New Instrument! Introducing the CV Banjo!

Getting a new instrument is always exciting, and especially so when the instrument is new new, as in never before played by anybody before today (ok, so some will say it still hasn’t been played, and they would not be wrong…).

Introducing the CV – the Coppin-Volk twin neck open-back banjo! It’s a fretless banjo! It’s a fretted banjo! I’ve been wanting to do a banjo for some time, and last fall I decided to jump in. Hank Volk in Indiana machines the pot and fits the rings, and I acquired two identical necks-in-the-rough and finished them off as a mostly matched pair – one done with a fretless fingerboard, and the other with a conventional fretted finger board. Long and tedious work, machining the new fretless fingerboard from suitable material, veneering each peghead and then finishing them off. The veneer, birdseye cherry (I think, never got it confirmed for sure that that what it is, but it looks like it in the raw), was very difficult to use – brittle, requiring several repair cut-ins before it was done due to chipping. It doesn’t sand smooth either, so the finished result has an old gnarly character to it. All in all, I think the pegheads turned out fairly well, and are quite distinctive.

The banjo is a classic open-back pot with a wooden tone ring mated to a pair of modified S.S. Stewart-style pegheads with slim necks. The sound is rich in tone, with good brightness, and a fat midrange, with excellent sustain (not a bluegrasser, so I’m not looking for thunk :)

The CV Banjo

The CV Banjo - with fretless neck mounted and fretted neck on the side. No, it's not a lefty, the picture got somehow reversed!

Materials: The pot – Brazilian ebony tone-ring, on top of end-grain South American canary wood. This is not the familiar yellow canary wood found here in Canada, but a denser, oilier wood, something like cocobolo. Standard hardware and a Fibreskyn head. I have a Renaissance head coming which I may swap out, as I’m partial to that head type. Sounds good with the Fibreskyn though.

Open-back - the Brazilian ebony tone ring can be seen under the head

Fibreskyn head

Fretted neck – standard mahogany neck and East Indian rosewood fingerboard, with ordinary MOP dots. I’m not a fan of wild inlays so you won’t find them on my banjos… Peghead veneered back and front with birdseye cherry. Standard nickel plated planetary tuners, standard black plastic tri-ply nut cover. Neck unbound, as I’m not any good at doing that, and I wasn’t up to ruining neck blanks trying.

Fretted neck peghead

Fretless neck – Standard mahogany neck, unbound (see excuse above), with a custom Payung rosewood (Dahlbergia sp.) fretboard. This is very interesting wood – almost orange when its fresh, and produces a brilliant red dye with solvents – took a bit of washing to get the oils out. Very hard, very straight-grained. Machines nicely, but you don’t want to have to sand it. The surface is pretty much as it came out of my planer. As with the fretted neck, peghead veneered back and front with the same birdseye cherry. Standard nickel-plated planetary tuners with buffalo horn knobs, and an oiled rosewood nut cover.

Fretless neck peghead

The fretless neck will be a challenge. Still popular with Appalachian pickers (and commonly seen in a unique style called a mountain banjo), the fretless was the poor sharecropper’s instrument. Like a violin, purity of note comes from careful placement of the fingers, without the “safety” of frets. The ultimate sound comes from not only the pickers style, but the scale length as well. Unlike a fretted banjo, the bridge can be put anywhere, and intonation is the work of the fingers, not of matching the frets to the scale length (intonation is making sure the note an octave up is correct on its fret, i.e. an open A still sounds an A on the 12th fret, not A#. The bridge must be carefully placed to ensure this happens. Fretted instruments tend to go sharp as you go up the fretboard).

Almost finished -I have to add an armrest yet, play with the adjusting, but so far it seems stable in tune, and will likely get more so as the wood settles in to the tension. Now to see if I can learn to play it!

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