Rescuing a banjolele

Today I completed work on a banjolele rescue. This poor thing had been sorely abused: first, somebody stacked a bunch of boxes on top of it and broke the skin, and then it sat ignored and forgotten in somebody’s repair shop for a year! Yikes!

IMG_2016Barnaby (the banjolele’s owner) brought it to the shop, in hopes that he could get it fixed up in a reasonable time frame. No problem!  First I disassembled the entire instrument, cut the broken skin away, and removed the rusted strings. Barnaby supplied a real skin to make the head from (I assume it’s goat skin, but it could also be calf skin or unicorn skin), since there’s no commercially available banjolele heads in this size (that I’m aware of). Installing a real skin isn’t difficult, but it does take a keen attention to detail and a certain instinct to get right.

First I soaked the skin in water for about 30 minutes, to soften it and make it pliable. I didn’t have any flat bowls that would be big enough, so I used a large pan from my kitchen!


Next I dabbed the excess water off the skin with a towel, centered the skin on the tone ring, and pushed the wire hoop down onto the head:


The next part was a bit tricky – I pulled the excess skin up into a bunch towards the center of the tone ring, lowered the tension hoop on to the wire (which the skin was now wrapped around), and secured the tension rods. This is hard to do with only two hands!


Once the tension hoop was secure, I carefully went around the skin, pulling the excess skin up and eliminating any folds and wrinkles around the wire rim. After getting initial contact with all the tension rods on the hoop, I followed a star pattern for tensioning all around the head. This stretched out the new head to a pitch I was happy with, while making sure that the tension hoop was even on the tone ring all the way around. Now I left it to dry overnight.


The next morning I checked the head for proper tension and consistency in pitch, before cutting the excess skin off. If the skin had stretched to much, it would be very difficult to tune, and I would have had to start over. But I was satisfied with how it turned out, so I carefully cut the excess skin off with a razor:


After spending a few more moments stretching and tuning the head, I assembled the entire instrument, and installed some Grover geared tuners to replace the original friction tuners:


After putting it all together and giving it a complete setup, it played really well, but the neck had shrunk slightly, exposing some sharp fret ends (sometimes this is called “fret creep”). Not one to leave a stone unturned, I filed the fret ends down flush with the neck:


Barnaby had the cool idea of adding a pickup, so I suggested a K&K Banjo Twin pickup (K&K make my favorite pickups for just about every instrument). I attached the K&K sensors on the skin under the bridge, secured the wires inside the tone ring, and attached the output jack to the back (Barnaby didn’t want to drill a hole to install it just yet):


Wow, this little thing sounds great! It’s way too small for my hands, but it’s giving me ideas about finding a bass banjo. Hmmm….

This banjolele is ready to rock… or whatever it is that banjoleles do. I think it came out beautifully, and it only took a few days to get in all the parts and complete the work. Win! What a cool little instrument!



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