Ca. 1928 Leedy Amphion

The Leedy brand name has a long and convoluted history going back over a century. It has undergone numerous changes of ownership, including several buyouts by companies that were formerly its closest rivals. Throughout its existence, the brand has been mostly associated with drums; its foray into banjos was brief, if expensive and ultimately disastrous to the company.

The Leedy Drum Company was founded in 1898 in Indianapolis, and it remained a highly successful operation for several decades. By the mid 1920s, the company’s leadership noticed the huge popularity of the tenor and plectrum banjo among contemporary jazz ensembles. Along with other drum makers such as Slingerland and Ludwig, Leedy spent massive amounts of capital tooling up to build banjos. Unfortunately, Leedy got on board the banjo train shortly before the instrument’s popularity started to wane, and the company was unable to recoup the money it spent on tooling. The company was in dire financial straits by 1929, when it was sold to the Conn company. Conn also purchased Ludwig shortly after, and within a few years it had discontinued the banjo lines of both brands.

Unlike most other builders of the day, the models in Leedy’s banjo line were nearly all the same in terms of construction. The lowest-level models, which were not cheap, employed the same methods of construction as the highest-level ones. The walnut rim was encased in a brass outer shell that doubled as the tone ring. The hoop was attached with a top-tension system. While this system could be temperamental to adjust, it allowed the head to be adjusted without removing the resonator. In the days when skin heads were the norm, this allowed players to make frequent adjustments on the fly.

The history of Leedy banjos is as difficult to piece together as it is short. It appears that the company introduced its first banjos – the Solo Tone line – in 1924 or 1925. These were fairly traditionally decorated with pearl inlays in ebony fretboards and headstocks. The brass rims and hoops were engraved; some were plated in nickel or gold, but some were left unplated depending on the model. A few rims were finished in black. Resonators were sometimes left as bare wood (usually walnut to match the necks) or, probably later, covered with pyralin veneers. The highest-end models featured carved heels.

Advertisements from mid 1926 announced a new line of Leedy banjos, to which my Amphion belongs. These new models featured the same construction and most of the same hardware as the Solo-Tones (which appear to have been discontinued around this point) but the decoration was largely revamped. The new lineup made extensive use of plastic veneers, some with pearloid finishes and some with embedded sparkles. Most of these plastic surfaces showed some degree of engraved decoration, darkened with ink to make it visible. The expensive “National” line (including the Egyptian, Grecian and Hollander models) had resonator engravings and heel carvings depicting stereotypical scenes from their namesake countries.

The Amphion model was somewhere in the middle of this line, with a list price of $200 for a tenor, plectrum or 5-string. The brass rim was left bare but the rest of the hardware is plated in gold. The fretboard, headstock face and resonator are covered in gold-sparkle plastic, and the clash of colors is remarkable when juxtaposed against the brass and gold hardware. The resonator and arm rest have restrained geometric patterns, while the headstock and fretboard show somewhat more complex designs. The heel has a light carving vaguely resembling feathers.

The multi-piece laminations in the neck and the geared Grover tuners assure tuning stability, and the adjustable-angle tailpiece allows a degree of control over the tone and volume of the instrument with a single quick adjustment. There is a mute activated by a push-pull lever below the tailpiece; it is of Leedy’s own design, and it works reasonably well. Leedy also designed the neck adjustment system that allows the neck to pivot around a brass pin with the turn of a tuning wrench.

This banjo is in excellent condition and entirely original. The sound is clear, somewhat dry and extraordinarily loud, which allows the banjo to excel with low tunings and light strings. Oddly, there is a fret marker at the 14th fret rather than the 15th, which is occasionally confusing for the player. The only other Leedy I have seen with this anomaly is another Amphion, so I suspect that the fretboards were produced in batches and one mistake was allowed to propogate. The catalog picture shows a marker at the 15th fret. The checkered binding also camouflages the side dots, which may have been added later anyway.