1923 Gibson TB-5

Gibson’s early banjos were odd, experimental designs. The first models were announced in 1918 and shipped the following year, with early versions sporting such unusual features as hollow rims, guitar-type tuners and adjustable “trap door” resonators. As with their innovative carved-top mandolins and guitars, Gibson seemed intent on creating something unique in the world of banjos. Unfortunately, new designs by Bacon, Vega and Paramount in the early 1920s left Gibson’s banjos looking and sounding out of date, with fewer frets, lower volume and a mellower tone. Over the course of 1925-6, Gibson updated their banjos with more modern features including a full resonator, longer necks and adjustable truss rods.

If the early models were less than ideal for the popular music of the 1920s, they nonetheless remain excellent for less raucous styles such as folk. The extra-large necks give them a unique feel that disappeared when profiles were slimmed down with the introduction of truss rods. The trap door resonator, which can be held open or closed by means of an internal clip, makes a substantial difference in sound between the two positions. If Gibson banjos from this era remain relatively inexpensive, it is largely because they cannot achieve the “classic” bluegrass sound with a 5-string conversion neck.

Gibson’s first banjos were named simply the TB, MB, GB and CB: tenor, mandolin, guitar and cello banjos. Plectrum banjos were not offered until 1925, when major changes in rim, neck and resonator construction began to appear. The original line quickly transformed into the style 4 series with a change to the headstock shape, and the styles 1, 2 and 3 appeared perhaps by the end of 1919. The style 5 was introduced in 1920 and was only catalogued as a tenor model. Its construction was essentially identical to the TB-4 but with gold-plated hardware and more ornate decoration. The examples had wooden dowels but by 1921 these had been exchanged for coordinator rods. At some point, this model – like others of its era – was offered with a dish-shaped Pyralin resonator instead of the trap door.

Gibson introduced a new tone ring in March, 1923 called Mastertone construction in catalogs, even though today the term connotes a slightly later style of Gibson banjo. Notably, the new ring rested on ball bearings; the minimal contact between the ring and the bearings allowed the ring to vibrate freely, giving the banjo considerably more volume. However, the short scale length and small resonator still didn’t give them the same cutting power as the competition. In fact, in a year when most other high-end banjo builders offered 23” necks as standard, Gibson offered a “long” 21” neck on the TB-5 as an option; this example has the even-shorter 19” scale that came standard. At least the standard neck came with an extended fretboard and 10 additional frets, which probably appealed to those tenor players who had crossed over from the mandolin.

Generally, Gibson trap door banjos are far from rare, but the TB-5 is one of the less frequently-seen models. Within a couple years of its introduction, players looking for a high-end banjo were more likely to be drawn to the early Silver Bell, Vegaphone or Paramount models. The surprising thing is that this antiquated model was produced for so long during an era when major advances occurred in banjo design almost every year. Still, as early tenors go, it has a traditionally handsome appearance and a pleasant tone. This particular example sports a replacement (but period-correct) tailpiece and arm rest, and some of the neck binding has been replaced; the rest of the hardware is original.