Ca. 1920 Sovereign Melody Banjo


Before Chicago became the biggest center of instrument production in the US, that title was held by New York. Most factories in that city were little more than family-run workshops, such as those of Stathopoulo and Favilla. There were a few exceptions, though, such as the large Gretsch factory in Brooklyn. The largest NYC-area factory, however, was across the river in Jersey City.

Oscar Schmidt initially ran a publishing business before starting a manufacturing business. His new venture found so much demand for its products that it quickly moved from a small shop to a 30,000-foot factory on Ferry St., where it would remain for the rest of its existence. In addition, Schmidt operated four factories in Europe, making his company arguably the first multi-national instrument manufacturer. The Jersey City factory built just about anything with strings: guitars, mandolins, zithers, ukuleles, autoharps, and banjos. Like most big factories, it built many instruments for outside retailers and wholesalers, but it also built a few brands owned by Schmidt.

The most famous of these brands today is Stella, in part because the brand survived the 1939 bankruptcy of the Oscar Schmidt Corporation and continued to be built by Harmony into the 1970s. Schmidt’s best instruments often sported the Sovereign brand, though there was considerable overlap in price between the Stella and Sovereign lines. Many early blues singers played these instruments: Charley Patton, Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Blake, and Blind Willie McTell all played Oscar Schmidt guitars at some point. Less visually impaired was Lead Belly, who played a Stella 12-string. This popularity was due largely to a combination of good sound and even better pricing. Schmidt’s instruments were built cheaply and in huge numbers, but their light construction often made them extremely resonant (if not particularly durable). I have not been able to identify the model of this melody banjo, but a review of Schmidt’s mandolin banjos from 1921 suggests that it would have cost $12-15 at the time. For reference, Vega’s cheapest counterpart that same year cost $42.50.

This instrument was one of Oscar Schmidt’s better banjos, probably one or two rungs below the top of the line in the late 1910s or early 1920s. Schmidt’s catalog reveals a large range of models, especially at the low end of the range, with models priced below $10 frequently differing by less than $1. Clearly, these were instruments aimed at people for whom every penny mattered. Although this banjo plays quite well, there are a few indications that it was built on a budget. The rim is a thin 3-ply maple laminate, though the outer veneer exhibits a nice birdseye pattern. The neck is made of two pieces of maple with a stiffening stripe, but the stripe veers off center down in the heel. Likewise, the fret markers are not positioned with great accuracy, and the fretboard is dyed maple rather than actual ebony. There is a thin, rolled tone ring beneath the head, something that the absolute cheapest banjos dispensed with. The ungeared tuners and open back were the norm at the time regardless of price point.

Yet, for all the corners that were cut in its manufacture, this banjo has considerable volume. The treble strings don’t ring out with the refinement of a Vega or a Bacon, but it could nonetheless hold its own in a jug band. That was probably the intended market for melody banjos: players who wanted to play in mandolin tuning but didn’t like the strange overtones that came from doubled strings on a banjo head.