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5-String Banjo & Rare Gibson Instruments
by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)
The Christmas Song
Five-String Banjo - Gibson Mastertone RB-250 with Bella Voce inlay,
Mandolin - Gibson F-4, 1907
Ukulele - Gibson Uke 3, ca. 1930
Tenor Lute - Gibson, 1924
This song which opens Volume 2 features most of my remaining Gibson instruments - many as unusual as those in Volume 1, and some, rarer! Our first featured instrument:
In Volume 1, we learned that the five-string banjo was scorned in the 1920s through 1940s in favor of the tenor "jazz-age" banjo (tenor and five-string banjos utilize completely different tunings and playing techniques). So, as you might expect, it's fairly easy to find vintage "pre-war" Gibson Mastertone tenor banjos, but nearly impossible to find an all-original vintage five-string (and if you did, you probably couldn't afford it). You should know that most of the "vintage" five-strings in use today are just old tenor "pots" (the round body section) with reproduction five-string necks - so they're half old and half fake. You or I might find this silly, but today's bluegrass players are very particular about their sound and this seems to mollify them. I'm an all-or-nothing sort of guy, and just wanted a slightly later original model. Unfortunately, when the five-string finally became popular in the 1950s and '60s, Gibson switched to a less appealing, guitar-shaped neck, so I had to get a 1970 model - the year they finally switched back to the classic Mastertone style.
In 1941 Gibson produced the first commercially available pedal steel guitar, the Electraharp. This is the 1950 version and nearly as rare. What they did was to take a regular electric Hawaiian (steel) guitar and attach to it a complex spring-loaded apparatus operated by foot pedals, with which to mechanically change the pitch of individual strings. The player can set each of the six pedals to raise any one of the eight strings up in pitch to another note value - one, two, or more, half-steps. Why? Well, remember that he's "stopping" the strings with a straight metal bar, which generally limits the type of chords available. But now, for example, he can change a minor chord into a major chord simply by stepping on a pedal, which raises the appropriate string a perfect half-step in pitch (from minor to major third). So not only does the bar slide up and down the strings, but additional notes "slide" further into new positions, creating that ultra-syrupy sound you hear in country bands.
Gibson's "Florentine" Style O Grand Concert guitar! I don't believe anyone has ever built a more distinctive (if slightly bizarre) six-string guitar. Introduced in 1908, it remained Gibson's top-of-the-line "Artist's Model" until 1923, when they came out with their acclaimed "f-hole" jazz guitars. Like all early Gibson guitars, it has a thick, wedge-shaped neck the size of a baseball bat.
Even more wonderful: Gibson's "Florentine 3-point" mandolin. Inventor Orville Gibson's original mandolin design evolved rapidly over the years and became the standard two-point mandolin by 1910. Compare this 1907 F-4 with the later F-4 in Gibson Mandolin Orchestra - the more obvious differences are the extra point on the left of the slightly longer body and the tortoise-shell pick guard inlaid into the carved top. The top-of-the-line F-4 then also featured an elaborate abalone and wire peghead inlay. Though extremely rare and beautiful, it's playability and acoustic properties are less desirable than the more common later version's, so it hasn't any greater monetary value.
Gibson's Style 3 ukulele was its fanciest model produced for just ten short years around 1930, and one of the few instruments able to compete with Martin's best instruments.
And lastly: Gibson's tenor lute from 1924 wins the award for "Most Useless Hybrid Instrument". You've seen a mandolin with the body of a banjo (Gibson Banjo Club) - well, this is a banjo with the body of a mandolin (no, it has nothing to do with a lute). Just as the tenor guitar was a means for a tenor banjo player to easily obtain a guitar sound, this was an attempt to allow that same banjo player to obtain a more mellow tone to blend with the mandolins in a mandolin orchestra (they should have just kicked the guy out of the group. What was he doing in a mandolin orchestra anyway?!). Now, believe it or not, a banjo with a wood body had been tried before by several others with little success (on my Volume 1, song #1), but this one was overseen by Gibson's resident genius, Lloyd Loar - generally regarded as the "god of luthiers." His instrument has the scale length, neck and tuning of a tenor banjo, on a mandola body. It also has the Loar-introduced "f-holes" (as opposed to circular sound hole) and the "Master Model" label, just like Loar's omnipotent F-5 mandolins. But there the resemblance ends. The wimpy tenor lute stands alone as the only instrument capable of simultaneously sounding unique and nondescript. But then, if I were trying to hide a banjo player in a mandolin orchestra, what more perfect instrument could I choose?