Hello! I'm currently looking at a 1972 Alvarez Montana Bell, it will be a gift for my boyfriend. I don't know much about banjos and he is a beginner, so I'm just curious if anyone out there may have some experience with this model and is willing to share a little commentary, pros and cons, etc. Thank you!!
They can be good beginner banjos. They can even be good move-up banjos depending on what someone started with. I had something similar in 1972 - the "Aria" brand, but actually made in the same Japanese factory. The same banjo was imported under several different names. And their features and designs changed (for the better) throughout the 70s.
Whether the one you're looking at is a good buy depends on what Gary said above: mainly condition and price. Depending on price, in particular, there might be better banjos you can buy new. (Though you might have to buy them online; sounds as if you're looking at this one in person)
Can you describe the banjo at all? Things to describe would be: Fingerboard inlays - do they look like bowties, or something else? "Binding" (or plastic strips) along the edge of the fingerboard and top and bottom edges of the resonator - dark or light? Tuning pegs on the peghead - all metal, boxy shape, with metal buttons, or metal cylindrical shape with plastic pearl- or ivory-looking buttons? Holes in the resonator "flange" (the metal piece that wraps around the body of the banjo and where the sound comes out) -- do they look sort of like a Mickey Mouse hat or are they more like rectangles with semi-circles on either end?
These kinds of details will help us determine some other things about the banjo that you're not in a position to find out. (Would require taking the resonator off and looking inside the "pot")
Not too long ago someone here had a chance to buy the Aria version of one of these for $250 (maybe even less, I forget for sure). We generally thought that was a good price. People have been trying to get over $400 for these things, which I think is too much. At that price (and even less), I think there are better banjos you can get new. But I won't go into that yet. (These things cost under $200 new in 1972; I got my Aria for $170 with case)
I'm looking at it on ebay, the current price is at $199, $80 for shipping, older leather case included. It seems to be in pretty good condition. I haven't bid on it yet b/c I'm trying to get the best banjo I can for under $400 and it's in the running for another 5 days so I'd like to get some informed opinions before I jump into it. I've attached a few photos and included a link. Thanks for the feedback I'll be looking forward to you replies.
This is a slight step up from the 1972 Aria that I owned. This has the same clunky peghead tuners (they work, but the buttons can get loose, which is fixed by tightening the screws), but the peghead inlay is different and the inlay all the way around the backof the resonator is an addition. MOST IMPORTANT, this banjo has a better tone ring (that metal piece with the little holes in it you can see through the head) and the tone ring fits properly on the "rim" or the drum-like shell that is the body of the banjo. This tone ring may even be some type of "bell metal." My banjo had the original cheap and poorly fitted "pot metal" ring.
This banjo also has some upgrades that were added by a previous owner: the geared fifth string tuner, the Waverly tailpiece, and the sliding fifth string capo. The head is probably a replacement, too. It's an old Remo.
I can see this banjo being worth between $300 and $400. Maybe even more. I would think that any price below $325 would be a good deal for this. I cannot predict at all how much this will sell for. But at that same price, there are some nice beginner banjos that look good and sound good (even if they don't have tone rings). So if you lose this, you still have options.
I will be curious to see what others think.
If you want to take your best shot at winning the auction, then what you need to do is simply enter one time the most you are willing or able to pay for the banjo (before shipping) and then just wait. You'll either win the auction or you won't. And you'll only pay your secret maximum bid if someone else bids the price up that high. I've been in discussions before where people don't seem to understand this basic element of how eBay works.
Many of these banjos have a pot metal tone ring and a thin, black plywood rim. I have a very, very similar one. Some had a thick rim and a brass tone ring. I cannot recommend the zinc/plywood combination. The more rare thick rim/brass tone ring may well be much better and worth $400.
Unless you can determine which it is, I would not buy it. A picture of the bottom of the pot with the resonator removed will reveal which it is. The cheapy will have a thin, 3/8" rim and the tone ring overhanging the inside of the rim.
From the view through the clear head, this looks to be the better ring. It's 18 or 20 holes (I haven't counted). I don't know if they put holes in the pot metal ring. And from what you can see through the head, the inner edge of the ring appears to be aligned with the inner surface of the rim. As you probably know, the cheaper version (like I had) the ring over-hung the rim. Don't know if the seller will take and post the picture you ask about. But if you go to the auction and click through to the pix, you can enlarge them and get a pretty detailed view.
Well, thank you for all of your help, I put in my max bid as high as I could afford with the shipping total and was automatically out-bid. No biggie, I've still got time, some lucky player will have a nice banjo, and I'll keep on looking. Thanks again for your advice!!!
Oh, well. You tried. Guess my estimate of $300 - $400 has a chance of being right.
I think the Mastercraft "Bluegrass Series" banjos at Banjohut.com are respectable beginner instruments. Rolled brass tone ring instead of "Mastertone" style like on that Alvarez. But some nice features and decent sound (from the video). No case at the $279 price. Maybe you can find a cheap gig bag.
Or you can keep on looking for one of those old imports to show up. Add the names Aria, Aida, Iida and Ventura to your list. Even Epiphone - there were less-decorated and matte metal Epiphones of the same basic design back in the early 70s.
I have experience with it as our Bluegrass Band in the early 70s The Northern Grass had a Montana 5 Star and a Montana Belle. they were excellent Banjos for their time. Solid, Heavy, Bell Brass Tone Rings and very playable.
Heres a pic of our group with the Montana Belle. I'm the one behind the Mandolin although I was the Banjo Picker
There was no model called a Montana Belle made by Alvarez in the 70's. This ebay name was made up from 2 high quality models, The "Montana 5 Star ", & The "Denver Belle". The 5 star had a heavy tonering, unique ornamentation, & gold hardware. The Denver Belle had a carved heel & Reno design fretboard. ( this could be an Idaho Belle, or a generic model 4282). Some of these Alvarez models are better than intermediate instruments, it depends on the metal of the tonering, & construction of the pot). (may be worth $3-400, but $80 shipping is very high).
These were actually made by Kasuga for Alvarez and like a million other nametags. I have a gold plated ,engraved Dorado that was made by them for Gretsch in the 70`s. Its a pretty good intermediate banjo-solidly built with pretty good hardware, except for the freaky stair-step tuners.It has a multiply rim and a heavy tone ring. Plays and sounds pretty good for what its worth.
Those tuners were actually copies of what Gibson was putting on the bowtie-style RB-250 in the 50s or 60s. Except the Gibson version had plastic-ivoroid buttons instead of the metal buttons on the Kasugas. Same shape, though. So these banjos were based on the Mastertone concept, but not fully realized. By the end of the 70s,they were producing full-blown copies -- the original Masterclones.
It looks to me from the photos that this particular banjo had the better ring and rim. Mine had the sloppy fit pot metal ring on the lightweight plywood rim. I've described this before: The top of the rim was not flat as it is in a Mastertone. It was taller and was beveled up to a rounded edge that went up into the underside of the ring. The inside edge of the ring overhung the rim.