Vintage Tenor Banjo Bargains
There’s no shortage of relatively inexpensive used tenor banjos, but they usually lack decent playability and don’t have the heavier rim construction that gives those iconic jazz-age Paramounts, VegaPhones and Silver Bells the classic tone banjo players crave. All tenor banjos are capable of being loud, the difference is that really good banjos are loud without being played hard, allowing the player to get good tone. But those great name-brand tenors made ninety years ago are expensive, right? Sure they can be, if you’re after collector-grade show-boat banjos, but if you want a nice playable banjo that sounds good you’re in luck.
Bacon & Day, Paramount, and Vega were all in competition for tenor banjo buyers in the period from the early 1920s to the late ‘30s). These makers all had roughly the same marketing plan, which was to offer less expensive, lighter-weight models to compete with lesser brands, saving the good shells, necks, tone rings and other hardware for their higher models. Bacon & Day called their better models “Silver Bell,” while Vega called their top models “VegaPhone”. Paramount didn’t have a catchy name, but gave their better models a capital letter, such as Style A, B, C, D, and so on. But here’s the little insider secret: for all of these companies the “body,” which for a banjo is the wood shell, tone ring, and resonator assembly, was the same for all of the higher models, regardless of the price. That meant that a Silver Bell No. 1 and a Silver Bell No. 4 sounded much the same, as did a Paramount Style A and a Paramount F. The more expensive versions had gold or silver plating, often hand-engraved, plus fancier wood, extra inlays on the neck and fancy binding everywhere, but those weren’t differences you could hear. Of course the catalogs from these companies didn’t admit this, they all stressed the superior tone of their most expensive models.
Today the best values in vintage tenor banjos are the less expensive versions of these higher models that have the “good stuff” where it counts, in the shell construction, but which lack the fancy plating, inlays and froo-froo. And what a coincidence that right now Gryphon has an example from each of the three companies mentioned! Our 1925 Silver Bell No. 1, and the 1929 Vegaphone Professional, even include their original hardshell cases. The 1924 Paramount Style A has its original case and a calfskin head, which gives it a cool old-timey tone. All of these vintage tenor banjos have geared tuners and low string action so they’re all very playable.
Of course if you want a more deluxe tenor banjo, we can help. Check out the B & D No. 3 Montana Special Silver Bell. Gryphon also stocks excellent new tenor banjos as well.