After the “banjo boom” of the 1920s, the instrument’s popularity declined sharply in the 1930s. In 1937, Gibson made the decision to dramatically overhaul its banjo line by introducing the three top-tension models and discontinuing all other Mastertone models with the exception of style 3, which was lowered in price from $100 to $75 and renamed style 75. The lower-priced, non-Mastertone banjos remained in production and were shipped sporadically through World War II. Among these lower-end banjos available in the early 1940s was style 11 which, according to one Gibson catalog, offered banjoists “a touch of color and flash” with its pearloid veneers, stenciled “inlays”, and blue finish.
Although many style 11 banjos were not numbered, this plectrum-necked example bears a factory order number on the back of the peghead as was standard practice beginning in the late 1930s; Gibson’s shipping ledgers indicate that #F442-3 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers) was shipped to South African Gibson dealer H. Polliack and Co., Ltd. on June 11, 1940. The brass tone hoop is the smaller-diameter type, giving a raised-head appearance, which was introduced in Catalog X of 1937 (see above) and purported to provide “more brilliancy”. The lack of a handstop, use of Phillips-head screws, and Kluson tuners with amber-colored Catalin buttons are all characteristic of late prewar and wartime Gibson banjo production.
The “Made in the U.S.A.” stamp on the back of the peghead was regularly applied to Gibson instruments intended for export; #F442-3 remains in South Africa today and its current owner gives us some background on its life in that country:
“The elderly gentleman I bought it from was the third owner in South Africa. He was not a banjo player but had bought it to aid a friend financially. The previous two owners were active Boeremusiek players and the banjo was a working instrument in bands for at least forty years, or two generations. Most Boeremusiek banjos are set up with just three strings. The strings are very closely spaced on the bridge and this facilitates the characteristic tremolo style of the music. The wear on the frets clearly reflects the Boeremusiek style. The area of the (removed) fourth string is hardly worn while all the frets right up to the twentieth show heavy wear on the top three strings. The banjo is still strung in the Boeremusiek way. See the string spacing on the bridge!!!”
Photos courtesy of an anonymous collector.