While five-string banjos are far more popular today than any other style, during the height of the Dixieland Era of the 1920s, when Gibson introduced its famous Mastertone banjos, four-string tenor and plectrum models were in far greater demand.
Five-string banjos were popular from the 1850s until shortly after the turn of the century, when mandolin orchestras achieved prominence and the banjo went into relative eclipse. Banjo regained great popularity starting in the late teens and peaking in the 1920s with the advent of Dixieland music. Banjo manufacturers concentrated on tenor and plectrum models to satisfy this market, but they continued to make five-string banjos to satisfy the old-style players, and offered neck options. Since a banjo’s parts can be mixed and matched (almost like Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters), it’s possible to offer a body with different necks. Gibson offered tenor, plectrum, mandolin, five-string, six-string guitar, four-string cello, and ukulele banjos. Ukulele-banjos featured downsized bodies, but the other instruments were offered with standard Gibson banjo bodies with necks that were essentially interchangeable.
Gibson first offered Mastertone banjos in 1925. They were a significant advance, far more suited for Dixieland music than previous Gibsons with the hinged “trap door” resonator. While Mastertones had many innovative features, companies such as Paramount, Bacon and Day, and Vega had beaten Gibson to the punch by introducing high-grade Dixieland-style banjos with relatively modern construction as early as 1921. The Gibson Mastertone, to a large extent, was modeled after Paramount banjos. The peghead shape of the Mastertone tenor, plectrum, and five-string models was copied from the Paramount design, with the exception of the upper tip. The resonator was also very similar. The early ball-bearing-style Gibson tone rings used on the Mastertones of 1925 and ’26 were similar in appearance to the Paramount, but were quite different, structurally. The flange also looked similar to the Paramount design, but was structurally different.
By 1927, Gibson switched to a solid raised-head tone ring rather than a tubular tone ring with ball bearings, and by the end of ’27 the tone ring was drilled with 40 holes. The two-piece tube and plate flange connecting the rim to the resonator was used until the early ’30s on many Mastertones, though the modern one-piece flange was introduced on some models in late ’29, then gradually introduced to the line thereafter. Models using ball bearings featured a tension hoop to hold down the head with a groove running the circumference of the hoop, and had flattened “cobra head” bracket hooks to fit into the hoop. By 1927, the more standard modern rounded brackets were utilized with a notched tension hoop. The modern-style/flat head tone rings were introduced in the early ’30s but were not standard until the introduction of the top-tension Mastertones in ’37.
Over the years, Gibson has made dozens of Mastertone variations. The flat head, one-piece flange models are greatly soughtafter by bluegrass players. Original flat-head five-string Mastertones are on par in value with pre-World War II Martins and sunburst Les Paul Standards of the late ’50s.
The GB-3 banjo shown here has construction typical of 1929 Mastertones, with the exception of the grooved tension hoop and flattened brackets used on earlier ball bearing models. This was done to accommodate the wider spacing of the six-string neck, which necessitated moving the brackets on either side of the neck further apart than on a four- or five-string banjo. As a result, the notched tension hoop used on the standard models would have to have been specially made for a guitar-banjo, whereas the grooved earlier-style hoop would accommodate the wider spacing of the bracket placement with no difficulty.
As is typical of the GB-3 model of the ’20s, this banjo features a maple neck and maple resonator with a red mahogany stain, ebony fingerboard, two-piece flange, 3?4″ three-ply maple rim, and nickel-plated hardware. The tailpiece is a special six-string guitar-banjo design. The guitar-banjos featured a standard Gibson guitar-shaped peghead rather than the Mastertone banjo peghead used on tenor, plectrum, and five-string models. The tuners are standard banjo pegs rather than guitar-style.
It should be noted that at this time in Gibson’s history, banjo-style pegs were available as an option on many standard guitars. Interestingly, the company inlaid the GB-3 guitar-banjos with a simpler pearl pattern in the neck than other style 3-series banjos. The peghead features “The Gibson” script inlay and the fingerboard has simple dots and a pearl block at the end, engraved with “Mastertone.” Other style 3 banjos of the ’20s, such as the tenor, plectrum, five-string, cello, and ukulele models, featured diamond shaped fingerboard and peghead inlays in a more elaborate pattern than seen on the GB-3 model.
The less elaborate GB-1 and the GB-3 were featured in the Gibson catalog, but it offered any neck style on any model. I have encountered one ultra deluxe Bella Voce mandolin-banjo and gold-plated Mastertone Granada guitar-banjos, including one with Granada specifications and a six-string neck with the elaborate Bella Voce inlay. I have not encountered any records to indicate how many guitar-banjos were made by Gibson, but they are certainly far more rare than the other variations with the exception of cello-banjos, which are exceedingly scarce after the Mastertones were introduced. Most Gibson cello-banjos were made from 1920 through ’24 and do not have Mastertone specifications.
Gibson guitar-banjos are of fine quality and are notably different in sound from a standard guitar banjo. The Reverend Gary Davis played a guitar-banjo in addition to his better-known Gibson J-200 and found it quite suited to some of his music. And Gibson was not alone in manufacturing guitar-banjos in the 1920s and ’30s; Vega, Paramount, Epiphone, and Bacon & Day all made them as a sideline.
A six-string guitar-banjo in the hands of a skilled player has sound that rivals a good resonator guitar. It is not simply a banjo for guitar players who are too lazy to learn a new instrument.
Photo courtesy of George Gruhn.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.