It showed up on my doorstep. Literally.
A blue grey suitcase with its condition belying 30+ years spent toting travel necessities on land and air. This little Samsonite’s latest excursion, though, had taken it from Phoenix (Arizona) to Paradise (California) in a class far lower than coach: try UPS Ground.
The suitcase, one we might have called an “overnighter” in days prior to wheeled rollaboards, sat stoutly just at the front door of our office as I returned from a lunch visit to the nearby taco truck.
I squealed at its sight—I knew what the blue grey valise held: an ukulele lovingly sent to me by my Uncle Harry, because, as he said, he knew I’d appreciate it and give it a good home.
Uncle Harry had told me about this instrument a few years’ back after hearing about my passion for ukuleles. It had belonged to his mom, Katherine (Quigley) Weaver. Born in 1912, Katie, as she was known to family, seemed to have lived a wanderlust life of rollicking music. A deft ukulele player, she and a few fellows formed up groups in Indiana in the early 30s and played “honky tonks” (Uncle Harry’s words) throughout the Hoosier state.
When she died in 1983, Uncle Harry laid claim to one of her ukuleles. Uncle Harry is many fine things, but he’s not a musician. He put the ukulele in one of his suitcases and parked it in a closet. And that’s where that little ukulele had stayed until it took its trip west to me.
I tore off the UPS label, clipped free the packing tape over the hinges and opened the suitcase. The instrument was wedged in diagonally, a thin blanket nestled ‘round it. I lifted to peek under the mint-green wrap: It’s a banjo ukulele!
In my few years of playing ukulele, I’ve never strummed a real banjo ukulele (or banjolele, as some call them). I wasn’t going to be strumming this one right away either—three strings were loose (two appear to be a gut material of some kind) and the fourth’s position over the banjo’s drum head was simply for placement since it was held at both ends by thin air.
No matter. I cradled it in my arms (gee, these things are heavy!) and imagined the places it had been and the songs it had sung in decades’ past.
It’ll be singing again soon, though.
Mark (my personal Google guru) quickly researched this ukulele and gave me links aplenty to help me get better acquainted. It’s a Stromberg-Voisinet, fondly referred to as SVs or Strombys.
The company incorporated under the SV name in 1921, but its heritage goes back to its establishment in 1890 as the Groeschel Mandolin Company. Based in Chicago during the earliest years of the twentieth century, the company became the Kay Musical Instrument Company in 1931 under the leadership of president Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer.
Stromberg-Voisinet made several models of these instruments in the 1920s and 30s. My little guy is a simple version with a mahogany pot resonator (see, I’m learning a whole new set of ukulele words) and a forthright, earnest appearance. No fancy “mother of toilet-seat” pearloid on the fretboard, here.
I also appreciate that the fret wear is on the ever-popular first through fourth frets—evidently Katie kept her fingers right up in my favorite territory of the fingerboard, too!
It has an eight-inch head, maple rim, checkerboard purfling, six mother of pearl fretboard inlays (most Strombys have four), 16 tension hooks and a Grover tailpiece (another new word!). No cracks that I can discern and the neck appears straight.
I think I’m in love.
I’ve ordered some Senorita strings by La Bella (while not popular strings on other instruments, these sound great on a Stromby says another banjolele player (see his extensive banjo uke blog here) and when they come in next week, Mark promises he’ll install ‘em, set up the bridge properly and adjust the skin.
Gee, I’d always thought ukuleles were pretty straightforward to tune—and now I’ve a skin to fiddle with (or, more precisely, Mark does!). Ralph Shaw (who certainly knows what he’s talking about when the subject is banjo ukuleles) says we shouldn’t need to do anything to clean the drumhead if it looks okay. But, he advises, “Make sure it is nice and tight. Bounce the head of a small screwdriver (!) on it and it should sound like ‘tip, tip, tip’ rather than ‘tap’ or ‘top.’”
Personally, I don’t think I want to view all that string/bridge/skin adjusting; it’d be kinda like watching your six-year-old have his tonsils removed. Just hand him to me when you’re done and I’ll be happiest.
I’ll write more next week when I get this new little guy playable and spruced up a bit.
Until then, I have some questions I hope you might be able to help me with:
• I need a case for my new little arrival—any suggestions?
• The tuning pegs don’t go “straight across”—the pegs for the 1 and 2 strings are offset just a little higher than their matching 3 and 4 pegs. I’m wondering if that was intentional (since I’ve seen it on other photos of SVs); do you know?
• I’m in need of a bit of hardware for the tension hooks. I have hardware for all 16 tension hooks but five of the nuts are a different shape. Perhaps the instrument was built that way (I can see a guy in the shop grabbing a handful of nuts and not checking to see that they all matched) or perhaps the originals were lost and replaced with non-matchers. If you have “extra” hardware for an SV, could you drop me an e-mail?
Above, circled in green, is the original owner of the banjolele, my Uncle Harry’s mother, Katherine (Quigley) Weaver. This photo was taken in the mid-60s and, while Katie is playing ukulele, it’s a standard ukulele, not a banjo version. Beside her, on a full-sized banjo (and with a harmonica) is her brother. Another relative is on the colorful toy drum set and my “cousin,” Kathy, was happy to join in on the accordian. Imagine the sounds coming from the living room that day!