Bacon & Day Silver Bell Banjo

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

During the banjo boom of the 1920s, many musicians considered Bacon & Day to be the finest banjo maker of the time. Their instruments were prized for their exceptional volume and cutting power, as well as for their beautiful craftsmanship. The vast majority of banjos produced during the `20s and `30s by Bacon & Day and other makers were 4-string tenors and plectrums suited to the dixieland music of the time; yet company president Fred Bacon was a well-known 5-string banjoist who played in the classical style that was popular at the turn of the century. Original 5-string Bacon & Day banjos are very rare, but their quality is unsurpassed.

The Bacon & Day company was established in 1921 as a partnership between David Day, who had been plant manager of the Vega Banjo Company, and Fred Bacon. Prior to his association with Day, Bacon had banjos made for him by Vega, and by Rettburg & Lange. Most of these earlier instruments were 5-strings inlaid with the name "Bacon" on the headstock. They featured unusual tone chambers with f-holes on the bottoms of the rims.

While these early Bacon-brand instruments were of excellent quality, it was the Bacon & Day Silver Bell line of banjos that established the Bacon name as the zenith of craftsmanship. To this day most tenor and plectrum players consider Bacon & Day instruments to be the finest ever made. Ironically, in today's market, Bacon & Day tenor and plectrum banjos are sought as collectors' items and command higher prices than do banjos by any other maker; the equivalent 5-string models, however, are relatively neglected. In fact, few of today's 5-string players ever have tried a Silver Bell Bacon & Day, and many are not even familiar with the name.

While we can only speculate what might have happened if Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, or some other well-known bluegrass player had used a Bacon & Day model, it is my opinion that B&D Silver Bell 5-string banjos are fully equivalent in quality to the tenor and plectrum models.

The late 1920s Ne Plus Ultra Silver Bell #6 is a fine example of Bacon's best work. In Latin "ne plus ultra" means "the ultimate." The Bacon & Day Ne Plus Ultra line offered some of the highest quality, as well as the most heavily ornamented banjos, ever produced by any maker. The banjo was noted for its especially great volume, as well as for its unusual depth of tone and its beautiful "singing" quality. The style 6 featured heavily engraved, gold-plated metal parts, elephant ivory inlay with extensive engraving, and carving on the back of the headstock. It also featured a Iion's-head carving at the heel of the neck.

The Ne Plus Ultra styles 6, 8, and 9 featured a neck, resonator, and shell made from ebony, instead of maple or holly. This produced a different sound, even though the metal parts on these banjos were of the same construction as those on the standard Silver Bell models.

Of all the Bacon & Day banjos, the Ne Plus Ultra models are very scarce, probably due to their high prices. In the mid 1920s the style 6 cost $450.00, while the top-of-the-line style 9 was $900.00. A Gibson style 3 Mastertone retailed for $100.00, and the Gibson Florentine model at $450.00. Prices for Ne Plus Ultra models started where other makers' prices stopped.

The number 6 Ne Plus Ultra, although more common than the higher-priced models, is considered by many tenor and plectrum players to be the finest banjo ever made. The style #7, while beautifully ornamented, is constructed of white holly and therefore lacks the typical sound of the ebony Ne Plus models. The style 8 does not appear in catalogues, though I have encountered many; they were custom-made instruments that scarcely resembled each other. The style 9 features ebony construction, an elephant's head carved at the heel of the neck, a solid ivory fretboard with extensive engraving, and enough multicolored rhinestones inlaid into the neck and metal parts -- and even into the mother-of-pearl tuning buttons -- that the instrument could be described as being encrusted with ornamentation. While the few extant style 9s are avidly sought by collectors and command extremely high prices, most musicians consider the style 9 to be gaudy beyond any measure of good taste.

The style 6, with its stark contrast of jet-black ebony, white ivory, and gold, is artistically unusual, yet very tasteful. The example illustrated here is typical of the late-`20s model. The early- and mid-'20s Bacons had a smaller headstock similar in shape to the Vega peghead, and featured a similar but slightly narrower resonator flange. The earlier style 6 banjos had snowflake-pattern pearl inlay on the sides of the shell, but lacked the inscribed and gold-leafed patterns seen on the resonator and shell of the banjo illustrated here. In the early '30s the style 6 was altered with a larger headstock ornamented with a pearloid veneer and rhinestones.

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