1924 Washburn A-1

For about half a century, Lyon & Healy were one America’s foremost instrument manufacturers. They built an enormous range of products, from student-grade guitars to some of the most respected mandolins of the early 20th century, plus banjos, ukuleles and just about anything with strings in between. The company also takes much of the credit for establishing Chicago as a major center for instrument manufacturing; it’s questionable whether Harmony, Regal, Kay and National-Dobro would have set up shop in that town if Lyon and Healy had not already developed the infrastructure needed to supply them. The company was founded by George Washburn Lyon and Patrick J. Healy in 1864 as a sheet music retailer. Like other music sellers (e.g. Howe-Orme and Slingerland), they eventually began to build and outsource instruments under their own name; by the mid 1880s, the company was well established as a manufacturer as well as a retailer. By the early 20th century they were building instruments under a variety of brands, the most prestigious of which was given the Washburn name.

Washburn’s focus shifted with the times. It started out with a large range of banjos, which gradually shifted to a large range of mandolins, and finally a large range of guitars. In the mid 1920s came the tenor banjo boom, and Lyon & Healy suddenly found their products were behind the times. Their new line of 1923 was constructed well, but they all featured 17-fret necks and open backs at a time when Paramount, Bacon and Vega were releasing 19-fret banjos with resonators. The one major selling point was that the three most expensive models had a donut-style tone ring that Lyon & Healy called an “air cushion”; despite featuring heavily in advertisements, this may have been purchased from Slingerland, who used an identical ring.

The top of the Washburn banjo line was the Style A, also available as a “Special” variation with gold plating and upgraded ornamentation. By mid-1924, to meet demand for a modern banjo, Washburn introduced the Style A-1. This outfitted a Style A with a full resonator and was the first Washburn banjo to feature geared tuners. It retained the air cushion tone ring and the 17-fret neck, though 19-fret examples (such as mine) are known to exist. It’s not clear whether the two necks were built simultaneously or whether the 19-fret neck replaced the earlier version. The 19-fret necks have a longer 23” scale, which gave them a brighter sound and more volume. The neck and rim were built of highly figured maple, with an ebony strip down the center of the neck for added stiffness. Curiously, the resonator was made of mahogany triangles in a pie-plate pattern suspiciously like the one used by Vega.

The long 23” scale became standard in 1925 when the entire banjo line was revised. The A-1 evolved into the Syncopator model with a few small cosmetic tweaks, and a few more highly decorated models were added at the high end of the line. For about a year until those new models debuted, the A-1 remained Washburn’s flagship banjo. To make sure it was clear who built it, both the Washburn and Lyon & Healy names were affixed to the resonator and engraved into the headstock. This particular banjo retains all its original parts except for the head, and, aside from the expected wear, it remains in excellent condition.