1920s Bruno Commander De Luxe


Catalog-based distributors generally purchased their instruments wholesale from whichever manufacturer offered them the nicest product at a particular price point. Often, this meant buying from one of the big Chicago factories, mainly Harmony, Kay and Regal. However, for the NYC-based catalogs, the logistics sometimes made it more profitable to order from a local factory. As a result, catalogs such as Henry Stadlmair and Buegeleisen & Jacobson frequently obtained their higher-end banjos from Lange or Puntolillo, whose workshops may well have been within walking distance of the distributors’ offices.

As it grew from a small family workshop into a large manufacturing company, Epiphone happily provided a few banjos to local distributors. The Carl Fischer catalog carried at least one Epiphone-built model in the early 1930s – probably two, but only one is pictured. The pictured model is nearly identical to Epiphone’s own Mayfair model, their cheapest tenor/plectrum offering. Based on the price point, Fischer’s more expensive model was almost certainly a re-branded Epiphone Rialto. As was the norm at the time, Epiphone was not actually mentioned as the manufacturer and only Fischer’s name appeared on the headstock.

Epiphone also provided banjos to Fischer’s competitor across town, C. Bruno & Son. Bruno was one of the oldest and most well-established distributors in New York, if not the entire US, with a company history stretching back into the 1850s and a family connection to the business going back 20 years further. They were one of the biggest distributors of Orpheum banjos in the 1910s, and as sales of the tenor banjo blossomed in the late 1920s they continued to sell Lange-made banjos under their own Tempo Grande and Royal Artist lines. For whatever reason, these products were abruptly dropped in 1927 and replaced with the Epiphone-built Commander and Commander De Luxe.

Looking through the previous Bruno catalog, this change makes sense. The Tempo Grande banjos were already out of date in 1927, featuring open backs and friction tuners; at $70-110, they were expensive anachronisms. The Royal Artist line ($125-200) were much more up-to-date, but still expensive enough that they probably received few orders. While I have not been able to find the original price of the Commander series, comparison with other Epiphone-built banjos suggests that they sold in the $100-150 range. Given that Bruno now only featured two high-end banjo models, they could concentrate on the lower end of the line (which brought the most revenue).

Curiously, despite being introduced in 1927, this Commander De Luxe features a tone ring that Epiphone had already abandoned on its high-end models in favor of the more complex Recording series ring. Perhaps Epiphone was using up old parts, or perhaps they continued to manufacture this ring specially for these mid-priced, off-brand instruments. This early-style Epiphone ring appears to be influenced by Vega’s Tubaphone design, and it produces a similarly rich and warm sound. The rest of the banjo is basically a Rialto that has been given extra ornamentation. The hardware is all gold-plated (including the tailpiece, though most of its gold has worn off) and the fret marker pattern is apparently unique among Epiphone banjos. The entire banjo is made of mahogany, which was relatively inexpensive, but the neck has enough laminations to indicate that this was not a cheap build. The resonator also has checkered perfling inlayed into the side and back, plus a marine-themed decal in the center playing off the Commander name. This particular banjo is original except for the head and bridge.