Ca. 1900 Fairbanks Mandola Banjo

Unlike most stringed instruments, the banjo is defined by the construction of the body rather than the tuning, the scale length, and the number of strings. As a result, many different varieties of banjo have been created by adjusting the configuration of the neck and the diameter of the rim. The 5-string banjo has usually been the most popular type, though tenors and plectrums had a couple decades of dominance in the 1920s and 1930s. Prior to that, during the mandolin boom of the early 20th century, the mandolin-banjo was a popular crossover instrument available from many manufacturers. The earliest patent for one was awarded in 1882, and by the turn of the 20th century they graced the pages of numerous catalogs.

The A. C. Fairbanks company was among the numerous manufacturers turning out 5-string banjos with the occasional mandolin-banjo as demand required. Like almost all other mandolins of the time, banjo or wood-topped, theirs had 13” scale necks. This particular instrument is quite unusual because it has a 15” scale, within the realm of a contemporary mandola. I have not found any manufacturer from this era that offered a similar instrument as a standard model. I have also not been able to narrow down the date of manufacture closer than 1895 to 1910, but it is likely that this instrument predates the creation of the tenor banjo and may be considered a transitional effort toward that end. The 7½” spunover rim is narrower than any tenor banjo, though.

Mandolin banjos are notorious for their raucous sound and poor intonation, but the longer scale of this banjo seems to have partially alleviated both problems. Light-gauge mandola strings are a bit too heavy and choke the small head; I have found that optimal sound comes from using mandolin strings tuned down from G to E.

 

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