The Rhetoric of the Prewar Banjo

A presentation for the Sound Studies, Rhetoric, and Writing Conference 2020

In the bluegrass community–to adapt a common expression from my hometown of Roanoke, VA–opinions about prewar banjos are like assholes, in that (unlike a prewar banjo) everyone has an opinion. Outside the bluegrass banjo community, though, very few people have an opinion on prewar banjos. It is difficult, therefore, to explain to an audience that may or may not be familiar with the amount of rancor involved in these discussions what’s at stake with two definitional arguments: 1) What is a prewar banjo and 2) what is prewar tone? I need to start somewhere, though, and so what I want to explain in this presentation is how and why people argue about prewar banjos and prewar tone, and why that argument matters for the study of communities that develop around particular sounds. 

At the most basic level, a prewar banjo refers to a Gibson banjo that was made between the years of 1927 to 1942. To a traditional bluegrass banjo player, the most desirable prewar banjo is one that is closest to the one played by Earl Scruggs, an original 5 string, flathead, one-piece flange model. At current count, there were only 206 of these ever made (Spann), so the cost of these often goes above $300,000. With the relative scarcity of these, it is safe to say that there are far fewer people with one of these than there are people with opinions about them. Most banjo players, if they are trying to buy a prewar banjo, settle for what is known in the banjo world as a “prewar conversion,” a less “authentic” banjo that has some component that was made before the war but that also has modern components. 

For example, there are many “pre-war” banjos that were originally four string flathead tenor banjos that were converted to 5-string banjos by replacing the tenor neck with a modern five-string neck. These are the most desirable of the prewar conversions because they have the highly coveted flathead tone ring, so many of these banjos still fall in the 100,00o dollar range. Another layer of conversion would be a banjo that has a modern 5 string neck, plus its archtop or ball bearing tone ring has been replaced with a modern flathead tone ring. More often than not, this kind of conversion requires putting the banjo rim back on a a lathe so that it can be turned to accept the flathead tone ring. In these cases, the banjo has an altered (but still prewar) wooden rim but an original resonator and metal flange, tension hoop and tailpiece, but the neck and tone ring–primary drivers of banjo tone–are all modern. Another layer of conversion would be further turning the rim of a two piece flange banjo to make it accept a one-piece flange. 

Even though having a banjo that sounds like Earl’s may be the primary factor for players, the reasons that emerge from that original desire become more complex. In order to avoid going into the minutia of an already esoteric situation, I attempt to lay out these reasons below without a great deal of analysis:

#1 Better Metal: Metal shipped to the Gibson factory before World War II was of a superior composition before WWII than after. Despite numerous attempts to recreate the metallurgical components, no metal (it is argued) has been able to match what came before WWII. Because bluegrass banjos have many metal parts that influence tone, in particular the tone ring, the composition of the metal is very important to the sound of a banjo. Therefore, the flathead tone ring is the holy grail of prewar parts. Following the importance of the tone ring, would come the flange, and then the tailpiece. 

#2 Better Wood: It is generally argued that wood from the prewar period was superior to wood today. “Old growth wood” from Michigan would have been from trees more than 200 years old at the time, where “old growth wood” today would be closer to 70 years old. Hence the rim, resonator, and neck of a banjo from the prewar period is significantly older wood than banjos made today. 

#3 Longer Time: Other arguments about why prewar banjos have a unique sound relate to the time that the instruments have been together as a banjo. 80 years of vibration through the wood and the parts make them better instruments. 

While I could go further into an explication of prewar banjo materials, I want to focus now on the mystical concept of “prewar banjo tone.” If you ask the question “what is prewar banjo tone,” the answers parallel answers to the question “what is a prewar banjo?” The first answer to the question is simply “Prewar tone is what Earl had when he played the banjo.” 

In this case, Earl is playing an authentic prewar banjo on a quintessential banjo album. Just as with the argument “what is a prewar banjo,” more complex arguments emerge when one moves outside this territory. That is to say when someone who is not Earl Scruggs plays a banjo that is not an authentic 5-string, flathead, one piece flange banjo.

The dilemma that this brings up is very well summarized by Banjo Lefty on the Banjo Hangout:

Here’s what I know for a fact: the majority of pre-war Gibsons were tenors. The “pre-war” sound you are supposed to hear today comes from banjos that have been converted to five-strings. This means that one-half of the instrument, the part that, according to many builders, is the second most important contributor to the tone, has been replaced with a modern (post-war) part. Of course, the tailpiece has to be changed as well; the strings are new, the bridge is new, often the original skin head has been replaced with a mylar one, and sometimes the rim has been cut to accept a modern tone ring.

So what exactly are we listening to? Not a pre-war sound, that’s for sure. What you hear is the sound that an old pot with new parts makes today. Would that banjo have sounded just like that in the twenties and thirties? I highly doubt it, although we’ll never know for sure because all the people who actually heard these banjos being played before the war are all dead and gone, and what recordings we have from that era are imprecise, to say the least.

What becomes interesting to me in the idea above is that “prewar tone” becomes something separate from the material that brings it about. Arguably, one could say that this separation does violence to banjos, as more and more banjos that were never meant to be 5-string, flathead, one-piece flange banjos are cut and reshaped to become imitations of “true” pre-war banjos. As one can see by scanning classified ads of “Prewar banjos” for sale, people are willing to put in a great deal of time and money in order to either obtain “prewar tone” or to obtain the cash of selling a “prewar banjo.” Beyond changing out necks and cutting rims, banjo makers are now adding additional wood to four- string necks and adding an additional layer of wood to the thinner rims of non-Mastertone banjos.

What I want to suggest is that the violence we see enacted upon the original intention of other kinds of prewar banjos has a parallel in bluegrass communities itself.

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