1920s Tenor Banjo
This banjo was my grandfathers', and I've guessed it was from the 1920's (at the latest, the 1930's). If it was from the 1920's then he would have been a teenager when it was purchased. There is no identification of who actually built the banjo, but this was common at the time as these were sold fairly cheaply at department stores such as Montgomery Wards or through mail order like the Sears catalog. I suspect it was originally purchased in the Pittsburgh PA area, or shipped there if it was bought via a catalog. At one point, I remember a reading letter that was included with the banjo wishing the new owner luck and requesting that they notify the maker when they were playing professionally or on the radio, wonderful optimisim! It may not set the standard for tenor banjo tone, but given the linage of this tenor banjo it will always be in my collection.
The construction of this banjo is of the open back type and there is no resonator or ring in this design. I has a very short and percussive sound, and very little of the highs that are heard with other banjos. The neck wood appears to be maple, but that is a guess and I'm no expert. The ring itself is a laminate, with the outer ply finished off nice. The head is eleven inches across and it still wears the head that it had when I was given the banjo; so I assume it was the original head. The bridge is wood, but when I aquired the banjo the bridge was broken in several pieces and very dry, so it now wears a replacement bridge that is not original. The tuners are plastic, and a very old plastic that feels very brittle so care is taken when tuning. While I have not disassembled the tuners, they appear to be friction and will slip if the screw that goes through the tuners is loosened. The frets are square, and it would appear that it was played only a little originally as the finish is even and consistent. There are 17 frets, so I believe it is correct to call this a tenor banjo and not a plectrum banjo.
The standard tuning for a tenor banjo would be c g d a, with the alternate Irish tuning of G d a e. But being primarilary a guitar player, I prefer the "Chicago" tuning of d g b e; and I cheat sometimes using a transfered open-G tuning of d g b d. Lowering the high-e to a high-d transfers chord shapes from open-G tuning. I'm sure that will anger a purist, but with the tuners on this tenor banjo and it's age, it just feels better to have the string a little slacker even if the tone suffers. Overall, I feel it's better to be able to take this tenor banjo off the wall and play it ocasionally than just look at it hanging on the wall. Given that choice, the choice of tuning should be a non-issue.
The maker of the banjo is unknown, but judging from the headstock design I'd guess it was not Slingerland or another well known company. The quality of the overall banjo is of a "student" level instrument. There is only one part on the banjo that has any kind of makers markings which is the tailpiece which reads Elton in capital letters fit into a football shape; Elton made components for many instrument companies so that logo is not a clue for identification.
If anyone reading this has information as to who made this banjo or any other information, please contact me.