Recording King #803 tenor banjo by Gibson
In the 1930s, Gibson made a number of banjos for sale by other companies, including mail-order houses such as Montgomery Ward. These banjos were labeled with a variety of brand names and bore no Gibson markings even though they were made at the Kalamazoo factory and in many cases were very similar to Gibson catalog models. Gibson manufactured a number of different banjo models for Montgomery Ward under the Recording King brand, ranging from lower-priced instruments comparable to banjos comparable to those in the Gibson-brand Mastertone line. There was frequent turnover in the line of banjo models sold by Montgomery Ward; the instrument seen here was advertised as a model #803 and offered only in 1933.
This banjo borrows features from a few different Gibson-brand models of the period. The walnut resonator with no purfling is the same as that seen on the sub-Mastertone style 2, but there is a forty-hole archtop tone ring as found on Mastertone models. A close look at the inside of the rim reveals that it was originally drilled for two coordinator rods, another feature of the Mastertone line; the hole for the upper rod was plugged at the factory and the single rod typical of the non-Mastertone models was installed. The fingerboard inlays are the fleur-de-lis used on the sub-Mastertone style 1, but the peghead is the typical Recording King shape with the Recording King logo. The flange is one-piece and the tailpiece is the Grover "first model" or "window" tailpiece commonly seen on lower-end Gibson banjos of the period. The last known batch of Gibson-brand style 2 banjos, produced under lot #824 in 1934, also featured forty-hole archtop tone rings and a plugged hole for the second coordinator rod. This example is not marked with a factory order number or serial number.
When it surfaced in 2014, this banjo had been equipped with a Bacon and Day "Soft Pedal" knee mute. It has now been converted to five-string flathead with a Sullivan conversion ring and a mahogany neck with "flying eagle" inlays by Frank Neat.
Photos courtesy of Brian Lappin.