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J S Kansas guitars

Q: My name is Sandra and I'm a freelance writer with Demand Studios. I have an article to write for the website on "How to convert a viola into a 5 string violin" and I found your response to an inquiry on your website that deals with doing this.
I was wondering if you would be willing to answer some questions for me so that I will have enough details to write my article? I will credit you as a source and post a link to your website with the article. Also, may I use the information in you gave in your answer to "Laura" on your website in the article as well?

1) You say in that response: "I would fill the four peg holes and drill five."

    a) How would you fill the existing holes in a way that will allow them to handle being partially drilled through when later drilling the five holes to allow for the 5th string? I need details about the materials and glues used and any curing/processing needed for the materials to make a solid plug.

    b) Where on the peg box would you position the new holes and what diameter do they need to be? Do they need to be larger on one side of the peg box and smaller on the opposite side?
         If you like, you can draw a diagram for me that would show the positioning of the new holes with the measurements noted on the diagram - or you can just write it all out - whichever is easier for you.

2) You say to ". . . fit a new bridge and tail piece" - I'm assuming you mean ones that are set up to accommodate 5 strings. That said . . .

    a) are these available for purchase or do they have to be made to order?
        I think I'm correct that the bridge needs to be trimmed and sanded to match the arch in each instrument's top and then grooved for the strings anyway even though you purchase the bridge piece. But, can you buy tail pieces that are already set up for 5 strings?

3) Are there any other structural changes that need to be made to the viola's neck or body? If so could you describe them and how to do them?

Thank you for your time even if you are unable to answer the questions at this time.


A: I would love to be quoted in your article.

                If you hang a 5 string violin on the wall, there will be three pegs on the left side of the peghead and two on the right. For the sake of terminology calibration, the peg closest to the floor on the left side is the 5th or C peg. The next one, above the C is the 4th or G peg.  The top peg on the left is the 3rd or D. The top one on the right is called the 2nd or A peg and the bottom right is the 1st or E peg.

                When you convert a four string violin to a five string you are adding a C string. The five string is tuned, from lowest to highest: C G D A E. The G peg becomes the C peg. Sometimes the hole in the peg needs to be drilled out bigger to accommodate the thicker string, but other than that, the C peg is ready to go. The A peg will be reversed and it will become the D peg. It will be pulled out and inserted from the bass side. The bass side of the pegbox will need to be reamed to fit. The treble side hole will be too big for the small end of the peg. It will need to be bushed and redrilled. The hole for the D peg of the four stringed violin will need to be plugged on both ends. The new holes for the A and G pegs, holes numbered 2 and 4, will be drilled above and below the old D peg hole.

                When you convert a viola to a five string, you are adding the high E string. The C peg is unchanged. Then apply all the above information (which peg to flip, which to fill and redrill, etc.) An interesting note: aside from the fancy windings and widely varying prices, music wire is music wire. If you have a big viola and a little tailpiece and standard violin E strings are too short, close your eyes and use a .010" guitar string. It is exactly the same thing.

                Any job is easy if you have the right tool. A professional luthier will have a peg shaver, a tool that looks like a big pencil sharpener that will true the conical taper of the pegs. He will then have a reamer with a taper that perfectly matches the taper of the peg shaver. He will have sticks of boxwood or maple that can be tapered in the peg shaver and inserted into the holes that need filling. He has hide glue flakes and a glue pot to cook them in, to glue the fitted stick (bushing) in place. He has a flush cut saw, a thin flexible saw with fine teeth and no set to the teeth, to cut off the excess stick. He has scrapers or sanding blocks to level the surfaces of the new bushings and prepare them for finish. He then has a collection of oil varnish and shellac and dyes to seal and blend the new bushings into the violins old finish. He has a good sharp brad point drill bit, slightly larger than the small end of the reamer, to start the new holes that will then be tapered and fit with the reamer. These tools are available from luthier supply companies. They should cost in the range of $500 to $600 for the complete set. It is possible to do the job with a very sharp knife and a good eye, but it's not easy.

                Five string violin tailpieces are available from the luthier supply companies. Five string viola tailpieces take some ingenuity. A violin body is 14" long. Viola bodies are 15" to 17” long. Many people use commercially available violin tailpieces on violas. They look funny but they work fine. You can make one from a block of hardwood of your choice. Just cut away everything that doesn't look like a five string viola tailpiece. Another cute trick, if you are using a D string that doesn't need a fine tuner (gut or synthetic core), is to drill a 1/16" hole, between the middle two holes on the old tailpiece.  Ream the sharp edge off the top of the hole. Run the D string through from underneath.

                The nut is the block of ebony at the top end of the fingerboard with four string grooves in it. The next job is to cut 5 grooves into the nut. Sometimes the old nut was too high and you can just file off all the old slots and still have enough wood left for the new slots. Sometimes you have to start from scratch and make a new nut. The tacky solution is to shim the old one up from the bottom and file it off on the top. The E and C strings should be a little less than 1/8" from the edge of the fingerboard. Then use a divider to find the spacing for the other three strings. I start the slots with a razor saw. Luthiers also have gauged nut files (about $25 each). The nut slot should be exactly the same width as the string, with a nice round bottom. The string should vibrate from the fingerboard edge of the nut. It should then slope to the back of the nut and then slope more down to the peg. If the slot is too tight it will wreck your strings. If the slope is wrong you can wreck your tone.

                Mark a spot about 1/16" outside the E and G slots on your four string bridge (we are making room for the new string by widening the E and C by 1/8"). File off the old string slots. Use your divider to mark three slots between your outside slots. Nick each mark with a sharp knife. Maple is much softer than ebony; pressure from the string will shape the string slot in the bridge.

                Check to make sure your sound post is still standing. If it fell over while you were working on the conversion and had the strings off, it was too short and needs to be replaced with a longer one. This would also be a good time to look for loose ribs. If all is well, string it up, adding your new C string, and go do some fiddling.
                (Addition to Steve's reply) I heard from a man in Wisconsin today. He said that he bought a J S Kansas guitar in 1977. His is all solid wood and on the inside it says that it was made by Yamaki in Japan.

Steve Mason


Hi there.

I've been interested in the postings on your site regarding J.S.Kansas guitars, few as they may be. I've owned a J.S.Kansas D28S, serial #87706, since the mid-70's. It is a beautiful guitar with a solid cedar top, very high-quality tuning machines, and really nice inlays. I'm guessing this was/is a knock-off of a Martin D-28 and was the top-of-the-line model.

I have a 'fun' story regarding this guitar that I thought you may be interested in. I was about 20 years old and taught guitar lessons in my spare time. I bought all my equipment and supplies from Vavro Music Co in St. Paul. The owner was kind of a gambler at heart but a really nice guy. I walked in the door one day and saw this beautiful guitar hanging on the wall. I pulled it down and strummed a few chords and was immediately enthralled by the tone. I'd played most every guitar brand and this off-brand guitar sounded every bit as good as guitars costing many hundreds of dollars more. The price tag said $1100 which was a bit out of my 'normal' range. Other J.S.Kansas models sold for between $75 and $300. I know because Ron (the owner) had one of each hanging on the wall. So I knew that this D28S model had to be better quality.

Ron could tell I really liked the guitar and made me a "deal". I usually would receive a 25% discount anyway, but this one time he offered to 'gamble' with me. He brought out a deck of cards and we cut the deck. If I won I'd get the guitar, and a nice case, for half price. If he won I'd pay full price. This is not a good gamble as you know, but I was kinda dumb back then and he knew I really loved the guitar. Long story short, I won! The look on his face told the story. He immediately turned around and grabbed a $35 etched leather strap off the rack and said "Let's go double or nothing on this strap". A smart man would've walked away at that point, but something in me actually felt guilty for winning the guitar at half price, so I agreed. And I won again! I walked out the door with the D28S and a beautiful strap, plus a really nice case, for $550. Ron was kind of a nice shade of white. The other guy working there followed me out the door, congratulated me, and said that Ron really didn't like to lose. It didn't seem to affect our relationship though.

I still have the guitar, case, and that wonderful leather strap. I've added a KS-Western sound system to it and my wife plays it all the time, both here and when we gig in the area. It still looks, sounds, and plays wonderfully. I've never heard of another one of these D28S guitars; I've often wondered how many are out there with the J.S.Kansas branding. I figure they couldn't have made many of these higher-priced models.

Anyway, that's my story. If you hear from others who have J.S.Kansas guitars, I'd be interested in talking to them.