Gibson TB-5 Tenor Banjo (1923)

Gibson  TB-5 Tenor Banjo  (1923)
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Item # 9571
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Gibson TB-5 Model Tenor Banjo (1923), made in Kalamazoo, Michigan, serial # 11984-15, Cremona Brown Sunburst finish, laminated maple rim, laminated curly maple neck with ebony fingerboard, black gig bag case.

Here's a superbly flashy "Loar Era" Gibson that won't break the bank! This 1923 TB-5 tenor banjo is a particularly lovely instrument, although somewhat eccentric in layout and not the banjo design that Gibson is best remembered for! Nonetheless this top-of-the-line "trapdoor" model -- built not long before the fully developed Mastertone era -- has some of the design and construction features that would soon distinguish that celebrated line. This is one of the earliest style TB-5's, from perhaps the first batch made, or at least one of the first couple of batches of this new top-of-the-line creation.

With a very short-scale neck and smaller 10 5/8" diameter rim these early Gibson tenor banjos have the feel of having been designed by and for mandolin players -- as indeed they were. While not particularly popular among orchestra tenor banjo players, they sold well for a time to Gibson's mandolin orchestra clientele eager to pick up on the new trends. The TB-5 is by far the fanciest of these beautifully built instruments with an attractive nouveau aesthetic all its own, with a special appeal apart from the rest of the jazz-age 4-string pack.

Gibson's first banjos appeared in 1918 sporting unusual features including a hollow rim, guitar-type tuners, and further on a unique flat-plate "trap door" resonator. The TB-5 was a late addition to the line, added in 1923 at the same time the F-5 mandolin and L-5 guitar were developed. Gibson announced it as "The ultimate in banjo construction, appearance, and tone". Compared to the previous king of the heap, the TB-4, this was a much flashier banjo, and considerably more expensive as well. Compared to contemporary Paramount, Vega, and Bacon instruments, it looked a bit like a delicate miniature and lacked the "modern" professional features like the 23" scale and flanged resonator that were becoming standard in 1923.

This early model TB-5 features a slim and very short 19" scale neck built of a 3-way curly maple/ebony laminate with an extended ebony fingerboard. This is decorated (a bit sloppily!) with shaped pearl inlay and bound in grained ivoroid. The triple-bound "moccasin" headstock is veneered with ebony and inlayed with a slanted "The Gibson" logo surrounded by a lovely floral motif in abalone. The extended fretboard with 10 additional frets was intended to attract tenor players who had crossed over from the mandolin, Lloyd Loar himself being one of these reluctant banjo plunkers.

The neck and "trap door" resonator are laminated flame maple, ivoroid-bound, and finished in the subtly shaded "Cremona brown" sunburst typical of high-end Gibsons this era. The back of the headstock is black with a point neatly faired into the neck's ebony stripe. The tuners are gold-plated two-on-a-plate decorated Waverly gears with real pearl buttons, as seen on all Style 5 Master Model instruments. The nut is genuine pearl, another characteristic of top-line Gibsons of this era.

The hardware is gold plated; the rim maple coated on the outside with pearl Pyralin. It carries the then-new Lloyd Loar-designed perforated tubular tone ring resting on ball bearings that was used for Mastertones up through 1927. This is the earliest version with no springs under the bearings. The hook/nut bearing ring used here would become half of the "tube and plate" flange system when the "plate" flange was added. This banjo also features then-new Gibson double co-coordinator rod system, which still works like a charm.

The flat plate "trap door" resonator can be opened or closed to alter the tone of the banjo, adding "piquancy" in Gibson's phrasing. Inside the rim is a gold "Gibson Guarantee" label and impressed factory order number dating to later 1923. This banjo has the optional goodies offered; a wire armrest and elevated white ivoroid pickguard -- bound in black on the edge, which is a rare and elegant touch.

This was quite an expensive instrument in its day, fully equivalent to the F-5 mandolin and was top of the banjo line until new "modern" 1925 Master Models were introduced. This early TB-5 is an eccentric but truly beautiful banjo and a fine playable piece of 1920s Gibson history.
 
Overall length is 29 in. (73.7 cm.), 10 5/8 in. (27 cm.) diameter head, and 3 in. (7.6 cm.) in depth, measured at side of rim. Scale length is 19 in. (483 mm.). Width of nut is 1 1/8 in. (29 mm.).

This is a mostly well-preserved banjo, showing some light play wear overall but with one notably worn area. This is the finish on the resonator back which has some fairly large areas of flaking lacquer down to the wood, likely from exposure to moisture long ago. This is the only major damage to the instrument as the neck is not much worn except for one spot rubbed-away down to the wood on the treble side. The headstock shows just some very small chips and flakes on both sides. The gold plating has typical wear with some loss but is largely intact.

All hardware is original except the lower co-ordinator rod is silver plated instead of gold. It is however the exact correct era part; it's possible this has been replaced at some pointbut equally possible it was a Gibson factory substitution. It would be mostly hidden under the resonator anyway, and shows plating wear suggesting it was in place when the resonator dampness incident occured!

The original frets and the fingerboard have some minor wear but the instrument plays fine, set up with a recent white calfskin skin head and later but still vintage bridge. The sound is very different from the standard orchestra tenors of the 1920s, with a rather old-fashioned plunk and more warmth and depth than one might expect from such a small rim. The original case has unfortunately gone missing, possibly a victim of whatever dampness incident caused the resonator to flake, but a functional modern gig bag is included. Overall Excellent - Condition.