1920s May Bell DeLuxe

Slingerland built banjos for a wide range of prices, but the large majority were in the middle of the line. Countless catalogs and stores sold Slingerlands under their own brands – or often no brand at all – but they were generally a step up in quality, sound and price from the other Chicago mass-producers of the 1920s and 1930s, if still not on par with the finest from Vega or Bacon. Today, they remain attractive to players but still affordable due to their ubiquity.

However, unlike their competitors Harmony, Regal or Stromberg-Voisinet, Slingerland occasionally turned out a banjo fit for a professional. This was no mean feat in the 1920s, when it required developing an excellent tone ring construction as well as adorning the instrument with copious quantities of flash. Slingerland offered several models above the $100 mark, all with gold plating and lots of inlay or (later) engraved celluloid veneers. All of these were produced in relatively small numbers and remain rare today compared with the countless lower-priced models on the vintage market.

Slingerland used the May Bell name on most of these higher-end banjos but made no secret of who built them. The two brands were used somewhat interchangeably; Slingerland was used predominantly for some models and May Bell for others, but the logic behind the choices is not obvious. The top-of-the-line Troubadour is typically branded Slingerland, while the next highest model, the DeLuxe, is typically found with the May Bell name. This particular banjo is unusual in not featuring either brand on the headstock, but the May Bell name is engraved into the hand rest.

Aside from the headstock inlay, this DeLuxe does conform to catalogs from the 1930s. However, it lacks Slingerland’s “donut” tone ring that usually graces the company’s upper-end models. It features a different design that I suspect is older, which leads me to think that this is a particularly early May Bell. The brand itself was created in 1923, and the “donut” ring was being used on some models by 1924 at the latest, so this banjo is probably not younger than the mid-1920s. Later catalogs list the DeLuxe available in nickel or gold plate, while early ones list it in “clear gold” and “matte gold”. I have not been able to determine the difference between these two styles of plating. The hardware on this banjo was all plated in some kind of gold, but most of it has worn off to reveal the nickel strike underneath.

Although not as ornate and expensive as the Troubadour, “DeLuxe” was still a fitting name for this model. The banjo was constructed entirely of rosewood, with inlaid marquetry all over the neck and resonator and engraving on the flange, tone hoop, and hand rest.  The peacock inlaid into the headstock is accompanied by various pearl birds marking the frets. The Oettinger tailpiece – another indicator that this is an early May Bell – was an expensive feature in the 1920s. This banjo is original except for the head and bridge.