1920s May Bell Style B

 

The early years of May Bell banjos are something of an enigma. Although Slingerland definitely printed banjo catalogs in the 1920s – they were mentioned in magazine articles at the time – today, all the surviving company literature is from the 1930s. Those same magazine articles indicate that Slingerland introduced its subsidiary brand in 1923; it’s possible that the name was initially intended to represent the newer, up-to-date style of banjo in the same way that Lange introduced the Paramount brand. Piecing together the May Bell story from surviving instruments makes a couple of things clear: Slingerland changed its instruments frequently, and they probably built a large number of one-off instruments.

The initial lineup included the Styles A and B in descending order of price. The Style A often featured gold hardware while the B made do with nickel and less-fancy fret markers. Both were usually built out of birdseye maple (a favorite material of Slingerland’s) but can also be found with plainer wood under a mahogany stain. Both normally featured a large decal over the back of the resonator with one of several floral patterns. However, none of these descriptions are universal: the three models were often indistinguishable save for the headstock markings.

Some examples of these models are simply unique. The Style B pictured above is structurally identical to its mid-‘20s brethren, with a 23” scale, geared tuners and the simple tone ring that was employed before Slingerland adopted the “donut” style ring later in the decade. However, this banjo’s aesthetics are unlike any other Slingerland banjo I have seen. Instead of gleaming maple, the instrument is finished entirely in black. Contrasting diamonds of pearloid are inlaid into the back of the resonator, and a large block of pearloid is inlaid into the arm rest – incidentally, the only wooden arm rest I’ve seen on a Slingerland. The resonator, rim and neck are bound in contrasting black and white celluloid, and the pattern is even repeated at the edges of the ebony fretboard. The fret markers are also unique as Slingerlands go, though not a world away from the markers found on other models. The hardware is fairly conventional, with geared Grover tuners, a Presto tailpiece, and Slingerland’s typical mid-’20s flange and rim construction.

This particular banjo may be a custom order, or it may be a factory prototype. Many custom Slingerland banjos have their owners’ names engraved on the arm rest; the pearloid block on this arm rest may have been intended as a place to engrave initials or a name. Most custom Slingerlands are modified examples of higher-end models; while it is not always easy to find two Style Bs exactly alike, it is rather unusual to find one that is totally unique.

 

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