1930s Mor-Tone Tenor Banjo


I sometimes wonder about the ratio of brand names to actual manufacturers in past decades; from the 1910s through World War II, in particular, it must have been a very high number. Internet forums abound with posts asking who actually made various instruments, and there is even a book covering nothing but Gibson products bearing other names (which I highly recommend). Chasing an instrument’s origins is something of an art: it requires a lot of research and the accumulation of obscure information, and it generally leads to more hunches than definitive identifications.

This banjo is an excellent example. The Mor-Tone brand is attested by several known tenor banjos, though I have not found any information regarding the source of the name. It was likely created by a mail-order distributor, though I would not be surprised if it referenced a store name such as “Morton’s Music”. The sparkle plastic veneers suggest a drum manufacturer, and indeed the flange is identical to my May Bell Reording Master (unambiguously built by Slingerland). While the shape of the headstock is not quite identical, the overall feel of the instrument cinches the case that it is indeed a Slingerland product. In fact, aside from the color of the veneers and the name on the headstock, this banjo appears to be identical to the May Bell model 99-T.

Assuming that it sold for the same $34 as its May Bell counterpart, this banjo was toward the bottom of the Slingerland range, with only the $20 model 100 below it. While the sparkling plastic hid a lack of high-end features, the banjo does not show signs of poor construction quality. It lacks the heavy metal hardware of my May Bell, but it retains the same tailpiece, cast flange, resonator, and even the Weymann-built tuners. The lack of a metal rim makes this banjo lighter than the May Bell and therefore easier on the knees without sacrificing tone. The banjo appears to be all original and in excellent condition, with just some normal play wear on the back of the neck.