Faced with declining banjo sales as the 1930s progressed, Gibson made the decision in 1937 to radically overhaul its banjo line. All existing Mastertone styles were discontinued with the exception of style 3, which underwent some minor changes and was renamed style 75. In their place, Gibson introduced three new Mastertone models–banjos which, in the words of the 1937 catalog, fit in with “modern ideas of tone, design and construction” and were “startlingly different”.
These new banjos came to be known as the top-tensions, since one of their most distinctive features was the tension hoop and bracket arrangement which allowed the head tension to be adjusted without removing the resonator. The top-tensions were also different in a number of other ways: They were the first Gibson banjos to feature a flathead tone ring as standard equipment regardless of neck configuration, they sported a bold Art Deco look with geometric inlay designs and large headstocks, the resonators were made of solid, rather than laminated, wood and were carved with a pronounced hump on the back, the armrests were adjusted with a thumbscrew, and the fingerboards were radiused to provide, according to Gibson, “speed and smooth-flowing playing ease that will thrill you”.
The most expensive top-tension model was style 18, which could be considered the top-tension equivalent of the Granada. Although the catalog specified curly maple, the resonator of #E3794-3 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers) is birdseye maple. The resonator and neck are sunburst finished, the fingerboard is Brazilian rosewood with stairstep block inlays, and the peghead is bound and inlaid with the thick Gibson script logo. The catalog illustration of style 18 shows an Art Deco headstock inlay, but this banjo instead has the fleur-de-lis sometimes seen on other top-tension models, particularly in the late prewar and wartime periods. The hardware is gold-plated and engraved; the flange is one-piece and the tailpiece is a clamshell. Although the top-tensions were original flatheads, the Mastertone label on this example has been cut.
#E3794-3 was shipped to the McIntosh Music House in Kalispell, Montana on December 19, 1941, making it the first Mastertone banjo to be shipped after the United States’ entry into World War II.
Photos courtesy of Bernunzio Vintage Instruments.