With the United States’ entry into World War II, wartime material restrictions meant that no new banjo hardware could be manufactured. Banjo production had already decreased dramatically from its peak in the 1920s, and in the early 1940s Gibson employees would sometimes search the factory for any remaining parts to fill the few orders that came in, even if the resulting instruments were a mismatch of various models. #5820-1 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers) is an original five-string flathead example of such a “floor-sweep” banjo. The maple neck and solid, carved “bird’s-eye” maple resonator are typical of the top-tension RB-7, although the rosewood fingerboard is inlaid with the “stairstep block” design usually seen on style 12 and style 18 top-tension models. The fleur-de-lis headstock inlay was not a standard specification on any Gibson banjo but is frequently seen on instruments from the late prewar period. The clunky, horizontal Gibson peghead logo is also typical of late prewar production.
Despite #5820-1’s top-tension-style neck and resonator, the pot features the standard Gibson head-tensioning system rather than the top-tension arrangement. Three banjos from lot #5820 are known; this example for some reason does not appear in the Gibson shipping ledgers, but #5820-2 (shipped July 23, 1943) and #5820-3 (shipped September 2, 1943) were both noted in the ledgers simply as RB-7s, with no indication that they were not actually top-tension banjos.
The factory order number is stamped on the back of the peghead as was standard practice by this time (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers); there is no number or Mastertone label inside the rim, a common occurrence in late “floor-sweep” banjos. #5820-1 remains in excellent, fully original condition. Close inspection reveals more evidence of this banjo’s “floor-sweep” nature; all the hardware is nickel-plated with the exception of one of the resonator thumbscrews, which is chrome-plated. In addition, there is a small hole in the back of the neck directly under the fifth-string nut, indicating that the worker installing the fifth-string nut may have accidentally drilled all the way through the neck, resulting in this neck’s being put aside and then used later when parts were in such short supply. The armrest currently on the banjo is modern; there is no indication that an armrest was ever installed previously, and the resonator lug by the armrest is not offset by one flange hole as it usually was on banjos equipped with armrests.
#5820-1 has spent most of its life in the Roanoke, Virginia area; it remained in the possession of the second owner until late 2008. The original owner affixed a silver three-cent piece dated 1858 to the peghead just under the Gibson logo.
Photos courtesy of Larry Perkins.