Slingerland May Bell DeLuxe Tenor Banjo , c. 1925

Slingerland  May Bell DeLuxe Tenor Banjo ,  c. 1925
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Item # 9457
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Slingerland May Bell DeLuxe Model Tenor Banjo, c. 1925, made in Chicago, natural varnish finish, laminated walnut rim, rosewood neck, fingerboard and resonator, original black hard shell case.

The Slingerland company of Chicago built banjos for a wide range of price points, but the great majority were low and mid-line instruments. Many Jobber catalogs and retail stores sold Slingerland-made banjos under their own brands – or with no brand at all. Slingerland was certainly capable of producing banjos at the top professional level with the requisite elaborate tone ring construction and copious flash. Their catalogs offered several models above the $100 mark with gold plating and fancy pearl inlay. Still, the company's bread and butter remained the cheaper instruments, and high-end Slingerlands were only produced in small numbers, rare today compared with countless budget models.

Slingerland used the "May Bell" brand on many instruments somewhat interchangeably with their own. The top-of-the-line Troubadour model is usually branded Slingerland, while this next highest model, the DeLuxe, is typically found marked May Bell. This particular banjo is unusual in not featuring either brand on the headstock, but the May Bell name is engraved into the hand rest. Aside from this unmarked headstock, this DeLuxe pretty much conforms to known catalogs.

“DeLuxe” was a fitting name for this banjo; it is certainly a showpiece, featuring elaborate bird-motif engraved pearl inlay on the fingerboard and headstock and colorful inlaid wood marquetry all over. The central peacock on the headstock looks a bit klunky on close inspection but the rest of the bird inlays are beautifully executed, a few with contrasting abalone wings. The gold-plated sheathed tone ring is somewhat less elaborate than the "donut" style found on most high end Slingerlands, and may be an earlier iteration. There is delicate engraving on the flange, tone hoop, and hand rest. Catalogs list the DeLuxe available in nickel or gold plate; the hardware on this banjo was plated in gold, but much of it has worn off to reveal the nickel underneath.

The banjo is constructed of very high-end woods with a solid rosewood neck and fingerboard, laminated walnut (probably with maple underneath) rim and a fantastically figured rosewood resonator. The hardware is top notch as well with an Oettinger tailpiece and gold plated, pearl button Planet geared pegs. This was a very high-grade banjo in an era of companies striving to out-flash each other; Slingerland does not seem to have captured much of the top professional market but the Deluxe remains worthy of comparison to many more expensive instruments from Vega, Paramount, Bacon & Day and the like.
 
Overall length is 33 in. (83.8 cm.), 11 in. (27.9 cm.) diameter head, and 3 in. (7.6 cm.) in depth, measured at side of rim. Scale length is 23 in. (584 mm.). Width of nut is 1 1/8 in. (29 mm.).

This banjo shows some general wear but remains mostly original and in excellent playing condition. The finish is worn down to the wood on the back of the neck in the lower positions, and the back of the resonator has numerous scuffs and dings. The thin gold plating has a lot of wear overall, with the tuners holding up better than the rest (they were probably plated by Ludwig, who made them). All hardware appears original except for the plastic head and handmade bridge.

The banjo has been refretted with wire both wider and taller than 1920's style, with a requisite slightly higher nut added. The fingerboard has some divoting in the lower positions but nothing that affects playability. This banjo plays very well, with a warmer sound than many period tenors; even the higher notes on the A string retain a sweetness not often found in these more elaborate orchestra tenors. This May Bell banjo offered a lot of quality and flash for the price in the 1920's, and that is still true today. The original case is included, externally worn but fully functional with a Paramount style zipper lining. Excellent - Condition.