By 1937, the banjo boom of the 1920s was a distant memory. The tenor banjo was being supplanted by the guitar in the popular music of the day, and this trend combined with the onset of the Great Depression had caused banjo sales to decline sharply.
Gibson’s response was to dramatically overhaul its banjo line. All existing Mastertone models were discontinued with the exception of style 3, which was lowered in price from $100 to $75 and renamed style 75. The other Mastertones were replaced by the new top-tension models, touted in the 1937 Gibson catalog as “the alarm clock that is going to wake up new possibilities in banjo playing”.
The top-tensions were innovative in a number of ways. The most obvious was their namesake head-tightening design; players no longer had to remove the resonator to make the frequent tension adjustments necessitated by calfskin heads, since the brackets were adjusted from the top of the pot rather than the bottom. Top-tensions also featured distinctive solid wood resonators which were flat on the inside but carved with a pronounced hump on the back. Other features of these radical new banjos were an easily adjustable armrest which could quickly be removed for head adjustment, radiused fingerboards, and bold Art Deco looks with large, geometric inlay patterns and a more guitarlike peghead shape. For present-day players, one of the most important features of these top-tensions is the fact that they were the only prewar Gibson banjos on which flathead tone rings were standard regardless of neck configuration.
Above are scans from Gibson’s Catalog Y, 1937, in which the top-tension models were introduced.