1932 Epiphone Concert
While a number of prominent banjo manufacturers branched out into other stringed instruments – Vega, Slingerland and Bacon all come to mind – Epiphone was the only one to successfully capture a large share of the guitar market. As the popularity of the banjo waned in the late 1930s, Epiphone’s archtops effectively re-branded the company as a giant of the guitar world. Nevertheless, the change was not immediate; the Masterbuilt guitar series were introduced in 1931, but in 1934 the catalog was still attributed to the Epiphone Banjo Corporation on the cover.
Just as Epiphone launched the Masterbuilt series around the dawn of the modern archtop guitar, they launched the Recording series around the dawn of the modern tenor and plectrum banjo. The company’s previous models had been solid enough instruments, but they were relatively mundane in terms of appearance. The Recording series changed all that, making extensive use of pearloid, sparkling Pyralin and engraving. The initial lineup in 1925 was (roughly) alphabetized: Artist, Bandmaster, Concert Art, Deluxe Art, and Emperor from least to most expensive. A few other models, including the Alhambra, Dansant and Concert Special were added in 1927, about the same time that the Concert Art and Deluxe Art were simplified into the Concert and Deluxe models. The “Art” series made extensive use of pearl inlays, with engraved dragons on the headstocks; their replacements relied heavily on engraved and painted pyralin to provide a flashy appearance.
The Concert sat in the middle of the Recording line, but as the entire range was aimed at professional players, it bore all the trademarks of a high-end banjo. The neck was made of Brazilian rosewood with a 3-layer center lamination for stiffness, and the heel was carved with a floral pattern. Like the rest of the Recording series, the rim was made of walnut (a material uniquely favored by Epiphone in the ’20s and ’30s). The hardware was all plated in gold. The Concert Special was structurally similar but featured a holly neck and lighter-colored pyralin veneers to match. Both listed for $300, though the price was up to $330 by the early 1930s. Minor cosmetic changes occurred often to both models, and it appears that Epiphone regarded catalog specifications more like suggestions than hard and fast rules. My banjo is largely typical of Concerts made at the time but is slightly unusual in having an un-engraved flange.
Like all the Recording series, the Concert had an archtop tone ring. By narrowing the vibrating surface of the head, this style of construction produces a bright sound that may be relatively light on bass but can cut through a band with ease. By retaining a full-size rim and resonator, the banjo maintains considerable volume. The Epiphone catalog also emphasized the single-piece flange whose L-shaped cross section was intended to stiffen and support the rim. The catalog also noted the bar of “specially tempered surgical steel” that acted as a non-adjustable truss rod, an unusual feature at the time.
This particular banjo dates from about 1932, roughly the peak of the tenor banjo’s popularity. While it would be several more years before guitars dominated Epiphone’s product line, the company would switch gears fairly rapidly in the mid 1930s. At that point, Epiphone discontinued all banjo production except for a couple of electric models. The brand did not make any more conventional banjos until the 1960s when Epiphone banjos were copies of Gibson designs. This example from the heyday of Epiphone banjos is remarkably clean, showing only minor signs of play wear. It sports a replica tailpiece because the original broke (I still have it); the head and bridge are also newer, but the rest of the instrument is original.