At the dawn of electrical amplification, no one knew where the new technology would take stringed instruments (or keyboard instruments, for that matter). As the electric Hawaiian guitar caught on and changed the sound of Hawaiian music, instrument makers realized that the future of electric instruments was wide open and unpredictable, and they covered their bets by developing electric versions of every instrument – guitars, mandolins, violins, basses and banjos.
The instrument shown here, which dates from 1937, was Gibson’s first electric banjo, and Gibson enhanced its chances for success by enlisting the endorsement of one of the biggest instrumental stars of the era – Roy Smeck.
Smeck, known to millions of Americans in the 1920s and ’30s as The Wizard of the Strings, has been shortchanged in guitar history for several reasons. Although he was a virtuoso on ukulele, guitar, tenor banjo, and Hawaiian guitar, he came up in vaudeville as a novelty act. He didn’t sing, so he highlighted his performance with musical gags, such as tapping on his ukulele to re-create the sound of one of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s dance routines, as well as visual gags, such as tossing his uke around and playing it upside down. He was probably the most successful endorser of musical instruments prior to Les Paul, but his best-known models were the novelty Vita-ukes of the 1930s, a budget-line Recording King lap steel from Montgomery Ward (made by Gibson) and cheap Harmony electric Hawaiians of the ’50s. He did have a pair of Gibson signature models in the mid ’30s, but both were acoustic Hawaiians, introduced at a time when most Hawaiian-style players – including Smeck himself – were going electric. If his name is familiar to music fans, it’s probably from “That Old Beat-up Guitar,” a 1970s Jerry Jeff Walker song that immortalizes a Gibson Roy Smeck Stage Deluxe.
By all rights, Smeck should be better-known than he is today. For starters, he was the first music video star. He filmed “Stringed Harmony” for DeForest Phonofilm in 1923, using DeForest’s groundbreaking but poor quality sound-on-film technology. Three years later he made a film called “His Pastimes” for Vitaphone using the sound-on-disc system (which synchronized a disk with a film projector). He played Hawaiian guitar, banjo, ukulele and harmonica, and the seven-minute performance made him a star. His most impressive video came in 1933, when he appeared in a Paramount short with split screens featuring Smeck playing four instruments together, thereby laying the foundation for sound-on-sound and multi-track recording.
The Smeck electric banjo has the familiar “Charlie Christian” pickup of early Gibson electric guitars, but it has a U-shaped magnet rather than the double-bar configuration of the early models. According to research by historian Lynn Wheelwright, this banjo predates the appearance of this type of pickup in Gibson’s electric Hawaiian models by four or five months. (The horseshoe magnet was never used in mandolins, electric Spanish guitars or in subsequent electric banjos.) The pickup is also height-adjustable by way of a lever system – a feature not found on any Gibson electric before or since. The white/blond finish may have been specified by Smeck, whose later special-order lap steels had a similar light finish.
Although Gibson would later ship lap steels directly to Smeck, presumably for his students, this banjo was not sent to him. Instead, it went to Gibson salesman Lanky Neal on November 16, 1937, and was noted in the ledger book as “Elect. T.B. white Roy Smeck engraved.” There is no record of what Lanky did with it, but the banjo was apparently well-enough received for Gibson to put a model into production. However the ETB-150 (and EPB-150 plectrum and ERB-150 five-string) differed significantly from the Smeck prototype. First of all, there was no endorsement. Smeck was still in Gibson’s good graces, so the reason is unknown. But there’s a memo from 1936 telling Gibson reps to avoid referring to the new, as-yet-unnamed banjos (the top-tension models) as the Harry Reser model; perhaps a Smeck model would have adversely effected Gibson’s relationship with Reser, who was as prominent a banjo player as Smeck. Or perhaps Smeck simply decided he wasn’t interested in playing an electric banjo.
In construction, the ETB-150 was designed on the same general concept as the Smeck, with a wood top rather than the skin head of an acoustic banjo. The production model did not have the flange and resonator of the Smeck, but those two parts were purely ornamental on the Smeck. The production version had a screwed-on back, just as the EH-150 Hawaiian models of the same era did.
Gibson’s top-tension banjos – with head-tension adjustment accessible from the top of the banjo – debuted in ’37, and not surprisingly, the Smeck shares some of the new features introduced with those models. The peghead is the same shape. The slotted-bowtie fingerboard inlay is the same as the TB-7 top-tension model. And the fancy, engraved, gold-plated armrest is the same as that of TB-18. The peghead shape and fingerboard inlay would carry over to the production electric banjos.
Like the electric guitar – Spanish or Hawaiian – Gibson’s electric banjo sounded fundamentally different from its acoustic counterpart. The Smeck, with its wooden top, has as much or more sustain than any electric archtop guitar, which is a great deal more sustain than any acoustic banjo, and it sounds and plays more like an ES-150 (Gibson’s electric Spanish model) than like an amplified banjo. But where Hawaiian players immediately adapted their music to the amplified version of their instrument, and Spanish players developed new styles of music for the electric guitar, tenor banjo players for the most part had no use for an electric instrument. With the tenor banjo going out of style, a tenor banjoist who did want to go electric could get the same functionality, along with a more modern image, with an electric tenor guitar. As it turned out, it didn’t really matter, as tenor guitarists, too, rejected electric instruments. Gibson sold a respectable 43 electric tenor banjos in 1938, which would be more than half of the total production of 85 ETBs from 1938 to ’41 (electric five-strings and plectrum banjos accounted for an additional 22 units). Gibson’s electric tenor guitar, the EST-150 or ETG-150, was introduced a year earlier, and through 1941, the company sold a total of 96 units.
The Smeck was intended to create a grand entrance for a new kind of tenor banjo. But as it turned out, it marked the beginning of a quiet exit for Gibson’s tenor guitars, as well as tenor banjos.
For a glimpse of the Roy Smeck in action, check out his Vitaphone and Paramount videos on you tube.com.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s December 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.