1924 Bacon & Day Montana Special #1

Celebrity endorsements of musical instruments can go in unexpected directions. Sometimes they backfire and sell miserably due to the endorser’s lack of popularity, as happened with the Guild Bert Weedon model. Alternatively, they may take on a life of their own and become icons for a type of music never played by the endorser, as happened with the Les Paul Standard. Sometimes, when the stars align, they simply become popular with the intended audience, and it’s tough to say whether their popularity is due to the endorsement or to the instrument’s sound and design.

This last scenario applies to the Bacon Montana series. The original Silver Bell models were introduced in 1923, and sometime around the end of that year, Bacon introduced the Montana as the first of its regularly-catalogued “special” Silver Bell variations. While later models such as the Sultana and Serenader were created simply to provide variety in decoration, the Montana series were actually signature models much like Bacon’s Roy Smeck banjos. The endorser was a singing cowboy named Ray Coleman who was known to audiences by the mononym “Montana”.

Montana was a popular showman throughout the 1920s; he gave concerts, made appearances at music stores, and hosted banjo competitions, often in conjunction with his close friends at the Bacon company. He created a stage personality embodied by all-white garb, including an oversized hat and a pistol, and he played an open-backed plectrum banjo fitted with a dummy 5th string peg to look more “old-timey”. Fred Bacon and David Day designed the Montana series to mimic their endorser’s visual style by building it from pale holly wood and off-white Pyralin.

The Montana series – they were available in Silver Bell styles 1, 3 and 7 – went through several significant visual changes in the first year of production. Most had fret markers and headstock decorations that were engraved into the Pyralin and painted in dark red, a color scheme that would be settled for good in 1925. One exception is shown on this banjo, which probably dates to late 1924; it retains the off-white coloration, but contains actual pearl inlays copied from the standard Silver Bell Style 1. This produced an oddly low-contrast visual style, which was probably abandoned because it didn’t stand out as much from the far side of a concert hall. The most unusual feature of this style was the simple “Bacon” inlay on the headstock, which made no mention of the Silver Bell construction or of David Day, who designed it and was featured on most Silver Bell headstocks as half of “B&D”.

This banjo also has a few other features that are only found on early Silver Bells. The Waverly tuners – which were replaced not long after by planetary gears – are relatively rare, and the flange contains the “large hole” cutouts used before the introduction of f-holes by 1925. The tone ring has holes punched through the inside diameter, but the holes don’t go through the rim as they do on very early Silver Bells. The Oettinger tailpiece is probably original; while not catalogued by Bacon until late 1925, it first appeared on some Silver Bells in mid 1923.