Conversion Banjos

So you just visited the eBay site or a vintage instrument dealer's web site, and you saw an ad or a listing for a "conversion" banjo. What the heck is that?

One of the great things about banjos, is that, for the most part, they bolt together, almost like an automobile. The main difference between a tenor banjo and a 5-string banjo is the neck. If you have been looking for a pre-war Granada 5-string banjo, chances are that you haven't found one. But there is also a good chance that you have seen a Granada tenor or a Granada plectrum banjo.

If so, all you need to do to make that tenor into a 5-string is to have a new neck made for it. Actually, you will also need a 5-string tailpiece and a 5-string bridge, but those are minor expenses and they are easily obtained.

So how do I get a conversion banjo?

Sometimes you can buy a banjo that has already been converted. If you see a conversion banjo for sale, ask if the original neck is also available for it. It's a good idea to have all the original parts, if possible. This increases the versatility and ultimately, the value of the instrument, because you can always restore it to its original configuration.

And this is something you should think about if you decide to have someone convert a tenor banjo to a 5-string (or vice-versa).

If you can't find a converted instrument, then you can have someone convert a tenor to a 5-string for you. Find a tenor banjo that has the kind of rim you like, and get a luthier who understands banjos to build a new neck for you.

Now this next part is important. Many tenor banjos have slimmer heelpieces than five string banjos, so the notch in the resonator won't fit a normal 5-string neck. BE SURE TO SPECIFY THAT THE HEELPIECE MUST BE MADE TO FIT THE RESONATOR, and not vice-versa. This way, if you are in need of funds, and a tenor banjo player wants your instrument, there will be no problem returning it to exactly the same configuration it had when you got it.

Also, if the banjo you are converting has the older, slim coordinator rods, make sure your luthier uses the proper lag bolts to attach the neck. This minimizes alterations to the old body.

Why would I want a conversion instrument, anyway?

One reason is that some of these conversion instruments sound WONDERFUL! For example, a 1926 ball-bearing TB-3 will have a rim that is 75 years old. With the proper work, these banjos have a tremendous sound. Also, it can be done for less money than purchasing a new instrument. Figure $1000-$1500 for a TB-3, plus $750 or so for a new neck. You have a "pre-war" conversion for about $2250. That's less than a new RB-250.

What about tone rings?

Almost everyone who plays bluegrass wants a pre-war flathead Mastertone banjo. There aren't enough 5-strings to go around. And most of the Gibson pre-war tenors were archtop banjos, rather than flatheads.

There are several solutions to this dilemma.

One is to have the rim recut to take a flathead tone ring. This is frowned upon, for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is irreversable. If you cut the rim to take a flathead tone ring, then an archtop ring will not fit on it any longer. This also lessens the value of the instrument.

There are several good conversion tone rings on the market. First Quality Musical Supplies, Steve Huber at Huber Banjos, Curtis McPeake, and Bill Kelly all have excellent conversion rings available. Steve Huber custom makes tone rings to fit specific banjos.

The main thing is that the originality of your instrument is preserved when using a conversion tone ring.

Originality Issues and Conversion Banjos

Sometimes you will see a Gibson flathead 5-string banjo that has peculiarities about it. One common bugaboo amongst 5-string collectors is the banjo with the cut decal. Pre-war mastertone banjos have an oval decal inside the rim. Normally it is put on in such a way that it comes right up to the edge of the rim. If the banjo has been converted to a flathead from an archtop, this decal will probably be missing a goodly sized chunk of the top of the decal. However, according to some of the historical experts, this is not always an indicator that the banjo was converted by someone outside the factory. Some banjo experts say that there were many factory conversions, and also that sometimes a customer would want a flathead, and all that was ready at the factory were archtop rims with the decals already in place. So they would remove the archtop ring, cut the rim down, and install a flathead tone ring. All I can say is "caveat emptor."

There are also some early pre-war flathead banjos that have lower profile tone rings, that look somewhat similar to a conversion tone ring, and there are lightweight tone rings. You may run across one of these and it may be legitimate. It is difficult to judge any instrument without actually seeing it.

One thing is certain. If you make a conversion instrument, do not try to pass it off as completely original. Many of us can tell the difference. And misrepresenting these instruments is fraud.

Non-mastertone Conversions and Other Special Cases

Many people purchase Gibson banjos that do not have Mastertone™ rings in them, such as TB-Jr's. TB-0's, TB-1's, TB-2's, etc. Generally, banjo players do not frown on this very much. These lower grade instruments are not as valuable or as rare as the Mastertones, but they have this wonderful old wood. They can be converted into really nice banjos.

The other case is the "orphan" rim. An orphan rim is one that comes without all the parts. As an example, I recently purchased a 1925 ball-bearing TB-3 rim. It had no neck or resonator, just the rim and associated hardware. Because it was an orphan, I had no reservations at all about converting it to a flathead, even doing a bit of lathe work on the rim so the new tone ring would fit. This should only be done with a rim that cannot reasonably be restored to its original configuration.

By the way, it sounds great!

The Process in Detail

So here is the process of making a conversion instrument, in detail.

First, obtain a conversion instrument. Look for a banjo that has a good, solid rim and a nice resonator.

Next, find a luthier. Check my list of luthiers. Make certain that the luthier understands banjos. Most of the ones on my list do, but it never hurts to ask!

Explain what kind of neck you want the luthier to make for you, and determine the price of the work. Remember to change as little as you possibly can. You might want to send the banjo to the luthier to make sure everything is perfect.

If you plan to change tone rings, get the tone ring. Some luthiers prefer that you purchase the tone ring before they make the neck. On the other hand, some tone ring makers prefer that the banjo be assembled when they get it, so they can determine the proper height, etc. of the tone ring they supply.

When you order your banjo neck, be sure to give and receive detailed explanations of everything you want.

If you have ordered the neck without sending off the banjo, when the neck arrives, install it and set the banjo up.

Have fun!

Final observations

A conversion instrument offers the possibility of an excellent sound for a small output of funds. Remember that if you are converting a tenor to a 5-string, you should order a case for the banjo to be shipped in, and you will also need a new tailpiece.

A Special Note Concerning Archtop to Flathead Conversion Tone Rings

I have been conducting some experiments with archtop to flathead conversion tone rings. For the continuing investigation, click here.

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