Barnes & Mullins, Windsor & Taylor, Jedson and other companies all struggled to meet banjo demand in the years from around 1890 to 1930 – the boom years for British banjo music. Bowley Barnes and Albert Mullins established their instrument business, (which continues to this day), in 1894 in Bournemouth, relocating to London in 1914. Today the company is based in rural Shropshire. We believe this Barnes & Mullins 'No. 4' banjo is from the company's first year of full production, in 1895, bearing the indented logo, 'THE BARNES & MULLINS' at the base of the neck on the 5th string side. The No. 4 model number is stamped at the top of the headstock, along with a 4 at the top of the treble-side tuners.
"Tunneled" 5th String
The "tunneled" 5th string was peculiar to the English banjo, brought about by the incredible popularity of the instrument at the turn of the century. Manufacturers simply couldn't keep up with demand, but somebody eventually struck upon the idea of adapting existing guitar necks for banjo use. (The banjo was so hugely popular that guitars simply weren't selling any more) The same guitar neck/headstock could be used for four, five and six-string models. On the 5-string models the fifth string runs down a thin metal pipe, (or tunnel), beneath the fingerboard – entering in the tuner cutaway, and re-emerging just above the 5th fret, (see photo # 6), complete with its own, miniature bone nut. Ingenious!
Advantage of the tunneled system
Although brought into existence as a supply & demand exercise, the obvious advantage of the tunneled system is that you have a 5-string banjo, but without the hindrance of the annoying fifth tuner halfway down the neck, allowing for much easier, faster and effective left hand movement. Several US manufactures and luthiers have recently re-introduced the tunneled system on some of their high-end instruments.
Pearl dot markers; silver frets; Ebony board and headstock overlay; the neck appears to be rock-hard English Oak, and the body laminate may be as well, with dual bands of fine inlaid Maple. While we believe the skin is the original, the strings, bridge and strap-pin are new – otherwise she's all original. The original, top-tensioned skin is worn in a couple of places around the edges, but its perfectly functional and sounds great. Some PVC glue in the worn areas would certainly extend its life, (without effecting the instrument at all), but that can be your call.
Plenty of projection
With the British-style enclosed resonator, the sound isn't quite as loud as American models, but there's still plenty of projection here. But the sound is much warmer – less strident and brash than its cousins from across the water. We've played bluegrass on it, traditional country, English folk, even some AC/DC, (Hayseed Dixie-style), and it seems there's nothing that doesn't sound fantastic on this genuinely vintage – and historically important – instrument.
A word about the tuners. These are simply magnificent! Very closely resembling those found on 19th century Martin instruments, that may well have been their source. If they're not Martin in origin, they might as well be. In all probability the tuners alone are worth more than our price for the entire instrument. The tuners are all brass, with beautifully aged bone buttons that show a slight amber glow. As we said – magnificent!
Good for another hundred years
At some point, (reasons unknown), the body was rotated ninety degrees to the neck. This does not matter at all. The extra holes for the body/neck join are now on the 5th string side, with the redundant strap-pin hole on the opposite side. (See photo # 6) Top Australian luthier John McGrath has recently gone over the entire instrument, declaring it good for at least another hundred years!
The original case literally fell apart shortly after we received the banjo, so we've added a brand new, deluxe ION case at no extra cost. This amazing Barnes & Mullins banjo SHIPS FREE to any address in Australia