Gibson Banjo Estate Sale Find
1930 Studio King Gibson Banjo
Prewar flathead banjo and a raised head
Gibson prewar arch top
Doug Dillard playing a Gibson arch top
Gibson Prewar Banjo
I have always loved stringed music and began playing guitar when I was in high school. My friends and I started a band and began to sing in area churches. We weren't all that good but the novelty of high school boys playing and singing gospel music was something almost unheard of in the mid to late 1960s with so many other teens playing folk, country, rock and roll or top 40 music. I soon left this band and formed my own gospel band and the original band that I first played began to play country music.
After high school I joined the USAF and didn't play any music for over 4 years. When I was discharged, I bought an old Gibson Country Western guitar that had been taken in on a used car trade at my cousin's business. It was a 1955 model and needed a complete overhaul including new tuning machines, a neck set and some fret work. My wife then bought me a new Gibson guitar. It was a Model J50 and by far the best guitar I had ever owned. I gave the Country Western to my brother in law and he kept it until his death.
When my brother in law passed from a brain tumor his wife sent me the guitar back. I then was able to have the neck set,new tuners installed and a new nut and saddle installed. The guitar came back to its original glory and I sold it to a Superintendent of Education in Ohio on ebay. The cost to repair and upgrade ran over $800 but I almost doubled my investment when it sold.
I worked evenings at GE and a couple of my friends had just become interested in playing the banjo. They were meeting on Saturday mornings and watching a PBS television station out of Georgia that was giving banjo lessons. The lessons were based on the banjo playing style of the phenomenal Earl Scruggs and it wasn't long before they had mastered Cripple Creek. The banjo bug hit me!
I found a cheap banjo and bought myself one of those Earl Scruggs instructional books to self teach myself to play banjo. This became my banjo bible and I learned basic rolls (forward, reverse and alternating thumb patterns) done with the right hand. Pull offs and push offs, and choking the strings and other ornamental embellishments to enhance certain tunes were done with the left hand.
For the next few months I think I tortured everyone in our house practicing on my banjo. I would drive to work and listen to bluegrass stations on the radio in my truck. Oftentimes I would hear Raymond Fairchild playing a tune he made famous, Whoa Mule Whoa. Every note was lightning fast and clear as a bell. I also loved Earl Scruggs and Don Reno. Each had their own style of playing the 5 string banjo. I bought their records to listen and hopefully learn some of their techniques. As time past I also discovered Jens Kruger and J D Crowe, two of the best ever banjo players.
Another friend of mine and co-worker at General Electric was also a banjo player and he would always bring up in our conversations the term prewar Gibsons and the sound unique often ascribed to those instruments. I ask him to explain prewar sound and he told me I would just have to listen to some of those youtube videos where a prewar banjo could be heard. Basically, prewar banjos were those built prior to WWII especially from 1929 through the early 1940's. These banjos had a wonderful tone and have become much in demand by collectors and musicians alike. Recently while reading a bluegrass magazine I learned prewar Gibson components were actually installed on their banjos up to the early 1950's. With the flooding in Nashville some years ago Gibson has not produced any new banjos but have plans to begin production again at some time in the future.
Gibson has always been the premier banjo builder but in recent years, Deering,Huber,Sullivan and Stelling have appeared on the scene with high quality instruments. Tennessee Crafters,Gold tone and Recording King have also become popular. Ode banjo was built in Colorado and transitioned to Baldwin and now sold under Ome Banjos. These banjos are also very good quality.
I presently own three banjos and when my brother in law called me to tell me about an estate sale that had fiddles and banjos, my ears perked up. I told him I don't need any more instruments, fiddles or banjos. The morning of the estate sale I had to take my grandsons to their elementary school and since the sale started at 9 am, I decided to just run by for a quick look not even anticipating purchasings anything,
I arrived at the sale to find the usual large crowd waiting for the doors to be opened. I saw a fellow whom I knew also had an interest in musical instruments and thought to myself, well I guess he is here to buy the banjos in this sale. He owns a resale shop so it wouldn't have surprised me if he did not have that in mind.
Much to my surprise, he only casually looked at the instruments leaving me to examine all of them. There were four banjos, a Recording King, a Huber, a Deering Goodtime and one in a case that was not open. I unsnapped the case on that banjo and immediately saw the Hearts and Flowers inlay pattern on the neck and Mastertone, the dead giveaway for a Gibson. It was confirmed by the logo on the headstock. My heart began to race and I ask, "What is the price on this Gibson?" The lady conducting the estate sale told me all the instruments had just been appraised at a local music store and she would get the appraisal sheet and check.
She soon came back carrying the appraisal report in her hand and showed me the price was $3495. I knew by having the banjo appraised, the asking price was in the ballpark of a retail sale. I told her I was sure the banjo was worth that price but would she be open to an offer. "What would be your offer?" she said. Oh, Would you consider $2000? She grimaced but didn't appear offended and replied, "How about $2300? I did not hesitate and told her I would take the banjo at that price.
When I arrived home, I removed the resonator and found the serial number on the banjo pot which was also written on the inside of the resonator, 9616-18. I knew it must be old and sent the serial number to a friend of mine who knows Gibson banjos. He immediately sent me a text and ask if I was sitting down. Yes I am I replied. He then told me he thought it might be a prewar Gibson. I couldn't believe my ears and began to do further research on my own. I belong to Banjo Hangout and knew there was a distinct possibility the banjo in my possession could very well have been previously listed.
It did not take but a few clicks and there it was with all its history. I was even able to verify the estate owner who had also been a member of Banjo Hangout. I contacted the seller who buys and sells many banjos and he vaguely remembered the banjo and how it had been acquired by him. I thought how cool is this to have a banjo and know its history.
As I said earlier Gibson banjos have always been at the top. In recent years many of the older Gibson tenor banjos have been converted to the 5 string model and many of the Gibson banjos have undergone transitions and are known as composite banjos. They still have the Gibson logo but may have a Huber tone ring or some other tweaks to modify the banjo from its original construction at the Gibson factory.
I did further research using the web and actually found the banjo that I had purchased. This is the advertisement on Banjo Vault when the banjo was advertised for sale and sold possibly to the owner of the estate where I found it, the following pargraph is the ad as it appeared in Banjo Vault.
I had listed this banjo about a year ago for 4999.00. Had a lot of interest, but no one showed me the money. The price has been lowered well over 1300 dollars. Original 40 hole archtop studio king banjo by Gibson. The tenor neck is not available, never had it. Five string neck by Robin Smith. Absolutely beautiful wood, I would call this banjo somewhat of a cross between a style 3 and a style 4 gibson banjo. mahogany resonator w/ purfling rings. "Hex" style flange plate, two piece flange. Schaller tuners I believe. It has a modern presto on it. Spikes at A, B, and C. Snuffy bridge, Remo Head. Ser #/Batch/FON 9616-18. Will include a nice five string case. To me this banjo sounds more like a flathead than an archtop. This is likely to be the last revision/price reduction, and listing of this banjo. Can't give em' away....
Needless to say, I was as happy as a kid on Christmas morning with my 1930 Gibson banjo. The original neck was replaced with the Hearts and Flowers custom built neck which only enhances playability with a radiused fingerboard. In my research I learned 185 of these banjos were produced by Gibson and sold as Studio King banjos within the Montgomery Ward stores.
This model as most of the early Gibsons has a archtop head. There is much discussion in the banjo world about flathead banjos and arch tops which tend to have more of a tenor pitch with less bass. It really all boils down to the picker and what sounds he wants to hear when playing. Of course the sound of the banjo can be affected by several factors including head tightness and the thickness of the bridge.