Gibson Guitar-Banjo Style GB-5

George Gruhn
"The Vintage Catalogue"
Frets Magazine, January 1983

Today, few musicians are familiar with guitar-banjos. While the instrument was never as popular as the 5-string, tenor, or plectrum banjos, Gibson and most other banjo makers of the early '20s produced guitar-banjos in limited but significant quantities. As a general rule, guitar-banjos manufactured before 1925, by Gibson and most other makers, featured large-diameter heads, while those made later utilized standard-size bodies which were essentially interchangeable among 5-string, tenor, or plectrum banjos.

The large-diameter head size seems particularly well suited to the tone of a guitar-banjo. While it is virtually impossible to give a verbal description of tone, the guitar-banjo could perhaps best be described as having a plunky, bluesy type of sound. Although the instrument was originally intended for use in the banjo bands of the day, it has gained greater acceptance today as a blues instrument, in the hands of performers such as Rev. Gary Davis. The instrument is particularly well-suited to the type of material typically played on metal-body National brand resonator guitars.

Although the tone of the large-diameter head more closely resembled a guitar tone than did the tone of 11" heads on the Gibson guitar-banjos produced from 1925 onward, some of these later instruments are quite valuable, since they could readily be converted to 5-strings. For the purpose of conversion, an 11" head Mastertone Gibson guitar-banjo was every bit as valuable as an equivalent tenor or plectrum. As a result, many of the later guitar-banjos are no longer in their original form; while earlier models, which were not nearly so adaptable to conversion, have been left intact. From a historical or collecting view, it is unfortunate when any instrument is altered from its original condition. From the musician's point of view, however, it is clear that the utility of the later banjos is greatest for the purpose of conversion.

The GB-5 pictured here has a particularly rich tone with surprising depth, mellowness, and sustain.

It is a highly unusual instrument. Although the style GB-5 does not appear in any Gibson catalogue l have seen, the features of this banjo indicate that it is either a GB-5 or a custom instrument with specifications very close to what would be expected in a style 5 guitar-banjo. As is typical of the Gibson guitar-banjos and cello-banjos of the early `20s, this instrument features a 14" diameter head and the hinged, so-called "trap door" resonator.

Although the tenor TB-5 "trap door" banjo features fancy headstock inlay similar to the fern pattern F-5 mandolin, and deluxe fretboard inlay, the neck of this instrument is the same as that on the style GB-4, with the exception of a bound heel cap and deluxe gold-plated tuners with genuine mother-of-pearl buttons.

The gold-plated metal parts and multi-colored celluloid carving on the resonator and sides of the rim are standard features of the early style 5. While many early banjos were equipped with finger-rests, the original triple-bound ivoroid guard on this instrument is an exceptionally fine example.

Since the guitar-banjo is not currently a well-known instrument, market values of the early models with large heads tend to be less than equivalent 5-string banjos. The market values for later 11" head models are determined by the value of the body for conversion purposes. In my opinion, the GB-5 shown here is a "sleeper" as far as the market is concerned. It would be extremely expensive to produce a replica of this instrument, therefore, this piece has considerable intrinsic value, in addition to its great rarity.

While the guitar-banjo may not be as versatile an instrument as a standard guitar, it is a very fine-sounding instrument with a distinctive tone, and is well suited to a variety of musical forms.

Return to the article library