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Oklahoma's American Banjo Museum recently acquired a rare instrument

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Not all banjos are created equal. From 1937 to 1940, Gibson produced the TB-18 Mastertone, a skillfully engineered, consummately crafted work of art, and only manufactured 25 of the instruments before World War II halted production. One such TB-18 spent 60 years in storage — barely played — until it finally showed up in the collectibles market in the early 2000s.

And now it resides in Oklahoma City.

Last fall, the American Banjo Museum acquired the nearly pristine, four-string TB-18, which is valued at over $100,000. As a preserved artifact of pre-World War II instrument making, it occupies an important place in the museum’s collection, located at 9 E. Sheridan Ave., in Bricktown.

‘Stradivarius of banjos’

Museum executive director Johnny Baier said the TB-18, often described as the “Stradivarius of banjos,” was bought new in 1940, stored for six decades and then passed through two collectors before being acquired by the museum.

For a nearly 80-year-old instrument, it is nearly perfect with the exception of some loss of gold plating on the armrest.

The brackets on the tension hoop were never adjusted, and it never had a five-string neck bolted onto it, which makes it an exceptionally rare find.

“The collectors who had it before shared the same mindset that we do,” Baier said. “If I start turning screws on this, I can never take it back — I can never unscrew that screw. That’s really important. If I could say that every banjo here had this mojo connected to it, that would be wonderful. This has relevance to the modern banjo.”

Gibson’s Mastertone banjo line first went on the market in the 1920s and continued until 2010, when the guitarmaker’s Nashville factory was devastated in a flood.

Band leader

While it is considered the gold standard of the Mastertone line, the TB-18 was produced at a time when the instrument’s popularity had essentially cratered. From the mid-19th century up through the 1920s, the banjo served as a lead instrument in string and jazz bands, but its bright sounds fell out of favor during the Great Depression, Baier said.

“The banjo was the most popular instrument associated with American pop music in the 1920s,” he said. “You could compare it to the electric guitar of today — that’s the level of popularity. And from that level of popularity, it died.”

For nearly two decades, the banjo was essentially an artifact of days gone by. Much like saxophones in pop music largely disappeared after the 1980s, banjos simply lost ground in most bands to their six-stringed brethren.

But in the mid-1940s, mandolinist and bandleader Bill Monroe brought banjoist Earl Scruggs into his group, the Blue Grass Boys, and Scruggs popularized the three-finger picking style that came to typify bluegrass.

Today, banjos are seen with greater frequency in modern folk groups like Mumford & Sons, featuring banjoist Winston Marshall, but perhaps the instrument’s greatest evangelist is actor, comedian and musician Steve Martin.

“He is a serious banjo player,” Baier said. “When he plays and presents the banjo, because he’s Steve Martin, it becomes cool.”

Truly unique

While later Gibson models often rival the tone and quality of the TB-18, the older instruments are sought by collectors and prized by musicians for their clarity and physical beauty.

With its art-deco accents and maple-sunburst resonator, the TB-18 stands out among its contemporaries, and the fact that the museum’s instrument, one of only 12 remaining, was rarely played and never adjusted or modified makes it unique.

Baier said that the American Banjo Museum’s acquisition of the TB-18 gave the instrument a perfect home.

“We have a stated mission, and if protecting artifacts of our culture isn’t part of that, we might as well close our doors,” he said. “If we don’t do it, no one will.”

Visit americanbanjomuseum.com or call 405-604-2793.

Print headline: Gilded pick, An exceptionally rare Mastertone banjo — the bright, plucky lead instrument in early 1900s jazz and string bands — finds a home at American Banjo Museum.

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