Guitars have had mechanical tuners from as early as the 1820s, but few if any pre-Civil war banjos had anything but friction pegs. The exception is Ashborn, who used mechanical tuners as early as the 1850s, but his banjos were high quality, professionally made and expensive. They had unique adjustable tension rods mechanisms and other clever innovations to their design. Ashborn also made fine guitars and had a team of skilled workers producing his instruments in almost a modern assembly line type of environment. The other exception is the banjo illustrated on the cover of Briggs Banjo Method from the mid-1850s. It has a slotted peg head with geared mechanical tuners.
Until after the Civil War most banjo makers were slaves, carpenters or drum makers. In general, professional luthier's with access to mechanical tuners, fret wire and the skills required to install them, did not get involved in banjo making until somewhere in the 1870s.
I try to produce "period correct" instruments for living history re-enactors. If you are a modern musician and you are not concerned about historical accuracy then anything goes. The banjo is first and foremost a folk instrument and I have no objections to modifying it according to your desires. I completely sympathize with the desire to achieve the sound of the fretless banjo without the inconvenience of things like friction pegs.
Planetary tuners have something like a 4 to 1 ratio, that is you have to turn the adjusting knob four times for the tuning post rotate once. A set of five mechanical friction pegs will set you back about $60. A set of better quality planetary pegs will cost $100 or more. There are even planetary pegs made to look like old ebony friction pegs, also over $100.00 a set. Please inquire if you have interest. Please click on the "Mechanical Tuners" link above to see pictures and descriptions of the various types of mechanical tuners.
The bottom line is that mechanical tuners will not change the tonal quality of the banjo. Adding frets will make some of the string sliding techniques more difficult but not necessarily impossible. Whether it is an acoustical gourd banjo or a wooden shell minstrel variety, you will still receive that wonderful lower pitched 19th-century tone.
Friction Mechanical Pegs
This option consists of vintage style friction pegs. This is a direct drive peg, so you have no mechanical advantage, but since the post is a smaller diameter than the shaft, there is more control than with my straight diameter rosewood friction pegs. The 5th string peg is side mounted.These are fair quality friction pegs with an adjustable tension screw.
These tuners are available on any style peg head for $65.00
Geared Economy Pegs
These are actually guitar tuners, but I can install them on a banjo. To see them installed go to Gallery 5. I used these on a cigar box guitar. Geared pegs are completely appropriate for mid-19th Century banjos, although you usually see them in conjunction with a slotted style peg head.
These are, relatively speaking, low quality tuners, but will function fine. This option is available for $43.00.
Note: For banjos, the 5th string peg will be a friction side mounted peg. The pegs come up through the peg head and the tuning knobs stick out to the side of the peg head. These are only available with trapezoid or rectangular style peg head.
Types of Mechanical Tuners
Mechanical tuners come in two basic types; the adjustable friction type and the geared type which provide a mechanical advantage (typically 4:1).
The friction type have a set screw in the button which can increase or loosen friction when turning the peg. There is very little mechanical advantage, but if slippage is ever a problem you can just tighten the set screw.
The geared tuners come with exposed gears or gear boxes, or with the gears concealed in the shaft of the peg. This latter type of peg is called a planetary tuner and the type I am most commonly asked for on my banjos, when customers request mechanical tuners.
This option consists of premium quality planetary tuners. These are nice pegs! This is the alternate peg style chosen by many of my customers and I have installed them on several banjos. They are very smooth and look great. The turning ratio is 4:1, making fine tuning a breeze.
Nickle finish .....$110.00
PegHeds Planetary Tuning Pegs
PegHed Planetary tuning pegs are becoming increasingly popular. (Estimate cost $125.00 per set) Because of the expense, and the fact they install with a choice of a left hand or a right hand thread, depending upon the selected peghead style, I do not stock these, but order them as required. Depending upon my supplier's inventory, this may add a few days to delivery.
In this picture you see a rosewood friction peg of the type I usually provide, an ebony peg in the middle and a PegHed planetary tuning peg to the right. The PegHed has an ingenius 4:1 gear reduction built in to its shaft.
The advantage is that they look like old time wooden pegs, but never slip and are capable of effortless fine tuning. I have them installed on one of my personal performance banjos and can verify that they function exactly as advertised. If you are interested in this option, please mention it in the Comments portion of the order form.
(FYI: If ordering these optional pegs for a banjo kit, since I special order them, it can add about a week to your delivery time.)