Ca. 1927 Leedy Apollo

In the days when catalog distribution accounted for a large proportion of instrument sales, a normal marketing tactic was to offer instruments at every price possible. If customers couldn’t see the instruments in person before buying, they would at least know exactly what they could afford to spend – and the catalog would offer exactly the instrument for them. Thus, one 1915 distributor was not unusual in listing twenty-eight different guitars between $3.38 and $33.00. Things changed somewhat by the late 1920s as the higher end of the market was gradually taken over by a few well-known brands with their own factories, but there was still a push to offer popular instruments at a variety of prices.

This was something of a problem for Leedy, who used the exact same design and hardware for every banjo they ever built. Their top-tension design certainly sounded excellent, but the high cost of production meant that economy of scale was critical; there was no question of investing more money in a cheaper method of construction for the less expensive models. Interestingly, Leedy did not even vary the construction of the neck between models; all had the same three-piece center stripe regardless of the type of wood used. The rims were also built the same way across all models.

To build banjos at a variety of prices, therefore, Leedy choose to offer unique visual schemes for each model. The affordable Collegian model was dressed in relatively drab brown veneers with nickel hardware (though the odd gold-plated example does show up), while the top-of-the-line “National” series had flashy veneers that were engraved, inked and painted superbly. In the middle were the $125 Senator with its contrasting silver sparkle veneers and gold hardware, and the $200 Amphion with its gold sparkles and engraved fret markers. Between them at $150 lay the Apollo, probably one of Leedy’s most popular models judging by the number that survive.

The Apollo employed contrasting veneers of ivory and grey pearl on the fretboard, peghead, hand rest, and resonator back. It lacked the carved heel of the Amphion, but it was a more complex pattern than the Senator. The grey pearl fret markers look deceptively like real mother of pearl, at least from a distance. Interestingly, the hand rest and resonator can be found either with the grey base seen on my banjo or with the ivory base shown in the catalog. In either guise, the hardware was plated in what Leedy called “the famous Nobby Gold”, and the rim and tension hoop were engraved for additional decoration. The result was a banjo that could easily compete visually with other banjos at the same price point, such as the Gibson TB-4, the Epiphone Recording Artist, and the Vega Professional. The Apollo could also compete sonically, as its tremendous volume came with a sweet, rounded tone.

 

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