Gibson Grenada Five-string

Gibson Grenada Five-string
This 1930 Gibson Granada five-string banjo bears serial number 9530-1 and is one the most-pristine known pre-war five-string Granadas and ranks with the most-soughtafter vintage guitars. Photos: William Ritter. Instrument courtesy of George Gruhn.
The Gibson Granada five-string banjo is primarily known for being played by Earl Scruggs, who had an enormous impact on the sound and style of bluegrass music after joining Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in late 1945.

The Granada was first issued in 1925 with a ball-bearing style tone ring and two-piece flange. Though it was not the most expensive banjo in the Gibson line, it had a figured-maple neck, Brazilian rosewood fingerboard, laminated/figured-maple resonator, three-piece maple rim, engraved armrest, tension hoop, tailpiece, and gold-plated hardware that in 1930 pushed its list price to $200 – as much as Martin’s D-45.

By the late ’20s/early ’30s – the height of The Great Depression, prior to the advent of bluegrass – the demand for five-string banjos was very limited, while tenor and plectrum banjos were popular with Dixieland and jazz players who typically had a higher income than country players. As a result, banjos like the Granada sometimes sat for years at the factory before being shipped.

Beginning in early 1927, Gibson gave the Granada raised-head tone rings without holes (the 40-hole head was introduced later that year). Even after the flathead tone ring and one-piece flange were introduced in late ’29, the majority of tenor and plectrum Granadas were still made with 40-hole/raised-head tone rings. With the introduction of the one-piece flange, the peghead of the Granada was changed from Gibson’s “fiddle shape” to the “double-cut,” and its “hearts and flowers” inlay was augmented with the “flying eagle” option.

The Granada combined many features and appointments that have always appealed to bluegrass players, and is simple and tasteful compared to the ornately decorated/carved and painted upper end of Gibson’s Mastertone line of the ’30s – the Bella Voce, Florentine, and All American.

Flathead/one-piece-flange Granadas are fine instruments, unsurpassed by any banjo made before or after World War II. They’re also scarcer than many highly collectible guitars such as the pre-war D-45, Gibson Les Paul Standards from ’59, and the earliest Gibson Flying Vs and Explorers – and it resides in the same price range. Gibson’s one-piece flange is made of pot metal, a zinc alloy that over time can become brittle. And while the flange would have been far better were it made of brass, banjos with it produce the sound associated most closely with Scruggs and bluegrass, and bring the highest prices. Today, 13 of the 16 Granadas made from 1929 to ’37 with a flathead tone ring and one-piece flange are known to be in the possession of collectors and musicians.

In 1930, Gibson produced five Granadas in the work-order batch from which this one originates – all had five strings with the exception of one plectrum banjo (an original Granada flathead/one-piece-flange plectrum or tenor banjo today sells for $100,000 or more, even without its original neck). One from this batch was played by J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, another was purchased by Scott Wiseman, who performed as part of the duo Lula Belle and Scotty. Scruggs used his (work-order number 9584-3) through most of his career, and over the years it underwent several modifications, including five different necks, the last of which was made by Greg Rich at Gibson in the mid ’80s. By the time Scruggs passed away in 2012, its flange, tension hoop, brackets, and tuners had all been replaced while its tone ring, wood rim, and resonator remained original (though the latter was refinished).

The scarcity of the flathead tone ring/one-piece-flange Granada, combined with its popularity today, inspired several builders to produce copies – including Gibson, which made replicas from 1986 until the company recently discontinued banjo production.

This Granada, with work-order number 9530-1, was shipped to Charles Music Company on July 9, 1936, then returned a few weeks later, presumably because it didn’t sell. On October 6, 1936, it was shipped to musical-instrument distributor Francis, Day and Hunter, of London, at which time it was stamped “Made in the USA” on the back of its peghead, as was typical of Gibson exports during this period. Shortly thereafter, it was purchased by a Scottish family for a daughter whose initials were added in a circular pearl inlay on the back of the headstock (almost certainly done by the dealer rather than at the factory). It went mostly unplayed until 1987, when Gruhn Guitars acquired it from the family in Glasgow, Scotland. It recently re-entered the market and was sold to a collector in the U.S.


This article originally appeared in VG July 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.