Here at Turtle Hill Banjo Co. we are serious buyers of good used banjos. Our specialty is Gibson banjos from the 1920s and 1930s, and we are willing and able to pay absolute top dollar for anything we can use. For the benefit of those people who own Gibson banjos but are not familiar with the various types, here’s a little information, which should be of help.
First of all, the better Gibson models were all called Mastertones, and the word MASTERTONE will be on a rectangular pearl block on the fingerboard, near where the neck meets the body (on some of the earlier ones the word is inlaid on the peghead under the word GIBSON). Assuming it is a Mastertone, the first thing is to determine the type of tone ring. Undo the four thumbscrews and remove the resonator. Turn the banjo upside down and look inside. You’ll see a thick wooden rim, which should have a large oval Gibson Mastertone label on the side. Between the wooden rim and the inside of the head you’ll see a thick metal ring; this is the “Mastertone” Tone Ring. There will probably be quite a few holes in the metal, in a circle around the ring. Count them. If there are 60, this is what is known as a “Ball Bearing” tone ring. These are not as desirable as the later types, but are still worth a good amount of money, depending on the model and condition. However if it has 40 holes, or no holes, it is an archtop tone ring. These are more valuable than banjos with ball bearing tone rings.
At this point I should mention that there is another type of tone ring made by Gibson during the 1930s. It is also a heavy metal ring but with less than 40 holes in the metal. When looking at the top of the banjo, the head is completely flat across (with the archtop ring, it is raised). This type of tone ring, if original, is rare, and worth much more than the archtop type.
It should be noted here that the condition of any banjo is an important factor in its value. A banjo on which the metal parts and resonator wood are in nice condition is worth more than one in so-so shape. If the banjo is badly scratched up, or has broken metal parts, this will significantly lower its value. In most instances the condition of the neck isn’t of great importance. Banjos that have been refinished, or have had the metal parts re-plated, are worth less than those in original condition. Gibson made several models of Mastertones. All have mother-of-pearl inlays on the fingerboard and peghead, but some are fancier than others. On some, the metal parts are gold plated and engraved; some even have fancily carved resonators. As might be expected, the fancy gold plated models are usually worth more than their nickel plated counterparts. Another thing to remember is the fact that most Gibson banjos from the 1920s and 1930s were four string banjos. Any original Gibson 5 string banjo is rare, and worth much more than a 4 strings banjo of the same type. Something else to keep in mind is the flange. Although the two-piece (tube and plate) flange is by far the best construction, the one-piece flange banjos are worth more money. Gibson started making these in the early 1930s, but they continued to use the two-piece flange also. If the banjo has a one-piece flange, inspect the metal parts carefully to be sure that they haven't broken, crystallized, or disintegrated.
We also pay good prices for some of the non-Mastertone models made by Gibson during the 1930s. On one model (the style 11) the resonator, fingerboard, and peghead are pearloid (this model doesn’t have a serial number). The non-Mastertone banjos that are worth the most are those that have the same parts as the Mastertones (but no tone rings except for small round tubes). To determine whether it has the right parts, remove the resonator and measure the thickness of the wooden rim. It should be about 9/16”. Incidentally, the label on non-Mastertone banjos is quite a bit smaller than on the Mastertones. It has no guarantee information, and just says THE GIBSON GIBSON INC. KALAMAZOO MICH.
The serial number on Gibson pre-war banjos is stamped on the inside of the rim. It is also painted inside the resonator near the edge (and in chalk across the center, although this might be worn off). The number will be 4 digits followed by a dash and one or two additional digits. In 1935 Gibson started renumbering with 3 digits (plus a dash and additional digits). The earliest non-ball bearing tone rings were made in 1927 and their numbers start, to the best of my knowledge, in the 8600s (for example, 8673-19). By 1933 they were in the 9500 range. 1935 numbers will be high 9000s or low three digits. By 1937 they were in the 1000 series.
Please feel free to call or write if we can provide any additional information, or help you in the identification of your banjo.