Gretsch Blue

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I picked up this little number on eBay for a few bucks. The construction was very standard and very mundane except for the intriguing finish. The condition was fair.

divots

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pot side

The main problems were the fingerboard divots, broken skin head, bent hooks, and the usual dents, rust and dirt.

At the time, I didn't know who the maker was.

hexdimp1

hexdmp2

hexclose

spacers

1. Rim Divots (an unpleasant surprise)


Upon disassembly, I found that the hex shoes had dug into the rim quite deeply. The screws holding the shoes had been loose for some time, allowing them to tilt upward. Also, the finish is a semi-soft plastic of some sort, so the shoes were rotated badly enough to jam all the hooks.

After cleaning the rim, I decided to make some spacers intended to correct the tilt of the shoes. To do this, I carved a scrap of poplar into a hexagonal rod, drilled a hole through the center, and cut it into wedges with a razor saw. They were fairly inconsistent at this point so I glued them to a piece of scrap with hide glue. When dry, I sanded them down to a more-or-less consistent shape. Then, I heated the whole piece of scrap (softening the hide glue) and removed the spacers.

When I put the hex shoes back on the rim, I trapped spacers behind each shoe and blackened them with a magic marker so they would be less visually intrusive.

rim clean

inside

The plastic finish cleaned up nicely with just some Formula 409.  The screws holding the hex shoes were originally fitted with small, toothed lock washers.  The screw heads and washers had dug into the wood so I added slightly larger brass washers to help hold the shoes straight.

fgb divots

veneer

2. Fingerboard Divots

The fingerboard on this machine is simply black paint applied directly on the wood of the neck. There were 5 rather deep divots and 3 minor ones, all between the nut and 6th fret. I scraped the paint off and decided that the divots were too deep to just fill and sand – the filler never has the same appearance as the fingerboard wood remaining around it. I decided that I would fill the divots with thick super glue and apply a veneer over the fingerboard up to the 6th fret. I had some pine veneer which was a fair match to the neck wood. I glued the veneer on and sanded it down to just a paper-thin layer. After dying it, replacing the MOP dots, and replacing the frets, it didn't look too bad.

peghead

peg fixed

3. Other


A former owner had apparently mounted some sort of “Scruggs tuners” (also known as D Tuners). They were gone, leaving 2 large and 2 small holes in the peghead. I plugged the holes with some dowel stock. I painted them flat black because I knew it would not be possible to make any kind of match to the existing finish.

The action was quite high so I removed and reset the dowel stick to give decent action.

skin The rest of the work was the usual mounting of a new skin head, general clean-up, and re-assembly. The original flesh hoop was iron wire that was badly rusted. I replaced it with a 1/8” square brass one made on my trusty ring roller..

speckles

modern

Notes

In researching this banjo, it soon became apparent that the sparkling blue finish on the rim and peghead was the same stuff as seen on drums. Drum people call this a “sparkle finish”. As far as I have been able to determine, sparkle finishes were introduced by the Leedy Drum Company sometime in the 1920s. During that time, several companies made both drums and banjos (such as Slingerland, Ludwig, Leedy, and Gretsch) trying to keep afloat during dire economic times. Most of those companies didn't’t make it anyway.

The sparkle finish is composed of 3 layers. The bottom layer is a flexible white plastic. On top of that is a layer of tiny metal (aluminum?) hexagons less than 1 mm across, like glitter but very regular in shape. Topping that is a fairly soft, transparent layer of plastic. This plastic is tinted a variety of colors, in this case, a pretty medium blue (upper photo).

This sort of finish is still used on drums today and is available in large sheets which can be used to refinish drum sets, in which case it is called “drum wrap”. Many colors, such as champagne, turquoise, red, blue, gold, silver, pink, green, black, purple, and lime, are available. It costs generally on the order of $10/sq. ft.  Here is a sample of a modern blue sparkle wrap available today (lower photo, no enlargement so don't bother clicking it).

marked peg


This banjo is quite generic and has no markings on it at all. Hence, I could not readily identify the maker. Thanks to one of the world’s great banjo makers, Wyatt Fawley, we are certain this banjo was made by Gretsch, probably in the 1950s or 1960s. Mr. Fawley has owned a couple of Gretsch banjos – the blobby shape of the peghead on my example is nearly identical to this marked Gretsch banjo.

S&H cat

Silver jet

Mr. Fawley recalls that these banjos were available as S & H Green Stamps premiums for just 2 or 3 books. I am currently looking for S&H catalogs. If anyone has some, please contact me.

This fits with some Gretsch history. By the 1950s, they were becoming a well-known electric guitar maker. In the mid-1950s, they released the White Falcon, White Penguin, and Silver Jet model guitars featuring sparkle finishes (Gretsch Pages).  These are highly sought-after today. Unfortunately, that cannot be said of their sparkle finish banjos.

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rim

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fingerboard

tuners

To the left are a few more pictures of the finished project.  Here are the specifications.

Weight: 2lb,15 oz

Rim diameter (OD) 10 ¾”
Rim depth: 2 3/8”
Rim thickness: 3/8”
Brackets: 16 (steel hooks, nickel-plated brass hex shoes)

Scale length: 26 1/8”

22 frets
Overall length 36”
Bell brand tailpiece
Waverly friction tuners
Neck appears to be maple, stained and varnished
Rim is 3-layer laminate, appears to be maple, finished like the neck

player I enjoy playing this banjo! It is certainly not loud but with the skin head and thin rim, it has a decent old-timey, plunky sound, very much like turn-of-the-century cheap banjos.

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