Youngbloods Guitarist Banana Talks Vintage Banjos and the Late Earl Scruggs

November 11th, 2009

Vintage banjo collector Lowell Levinger is perhaps best known to 1960s music fans as “Banana,” the bushy-haired guitarist and keyboards player for The Youngbloods. Today, Levinger is the proprietor of Players Vintage Instruments, where he buys and sells vintage guitars, mandolins, banjos, and other musical instruments. He also performs bluegrass and folk music for families under the name Grandpa Banana. Recently we spoke with Levinger about vintage banjos and the evolution of the instrument, from its African roots to its role as a bluegrass staple.

I bought my first really good bluegrass banjo in 1963 from a banjo player who lived in New York. His name was Winnie Winston, and he was a mentor of mine. It was a great banjo, a Gibson RB-1 Mastertone, and I played it for a few years. Then, in 1966, it was stolen out of my Lower East Side apartment. I looked in vain for it in pawnshops and all the old instrument shops. Finally, I gave up.

Then, about four, five months ago, it showed up on online. I got in touch with the guy who was selling it, and of course he had no idea what the history of it was. He had just bought it from somebody a year ago. I told him my story, but put yourself in his place: it’s a hard story to accept, and I didn’t have any proof. I filed a police report back then, but the New York City Police Department had more important stuff to do.

I wasn’t absolutely positive from the pictures and descriptions that it was mine, but it sure looked like it. We went back and forth, and he offered to sell it to me for what he had in it, which was quite a bit of money. I bought it for 600 bucks back in 1963. I had so many banjos anyway that I didn’t really need another, especially if I wasn’t totally sure it was mine. So I said, “I don’t think I’ll do it,” and he said, “Well, I think I’ll just hang on to it rather than sell it.”

Then about a month ago, I was looking through a drawer and I found this little piece of paper. I’d written down the instruments I owned in 1964. And here was this banjo and here was the serial number. I checked back through my correspondence with the guy and, sure enough, it actually was my banjo. So I paid his price, and I now have my very first bluegrass banjo back, and it plays and sounds great. To me, it’s like an old part of me has been returned.

Collectors Weekly: How did you get into music?

Levinger: My mother was a pianist, so we had a piano in the house. As soon as I could touch the keys I started messing around, and I began taking piano lessons probably at about the age of five, or something. I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was probably 14 or 15 years old and I discovered, wow, that sounds great! But I never really took lessons or anything. I just learned to play. And then when I was in my senior year of high school, I heard Earl Scruggs for the first time, and it changed my life. I had to get a banjo and learn to play the banjo, and that’s just what I did.

My first guitar was a really cheap, horrible Stella with an action that was impossible to play. After that, I got a Gibson. It must’ve been one of those mahogany B-25s or B-15s. I hated it, but at least you could play it. I had a Gibson J-50 after that, which I also didn’t like very much. I never really got a good guitar until I went to college in Boston, where I met Rick Turner.

At that point, we were both beginning to realize that new guitars were not what you wanted. And so we started cruising the antiques stores and old-instrument shops of Boston. They mostly had violins but a few guitars and banjos, too. We also traveled to the little towns on the North Shore and the Cape and found some banjos and Martin guitars.

Lowell Levinger's 1933 Gibson RB-1 "Mastertone" banjo was stolen in 1966 and recovered in 2009.

Lowell Levinger’s 1933 Gibson RB-1 “Mastertone” banjo was stolen in 1966 and recovered in 2009.

This was circa 1962. We knew that the Martins were really good and we knew that Vega banjos were really good and Gibson banjos were really good. We also learned about Lyon and Healy and Weymann. And all of them were better than buying a new Gibson, or something like that. Old instruments are better, because of the sound you can get out of them, especially if you’re willing to put a little work into it to get them set up really nicely. The sound is more focused, warmer, and has more character. It’s not jangly. They feel better and are more enjoyable to play.

I currently own maybe 15 or 20 banjos. I play them all every once in a while. For bluegrass I play my Gibson Mastertone. Well, for everything these days, I play my Gibson Mastertone. For gigs, I’m only playing the one that I just got back.

I’m also a big fan of Paramount banjos. Paramount made really nice banjos back in the late 1920s. William L. Lange was involved in a few early banjo companies and then went off on his own and formed Paramount banjos. He made banjos under a lot of other names, too. Orpheum was one of them, and Lange Style was another. And boy, did he put out a lot of banjos. He was in New York. He must’ve made thousands of banjos a year. He published these very nice catalogs that are pretty readily available.

In the early years of the Depression, 1930, ’31, Lange had Martin build some guitars for him. Everybody was having hard times, but I’m surprised Martin stooped to this. They had a very radical design. You can see a few of those on the Museum page of my website. They made some tenor guitars and some six-strings, and they have these crazy resonators with the holes in the top around the edges. They made about 30 or 35 of these very strange guitars. The Martin-Paramount connection, however brief, is fascinating.

But Lange’s banjos were some of the very best for the type of music that was popular at the time. They were the precursors to the B&D Dixieland banjos, which were probably the most popular for that style of playing. Lange’s workmanship, his intricacy of design, and the complexity of the inlay—he had a really great eye. But they also sound good.

William L. Lange. I’d love to know what the L stands for. I have a feeling it might be Leo because there are these guitars called Leo Masters that really have the William L. Lange look to them. There are a couple of them on my website. And I’ve never been able to get much history on them, but I have this suspicion that they might have been made by Regal for Lange. But I have nothing to back that up, no documentation.

Paramount banjos are generally not rare. They made gazillions of them, especially the tenors. They also made a lot of plectrums, which are four-string banjos that have a longer scale length than a tenor—they have 22 frets instead of 19 and they’re tuned a little bit differently. You can find Paramount tenor banjos on eBay every day, especially the lower-end models, the style As, and below that. You get up to the style Es and Fs, which were the more expensive ones, then they become more rare. And Paramount only made a very, very limited number of five-strings, so those are exceedingly rare.

Collectors Weekly: When did the banjo gain recognition as a country, folk, and bluegrass instrument?

Levinger: Earl Scruggs made the banjo a bluegrass instrument. When he and Lester Flatt joined Bill Monroe’s band in 1946, that was a key moment in bluegrass. In fact, a lot of people say that’s when bluegrass music was born. Earl Scruggs brought with him this style of picking that he had adapted through listening to Snuffy Jenkins and a few other people who were playing the three-finger style of the time. But he took that style and smoothed it out and made it more melodic, more complex, more interesting. He was a virtuoso by the time he and Flatt joined Bill Monroe’s band.

In the mid-1950s, Pete Seeger and the Weavers launched the banjo into prominence as a folk instrument. Seeger played a custom long-neck Vega with three extra frets, so he could tune it down lower. It suited his singing, gave him an interesting tone, and let him play in additional keys with the same fingering. Pete Seeger published a book, How to Play the 5-String Banjo, that was used by every kid who wanted to learn how to play the instrument from 1959 to 1979.

1924 Paramount Style F Original Five String Banjo

A 1924 Paramount Style F five-string banjo.

The five-string banjo is actually having a bit of a heyday right now. The Dixieland banjo’s heyday was in the late 1920s, 1925 to 1929. And then, prior to that, in the late 1800s, the five-string banjo had an earlier heyday, when people played this funny Vaudevillian banjo music. It was like banjo ragtime music—they played it in blackface, using five-string banjos (some of them used four-string banjos) and it was associated with comedy and slapstick.

If you look at the old Paramount catalogs from that period, you’ll see pictures of all these banjo players who were endorsing their products. It’s fascinating to try and think about what they were like and what they were playing and whatnot.

Four-string banjos are different. They are tuned in fifths like a mandolin, mandola, and mandocello. It’s very difficult to play bluegrass on a four-string banjo tuned in fifths. But you can play all kinds of other chord voicings and melody lines on a four-string more easily than you can a five-string banjo tuned to an open G chord. It’s just two completely different worlds. Six-string banjos are just tuned like a guitar. They are really for guitar players who want to have plunky tones but don’t want to learn to how to play a banjo.

Today the banjo is associated with Vaudeville and Dixieland and bluegrass, but it originally evolved in Africa. Slaves who were captured and forced onto ships brought the instrument with them. They made them out of gourds.

The banjo is very much like a drum. The rim is made of heated and bent wood—sometimes the wood is laminated—then wet animal skin is stretched over the rim and tapped on. When it dries it tightens and, bingo, you’ve got a drum. If you put a neck on it and some strings, you’ve got a banjo. So African Americans did that when they got over here. And then white guys caught on.

Collectors Weekly: How did the banjo evolve in the 20th century?

Levinger: As banjo-making became almost an industry in the late 1800s, all kinds of different woods were used—more expensive and fancier woods in the higher-end models, plainer woods in the lower-end models. Rosewood was generally used on top-of-the-line banjos, and it went down from there to walnut, mahogany, maple.

A 1933 Gibson Granada Mastertone banjo with its original flathead tone ring.

A 1933 Gibson Granada Mastertone banjo with its original flathead tone ring.

Today maple is considered a really high-quality wood, and it is. But the reason to use different woods is so you can have different price points and basically charge different amounts of money for the same banjo. There was also all kinds of inlay and wood carving, as well as metal engraving and even gold-plating. This gave players on different budgets a whole range of models to choose from.

Wood is actually not as important in a banjo as a guitar. A maple rim and a maple neck will sound a little bit different than a mahogany rim and a mahogany neck, let’s say, on a Gibson Mastertone banjo. That’s about all Gibson used for rim wood, mahogany or maple. They didn’t get into rosewood, and they only used walnut for a little bit. Mostly it was mahogany and maple—the mahogany tends to have a slightly warmer sound than the maple.

The banjo sound, if not the banjo itself, is not unique to American culture. The Celts and the Irish have similar instruments that sound like the banjo and are constructed exactly the same. You’ll hear Eastern European and Slavic music that sounds banjo-ish. Interestingly, in the southern latitudes you don’t hear many banjo-like sounds. Their sounds are woodier.

The same thing is true with Eastern music—you get banjo-y sounds from kotos and instruments like that. They aren’t really banjos, but they do have a similar, plunky sound. So banjo tones are used worldwide, but not so much in the southern hemispheres.

In America, banjo music evolved as a reflection of the culture. Throughout different periods, it reflected what Americans were doing to amuse themselves. In the late 1800s, with no TV or radio, people were going to music halls and watching Vaudeville shows which featured guys playing banjos. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, in the Southeast and even in the Midwest, there were radio stations starting to come on, powerful ones, with signals that reached quite a ways, and they broadcast a lot of live country-music shows.

“Banjos were sold by traveling salesmen and through catalogs such as Sears and Montgomery Ward.”

A lot of the bands that performed on these radio shows included a banjo player. The bands would travel around, maybe in a 350-mile radius from their home radio station, and play at fairs, churches, high schools, bazaars, little theaters, and Lions clubs, usually having to make it back to the radio station for some dumb 7:45 a.m. show every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. That’s how the banjo was heard in those days.

During the 1960s, you could hear banjos in concerts at colleges and town halls. Same thing in Europe. There was a lot of rock ’n’ roll, too, but in the early ’60s, there was also a lot of folk and bluegrass music, which included banjos. People also heard banjos a little bit on TV, especially when “The Beverly Hillbillies” came along, with Earl Scruggs playing the theme song.

Today there’s a banjo community that extends all over the whole world. It’s pretty neat. People who are interested in banjos should know about Banjo Hangout. That is the main banjo community online, and from there you can find pretty much anything relating to banjos.

Collectors Weekly: How did World War II affect the production of banjos in the United States?

Levinger: I think it affected production in most countries. Any country that was involved in the war was using all its metal to make bullets, not banjos. That would be a great slogan—banjos, not bullets. Anyhow, during the war, musical-instrument manufacturers made just a trickle of instruments; a lot of parts on guitars that had been made out of metal were made out of wood during the war. Back then, many of the instrument factories were converted to wartime use. Gibson made toys for a while but when the war ended, they went back to making banjos and guitars.

Collectors Weekly: Who were the top banjo manufacturers?

A 1937 Gibson Charles McNeil five-string banjo.

Levinger: Gibson, Paramount, Epiphone, and Vega for sure. Bacon & Day would also be in there. B&D was their real name, but people called them Bacon & Day. The B&D Silver Bell was probably the most popular Dixieland banjo. Gibsons were the preferred bluegrass banjos because Earl Scruggs played a Gibson, so every bluegrass banjo player wanted that sound. It’s not easy to make that sound—you can do it on a Gibson but it’s almost impossible on a Bacon & Day. It’s a different method of construction using a completely different kind of tone ring. It’s fantastic for Dixieland but not good for bluegrass.

In the early days, banjos were sold by traveling salesmen, in stores, and through catalogs such as Sears and Montgomery Ward. Music teachers had classes and started orchestras in their hometowns, and the banjo companies would make the leaders of the orchestras dealers. They sold banjos to their students and their orchestra members, and that was a big, big part of the business.

Today, Gibson is still around, and I think Deering has taken over the Vega line. There are companies making copies of old banjos, too. Recording King makes copies of the old models of the Gibsons, so does Gold Star. I believe these are all made in China.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most sought after vintage or antique banjos?

Levinger: The most popular banjo from a collector’s or bluegrass player’s standpoint is an original mid-1930s Gibson Mastertone flathead five-string banjo. They only made about 90 of them, one of which Earl Scruggs played. Consequently, all the other concurrent, seminal, influential banjo players also wanted to play original five-string Gibson flathead Mastertone banjos. Most of those players managed to get themselves one in the late ’40s and early ’50s.

These banjos are the best sounding banjos for bluegrass in the world. I know a banjo player named Jim Mills who just wrote a book about Mastertone banjos. Of the known ones, he has pictures and the history of each one. When they trade hands, it’s in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars. That’s nothing compared to a Stradivarius, but it’s still a lot of dough.

Collectors Weekly: What should a collector look for when purchasing a vintage or antique banjo?

ca. 1912 Dayton Guitar Banjo with a Venetian scene on the skin head

This circa-1912 Dayton six-string guitar banjo features a Venetian scene on its skin head.

Levinger: It has to be something that they will enjoy, assuming they’re a player. If they just want to hang it on the wall, it has to be beautiful, ornate, and really finely made, with no flaws in it. If they’re a player, it has to be comfortable for them to play and sound good. Each note must ring true, clear, and be in tune, without any buzzing, ‘fretting out’, or being sharp or flat. If they’re an ensemble player, like in a bluegrass band, it has to be able to really project and have a good dynamic range. If played softly, it has to have a good, sweet, full tone.

Condition is also a factor. Banjos that have been left in attics that go from humid to hot to freezing cold typically have cracks, or their finishes have come off, or their necks have warped. Banjos that have been stored in basements where the bottom of the case was resting in a puddle for seven months out of the year are likely to have water damage—when water seeps under the finish it expands the wood grain which cracks the wood, separates glue joints, and rusts metal. But banjos that have been kept in the bedroom right there with their owner, and maybe taken out for a few concerts, those are probably just fine.

Collectors Weekly: One last question: What’s with all the banjo jokes?

Levinger: There are a million of them. For instance, what’s the difference between a banjo and an onion? No one cries when you cut up a banjo. What’s the difference between a banjo and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle? You can tune a Harley. How about the difference between a banjo and a trampoline? You take off your shoes when you jump on a trampoline. Why are there no banjos in Star Trek? It’s the future. I have no idea where they all came from, but being a banjo player, you get exposed to them over the years.

(All images in this article courtesy Lowell Levinger, Players Vintage Instruments)

18 comments so far

  1. George Martin Says:

    As a banjo player, here’s one I like to tell:

    What’s the difference between a banjo player and a proctologist?

    A proctologist only has to deal with one a****** at a time!

  2. Banjo Paul Says:

    Wow, what a great, informative article! I learned a ton and I’m glad to have read it. Keep up the good work.

    Banjo Paul
    “Wunse, I coodn’t even spel bango pikker…now I are one!”
    http://www.banjosrule.com (main site)
    http://www.mybanjolife.com (blog)

  3. Banjo Paul Says:

    Here’s one of my favorite banjo jokes:

    Q: What’s the difference between a banjo player and a savings bond?
    A: The savings bond will eventually mature and earn money!!

    Banjo Paul
    “Wunse, I coodn’t even spel bango pikker…now I are one!”
    http://www.banjosrule.com (main site)
    http://www.mybanjolife.com (blog)

  4. Phill Gibson Says:

    A great synopsis of the history of banjos. Like Banjo Paul, I also enjoyed reading it and learned some new bits of information. Seems we banjo players are really fascinated with those old pre-war instruments. I got to take a look at a copy of the Jim Mills book recently while at NashCamp. If you’re interested in these old banjos and ever get a chance, get a copy Jim Mill’s book!

  5. Phill Gibson Says:

    Oh, I forgot all about leaving my info…

    Phill Gibson
    http://www.PhillGibson.com
    Blog: blog.PhillGibson.com

  6. earl e eastman Says:

    your article i enjoyed and also inspired me at my age

    that i should sell my banjo at this time because my children

    have no interest in playing and so someone else can enjoy

    playing the banjo. it is an excellent insterment.

    apparently this not a good way to go about selling the banjo?

  7. bob webster Says:

    hi ,i have a 5 st.banjo, tenor, open back, one piece metal body, ivory bridge, nice inlays various shapes in mop and ivory and abolone, large hexagon rod through body, ebony violin style (not geared) tune pegs on back of headstock, body has o.r.chase boston mass. pat. 1862 stamped inside the body at the rear where the truss rod connects to body. 46 brackets, small bronze(?) tailpiece stamped pat. jan 4 87;. looks like original head that is to say very old, thick like elk hide or mabey cow def. not goat.can find very little info on this item. any help? thanks. blind bob

  8. Stu Cohen Says:

    Att: Bob Webster

    I would be most interested in getting a photo of your O. R. Chase banjo. He was one of the early banjo makers in Boston. At one time in the early 1960s, the Boston Public Library had one of his catalogs in their collection but it was stolen. Please contact me at your convenience. stu@themusicemporium.com

  9. Patricia Drenten Says:

    I found a Wm. Nice banjo at a thrift shop in England. Would like to sell but am in no hurry. Any recommendations on what to do with it?

  10. Ron Edenfield Says:

    I liked the jokes…I found a wm l lange f style bango in an attic. Being a guitar player myself I’m unfamiliar with bangos. A couple of the keys ar broken and the skin on the front is torn. Would appreciate any input or knowlege about fixing it or its value. Thanks ,Ron

  11. dean hart Says:

    I have a 1934 gibson six string in fair to good condition ,i want sell it , what do you think its worth

  12. Grandpa Banana Says:

    Is it a guitar or a banjo. How about writing me directly at info@vintageinstruments.com

  13. Boyd Freeman Says:

    Sure enjoyed reading your article, and I too am facinated with banjo’s and guitars….I have a new Gibson Granada, had it for about 5 or 6 years….and then I have this old Gibson mastertone, serial #630369…..The new one never gets out of its case….I am not a professional by no means, but have been playing for several years and have just now had time to really enjoy sitting around and pickin out some tunes……Can you tell me what year model the serial number above is ??? I bought it and a Martin D-35 back in 1977 for a thousand dollars….The Martin is a 1966 model, and honestly you can’t tell it from a new one…..excellent shape….I was thinking since the same man owed both of these, the Banjo might be the same or close to the same year model…Can you help on this???

  14. Kathy Says:

    Question: I was given a old Banjo by a friend that died. It is a Kay with, US and a old looking flag with the red, white stripes hanging down the neck, has 4 strings and has a hard case. Banjo is in good to fair condition. But, I don’t know anything about it or what it is to look like. I would like to know if it has any value. Is there collectors out there that buys this type and what could I sell it for.
    I would love to hear back from you and thank you so much for your help.
    Kathy

  15. Paul Loe Says:

    I have an Ajax (W Temlett maker No 1587) 5 string fretless banjo with mother of pearl inlay. Age unknown, definitely over 50 yrs old but not sure beyond this. Would you be able to give me any information on this instrument and any guide on value? Any help would be greatly appreciated
    Many thank
    Paul

  16. Banana Says:

    Folks,
    For responses you have to email me directly.
    As for the Kay, it’s from the 60’s .. out of my field.
    The Ajax and other old small maker banjos … the source for info is Mike Homes at http://www.mugwumps.com

  17. Dale Meador Says:

    I have a gold plated Epiphone Mastertone (not masterbilt) 5 string banjo. It’s a great instrument and compares favorably with my two Gibson Mastertones. I have yet to see another Epiphone Mastertone: Anyone out there with any news about this banjo. I thank you in advance. Dale Meador, Lafayette, Tn 37083

  18. MAB Says:

    Found this site by accident. How do banjo pickers find anything else? Banjo jokes. If you drop a banjo and an accordian off the Empire state buiilding, which one hits first? Who cares?

    I started being picky about 1957, and in 61, A kid in my freshman class said his dad played the banjo way back when. I asked if he still had it and if he would sell
    it. He said yeah, $15. Figuring it had to be junk, I ended up with a Paramount “C”. Proabably 25 or later When I looked at it I asked $15? I thought $50 was a good deal. He said, “no, $2o.I converted it to a 5 string , but I kept the neck,
    and copied the inlays as besy I could.
    Until it got liberated from my car by the neonazis down the block, Of all it was my favorite. Now I build period correct gourd banjos as gifts for kids who want to learn.
    “Gessin ya don’t need a brain to luv it. Mite get in th’ way of playin it. Shur was fun,a’chattin with ya!


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