When I wrote an article about “short-scale” and travel banjos for the Riverboat Music site, it got me thinking that I would like to have a 5-string that was as portable as my Martin Backpacker travel guitar. My Backpacker is 35″ long and just over 9″ wide at its widest part. 5-string banjos tend to be 38″ long or longer and 12-13.5″ wide at the widest part, depending on whether they have a resonator or not. “A Scale” 5-string banjos, which are based on the scale length of the 19-fret tenor banjo, tend to be about 34″ long, but they are just as wide as full-sized banjos. (They’re called “A Scale” in part because if you use the same strings, you have to tune them a step higher than “G tuning” to have the same tone. But most folks just put on medium or heavier strings and tune them to G anyway.)
One unique short-scale banjo is the Gold Tone CC-Mini. It has an 8″ head, so it wouldn’t be any more than 9″ wide at the widest part. It also has a shorter scale, so its total length is 28″, reputedly making it great for backpacking. Although it “technically” should be tuned to a higher key, like C, some folks have reported success putting heavy strings on them and tuning them to G. Imagine that, a G-tuned banjo you can backpack with, without snagging every overhead branch!
Here’s the glitch – they cost more than the best-in-class under-$800 A scale banjo, the Deering Parlor. I just didn’t feel right paying more for a Chinese made mini-instrument than for an American-made real banjo.
Then I saw a CC-Mini listed on Reverb.com. The photos were ambiguous, but I thought maybe it was an older model. They wanted WAY too much to ship it, so I counter-offered, and they sold it to me. The only problem is that the banjo I got wasn’t a Gold Tone CC-Mini; it was a Gold-Tone CC-Traveler, an A-Scale version with a resonator, tone ring, and dual coordinator rods. Nice. And a more expensive banjo than I expected. Just not what I ordered.
With the tone ring, resonator, and dual coordinator rods, it would make a decent Bluegrass banjo for a child prodigy or an adult with short arms. But I’m neither.
I tried to conduct the seller to ask if they wanted it back, but a: their web site was down, and b: by the time they paid for shipping both ways, it would be a “wash” for them anyway.
It came playable, but needing adjustment, and I am neck deep in other things, so I figured I’d wait until I had time to tighten the head, crank back the neck, adjust the coordinator rods to get the right tilt on the neck, and properly place the bridge. Then I’d review it for my web pages and try to sell it locally. Alternatively, I COULD take the resonator and the cheesy resonator brackets off and use it as a travel banjo. I’d have to replace the gig bag, though, since the one they sent with it is made for a full-length resonator banjo.
Also, the banjo is yellow, which doesn’t sit right with me. But I suppose that’s a minor issue.
Then the SAME store on Reverb.com advertised a CC-Mini, and this time the photo was clear enough to tell that it really IS a CC-Mini. Here’s an irony: counting shipping, they want MORE for it than they wanted for the other one. I offered them the same amount I paid for the Traveler, and their counter-offer was still too high.
In the meantime, my base model Deering GoodTime has traveled all over the Midwest and to the Outer Banks with me, as well as to beaches and picnics. It’s in the back seat of my car as I write this, on the off chance I meet up with someone who wants to jam. At 37 1/2″ long, it is about four inches longer than most A-Scale banjos. But it makes a pretty good travel banjo as is, come to think about it.
Usually when I get an instrument of any kind, I sort of “live with it” a while so I can make a completely fair evaluation/review. I think actually spending time using and abusing my axes is one thing that makes any advice I give on my web pages authentic. But I don’t usually get instruments that are totally like new, or so far removed from what I need.
Remember, I did not order an A-scale banjo, and if I had I wouldn’t have ordered one with a resonator. (The only reason I was interested in a shortscale banjo at all was for travel purposes, which – to me – means keeping down size and weight.)
To really determine whether a banjo in this class would suit my needs, I’d have to take off the resonator, buy a gig bag that fit it, and actually travel with the thing. Needless to say, it would NOT be in new condition by the time I was done “testing” it, and I would have spent real money on a case I couldn’t use for anything else.
So the A-scale experiment isn’t probably going to happen for me, at least not with this banjo. I’d rather see it go to a good home where a like-new banjo would be appreciated. And it would make a GREAT Christmas present for some Bluegrass aficionado with short arms.
In the meantime, I just ordered a well-used Deering Sierra 5-string. Not that I play that much Bluegrass, but there are times when I need that tone and volume. It’s got some cosmetic damage, but my Deering Deluxe 6-string from the same era is built like a tank. So I expect it to be very playable and to sound great once it’s set up. Now THAT I won’t feel bad about putting a little wear and tear on it while I decide what to tell people about it.
The Deering Deluxe just arrived. It’s been “rode hard and put up wet,” but there is no irreparable damage. Minor belt-buckle indentations on the back of the resonator, and some varnish peeling along one edge of the fretboard, but those two things were mentioned in the ad.
What wasn’t mentioned: First three frets are worn under the strings almost to the fretboard, but there isn’t any fret buzz yet. Fretboard is filthy, head is filthy, and nearly worn through in places. Chrome is corroded through several places, especially the arm rest. The fifth-string spikes on frets 7 and 9, which I was counting on using, have been hammered down so hard that they can’t be used. The previous owner probably never played in any key but G and considered them a nuisance when he went up the neck. So, not exactly abuse, but still. . . .
That said, if I spend a few hours cleaning it up, put ~$300 into replacing the worn frets, fixing the spikes, and other minor issues, it will still be cheaper than what everyone else was asking for their beat-to-heck ones. So I’ll clean it up, try to pull the spikes up a little and see where it goes from there. Look for a review eventually.
Nudder comment about my new, old Deering Sierra. (I accidentally called it a Deluxe in the previous blog, because, except for the finish, its features are identical to my Deering Deluxe 6-string banjo.)
I should probably just start a new blog for this, but I won’t get around to really working on it until after the holidays.
While trying to determine if the head was salvageable, I got the idea of ordering, not just ANY replacement head, but THE replacement head, the one with the Kavanjo pickup built into it. Kavanjo’s founder John Kavanaugh and the Deering help person Carolina Bridges both answered my questions and were very helpful during the selection process. I wanted the Deering logo on the head, but the only way to get that was if I ordered from Deering, whose version of the Kavanjo has the output jack running through the head itself. I wanted to mount the jack on the resonator flange, so I ordered directly from John. It came last night and looks great. I hope to review everything about the thing and its installation eventually. If nothing else, I’ll have a basis for deciding whether it’s worth $280 more than the $20 piezo-electric pickup I first tried on a banjo a few years ago. 🙂
In the meantime, a local fellow is advertising a Trinity River A-scale banjo on the Dayton Craig’s List. He’s charging more than mail-order for it because he has set it up and replaced the guitar tuners with planetary. Not a bad deal, really. Just don’t know how many folks shopping for $100-$200 banjos will realize his value-add. I have posted my Gold-Tone Traveler on Craig’s list for a very reasonable price, but am getting no hits. Sometimes, I’m tempted to take the resonator off, get the right sized (short, open-back) gig bag for it and use it for travel. We’ll see.