How to Build a Pre War Conversion Banjo
With a Minimum of Expense
The Unsung Glory of the Ball Bearing Mastertones®
The Mastertone® banjo has gone through many different manifestations in its history since the middle 1920's. One of the earliest marketed versions of the Mastertone® was the famous, or perhaps, notorious, ball bearing mastertone®.
By the time Gibson began marketing the Mastertone® line of instruments, tone rings were commonplace in professional level instruments. The Ball Bearing instruments differed from the others by having a tone ring that was mounted on ball bearings which sat upon heavy steel springs and washers. Most modern banjo players believe that the purpose of these springs was to maintain a constant tension on the old fashioned skin banjo heads that were in use until the late 1950's. While this is one of the benefits of the ball bearing system, it is not actually mentioned in the patent papers. The purpose of the ball bearing system was to allow the tone ring to vibrate more than other tone rings.
The ball bearing system was produced from late 1925 until early 1927. According to my friend Mike Longworth, the system was discontinued because Vega felt that it infringed upon one of their patents. Mike got this information from Bill Nelson who was the owners of Vega when Martin acquired the company. Ironically, this move led to the changes that ultimately caused Gibson to design the banjos that came to dominate the bluegrass industry.
The ball bearing banjos can be tricky to set up, if you try to "bully" the banjo into submission; however, if you let the ball bearings and springs do their job, the banjo can produce a very sweet, clear tone over the entire range of the fingerboard. Some people find that if you play both bluegrass and clawhammer, and can only afford one banjo, a ball bearing Mastertone® is a good choice.
The overwhelming majority of these instruments were tenor banjos. There were also many plectrum banjos produced in this series. They are pretty much the “Model T” of the Gibson line -- especially the TB-3. I have owned several of these instruments.
At the time that I am writing this page -- February of 2002 -- it is possible to find these instruments in a price range from about $800 - $1200. (see below)
Conversion necks are available from many sources in a price range of $500 - $750. For sources for necks, check my at luthiers page.
If you decide that you want to do a conversion of a ball bearing TB-3 or any other ball bearing banjo to a 5-string banjo, here are some suggestions.
1) Save all the hardware.
2) Keep the neck.
3) Don't change anything you don't have to.
4) When removing the lag bolts from the old neck, make sure that the lower lag bolt has threads on the part that goes into the heelpiece. Some of these were hooks. Trying to unscrew a hook produces great frustration, a loud cracking sound, and either a broken screw or a broken neck. Neither of these is a good thing! In other words, if it is a hook, leave it in the neck, and use a new lag bolt on your conversion neck. Remember, the next owner may prefer a tenor or a plectrum instrument.
And there is one final suggestion that I will give you. If you are a bluegrass banjo player, you probably prefer the flathead sound. First Quality Musical Supplies manufactures and sells a drop-in conversion ring for the 1926 model ball bearing banjo. It is AWESOME! It is not listed in their 2001 catalog; however, it is listed in their 2000 catalog as “Sullivan Conversion -- Ball Bearing to Flathead,” catalog number 3 for nickel plated, 3G for gold plated.The price is reasonable. It will also fit some 1925 model instruments, although it might require a tiny bit of modification to make it fit properly. I strongy advise against modification, because it can decrease the value of the instrument.
I recently had one of these banjos made for me. I purchased a 1925 ball bearing Granada DeLuxe banjo from a friend in Tennessee. Randy Broyles at First Quality Musical Supplies made the new neck for it, and they installed the gold plated conversion tone ring in it. It is a delightful banjo to play and to listen to. For pictures of it click here.
If you are able to purchase a ball bearing tenor banjo for $1000, a neck for $750, and you add the conversion tone ring, you will have a pre-war 5-string flathead Mastertone® banjo for less than $2000. If you visit most vintage instrument web sites, you will find that archtop tenor banjos from the pre-war period generally start at $2500 and go all the way through the roof!
So, consider taking advantage of this little-known way of obtaining a really good sounding banjo for much less than the cost of a new one!
A Strange Development
Since I first posted this page, an interesting occurence has taken place. On April 14, 2002, a 1926 Model 5 ball-bearing rim, serial number 8251-14, with no resonator or neck, sold on eBay for $2550. The hooks were quite rusty, and the finish was quite badly damaged. The decal was badly scratched; however, there was no doubt in my mind, looking at the pictures of this rim, that it was authentic. This is quite a bit of money for an orphan rim. However, the winner certainly got an interesting item to build a banjo from.
How Quickly Things Change!
When I first composed this page in February of 2002, it was still possible to purchase a ball-bearing banjo for $800 - $1200. I fear those days are gone. Now the prices of these banjos have almost doubled. Pre-war banjo mania has raised the price of ALL pre-war Gibson banjos. Banjos that were obtainable 2 years ago for $3000 - $4000 are now considerably more expensive. Congratulations to all of you who were able to get in on the ground floor of this craze. If you want to get rid of your banjos, you know where to reach me!