The Lore and Legend of the Gibson Mastertone Banjo

Somewhere around 1870, a young farm boy by the name of Orville Gibson moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan and started making mandolins as a hobby. Those early designs and patents became what is today still the international standard for mandolin construction. Somewhere along the line, some of the guys who worked for him thought they'd have a hand at banjo making, and met with some degree of success. Today, an original 5 string neck Gibson Mastertone from the "Golden Years" (1918 to about 1938) can sell for literally hundreds of thousands of dollars.
 
What makes this banjo so successful? Why did the literally hundreds of other banjo designs present in the late 1800s not succeed where these did? The answer is not easily understood. I mean, sure, the tone of these banjos is superb, but so is the tone from some old Bacon Days and Orpheums. Here's my opinion: In December of 1945, a young man by the name of Bill Monroe was in need of a new banjo player to replace Stringbean Akeman who was leaving the band. A young man by the name of Earl Scruggs was recommended to him. When the two met, the heavens must have opened, and choirs of angels must have sung. It is my view that bluegrass music was born on that moment, at least in that it was on the verge of becoming what we really recognize as bluegrass today. Guess what kind of banjo Earl was playing.

Did Earl play Gibsons because they were head and shoulders above the other banjos? Well, I'm sure given some of the beautiful old Mastertones he's played over the years, he thought so, but the real point is that bluegrass IS what Monroe did, and banjo IS what Scruggs did for Monroe (before starting up with Lester Flatt), and Mastertone IS the banjo that he's always played. In fact, most banjo players today play almost exactly like Earl Scruggs, from the type of picks he uses to the style of playing to the particular type of Mastertone banjo he plays (flathead tone ring, one piece flange).

Today, Gibson continues to manufacture great banjos in their Mastertone line, many of them copies, or re-issues of some of those glorious banjos from the 20s and 30s. Perhaps the centerpiece of the bluegrass banjo universe, the "holy grail" of banjos is the Gibson Granada circa 1934 that Scruggs played for years. Almost all of his classic recordings were made on this banjo. It is one in a line of three consecutive serial number Gibson Granadas from a run in 1934. Sonny Osborne has the banjo two serial numbers away. The serial number in the middle has never been accounted for. I've heard reports that there is a standing offer of one million dollars for this banjo. Perhaps some day when you're passing a garage sale, an old black banjo case will beckon to you, you'll give some old widow 50 bucks for a tarnished, but gold, old banjo, and make history! 5

I have personally owned one pre-war Gibson, a 1927 TB-3, hearts and flowers, fiddle peg head, arch top, tube and plate (as opposed to one piece flange). A very nice 5 string neck had been made for this banjo, and I still had the original tenor neck. I paid 1,100 for it in 1981, and sold it for about 3 times that in 2004. It was an excellent example of how you can get a fantastic old Mastertone for not so much money if you are willing to buy "what Earl doesn't play", meaning an arch top (as opposed to flathead ring), a "tube and plate" flange (as opposed to a one-piece flange, which was actually a cheaper flange back then), and, the biggest determining factor, an original tenor (4 string) banjo. Had it been an original 5 string, it would be worth about 30-40 thousand dollars today. I have owned many banjos, including my current arch top Granada which is an awfully good banjo, but none of them have had the quality, power, clarity, crispness, sustain, "snap crackle and pop" of that banjo. The pre-war sound has to be experienced. It really can't be described in words. They return the energy put into  them so easily and so cleanly, good pickers will describe them as almost "playing themselves". The instrument does not fight your efforts to make music come out of it at all.

What makes these instruments different? There are so many theories it's almost pointless to list any of them. I've heard folk-myths that claimed that the tone rings were made from everything from used shell casings from WWI artillery pieces to old bells from churches that had been melted and poured into rings. It may simply be because they are so old. Someday, perhaps, some of the tone rings made today will have the same lore and mystique around them that the old PWs do.


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