Welcome to The Banjo Philes, a website for the Twang-Tone-obsessed. In this space I share what I have learned about my favorite subject..... Banjos! Like so many others, I am fascinated by that illusive Gibson Mastertone sound that is associated with the rare pre-WWII flathead Mastertone banjos. All produced in the 1930's and early 1940's, these rare banjos were chosen by the pioneers of
bluegrass music in the late 1940's and 1950's, most likely due to the volume and growling tone they produce when used with the driving, 3-finger picking style. Ever since, the pre-war Gibson Flathead banjo has been THE axe of choice for the bluegrass banjo player.
It is my goal to provide a resource for people interested in
history of vintage banjos and also the re-creation of that desired "old" banjo tone, focusing on recordings of various banjos with different components and setups. There are numerous offerings in the marketplace today, all of which claim to be the secret to that "prewar" tone, driving the need for an objective source to sift through
all of the "snake oil" and "voo-doo" and hear for yourself!
Want to do a blind taste-test?
Think you can identify "Pre War"
tone? Take a listen on some sound
This is one of my favorites..... a 1934 PB3 Flathead
Mastertone. It sported it's original plectrum neck for 71
years.... here it is with a 5-string neck I finished for it, along with
an original 5-string presto tailpiece that I found on an old TB11.
Here are some more pics:
There is craftsman in the Czech Republic who is making some
incredible banjos in the same format as the vintage mastertone
banjos. His name is Jaroslav Prucha.
example of his work...
And... an RB-1
The Gibson Mastertones of the 1950's were constructed with about the same specifications and quality levels of the
1930's and 1940's. Unfortunately, they discontinued the Flat Head Tone Ring by the end of the 40's. The archtop ring
produced in the 1950's was the same dimension as the Pre-war version, but for some reason they drilled only 4 holes in
it. Check out the Bowtie Page:
Here is a sweet 1934 Granada Tenor from about 1934:
Many eyebrows take a slight upward tilt when someone mentions the possibility of a Prewar
Flathead tonering that has turned up without a banjo.... Well, here is the genuine article - a High
Profile, full weight, engraved and gold-plated pre-war flathead tone ring:
Update: Here is a Florentine Flat-head
Tone Ring: Flo Flat
New Gibson serial-number database information!
I have been collecting information on old Gibson banjos for about
and started loading it into a database bout 6 years a
go. Here is a compilation of what I have found. I
am attempting to include links to history and pictures of some of
the extra special entries. I hope you enjoy this information.
If you have corrections or additions, please
contribute by sending
me an email:
dan "at" banjophiles . com. (you'll have to type it out
with the @... trying to cut back the spam!)
If you have an old banjo and have questions about its history, I
would be happy to provide whatever information I can.
OK, so we all want that killer sound that Earl Scruggs, JD Crowe, Sonny Osborne, Don Reno, and Jim
Mills all get from their Pre War Mastertones. There are numerous manufacturers out there who each
claim to have "Cracked the Code" to the flathead tone rings of the 1930's and are willing to let you
have that sound that would otherwise cost $60,000 or more.... for a mere $250.00.... or up to $1,000.
Yes, that's just the tone ring... no banjo included! How will you know if you are getting your money's
worth? I have wondered about that, so much so that I am going ahead with a series of tests on just
about every available tone ring out there:
Have any comments, contributions, or questions?
Here are some pics of a minty Pre-War TB-1: