Ca. 1927 Leedy Special Tenor Banjo

Assembly-line production was the rage in the first decades of the 20th century; not only did it make manufacturing more efficient, but the accompanying mechanization was seen as a boon to consistency. Nonetheless, most instrument manufacturers retained the “custom shop” mentality of previous eras. It was not uncommon for retailers to order batches of instruments bearing their store’s name on the headstock, and it was not uncommon for individual players to request personalized decorations or substitutions of features. Well into the 1960s, major guitar brands offered custom finishes not documented in catalogs and even tenor versions of 6-string models. Since banjos were often given the most flamboyant decorations that their creators could devise, they proved to be a popular substrate for customizations as well. Carvings, inlays, engravings and even rhinestones were employed in attempts to give players the most distinctive tools that could attract attention from the back of a dance hall.

At its core, this Leedy tenor is constructed like all its contemporaries from the Indianapolis factory: a walnut rim inside a brass outer shell with a top-tension system. At first glance it strongly resembles the Arcadian model, but on further inspection a few discrepancies become apparent. The neck is made of holly instead of walnut, an interesting but not unprecedented choice. The heel is not just carved but painted, something usually reserved for only the highest-priced models. The headstock engraving does not say “Arcadian” up top, just the brand name. The resonator has been engraved with stylized initials, apparently “GM”; this, in particular, suggests that the banjo was a custom order and not just a factory experiment. Like the standard Arcadian, this banjo’s engravings are inked in two colors; like other surviving examples, the colors are difficult to distinguish even close up. Assuming that they match the painted heel, the ink was probably a vibrant red and green when first applied.

The banjo is mostly original, though a few parts have been lost or retired: one of the lugs snapped, the armrest is missing and the tailpiece cover is a replacement. Still, the banjo is entirely functional and very playable due to some recent fret work. The tuners are original Weymann geared pegs; though it seems odd that Leedy would use a competitor’s parts, these tuners appear on a few of their banjos. This banjo sports Leedy’s own mute, though it is a cruder mechanism than the one on my Amphion. The extensive use of Pyralin veneers indicates that it post-dates the Solo Tone series, so it was probably built around 1927. The Arcadian model was catalogued at $350, so it’s safe to assume this banjo sold somewhere in the same ballpark when new.