The Golden Years: 1918 to 1938
Gibson’s banjo models featured a robust series of changes in the design and implementation of tone-chambers, rims, flanges, resonator designs, platings, woods, bindings, marquetry, inlay, hardware, engravings,l and finishes.
Most all of the Gibson banjos were available in tenor banjo (TB), plectrum banjo (PB), guitar banjo (GB), mandolin banjo (MB), ukulele banjo (UB), and regular (5-string) banjo (RB) models. A few were available in a half-breed plectrum/tenor (PT) whose string scale was halfway between plectrum and tenor.
The following is a brief description of the changes made during Gibson’s 1918-1938 Golden Year era.
All American: A richly- decorated banjo model with a carved and colored eagle on the resonator back, and a three-dimensional eagle carved on the peghead. The fretboard was hand-painted with scenes depicting the development of American history. Gold-plated engraved hardware, pearloid fretboard, burl walnut and white holly woods.
Florentine: An elaborate instrument boasting Italian Renaissance motifs. The pearloid fretboard was hand painted with multi-colored scenes and the resonator back was carved and colored with a fancy crown-and-crest design. The peghead was veneered in pearloid, inlaid and bordered in colorful rhinestones. The hardware was gold-plated and richly engraved. Available in burl walnut, curly maple, Brazilian rosewood, or white holly woods. (Some had white-painted maple.)
Bella Voce: Similar to the Florentine model, except the Bella Voce featured a rosewood fretboard with mother-of-pearl inlays, and a lyre design carved and painted on the resonator back. The first models had an ebony-veneered peghead with two variations of elaborate mother-of-pearl inlays, later changed to the same peghead as the Florentine model. “fiddle” headstock.
Granada: The very first Granada model had a curly maple neck and resonator, with gold-plated, engraved, and burnished (dulled) hardware. The fretboards were Brazilian rosewood and the instrument was inlaid in the “hearts and flowers” design. The inlay pattern was changed to the “eagles” design when the “double-cut” headstock was introduced.
Style -75: This model was the top-of-the-line of the standard models during the latter part of the 20 Golden Years (other than the higher numbered top-tension models). It was constructed of Honduras mahogany, with a rosewood fretboard and rather plain inlay designs. The headstock was inlaid in a fancy, but not overly decorative motif; and the hardware was nickel plated.
Style -18: The best of the top-tension models. this instrument featured an arched (radiused) rosewood fretboard, large art-deco inlays, a new art-deco peghead design bound in white/black/white, and a carved (rather than laminated) heavy resonator whose outer surface was turtle-shell shaped. The top-tension model was the first official announcement of the flattop tone chamber design (although it was previously available on special order). Hardware was gold-plated and engraved, and the neck and resonator wood was curly maple. The resonator on top-tension models was machine carved from a solid piece of wood, instead of being laminated as on other models. The extra bulk, of hardware, plus the solid resonator made this model the heaviest of the Gibson banjo line (which served to provide great power). Tuning pegs had a large squarish housing which reflected the designs of the art-deco period.
Style -12: The middle of the top-tension models. Virtually the same as the style -18 except the style 12 was chrome plated, not engraved, and featured black walnut as a neck and resonator wood. The instrument was finished in a dark sunburst with dark regions around the outside back of the resonator, at the neck heel, and at the back of the peghead. Most of the top-tension models had three-digit serial numbers.
Style -11: A lower-priced standard model with pearloid fretboard, peghead, and resonator back all of which were silk screened in a multi-colored floral motif. Hardware was nickel-plated. This model had a 1/4″ brass rod as a “tone chamber” rather than the cast tone on better models. Some versions had necks that were painted royal blue.
Style -7: The bottom of the top-tension line. This style was made of plain maple and finished in dark brown. The hardware was nickel-plated and the inlay design was similar to the “bowtie” pattern used in the style -250 banjos of the late ’50s (although the style-7 had several slots cut into the sides of each inlay piece).
Style -6: This banjo was a handsome combination of curly maple woods and flashy binding. The first models boasted black and white checkerboard-like binding. A variation of the style was introduced as the PT, an instrument with gold-speckled binding and a string scale length halfway between that of tenor and plectrum. After the PT’s short tenure (two years of production), several style-6 banjos were made with the same gold-speckled binding. The style -6 had hearts and flowers inlays, rosewood (later ebony) fretboards, gold-plated and engraved hardware, and a yellow-orange finish called “Argentine Grey.”
Style -5: The style -5 was available in two distinct models. First as one of the early “trap-door” and Pyralin resonator banjos. The tone chamber at that time was the plain ball-bearing type. Fretboard inlay pattern was a fancy floral pattern, and the hardware was gold-plated. In 1925 with the introduction of the spring-loaded ball-bearing tone chamber, this style was introduced with a full resonator, “wreath” inlay design, gold-plated and engraved hardware, figured walnut neck and resonator wood, ivroid binding, wood-inlay marquetry on the back of the peghead, and fancy purfling.
Style -4: This style was the top of the standard (not engraved, carved, or gold-plated) line. The first version, introduced in 1923, featured silver plating, ebony fretboard with pearl dots, curly maple neck wood, and Pyralin resonator. In 1925 it featured a Honduras mahogany neck and resonator, nickel-plated hardware, Brazilian rosewood fretboard, hearts-and-flowers inlay design, and white/black/white binding. In 1929, the style -4 was changed to the same “eagles” inlay pattern as the Granada of that period. The wood was changed to burl walnut, and the plating changed to chrome.
Style -3: The first style -3 was introduced in 1923 and boasted nickel plating, an ebony fretboard with dot inlays, and plain maple neck wood. In 1925 the style -3 featured “snowflake” inlays, nickel plating, plain maple neck and resonator wood, and was finished in a dark-reddish brown mahogany color. In 1929, the inlay was changed to large, fancy designs. In 1937, a variation of this style became the style -75 (see above).
Style -2: The 1920 version had dot inlays, an ebony fretboard, and no resonator. In 1925 it featured a full resonator, shoes with a wavy-shaped flange, simple inlay designs, rosewood fretboard, and an amber-brown finish. In 1926, the openings in the flange were changed to diamond-shaped. The versions after 1930 had one-piece flanges, silk screened decorations, walnut resonators, and pearloid fretboards.
Style -1: This banjo was introduced in 1922 with nickel plating, an ebony fretboard with pearl dots, and a “trap door” resonator. In 1925 the fretboard was changed to rosewood with fancy inlay shapes, the resonator was deleted, and a 10-1/2″ head was featured. In 1926, the style changed to a full-resonator model with shoes-and-plate flange and an 11″ head. In 1930 it further changed to a dark mahogany (stain over maple) finish, and “bat” inlays, In 1936 the inlay pattern changed again to simple dots.
Style -0: The style -0 was introduced in 1925 with an “ebonized maple” fretboard, dot inlays, no resonator, and a 10-1/2″ head. In 1926 it was changed to an 11″ head. The finish during both years as an antique mahogany stain over maple.
Style -00: This was the bottom of the line when it was introduced in 1935, it was made with a rosewood fretboard, dot inlays, nickel plating, white binding, and plain maple wood finished in a light walnut stain. This instrument had a round rod (rather than cast) tone chamber and a one-piece cast flange.