos of an 8 inch Slingerland Maybell.  It's in lovely condition and has all of the original hardware.  Of note in this model is the steam formed resonator and the Elton grooved tension ring.  These were sturdy versions of the Maybell and had a wonderful timbre.   I restored a 7" version of this and it cleaned up beautifully for the owner who has owned it for over 50 years.  This one below needs no refinishing or plating.  Thanks for the photos Clive!

Gibson Catalogs and designations

Gibson occasionally re-designated their instruments when newer models came out.  Two of the changes I have noticed are when they added a diamond flanged resonator to the UB-2 and suddenly called the older model UB3, the UB2, then called the new one with a resonator the UB3!  I think for the purposes of practicality this was very late in the game and Gibson created a bit of confusion by doing this.  I also have wondered if it was a typo, because it would create such a confusion between dealers, buyers and the company itself.
  Most players and collectors call the Gibson banjo uke with diamonds on the fret board and peg head that has a flat resonator on the back, the UB-3.  The dotted fretboard model with a flange is usually called the "UB-2 Deluxe".
The other change was when they added the UB-5 model, which was simply the UB-4 with gold plating instead of nickel.  This was also very late in the production of the UB4, and has aroused quite a bit of debate.  There would seem to be more of the gold plated version around, and therefore it might be practical to go with the catalog and call them the UB-5.  I don't think there is anyway to actually date this model so specifically as to differentiate between ub-4 gold plated and ub-5.   Perhaps someday Gibson could publish some information on this and the rest of their banjo uke line.   I'm picturing a dusty box, somewhere in a basement, perhaps with flood damage that might have the information about this.  
Gibson Banjo Ukulele Model Scale Lengths
The distances to the 12th fret are as follows:

Baby Gibson 6 1/4"= 12 1/2" Scale
UB-2             6 15/16" = 12 7/8"  (round to 13")
UB-3              Same as UB-2
UB-4/5           7 1/2"= 14" Scale

There are slight variations in the UB-1 scale length and it might have less than 17 frets occasionally.

Bridge Placement on the Banjo Ukulele

I have found that placing the bridge at the exact scale length can improve the intonation over the fret board.  This method as opposed to tuning the octaves at the 12th fret will work even better for players that prefer a higher action since the strings stretch farther in the higher frets and will give a false octave that will sound well up in the high frets but not in the first position chords.  Any firm piece of paper can be used to mark the far side distance of the 12th fret, and position the paper on that edge then move the bridge to where the pencil mark is on the inside of the bridge rail (not the feet of the bridge).   On my ukes that can be as much as 1/2" discrepancy when using the octave method of bridge placement.
  Recently I noticed how sharp the 3rd (c/d) string was at the 12th fret on a loaned Martin ukulele.  Literally, the instrument produced a note more near a minor 9th than an octave.   I had noticed this sharpness on several ukuleles but never to this extent.  It is something that is exaggerated on  soprano ukuleles and they are often set up rather high in comparison to the banjo uke.  The lower action preferred
by the strummers of the George Formby style greatly lessens this sharpness.