Gibson TB-5 Mastertone #8444-3, the "Biff Bledsoe"

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 front    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 back    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 peghead    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 lower frets    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 middle frets    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 upper frets    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 peghead back    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 fingerboard binding    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 fingerboard marquetry

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 fingerboard inlay    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 fingerboard inlay    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 fingerboard inlay    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 fingerboard inlay    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 fingerboard inlay    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 fingerboard inlay    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 fingerboard inlay    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 fingerboard inlay    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 Mastertone block

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 truss rod cover    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 peghead inlays    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 logo    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 peghead marquetry    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 peghead marquetry    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 tuner    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 peghead marquetry

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 pot    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 pot    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 tension hoop engraving    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 armrest    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 armrest engraving    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 armrest side engraving    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 armrest side engraving detail

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 flange engraving    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 flange engraving    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 resonator    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 factory order numbers in resonator    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 large factory order number in resonator    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 resonator binding    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 resonator marquetry    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 rim binding

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 missing fingerboard binding    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 l-bracket    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 tailpiece engraving    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 tailpiece patent    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 inside pot    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 Mastertone decal    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 factory order number in rim    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 nuts    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 nuts

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 case open    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 in case    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 peghead in case    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 case closed    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 case latch    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 moving sticker

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 pat. appl'd for    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 neck heel and resonator    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 heel cap    #8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 tailpiece

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 shipping 30 August 1937

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 Biff Bledsoe

above, left to right: Pete Rentschler, Louis M. "Grandpa" Jones, Lenny Aleshire, Loren "Biff" Bledsoe
WMMN radio--Fairmont, West Virginia 1939
photo courtesy of Terry McGill

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 Biff Bledsoe

#8444-3 Gibson Mastertone banjo TB-5 Biff Bledsoe

Few people can claim to have played banjo for Grandpa Jones, but Jones' first instrument was actually guitar and early in his career he employed a tenor banjo player in his band; Loren "Biff" Bledsoe, born circa 1915 in Jasonville, Indiana, performed with Jones as one of his "grandsons", along with fiddler Pete Rentschler, during Jones' tenure at radio station WMMN in Fairmont, West Virginia circa 1939-1940.   Bledsoe is seen above in photos from the period playing a 1920s style 5 Mastertone tenor banjo with a 1930s "flying eagle" fingerboard inlay pattern; Gibson's prewar shipping ledgers record TB-5 #8444-5 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers), dating to 1926, being repaired and returned on August 30, 1937 to the C.A. House Music Company, which researcher Joe Spann has determined had a location in Fairmont, West Virginia.  A comparison of #8444-3 to the period photographs of Biff Bledsoe makes it almost certain that this is his banjo. 

The Gibson factory routinely replaced entire fingerboards on instruments returned for fret work and typically used a then-current inlay pattern rather than trying to match the original; by the time Biff Bledsoe returned his banjo to the factory in 1937, style 5 had been out of production for nearly ten years and the last remaining sets of wreath inlays had been used on a small number of style 3 Mastertones in the early 1930s.  Flying eagle inlays had been used on the style 4 and Granada, both of which had just been discontinued in the summer of 1937, making this fingerboard a logical choice for installation on #8444-3.  Bledsoe obviously put many more hours of playing time on this TB-5 after its fingerboard replacement, evident by the considerable fret wear on the instrument today.  A combination of heavy use by Bledsoe and likely neglect by a later owner or owners helps to account for the banjo's current condition including heavy finish wear on the resonator, replaced tension hooks and nuts, missing resonator screws, some lost marquetry and, strangely, a missing coordinator rod.  It is not known how long Biff Bledsoe owned #8444-3, but the banjo was bought by its last owner in Texas in the mid-1960s.

Thanks to Terry McGill for helping to piece together the history of this banjo.
 


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