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Gibson Banjo Estate Sale Find

Updated on March 28, 2017
Fiddleman profile image

I am Robert Elias Ballard, married to Pearlie Jane (PJ) for 45 years on November 24, 2017. We live in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

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.

Gibson RB250 flathead-Me and my son


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    • Fiddleman profile image

      Robert Elias Ballard 5 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

      Good morning jo miller, thank you for reading and making a comment on my hub.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 5 months ago from Tennessee

      What a wonderful story you tell here. I know little about playing the banjo, but I know about estate sales and making wonderful finds. I also think I have one of those old Earl Scruggs banjo playing books around my house someplace.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 6 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Robert,

      Good to hear you how great you so easy play so much you play.

      I wish that there was an easy way to play the guitar without so much practice without hours to play.

      Can you elaborate?

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 6 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Robert,

      Your scales are very precise and very sharp.

      Thanks so very much how pleasant in your notes make in your fingerboard.

      I know that it takes a lot of practice if takes so much.

      Do you know how it can easy it takes so much I can

      play a few songs for you?

      Just asking.

      Please keep on keeping on keeping more playing.

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 6 months ago from Southern Georgia

      I'm familiar with the story of the Civil War fiddle eulogy, Robert. Like you, I have Civil war veterans on both sides of the family with my dad's grandfather being on the honor guard for Lee at Appomattox. He was murdered in the Okefenokee along with his brother after the war ended. If you're interested the hub is in the slider on my profile page. I'm sure we'll talk again soon. :)

    • Fiddleman profile image

      Robert Elias Ballard 6 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

      Good morning Randy,I will definitely by looking up and reading your hub, I love fiddle and have been playing for about 20 years now. I bought a Civil War CD at Mast General Store some years ago. It had about 12 tunes on it and the liner notes gave some incredible information about each tune, One was There is a Fountain, an old gospel tune we have sung in church since I was a kid. The story was about how there were so many fiddle players on both sides during the war ho played fiddle. A measure of revival had swept the country and a soldier was going to be baptized where there was encampments in Virginia and a truce was made so some could be baptized. No shots would be fired during the baptism and the song was played by one of the soldiers who had a fiddle. The story gave me chills. I have ancestors who fought on both sides, one switched after the Laurel Massacre in Madison County and fled with others to Knoxville to join the Union Army. I think it was the enlistment bonus that enticed desertion and he was never in a battle. Thanks for your friendship.

    • Fiddleman profile image

      Robert Elias Ballard 6 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

      Good morning Kenneth, I found one of the best ways to learn is to find an informal jam and take your instrument. You need to know your chords or at least the basic 3 or 4 within a key. I grew up going to and listening to family play music. My son Gary is blind and alway had an interest in playing mandolin. I taught him to play Banks of the Ohio when he was in high school. Gary was also born with a deltoid little finger which made it hard for him to use even after it was removed by an orthopedic surgeon, his little finger on his left hand is crooked and stiff. His determination and practice has payed off and he can play the mandolin with anybody, He is also a great guitar player and has perfect rhythm.I found you on social media FB and sent you a friend request,

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 6 months ago from Southern Georgia

      Robert, you may find this hub interesting. My cousin plays a fiddle carried into battle in the Civil War by my Great-Grandfather. Said cousin also played 8 shows a day at the Worlds Fair in Tennessee.

      You can find it on my profile page as "Rosin In The Blood."

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 6 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Robert,

      Great to meet and getting to know you, your hub work and music.

      Self-taught is one thing, but I have worked and worked on learning how to pick guitar (I can strum) since that time I wrote about when I worked in the textile industry in my hometown.

      I cannot get the hang of just sitting down and picking out tunes like those I know do it easy as drinking water.

      But I am not giving up. Any tips?

      Oh, and thanks for the following. I will send you a personal

      thank you email in a few days.

      Again, thanks for the great hub and your friendship.

    • Fiddleman profile image

      Robert Elias Ballard 6 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

      Howdy Randy, Foggy Mountain Breakdown is epic and I once saw Charlie Waller and the Country Gentleman stand in such a way each member could play or chord each other's instruments. They didn't miss a note! Thanks for stopping in to read and comment. Keep that 5 string hot!

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 6 months ago from Southern Georgia

      Hey Robert, enjoyed the read and am jealous of your find. Even though I played rock & roll for many years for extra money--drums, guitar, and bass--the most enjoyable instrument to play is the 5 string banjo.

      My parents gave me one for Xmas when I was 19 and I began learning from a Pete Seeger book. I hose "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" as my first tune. I figured it had all of the main finger moves and it did. Like you, I struggled with the tabs until one day it hit me and I never looked back.

      My old banjo is now 58 yrs. old and still sounds good. I have no idea where it was made.

    • Fiddleman profile image

      Robert Elias Ballard 6 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

      Howdy Kenneth, I self taught myself to play guitar,banjo,fiddle and mandolin and my son and I have a little band,Gary Ballard and The Cabin Creek Review. We have a few videos on YouTube under Robert Ballard. Appreciate you reading and commenting and I was not aware of copyright and hubs. Will look into that.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 6 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hello, Robert,

      Surprise! I thought that I would pay you a visit for your visiting my hub about textile work.

      And man, am I glad that I did. I love banjo music and you are talking about the "cream of the crop" with this particular banjo.

      I loved and enjoyed this work.

      Just a suggestion, but did you not active your copyright and author biography on this hub?

      Honored to meet and follow you.

      P.S. my dad was a musician over the course of his interesting life. He was a self-taught fiddler and loved the fiddler's conventions--especially the one held each (first weekend in) October at Athens (Alabama) State College. It is named

      The Mid-South Old Time Fiddlers Convention and he got

      to play on stage at this event. I was with him and would not

      take gold bars for the memories.