1921 Bacon Special Grand Concert

 

The banjo was ubiquitous around the turn of the 20th century, competing only with the mandolin for supremacy among stringed instruments. Its standard form until the 1920s had five strings (usually gut) and an open back, giving the instrument a warmer, tubbier sound than is generally associated with it today. In the early 1910s, players began to strum the banjo with a plectrum to complement the tango music craze that swept the US and much of Europe. The short fifth string often got in the way of chording, so some players left it off altogether; thus, the four-string banjo was born.

The concept wasn’t entirely new: mandolin-banjos with four doubled courses already existed. However, by 1920 a number of manufacturers had introduced four-string necks in various scales as the strummed banjo gradually became the rhythmic centerpiece of many bands. Full, ~27” necks became known as plectrum banjos, while shorter-necked variants became known as tenor banjos. (Descriptions such as “tango” or “melody” banjos existed as well; sometimes they were applied to tenor instruments, sometimes to four-string mandolin-scale variants). The tenor banjo initially featured 17 frets and a scale around 21”, but around the mid 1920s the norm shifted to 19 frets ad 23”. This shift, coinciding with the development of the full resonator, allowed for greater volume, sustain and snap in the tone.

This Bacon banjo, probably built in 1921, shows some slight departures from standard tenor design of the time. The scale is an extra-short 20”, which limits sustain and volume but allows exceptionally easy playability. The banjo has a trademark of early Bacons, an internal resonator built into the rim with f-holes in the back. This provides nowhere near the volume boost of a full, modern resonator, but it does provide an audible advantage over other contemporary banjos with entirely open backs. As a Special Grand Concert model, its appearance reflected its status at the pinnacle of the Bacon line: pearl inlays on both sides of the headstock, the fingerboard and the heel cap; multiple laminations on the neck; and black finish on the back of the resonator. The neck and rim are both made of holly, though curly maple was offered as an alternative.

As part of Bacon’s Professional line, however, the Special Grand Concert’s days were numbered by the time this example was built in 1921. Bacon would introduce its hugely successful Silver Bell line in 1923, complete with full resonator and modern tone ring, after which the Professional series would gradually morph into Bacon’s more affordable (and less decorated) group of models. This was made possible by the opening of Bacon’s Groton, CT factory in 1920, which would continue to build instruments until its flooding by a tidal surge during the hurricane of 1938.

It has been commented that some early Groton banjos show unusual crudeness, or at least inconsistency, for such a high-end manufacturer as Bacon. This banjo supports this commentary, as the f-holes in the resonator are poorly shaped and appear to have been eyeballed rather than following a jig. The inlay, laminations and carving on the neck, however, are top-notch. I therefore believe that the rim was produced at Groton, where the workforce was still learning to build banjos in 1921, while the neck was produced somewhere else. There is some controversy over the origins of pre-1920 Bacons (and even those of the early 1920s) which I will not attempt to describe in full, but I do not believe that the Groton stamp on this banjo’s dowel tells the full story of its manufacture.

The banjo is in remarkably clean condition for its age, with just a couple of small dings on the headstock and one small chip to the heel cap. The tuners have been changed (possibly a long time ago) from friction pegs to planetary gears – a welcome upgrade in my opinion – and the tailpiece has been replaced. The rest of the parts appear to be original, and the instrument plays perfectly.

 

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