The number of J. French banjos which are extant today
is fairly high, considering his lack of advertising and his apparently small
manufacturing operation. Ten
instruments were surveyed for this presentation, and the author knows of several
more in existence. In conversations
with vintage banjo enthusiasts, it was found that most knew of French’s
instruments, but did not attach enough importance to them to document examples
they had seen. This is not
surprising, as French did not mark his banjos with any numbering system and does
not seem to have had any set models or styles- every instrument appears to have
been custom or one-off. Only one
instrument has turned up so far with a date of any kind, a presentation fretless
instrument with a date of August 28, 1880. All other instruments surveyed are undated, but in viewing
them side by side an evolution of construction techniques is apparent and they
can be arranged in rough chronological order.
This evolution may have been abrupt or may have happened gradually- the
small sampling of instruments and the lack of a serial numbering system makes it
impossible to tell as of yet. Overall,
the banjos seem to be influenced by the older styles of banjo construction and
French’s trade mark on many of his instruments
(particularly earlier examples) is a six-pointed star inlayed in the peghead.
Early instruments also usually carry an inlay at the base of the
fingerboard which mimics the shape of the decorative endbolt.
Inlays on early instruments are simple and appear to be hand cut, and are
often metal, while later instruments use what appear to be trade-purchased shell
inlay shapes. Early instruments
also have an odd bulge in the neck at the 5th peg, which encloses the
peg almost entirely. This feature
seems to have been all but eliminated on later instruments.
Every banjo examined has the same peghead shape, which is similar to that
of the E. J. Cubley banjos of Chicago. Early
necks are an extremely hard v-shape, while later instruments necks’ profiles
are much more rounded. Early necks
attachment to the rim consists of a mortise through the dowel, with a single
wooden wedge, while later necks are held on with a more elegant Stewart-style
double wedge bracket. All
instruments carry a metal heel cap which hangs over edge of the rim, and has a
decorative edge cut on it’s lower side- there are two distinct variations of
decoration, one on earlier instruments and one on the later.
All instruments examined have a spun-over rim, and it is not known if the
rims were purchased from the trade or made in house.
Tension hoops are made in an odd manner, by which a steel ring is bent
and then has German silver spun over it. The
author has seen this style of construction on other instruments (including
Cubley banjos) but has never been able to come up with a logical reason for the
Hook and nut hardware on the early instruments is
fairly crude, utilizing square nuts on the hooks and shoe bolts, and it is very
possible that it could have been sourced from trade merchants.
The later hardware is fancy, finely made and elegantly designed.
The author has not encountered the later hardware on any other
instruments, and it is his opinion that it was either produced in-house or
commissioned by French for his instruments specifically.
This also applies to the endbolts, the two-wedge neck attachment brackets
of the later instruments, the metal heel caps, and neck adjustment devices. An interesting note is that the pitch of the hook threads is
8-30 TPI, which is not a standard size.
Two of the later instruments in the survey carry a
cast brass mechanical neck adjustment device.
The mechanism attaches to the end of the dowel stick near the tailpiece
and allows for changing the angle of the neck to adjust the string action.
The device is similar in concept to the neck adjuster used on Cole’s
Eclipse banjos, but is more massive than the Cole unit and works in a slightly
different manner. These adjusters
may also have been produced in house, as it is noted on the Sanborn maps that
part of the banjo factory housed a foundry.
Extant tailpieces are of wood and mimic the shape of
the decorative endbolt. It is
presumed that violin type friction pegs of wood or bone were originally used.
One instrument examined came with two somewhat crudely carved bone pegs,
but it is not known if they are original to the instrument.
Two instruments of the later construction era bear
what are presumed to be resellers’ markings.
One large fretless banjo has it’s dowel stamped “R. G. Allen,
Standard J. L.
French Maker Clev’d, O.”. Another
does not have any stamps on it’s dowel, and the metal heel cap is engraved
“Edwin H. Pendleton”. This
banjo was found in Virginia, and Mike Holmes’ American Fretted Instrument
Makers list has an entry for an Edwin H. Pendleton in Culpeper, VA.
Research into these individuals has turned up nothing definite so far.
Only one instrument surveyed so far has a date
connected with it. A fretless banjo
of the earlier construction era bears engraved metal presentation plates that
read “Mrs. A. A. to J. McG”, and “J. L. French Maker Cleveland, O. / J.
McGwine August 28 1880”. As of yet no information on J. McGwine has been turned up.
Only one instrument surveyed bears no marking. This is a very crude instrument, but the peghead shape, bump at 5th peg, and metal heel cap indicate that it was most likely made by J. French. The rim of the instrument is a cheap factory-made rim, and it appears that the neck was originally fitted to it (ie. the neck was not added to the rim at a later date). It is postulated that French made this instrument later in his life, after he had retired from the manufacturing business and no longer had tooling with which to make rims or hardware. This theory may change if and when new and better information comes to light.