For Shawn, the Restless Biologist, and Eric: The REAL Ultimate Classic Banjo...???

On this rainy Saturday, I've been mounting the neck back on a Gibson Bowtie after a lot of heel surgery while listening to Alex Magee's cut of "Jolly Darkies" which has been on repeat for about an hour and a half (I like Vess's playing a bit better on brown wax, but Alex's minor part is just great), and maybe it was all the mahogany dust and opining the fact that I can't make the ABF Rally (again) next week, but I realized this may be of interest to some.

Keep in mind, the guys and I were cussing and discussing this banjo under Gad Robinson's 2nd floor teaching studio (by the way Jody, Robinson's, though metallic don't sound metallic....they sound more like Fred Van Eps if he played a Gibson Mastertone flathead) on Boylston standing around beside the street car bench (we of course let the ladies sit on the bench while waiting...that' me in the bolar crossing the street early to meet the guys...some of the guys are still in the Tremont Spa) just over from Tremont and Court Streets (where some...ah...OTHER banjos were made), and the consensus was that Alex didn't really like this banjo very much, and when he did actually play it, he removed the resonator as in the 1927 Gibson catalog picture of him with it (don't ask me how the guys knew this 30 years earlier, but that's another story).

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Either way, it's good to see it back stateside again after 20 years in a 2,000 page Japanese book.

Being local, I may find some time and run over and play it just to experience it, though my money as it relates to my ears may or may not be better spent on 3 of George's Van Eps banjos.

Shawn, I bet you could trade an Electric #5 and 2 WL #7's for this......

Anyway, here it is:

http://guitars.com/inventory/ja6451-1925-gibson-custom-rbc-4-cutaway

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Joel and I were emailing about Gibson banjo possibilities for classic banjo, and after a failed trial 20 years ago with a Kel Kroydon, an SS Stewart tailpiece, and some cheap fishing line, I think I'm due to try a more serious round of tests in the new year with this concept.

In the meantime, this one surely is one (a Classic classic Gibson banjo).

Travel safe to the Rally, folks....if I can find a working cassette deck during the Rally, I'll be with you in spirit as I listen to a tape of one of Alex's workshops at an ABF Rally from the late '40's.

Best Regards,

Chris

The first thing that comes to mind is that the comment addressed to "Jody" might really be addressed to Joel.

The next thing that comes to mind is that I have a metal bodied banjo made by (or for) Joseph Daniels and it also does not sound metallic. It sounds like a cylinder recording of a banjo.

http://classic-banjo.ning.com/video/a-banjo-revel

The next thing that comes to mind is that this Gibson must have the world's most expensive cutaway! 

The last thing that comes to mind is that I have and play a 1926 RB 4 (TB 4 conversion to five string) ball bearing , 60 hole tone ring Gibson banjo and I think it might make a wonderful classic banjo. I use it mostly for bluegrass and with metal strings. It records like a dream. With a tight fiberskyn head, a Huber bridge, and light gauge strings this banjo is soooo sweet toned. When it comes time to change the strings I will try an interim set of nylon strings and a two footed bride and report back here!

Hi Jody!  

You may not remember, but in a post where John (the Restless Biologist) was asking about different banjos, metal rimmed banjos came up and you said metal rimmed banjos sounded...."metallic".....

I was just referring to that post, as when I read it, I thought of Robinson banjos, which I dearly love.  They are metal rims with a Special Electric style scalloped ring on top.

So, it was indeed addressed to you....in a good way!

I agree....especially on ball bearing Gibsons.....though I have not experienced one with gut/nylon.

Here is a recent video of 5 Gibson Banjos (all pre WW2) I restored/refurbished recently that show all the major tonering types...original to each banjo other than one conversion ring banjo thrown in for comparison....most were shocked at what a hoop, raised head, and ball bearing can really sound like restored and set up properly, which I find to SELDOM be the case:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovfiyOPEvPI

I agree with your take on the ball bearing banjos, Jody.

Alex's banjo in theory is a ball bearing, but being a 12" rim, I wonder.  Gibson made a 12" raised head model, but with the head removed, it's clear that it is not their standard cast raised head ring as on the 11" banjos.....so I wonder what the Alex banjo really has under the hood....I bet it really is a ball bearing, though (it would be much easier to tool up for a 12" BB than a 12" cast raised head since they were already doing the flanges and hoops, and the BB ring is really just basically a heavy flange tube and some soldering work)..

Chris

To bad about those wire strings.  I guess that is the only way to sell it.  $25K?  I guess the G word is worth that, but not the name Magee.

It's quirkiness might devalue it or at least destroy it's relevancy to a market that wants to turn it into a copy of Earl's banjo.

I've not heard Ossman or Van Eps play J.D..  I've borrowed Alex's opening (sounds a little Spanish) but dropped the chromatic runs.  I worked them out but they always felt forced when I played them.

In that recording he adds an entirely different piece that sounds familiar (or maybe it just sound like any of the hundreds of the short pieces from tutors) anyone know what it is?

I think the ABF library has Magee's MS with the minor strain.

Hi Chris!

I was probably thinking of a metal bodied Ludwig tenor I had. It did have a metallic sound. I watched your vintage banjo "shootout".  For my taste the first one, the model 1, without a tone ring,  is the winner. The RB 6 in the duet later on was surprisingly quiet but had a good sound I thought. It might be the runner up if it were in the lineup.

Chris Cioffi said:

Hi Jody!  

You may not remember, but in a post where John (the Restless Biologist) was asking about different banjos, metal rimmed banjos came up and you said metal rimmed banjos sounded...."metallic".....

I was just referring to that post, as when I read it, I thought of Robinson banjos, which I dearly love.  They are metal rims with a Special Electric style scalloped ring on top.

So, it was indeed addressed to you....in a good way!

I agree....especially on ball bearing Gibsons.....though I have not experienced one with gut/nylon.

Here is a recent video of 5 Gibson Banjos (all pre WW2) I restored/refurbished recently that show all the major tonering types...original to each banjo other than one conversion ring banjo thrown in for comparison....most were shocked at what a hoop, raised head, and ball bearing can really sound like restored and set up properly, which I find to SELDOM be the case:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovfiyOPEvPI

I agree with your take on the ball bearing banjos, Jody.

Alex's banjo in theory is a ball bearing, but being a 12" rim, I wonder.  Gibson made a 12" raised head model, but with the head removed, it's clear that it is not their standard cast raised head ring as on the 11" banjos.....so I wonder what the Alex banjo really has under the hood....I bet it really is a ball bearing, though (it would be much easier to tool up for a 12" BB than a 12" cast raised head since they were already doing the flanges and hoops, and the BB ring is really just basically a heavy flange tube and some soldering work)..

Chris

Hi Joel,

Wasn't this banjo was built to have wire strings? Or was it a custom banjo made for AM?  Anyway with a 12 inch pot no one is likely to expect it to sound like a banjo of Earl's. It's really a pity that so few ball bearing banjos remain un-vandalized. Most have been converted to take a flat head tone ring. The ball bearing banjos varied some in their sound. Some could be over-sharp sounding but many were very sweet and melodious sounding with proper setup. 

Joel Hooks said:

To bad about those wire strings.  I guess that is the only way to sell it.  $25K?  I guess the G word is worth that, but not the name Magee.

It's quirkiness might devalue it or at least destroy it's relevancy to a market that wants to turn it into a copy of Earl's banjo.

Might be one of the only banjos Gibson made that was specific to gut (I am presuming it was made for AM as his name is in the block, it seems to be a one of a kind, it uses the early 9th position marking and he is pictured in a promo catalog photo carrying it).

I was making a joke about the conversion fetish.  I think in this case everything about this banjo that is unique makes it worth less.  $25,000US seems more like a "I really don't want to sell this" price.

Hi Joel-I don't know what "MS" is?  I'm assuming it's a tune?

At some point when I go through all my recordings, I will try to get you transcriptions of JD...the both I have I mentioned.

It's a great tune...that one, Coon Band Contest, Happy Days In Dixie, and a few others sound like they could have been bluegrass banjo tunes 50 years "too early".

On the ball bearings, Jody, I find them to be very varied...some of them are just horrible, and some are so sweet and wonderful it's amazing.

Most have been ruined by plugging the spring holes, adding wood to the circumference, and then being fit for Earl's wedding ring.

To my ears after working on a few hundred if not over a thousand prewar Gibson banjos, only about 10% of the ball bearings sound "OK" ( and I mean marginally ok) with the conversion to Earl's "wedding ring".  I worked on one where the owner and I made a flathead tonering to slip on the original rim with no modifications to the original rim....it was made out of a "secret alloy"....it was/is BY FAR the best sounding ball bearing conversion I every played....and will stand with many original flathead Gibsons.  But it is the exception.

Generally, altering/converting them is just about a total waste as a good ball bearing is a good banjo as is if assembled and set up properly.  But most bluegrass folks can't stomach the image thing about a stock ball bearing...no matter how good it actually sounds.

The Alex Magee Gibson was I think Gibson's attempt at cracking the five string market with endorsees.  Alex endorsed it and I assume gave them his parameters for what he wanted in his signature model, muck like Dave Macon.....some of Dave's Gibsons are very unlike any others....one even has a "bulb" heel and rim stick.

The AM banjo may have wire on it now, but I'm sure Alex didn't play it with wire.

Values on these types of banjos is so weird....I think the price indicates the seeking of the one "right" buyer who may or may not be out there at that price.

I personally would love to have it, but  not for anywhere near that price.

For example...that's about the price of the flathead style 6 in my video...give or take.

I was in conversation with a dealer recently who sought my advice on his purchase of an original RB-3 five string ball bearing Gibson....those used to "bring" between $10 and 18k, but now, the market is so odd that I think it would be a chancy purchase at wholesale around $5-7...and that's a standard "bluegrass" model.

So the original five string does at value, as does the idiosyncratic nature of it, and to folks like us, "celebrity" value....but not to the level of the asking price, in my opinion.

And Jody, yes the hoop TB-1 was a hit....it's absolutely fantastic, and if you are secure in your masculinity and don't need to have a "ring like Earl" as a pacifier for your mind, it's an incredible banjo.

That might be my first serious Gibson classic attempt/test....another TB-1 like that one.  I have one one serial lot number previous to the one in the video that I may try classic first to see what it will do.

Basically, the construction of those pots is similar to a lower grade Bacon (Senorita, Special, etc....) and Frank Bradbury played a Bacon Special No. 2 in later years (pictured in his Mel Bay books), so theoretically, it *should* be a decent/good banjo set up classic.  We'll see in '16 sometime.

Chris

"MS" has become a shorthand on the classic banjo site for "manuscript."

Gotcha, Joel.

Yes, this banjo was made as an endorsement model specifically for Alex.

He is pictured with it in the 1927 Gibson banjo catalog, with resonator removed and Alex is wearing a Tux.

I don't have a scan of the pic, or I'd upload it.

Alex must have physically been a big fellow, as with the banjo being a 12" pot, this banjo even looks regular or smaller in size with him holding it in the pictures.

Yeah, maybe..."I really don't want to sell this" price...kind of like Bernunsio has done for about 15 years on and off with a couple of Unger's banjos.

I guess dealers are not immune from the narcissistic/marketing approach of "hey....look at what I got"....LOL

Chris

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