Waverly Street banjo ukulele
Since I was brought up listening to George Formby, the banjo ukulele - or banjolele - was always a familiar instrument for me, at least to hear. Plus the banjolele gets more than passing mention in P. G. Wodehouse's funny "Thank You, Jeeves" novel.
I like the sound, Susan doesn't.
I can listen to a George Formby recording and hear in it his strumming patterns and his rhythm and I can appreciate his considerable skill on the instrument, not just his comedic side. So I've been interested in getting a banjo uke for my own almost ever since I started playing the ukulele. Every collection should have one, just like every ukulele player should have at least one George Formby album.
Dave G is a small-scale builder who makes unadorned, but well-received instruments, including banjoleles, under his Waverly Street brand. His output has always been soprano and concert scale, and I teased him numerous times on several forums about his lack of tenor products. Then he called my bluff and made a tenor-scale banjo uke - his first tenor scale. I was honour-bound to buy it.
I had also learned a few weeks before I ordered it, that my father had played the banjo at family singalongs, with his mother on ukulele, and his father on piano. So I found myself following the family musical tradition, quite unconsciously. Sure wish I had a picture of him playing, though. While not a full banjo, a banjo uke is close enough.
The BU arrived the same day my Ohana soprano arrived (see above). The banjo uke was packaged in the best box I've ever seen - all wood. As such, it survived the tender ministrations of two postal services and Customs without a dent or scratch. My biggest worry had been the skin of the BU, but it was fine.
Dave does good, solid work, but if you're look for ornate, that's not his style. His prices reflect that: for a handmade instrument, Dave offers bargain pricing. His instruments routinely get good reviews on the forums from his customers.
He uses friction tuners on his banjo ukes, but recent online comments suggest he will also be using geared tuners in the near future (as he does with some of his ukuleles). I don't like friction tuners and found these slipped a lot, until I tightened the screws enough for the strings to settle. Personally, I would recommend geared tuners to potential buyers.
My first impression was that it was longer than it really is. The small, 8-inch round body makes the neck appear unusually long, exacerbated by the neck connecting so far along its length to the body, but it's still a regular tenor scale.
The body is a wooden drum head (oak, I believe), the neck oak (made from a piece of scrap, so it has some interesting markings and might have even had some spalting in a different cut) and the fretboard is stained oak.
The fret edges were a trifle rougher than I like and I intend to file them a little when I change strings. I tend to play the uke with my right hand hear the soundhole, often sweeping my fingertips up against the fretboard, so I really notice any rough fret edges on that side. However, with the banjo uke, I tend to hold my hand away from the head and don't touch the fret edges as much: these edges are not as noticeable as they might be on a standard uke.
Dave includes a key to tune the skin. This is something I need to experiment with it. Too tight, and the sound can be loud and harsh (and raise the action uncomfortably). Too loose and it loses texture as well as volume (and might make the bridge slip). I loosed it a half-turn, and it seemed to sound a bit better. I will play with it a bit to see how that works.
The strings wrap over the bridge and over the rim, then are inserted into four small holes on the body and are tied up inside with a bead. Might be a little clumsy to restring, but the system is simple and effective. A lot of BUs have tailpieces to hold the strings, which may be more ornamental than functional.
Holding the BU takes a little getting used to. I find my arm presses on the skin, and even found the heel of my hand pressing the ends of the strings near the bridge. I find it a tad awkward to hold it in a way that doesn't involve pressing on the top and dampening the sound. On the other side of that, dampening the top does soften it a bit.
I am currently experimenting with some strap ideas. I may screw in a strap peg to make it easier to hold. Dave normally provides an arm rest with his BUs, but he was waiting for his supplier to ship them, and I took mine without it. I may buy one from him and put it on myself, but it will add some weight to the instrument. Update: a cat leash works fine, although the buckle clatters a bit.
The bridge is a simple piece of wood. It looks handmade and oak, but may be a commercial item. It looks a little fragile to me, but I'm used to more substantial saddles and bridges. Again, it makes me wonder how another material and design would work. The way it is now, the two outside strings are not directly over one of the bridge's feet. I would like to try a design where they were each over a foot. And I would also like to try ebony.
The action is a bit high around the 12th fret - most noticeable because that's where I strum and pick most.
I found the initial sound surprisingly loud and brash, uncomfortably so at first. Since the BU doesn't have a back, the sound doesn't bounce around inside and get warmed by the wood - it just blasts out. Banjos are not particularly subtle instruments, despite what Bela Fleck can do with one, but I had thought the nylon strings would mitigate some of the BU's effrontery.
You quickly get used to it (well, I did: Susan probably never will), although it does beg for some changes in plucking style to avoid overpowering a song with the occasional strong note. And I find I do hit some strings a little harder than intended, and those notes come across as strident. I might experiment with a back to see how that affects the sound. There isn't any noticeable sustain, so the decay is fast. A back may add a little sustain, too (Susan says it makes it louder, too).
You can also buy different after-market skins, including 'natural' skin. One of these might also be interesting to try. The bridge is a simple item to replace, and I've bought an inexpensive banjo bridge to try in the near future. Just have to get the height set properly.
The extra tension on tenor scale strings probably contributes to the loudness and brashness of this BU. His soprano and concert ukes may have a different sound because of the lower tension.
I am also tempted to retune it to an open tuning to see if I can do some slide blues. Nylon strings are not particularly well suited to slide, but like a reso uke, the BU might produce an acceptable sound.
Perhaps the biggest consideration when getting a banjo ukulele is what music you intend to play with it. While you can finger or strum any song you play on a standard uke, the BU sound does not always lend itself to every tune or style. For some of the 1920s-30s music I play, it lends an old-fashioned sound that seems to suit. But to my ears, a lot of modern music doesn't always sound great on the BU. There's always bluegrass, although I am not a great fan of it.
Update: I sold this BU, but ended up buying a Gold Tone baritone banjolele. I found the baritone not as brash as the tenor. See my review.
Would I purchase another Waverly
Street uke? Yes. Perhaps not another banjo uke (unless Susan warms
to the sound in the meantime!). But a concert or soprano would probably