1930s May Bell Recording Master

For a company that once boasted the highest production of any banjo manufacturer, Slingerland remains something of an enigma. The company was founded in 1912, but in its early years it focused primarily on teaching materials and selling other manufacturers’ instruments. By the turn of the 1920s it was producing banjos both under the Slingerland name and for other brands. Two significant events bolstered the company’s fortunes in 1923: it purchased its own factory building, and it inaugurated the May Bell brand name.

It’s not entirely clear why the new brand was created, especially since it was so closely associated with Slingerland’s own name. Banjos appear with both “Slingerland” and “May Bell” on the dowel and even together on the headstock. The two brands were featured in the same catalogs and advertisements, and on occasion were used interchangeably (a nominal Slingerland model might say May Bell on the headstock or vice versa). The cheapest instruments in the lineup were typically May Bells, though there was little obvious reasoning behind the branding of the rest of the line. There was even some confusion over how the brand was punctuated: “May Bell”, “May-Bell” and “Maybell” all occur in company literature and trade magazine articles.

While a partial list of models can be reconstructed from catalogs and other sources, the total sum of Slingerland’s surviving documentation from the 1920s and 1930s is small enough that many instruments remain hard to pin down. This banjo is a prime example. The headstock describes it as a Recording Master, which has been seen on multiple guitars but possibly only one other surviving banjo. The Recording Master guitars appear to be direct counterparts of the Recording Songster banjos – which do appear in catalogs – but both those guitars and banjos seem to be of a lower level of decoration than my banjo. Those instruments were covered in green and white pearloid (and occasionally a pinkish coral color on the banjos) and featured engraved decoration and nickel hardware. They lack the additional painted decoration on my banjo’s fretboard, headstock and resonator.

However, 1930s Slingerland catalogs note that the Recording Songster banjos were available with gold plated hardware (which upped the price from $80 to $140). I have not been able to find a single example of a Recording Songster with gold plating, but I have to wonder if the upgraded version is in fact my Recording Master banjo. The hand-painted decoration might explain why Slingerland would list a 75% increase in price for what is catalogued as just a difference in plate. The change in name is harder to understand, and the possibility remains that this was a model available only on special order. It could also be a high-priced, low-production model that was documented in a catalog now lost to time.

The Recording Master banjo features a gold sparkle finish over ever surface except the fretboard and headstock, which are covered in white pearloid. The one other example I have read about – but not seen – has the two-humped tailpiece usually seen on higher-level May Bells, so it’s possible that my banjo has a replacement tailpiece. If so, it still appears to be from the same period. The hole in the back of the resonator is to allow activation of the internal mute, which was available on all upper-level Slingerland banjos for an extra $5 but I have only seen it on the Recording models. Except for some minor playwear, this banjo is in exceptional condition.