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mandobrynley - Posted - 06/26/2006:  00:16:18

After some time on a lesser instrument I finally broke the bank, and now own a 1926 B+D Silver Bell #1 Special, which is really changing my playing for the better! My question is what is the difference between this model, with carved heel and a row of rhinestones around the pot, and the Silver Bell #2, which is listed in the old B+D catalogue with a carved heel. Also ,how rare is this model? Any answers appreciated.

Bill Rogers - Posted - 06/26/2006:  01:08:17

#2 is silver plated...differences are in woods & decorations, though I don't know what they are


stanger - Posted - 06/26/2006:  01:37:05

Hi, Mando...
Yours is a pretty rare model. The typical #1 had no carving or rhinestones. I think the rhinestones aren't typical of a Special, either, but were popular back then, and could have been an option. The Silver Bell series was extensive. They went from #1 to #9. They all had the same construction, and the grades indicated increasing levels of ornamentation, and on some, the use of different woods.

The #1 was the most popular and least ornamented- the working man's pro banjo. #2 had a carved heel and gold plating, #3 had rhinestones circling the peghead and resonator and engraving in the gold, etc. They just got fancier with each number.

The #4 on up were also labeled "Ne Plus Ultra" (French for 'None Better'). These banjos cost as much as a Chevrolet back then, and most players who could afford them usually bought a #4 or #6. The #6 featured a solid ebony neck with either a lion's head or elephant's head carved heel... the elephant had ivory tusks with gold caps on them, and green rhinestone eyes. The lion's eyes were red rhinestones. The 6 up all had engraved ivory inlays, and the 9 had a fingerboard that was almost completely ivory, with a ton of engraving, heavy metal engraving on every part including the brackets, 2 different sets of pearl inlays circling the rim, and rhinestones set into all the metal parts except for the brackets. A #9 cost around $1500 back then, when a real good wage was $100 a month. There is one #9 5-string known to exist, but there may have been others.

Since everything from 6 up was custom ordered, it is very common to see players names engraved on the pegheads, custom colors, patterns, etc. especially on the pearloid covered banjos. There are a lot of 'Specials' in these banjos, such as the 'Dolly Special', the 'Snoozy Edwards Special', etc.

Later Ne Plus Ultras used pearloid extensively and even more rhinestones. While these outfits look gaudy to a lot of folks today, back then, they really were impressive onstage, and live performance was where it was all happening back then. Gibson copied the rhinestone and pearloid look on the Florentine, as did Ludwig, Leedy, and a bunch of others. The 1 and 2 never got pearloid; all I've ever seen had dyed pear wood peghead overlays with intricated pearl inlays and ebony boards with relatively simple, unengraved inlays. Interestingly, all the pearl board inlays are always fairly simple. Bacon never did produce a fingerboard with fancy pearl shapes.

The Silver Bell line is also complicated. There were several different models of the Silver Bell, all distinct from each other. Besides the Silver Bell, there was also the very blonde Montana series (all made of holly, and the first to get pearloid), the Sultana series which had very dark sunburst finishes, the Roy Smecks, which were covered in gold sparkle , and several others that used the same pot and general looks with different colors and woods. Each of these models also went from #1 up, usually to a #6.

The Symphonie series was the last produced, and it has a 12" pot with an archtop Silver Bell tone ring. These also went from #1 up, and all have pearloid pegheads, fingerboards and resonator backs. These banjos also have a different hole design in the flange- commonly called the 'clover' holes. All the rest had F-shaped holes that are similar to a violin's.

When Gretsch bought out Bacon, they adopted the clover hole shape as their standard. This is a quick indentifier as to whether a banjo was made by Bacon or by Gretsch.

mainejohn - Posted - 06/26/2006:  08:23:19

Stanger: A fascinating tutorial. Did you do that from memory? If so, I'm impressed. I don't own a B & D, but as a plectrum player, I've always admired them and have played a couple of Silver Bells and they are wonderful. Point well taken in your last paragraph: I bought the Gretsch model about 20 years ago thinking I was buying a real B & D. I dumped it a couple of months later. Talk about learning the hard way!

Scarborough, Maine

mandobrynley - Posted - 06/26/2006:  10:53:20

What a great forum! Thanks for the information, it,s great to be playing on a piece of history from that era.

stanger - Posted - 06/26/2006:  11:56:55

Hi, John...
Yup. I first got turned on to B&D banjos in 1966 while in the Navy in San Diego. I used to hang out at a shop called the Blue Guitar there, and the owner had several old B&D catalogs. Before then, I played my long neck 5-string (without the 5th string- took it off on Friday night and put it back on Sunday morning) for a few months at a pizza joint with another banjoist, a guy who used a B&D Silver Bell #1 plectrum. I always admired his banjo, and when I saw the extent of the line in the catalogs, it started my interest in them. I bought my #1 in 1986.

The net really filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge, and I have a pal, Ed Britt, who is extremely knowledgeable in all things Bacon and Day. We are both big Ode and Ome fans, too, and B&D was a big influence on Mr. Ogsbury's designs.

It's a very interesting history with a lot of twists. Gretsch-made Bacons aren't nearly as highly regarded as the originals, but Gretsch made a lot of banjos from the late 30's, when they bought Bacon out, to the 70's, when Gretsch was bought by the Baldwin Piano Co. Around the same time, Baldwin bought the Ode company from Chuck, and Baldwin turned the Ode banjo production over to Gretsch. When they did, there was a corporate decision to stop production of all the Bacons. The only other company who was influenced by the Bacon and Day designs killed them off.

Lono - Posted - 06/26/2006:  17:56:40

The #2 is silver plated and a carved heel, the #3 is gold plated and a carved heel and bound peghead. . The #4 is gold plated, carved heel, and engraved. The first in the Ne Plus Ultra series is the #6 model. Rhinestones were not standard on the #6 and may have only been standard on the #9. The Montana models followed the same lines except I believe they went through models at least 1-4 (had a Montatna 4) and I've seen one model 7. All of this relates to B&Ds prior to Gretsch.

stanger - Posted - 06/27/2006:  03:12:14

Thanks, Lono...
I'm glad to get some help from another B&D fan! It's hard to keep them all straight. One thing: the early #9 had few or no rhinestones and no pearloid. They are my favorites- the resonator back is also ebony, like the neck,and carved with a charging bull elephant that is partially gilded to show off the carving.

Lono - Posted - 06/27/2006:  07:40:23

Mike, I'm a fan, I think they're neat banjos at a good price. I recently picked up a #2 to have around just for fun, couldn't pass it up.

John Field - Posted - 06/27/2006:  08:53:28

Mine is a 1927 Silver Bell 17 fret tenor no. 1 Got some great advice here a while back on set up, and have continued to experiment. 5star head, light strings (8:12:18:28), half inch bridge and Oettinger cranked right down give a good Dixieland tone. Next try will be heavier string gauges. I'm now 70% done on a 5 str. neck for the SB pot too. I'm definitely a conversion to the SB fan club.........John

John Field - Posted - 06/27/2006:  09:07:38

Another question........Silver Bell tonerings came in at least three configurations I believe (and maybe more). There were the early ones with holes outside and inside. Later ones (like mine) with inside holes only, and still later, say around 1929 onwards, with no holes. My guess is that these mods. were to save production costs, but if they were the result of factory experimentation on tonal improvement, are such changes noticeable today? Do the three types of SB ring have different tonal characteristics?
Also, my SB has a copper ring approx. 1/4 in. dia inside the SB tone ring, and resting on the top of the wood rim. Do they all have this ring feature? Anyone tried an SB with the copper ring removed?......John

stanger - Posted - 06/27/2006:  12:18:03

Hi, John...
You're right- there were 3 versions of the tone ring. My banjo's tone ring doesn't have holes. It was made in 1930. I haven't played another Silver Bell for a long time, so I don't know if there is much tonal difference between the rings with and without the inner holes, but there is a definite difference between those and the first design, that has the holes on the outside as well. Does your tone ring have grommets on the holes? Most I've seen do, but I think some didn't.

Back then, one of the basic concepts all the makers had about tone rings was that holes were needed to let the sound out. The earliest attempts at resonators, the ones that sealed the back of the banjo, acted as dampers because they limited the amount of motion a head could acoomplish, much like an infinite baffle closed back stereo speaker. The makers realized that holes were needed to let the head vibrate fully, but I'm unsure that they understood the acoustic principles involved back then, because most of the early tone rings and rims got more holes than needed on all of the major brands for some time. Given Day's design genius, I'm sure he realized at some point they weren't needed on the tone ring and probably quit using them as a cost saver.

The brass hoop is an integral part of the tone ring design. I'm sure the tone ring would work without it, but wouldn't contact the inner lip of the rim very well, and the tone would probably change quite a lot without it.

John Field - Posted - 06/27/2006:  13:48:32

Hello Stanger,
My SB has the grommets on the inner holes, and seems to be an absolutely standard SB in all respects. The bridge is nearer the tailpiece than 19 fret tenors though, and doubtless this changes the sound a bit. It seems that Bacon didn't alter their scale length for the 17 fret models.
Can anyone point me to recordings where a Silver Bell is definitely being played, either in tenor, plectrum or 5 string mode? I have some Firehouse 5 discs, and the banjo player (Dick Roberts in this case) is depicted on the LP cover with a high grade Silver Bell. Perry Bechtel is depicted in a well known photo with a Silver bell. Anyone else?......partic. bluegrass recordings.....John

John Field - Posted - 06/27/2006:  14:02:06

I could be way off beam here, but I seem to recall an ancient Hylo Brown LP...possibly on Starday, where the pic. of the band on the cover had a banjo player with Silver Bell. Can anyone confirm, or am I imagining this?.........John

Bill Rogers - Posted - 06/27/2006:  17:04:43

Dunno, but I think I've seen a pic of Larry Richardson with a Silver Bell--or some non-Gibson banjo.


black flag - Posted - 06/30/2006:  10:40:32

John--You aren't imagining it--I remember seeing that Starday Hylo Brown album in the PX in 1963 and taking note of the Silver Bell on the cover. Those old vinyl record jackets used to be almost the only source of information that a lot of us had about instruments.
Likewise, I recall a record jacket with a picture of Larry Richardson holding a 5-string Epiphone, identifiable by the x-shaped flange holes.
A collection of old BG album cover photos would make a fun book, no?


stanger - Posted - 06/30/2006:  11:20:38

Those old Epiphone Recording models would make great bluegrass instruments. I think the reason the Silver Bells and Epi's never made inroads into the music because 5-strings were very rare in the brands, much more so than Vega or Gibson. Folks who owned them hung onto them, too, and didn't trade them in like other brands. And they have always had a strong market in the folks who play 4-string banjos.

Gretsch made Silver Bells really slipped in quality around the time the 5-string regained it's popularity. That, and the high price Gretsch wanted for them, left buyers with the impression that all Silver Bells weren't so hot, but the old Bacon-made banjos are altogether different, even though the design is the same. Just proves that the details are important- the same lesson that other manufacturers seem to have to learn, over and over.

John Field - Posted - 06/30/2006:  14:37:57

Chris.....thanks a lot for confirming that I wasn't imagining that Silver Bell on the Hylo Brown Starday LP. I'm now off to Ebay to see if I can locate a copy........
Stanger.....the use of brands other than Gibson for bluegrass banjo playing interests me a lot. I use a 1925 Vega Whyte Laydie plectrum conversion with flanges and resonator attached, and while it has only 80% of the vol. of a Mastertone, it does have a really good tone and pop. Still building my SB 5 str. neck, and hope that it will challenge the Vega. I've also used (here in the UK) in the distant past , a "Clifford Essex" XX Special made around 1915, which was a copy of the Vega W.L, but about 5% larger in many of the pot dimensions. I feel that I was copying the Gibson sound on a copy of the "wrong" banjo....ah! the arrogance of lost youth...........John

brid - Posted - 06/30/2006:  16:14:19

What a fascinating thread !!
I have my #6 advertised in the for sale section.
I've been "sitting" on it for over 5 years, since I inherited it. I never gave it much thought, as -- when it arrived in my "fold", I was extremely busy with other projects. I opened the case, and peeked at it -- missing 2 strings, and looking a little sorry for itself !!
We just moved the workshop, and the #6 came to light -- case very dusty, and looking like some sort of derelict !!
Anyway, I did a "session" with friends a few weeks ago, and realised that most of my instruments were due for a "Good coat of looking at".
One of the first ones on the bench was the #6.
I've played tenor for many years, and owned/sold/traded many banjo's, including Mastertones, Vega's, Clifford Essex etc -- however, had never seen anything quite like the #6
In starting to research it, I joined a couple of Banjo forums, and before too long, it was becoming clear I have a pretty rare bird here !!
I've been helped greatly by Danish B&D "Guru" Polle Flaunoe, who has a very nice website (Just Google his name) He has a register of many of the known B&D's in the World today, and suprise suprise, my #6 is 28930, and his is 28928 !! Talk about coincedence
I have talked to many people over the last couple of weeks, and am still blown away by the depth of knowledge I've been treated to.
Mike Stanger here, is clearly quite the scholar on B&D's.
Just about everyone I have talked to, has been wonderfully interesting, and helpful. Thanks everyone !!
Why am I selling it?? I don't play plectrum, and have just too many instruments "kicking around" that don't get played. Seeing something go to a good home, where it will be cared for - AND played, is important to me.
I am a bit of a Luthier, and have built a few Bouzoukis, -- both for sale, and -- to play myself.
I currently play --
1/ 1926 Maybell Recording Songster "Mother Of Toilet Seat" bright green tenor banjo.
2/ 1916 Gibson A model mandolin.
3/ One of my own Bouzoukis, built in 1990 (ish)
3/ Dexter Johnson 6 string accoustic guitar, built in 1976.
4/ late 70's Hohner 2 row Melodeon (D G )
5/ Irish Bodhran (Drum)
6/ Many different Tin Whistles.

In "skinnying back", I am selling --
1/ The 1929 B&D #6 Silverbell Ne Plus Ultra
2/ 1919 Gibson A4 Mandolin.
3/ 1980 Gold Star GF 100 FE 5 string banjo.
4/ 1980 Gibson A copy mandolin, Custom built for me.
5/ The first Bouzouki I ever built.

Experience tells me that it won't be too long after selling these instruments, that more will take their place. Sometimes I wonder where they come from ??? Perhaps they breed whilst I'm not looking !!
Anyway, it's great to be amongst like minded folks, and very neat that we are all brought together by a common bond.
They say -- "Music is the food of love" -- WELL, you've got to have the "tools" to make the music -- AND, I love them all !!

jon - Posted - 07/05/2006:  17:35:07

Finally some "other than Gibson 5 str. talk"! I've always played Vega's and an Epiphone "Alhambra" plectrums, but last year I was at a guitar center in So Cal, and some old banjoist sold a batch of banjos to them. I bought a B&D Silverbell no.1 with the extended fingerboard, I tune it plectrum and it's pretty great-huge volume. i've always loved the flange look on them.

mainejohn - Posted - 07/05/2006:  17:52:04

Jon: I've played alot of plectrums and my favorite belongs to a friend in Halifax; a B & D #3? Silver Bell. I own only prewar Vega plectrums (one could do worse), but that Silver Bell is better than any I own. Wouldn't you just love to find these old banjos before the "old banjoists" (or their heirs) sell them as a collection to a music store or some estate sale outfit?

Scarborough, Maine

John Field - Posted - 07/06/2006:  03:54:18

Glad to see posts re. the benefits of Silver Bell banjos. If you had never heard/played one, just the look of the instruments (partic. the lower grade styles 1 to 3) is pretty convincing !....John

mandobrynley - Posted - 07/14/2006:  14:12:58

I,ve noticed the Silver Bells seem to be the only banjo,s out there with soft pedal mute,s ,unfortunately mine is missing, and I,m wondering are they effective, or do they get in the way of the playing position. Mine had a Richelieu master mute installed which I,ve removed for the moment as I think I prefer the sound without. However I,m seriously thinking of getting either a reproduction, or vintage soft pedal, as I think it might be advantageous to be able to control the sound that way. Anyone have any thoughts or info on this?

stanger - Posted - 07/14/2006:  14:34:21

Hi, brynley...
Yup- the work, but they require fairly regular adjusting. They don't work when you're standing, either. The original mutes installed on old B&D's require 2 special bracket hooks, which have notches in them. Installation of an original also requires a hole drilled through the rim, and some specialized springs. The apparatus inside the banjo also requires a dowel stick, not co-ordinator rods. There is a wood block connected at the end of the thing that has some small cork pads in it, and on mine, the cork was old and compressed. I added a piece of stiff felt, used for furniture pads above the cork and it helped a lot.

Adjustment needs to be careful, because the mute can exert a lot of leverage on the underside of the head. I found that all that's needed is just light complete contact.

The coolest thing about the mute is that it works on the fly- you press the mute lever against your thigh as you're playing, no hands needed. You can go from the soft muted sound to full blast instantly, and can do wah-wah effects too.

The Bacon mute was patented and closely guarded by them. All the others I know of require the use of one hand to make them work, and none worked as well, or was as sturdy.

I stuck a Bart Veerman Mystery Wood bridge on mine, and it worked wonders. My B&D has a very bright tone, mostly due to the real thin head I have on it. The Bart bridge smoothed the tone out while keeping the essence intact. I currently have an old custom made neck on mine- it was made for another banjo, but fit the B&D. I have some Keith tuners on the neck, and the combination of the Keiths and the mute gives me some very unique effects.

jon - Posted - 07/14/2006:  16:08:33

My 34 Vegavox had the arm rest must and I removed it, also my B&D 1 has the knee mute-I don't care how it sounds when muted and it's sooo much better just to control volume with the pick. One can strum lighter, hold the pick looser or strum up on the lower neck region.

creekwater - Posted - 07/20/2006:  17:10:53

Did the B&D Silver Bell come out in 5-string from the factory? The reason I'm asking is when I was a young boy just learning, my dad would take me a local banjo pickers home to pick with him. He had a Silver Bell 5-string, and to this day it is one of the best banjos I've ever heard. I figure some of ya'll could answer my question as it looks like there are some knowledgable people on this. many thanks.

" there's no substitute for PRACTICE"

mainejohn - Posted - 07/20/2006:  19:44:10

I hope Stanger chimes in on this thread because he knows alot more about B & D than I do. But I do have a reprint of their original catalog and they show a number of 5 string models, and also pictures artists that played them, including Fred Bacon himself.

Scarborough, Maine

stanger - Posted - 07/20/2006:  22:04:50

Hi, all...
I've switched necks on my B&D a couple of times over the years. I have a custom Ode style neck with a dowel stick that drops right on, so I've played mine as a 5-string and plectrum over the years as needs and interests changed back and forth.

As a 5-string, with a 5/8 bridge and some adjustment to the Oettinger tailpiece (I have both 5 and 4 string Oettingers), my Silver Bell goes head to head with any Gibson I've ever been around, including the pre-war archtop I owned for a decade. I have a thin no-name head on it which makes it brighter than most of the Bells I've played, and the tone quality is different from a Gibsons for sure, but is on equal par in it's volume, tone dynamics, and depth. I'm planning on installing a Renaissance head on it one of these days, which should really deepen the overall tone while keeping the power. The banjo is sweeter than most Mastertone style banjos, and lacks the hollowness of tone some Mastertones have. It's also about 3 pounds lighter, and doesn't sustain quite as long as some Mastertones.

I've taken it to many festivals and jams, and it always gets looked over by other banjoists. All the Gibson guys are ashtonished- some like it, and some don't, especially the dyed-in-the-wool, only Gibson players.

My comments have to be taken with a grain of salt, though, because I play 3-finger and clawhammer equally and always have, and I sometimes like to use a flatpick as well. My banjo tastes are non-conventional, because I'm always on the lookout for a 'Universal'- a banjo that works equally well in either style without needing to take the resonator off or doing any changes at all. There are relatively few banjos that really set my hair on fire because of this, but I gets 'em if I finds 'em.

The Silver Bell is the best one of my bunch, followed closely by a new Prucha Diamond Point, a flathead bluegrass style banjo that just has the stuff for both, surprisingly, and a D Model Ode, and lastly, an openback Prucha w/ a Tubaphone tone ring set up tight. Some others that work for me are a ball-bearing Mastertone, an Ibanez with a deep wall resonator and an archtop tone ring, and a 12" Ome Bright Angel openback I steal from my brother on occaision. He also has a Fairbanks Regent that is way good, too, but he watches that one real closely...

The thing about the Silver Bell, like all my others, is the tonal pallette each has. I like the differences a lot! Each has it's strengths. I'm a total tone junkie and play them all. You'll never catch me with 2 banjos that sound fundamentally alike.

stanger - Posted - 07/20/2006:  22:37:23

Dang- forgot to answer John's question in my rant.
Fred Bacon was a 5-string player, one of the big dogs of his day. He found the Silver Bell tone ring better than the Tubaphone- David Day develope the Silver Bell ring for Vega, but the Nelson bros. never used it, so when Fred bought a banjo co. he snatched Day away from Vega to develop the ultimate 5-string. The bell-shaped resonator flange was Day's ultimate expression of what Bacon desired in 5-string tone, and they started making 'em.

The reason there are so few original B&D 5-strings around is simple economics. Unlike Gibson, who continued to make instruments long after there was a large market for them, Bacon simply went with the times and started meeting demand for tenors and plectrums as the 4-string became the banjo King. The money was in the higher grades then as it is now, and those players all wanted 4-stringers, with the exception of Montana, the vaudville cowboy banjoist. As the pros went to B&D's, the amateurs followed in the lower grades. Unlike Gibson, the Silver Bell was so popular it outsold the lesser models in the #1 and #2 models, and all Silver Bells cost more than corresponding Gibson models. At the top end, there was nothing but the Silver Bell- nobody else ever reached their level of ornamentation and use of exotic wood, especially the solid ebony necks. Hand work was simply much more and much better on the Silver Bells than any other banjo made in the high grades.

Montana played a 5-string with a flatpick, plectrum style, and never played a tenor. All of the very early Montana models #4 and above were actually 5-string banjos if customers requested a banjo just like his. By the mid to late 20's, Montana played a phony 5-string. It looked like one, with the peg in the side of the neck, and rarely a string pip, but didn't actually have a string attached, and the tailpiece was a 4-string. There were VERY few of these made outside of Montana's own banjos - most customer orders were simply plectrums or tenor versions.

Montana preferred an open back banjo, and his own Silver Bells had a tone ring that was more like a Whyte Laydie than the usual SB ring. To my knowledge, none of the customer's banjos had this ring, except possibly for a few real early ones. All of the cataloged Montana models were essentially just blonde Silver Bells with no structural differences after a that short early period. I'm pretty sure Montana eventually used a resonated banjo, too- he's shown in many pictures holding one in his later career.

There are very few 5-stringers of the high-grades, but they're around. Bacon's banker owned one, a #9 that is jaw dropping. Several of the old-style classical players, Fred Van Eps, for one, also played Silver Bells at their career's endings. There were some lesser Bacons made as 5-strings, but these are very rare, too. Most 5-strings were probably #1's.

I think there are more Gretsch-made B&D 5-strings than the real McCoys.... after a while, Gretsch got pretty fast and loose with what they called B&D. The Senorita was introduced by Bacon, but didn't have 'B&D' on the peghead; only the Gretsch-mades have that one.

So- it's ironic that the banjo designed to be the best 5-string ended up being the preferred 4-string, and the Mastertone, which was designed to be a 4-string, became the most desired 5-string! Go figure.

mainejohn - Posted - 07/21/2006:  08:06:46

Stanger: Your comment about David Day developing the Silver Bell tone ring while at Vega, then taking it to Fred Bacon...could it be mere coincidence that the tone ring I saw 2 days ago in the Martin/Vega V-45 that was on ebay resembled the Silver Bell tone ring? As I mentioned in another thread, it bore no resemblance to a tubaphone ring (which I expected it to resemble), nor to a masterone ring. Mike Longworth, we need you!

Scarborough, Maine

John Field - Posted - 07/21/2006:  10:43:21

Stanger and others......ref. original 5 string Silver in the UK I have seen 2 of these.....a no.1 back in 1961 for sale at £40 (say $80 then), and a silver plated no.2 which was owned by a friend in the mid-1980's. I borrowed this no 2. for a week and gave it an extensive test as a bluegrass banjo. Understandably, I didn't try to set it up as it wasn't my banjo. It was a very high-class banjo, but had an uncomfortably narrow neck between the nut and 5th string peg. It had a no-hole Silver Bell tone ring and was 100% original. It had a good, but not outstanding tone.......but was indifferently set up as I recall. I suspect that it did have outstanding potential..........John

stanger - Posted - 07/21/2006:  12:21:29

Originally posted by mainejohn

Stanger: Your comment about David Day developing the Silver Bell tone ring while at Vega, then taking it to Fred Bacon...could it be mere coincidence that the tone ring I saw 2 days ago in the Martin/Vega V-45 that was on ebay resembled the Silver Bell tone ring? As I mentioned in another thread, it bore no resemblance to a tubaphone ring (which I expected it to resemble), nor to a masterone ring. Mike Longworth, we need you!

Scarborough, Maine

Hi, John...
I would expect that Vega to have the 'dumb-bell' Tubaphone ring. It's like a standard tubaphone, except that it has fewer holes in the ring, and pairs of holes are connected with a narrow slot. How did it resemble a Silver Bell ring?

mainejohn - Posted - 07/21/2006:  19:45:21

Mike: It wasn't the "dumb-bell" tone ring. I have seen those. This looked like a cross between a Mastertone-type and a Silver Bell-type. It had no holes, it was shaped similar to a Mastertone flathead, but thinner...more like the Silver Bell. Sorry I can't describe it better than that. I didn't get a long look at it. I'll try and stop there next week when Gary is back and get a better look.

Scarborough, Maine

robertkrug - Posted - 03/15/2007:  22:42:13

Need some help with a Bacon & Day Silver Bell Tenor Banjo. My Grandfather bought it brand new in the 20's and I inherited it several years ago and with my dad passing recently I am seeking to get a value and possibly sell it to someone who will appreciate it like my grandfather did. I don't want it to sit in a closet or garage for years and be neglected. It has the original case and some strings in a box that are about as old as the banjo itself. I need help finding a service that can fairly appraise the instrument primarily via email and photos and possibly broker a sale for me. I found thsi forum searching for info on the banjo and the passion of many of the members here tells me I am in the right place. Any assistance is appreciated.

stanger - Posted - 03/16/2007:  00:34:01

Hi, Robert...
Any old banjo is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. The B&D's were some of the most popular back in their day, but aren't as well known now as they used to be, which affects their value somewhat. They are still popular with the 4-string players, though, so I exepct you could find a ready sale for it if it's in good condition. If your banjo has a metal plate on the back of the resonator which says "Fred Bacon & Co., Groton, Conn." it will be worth more. Silver Bells were initally made by Bacon, and later by Gretsch. The second maker's banjos don't fetch as high prices.
It's impossible to say for sure as a rough guess what the banjo is worth because the market goes up and down constantly.

there are several well-known dealers who offer appraisals, and may take your banjo on consignment. Some of them are:
George Gruhn
John Bernunzio
Greg Boyd
Janet Davis

All have websites. I'm pretty sure all do appraisals, but may be wrong about Janet.

mosco - Posted - 03/16/2007:  10:55:49

In regard to the missing mute parts in one of the page one posts, there was a fellow a few years back (in Michigan, I believe) who made reproductions of all the B&D mute parts, so you could either replace an entire missing mute assembly, or replace any missing parts of an original one.
I don't know if he is still doing that or not; it has been ten years or more ago when I got some parts from him, and I don't recall his name or any contact information, but I thought some of you may know something about that source.

stanger - Posted - 03/16/2007:  11:26:35

Hi, Mosco...
I'm pretty sure Ome is building a mute that is very close in design to the Silver Bell. I haven't seen one except in pictures, so they may not be interchageable. Ome uses co-ordinator rods, and the Sliver Bells had a dowel stick. It is possible that Dale Small, a guy who makes very excellent B&D style banjos, may make one as well. I don't know where Dale lives, but he may have been the person you're referring to.

Those mutes really work, but you have to modify a banjo to install them. The modification requires a 1/4" hole drilled in the rim (Bacon installed a brass grommet in the hole for wear endurance), and one of the shoes is specially designed- it is thicker and higher than the others and has a slot machined into it. The bracket hook acts as a hinge pivot and the shoe keeps the lever in the correct place.
The mute itself is very adjustable, has lots of springs, small bolts and parts, and there is a coiled spring that is mounted on the outside of the rim to return the mute back to neutral when it is depressed.

The only trouble I've ever had with mine were the small cork pads on top of the mute. They got old and brittle and compressed from years of use. I stuck a piece of a chair runner over the top of the cork- one of those heavy felt self-stick jobs- and adjusted the mute for the extra thickness. Works fine again. Makes good wah-wah banjo!

Banjo40 - Posted - 03/16/2007:  18:38:10

I own a Montana #4 17 fret tenor that was left to me by my grandfather. I'm curious if anyone knows of a luthier that has or could make a 5 string conversion neck to match the original tenor neck -holly colored, perloid fretboard, carved heal ?

Thanks, Mike

Edited by - Banjo40 on 03/16/2007 18:45:25

daren - Posted - 03/16/2007:  19:04:22

Bill Camp is the guy in Minneapolis who made the Bacon mutes and flanges and other parts. His son, Tom, is selling off his stock. I believe that there is a mute on ebay now and here is one on Tom's website:

Dave Nerad

daren - Posted - 03/16/2007:  19:07:57

eBay mute:

robertkrug - Posted - 03/16/2007:  21:51:13


Thanks I will take a closer look at it. My grandfather tried to teach how to play growing up but I was unable to grasp the playing style for some reason. I played string instruments (viola, Violin) for years in symphonies but the Banjo just was foreign to me. I will check out some of the sites you recommended. As with anything it is worth what someone is willing to pay. I will take some photos too if any one would like them emailed just let me know. Thanks again for the advice and information.


mosco - Posted - 03/17/2007:  00:07:38

Thanks, Daren. That was the fellow I had gotten the parts from years ago. If anyone is needing mute parts, it sounds like they had better try to get them now. The parts I got were exact reproductions of the originals and fit perfectly.

stanger - Posted - 03/17/2007:  02:02:52

Originally posted by Banjo40

I own a Montana #4 17 fret tenor that was left to me by my grandfather. I'm curious if anyone knows of a luthier that has or could make a 5 string conversion neck to match the original tenor neck -holly colored, perloid fretboard, carved heal ?

Thanks, Mike

Hoo, Boy...
That's a nice banjo, Mike!
The first guy who comes to mind is Leo Coulsen at Intermountain Guitar & Banjo in Salt Lake City. Leo has converted several B&D's over the years- I've seen and played a couple, and they are smack on the money. He won't make it in any way other than a recreation of the original neck- no 'upgrades'- and may not agree to make one at all, as I heard he's cutting back on his work.

But he's into them, and digs the challenge they present, so he may agree to do one. Expect it to run some money, but expect excellence, too- Leo as one of those guys who can do the fingerboard engraving and heel carving just as nicely as the essentials. He will get the backstrapping right, too.

The B&D necks are much more complex to build than Gibson style stuff, and much stiffer due to all the laminations that go into them. If you ever take your neck off, look at the end- you will see a second full thickness fingerboard blank underneath the fingerboard.

Daniel D. Tedder - Posted - 03/17/2007:  12:35:02

Wow! Wonderful topic, folks! It's refreshing to learn more about another style of construction and perspectives on design.
Ebony necks, rims and resonators on the Ultras?
Were there standard lamination patterns on the necks?
Were resonators bookmatched slabs or laminated? Concave like others?
Block, or ply rims, or what?

Sorry for the general questions folks, I've never handled any B&Ds, and am just now getting informed.

Thanks for any responses.

stanger - Posted - 03/18/2007:  14:09:56

Hi, Dan...
Geez. Simple questions, complicated answers!
First-the Bacon Banjo Co. produced several lines of non-Silver Bell banjos. The Sliver Bell was their professional line. Unlike Gibson, who only had one model for each banjo in the Mastertone line, Bacon produced an entire line of banjos within each of the Silver Bell models. So, in effect, it was like being able to buy an Granada, Granada #2, Granada #3, Granada #4, etc.

Each model shared common pot construction and generally, similar ornamentation as the banjo went up in number. So a Silver Bell #2 is similarly appointed as a Montana #2, but with differences between the models.

To use the same examples:
The base model of the entire line was the B&D Silver Bell #1. This banjo has a 3 lamination backstrapped maple neck with 3 vertical laminations running through the neck, a thick rosewood lamination under the fingerboard, an ebony fingerboard w/ pearl iinlays, a hollow square reinforcing steel rod in the neck, an extensively pearl inlaid overlay on the peghead with 2 laminations underneath the overlay, and a heel cap. The plectrum scale is 27". Grover 2-band tuners are standard; earlier banjos had Grover pancakes or friction tuners.

The pot uses a 5/8" 5 ply rim, painted metallic silver on the inside w/ the Silver Bell tone ring mounted on top. It uses hooks and shoes, and the bottom of the rim is capped. The heavy notched hoop has 24 brackets, and an Oettinger tailpiece was standard.

The bell shaped resonator flange has 30 "ƒ" shaped holes, and attaches to the rim with 4 lugs which screw into the sides of the rim. The bottom of the rim is milled to mee the top of the flange. The flange is made of stamped and formed sheet brass.

The back of the resonator is made of birch plies with a thicker veneer of matching wood (maple in this case). On the older ones, the back had ornamental circular grooves turned in the back which are painted a contrasting color, usually metallic gold, to the color. All the lower Silver Bells were finished in sunbursts. On older models, there is a small metal nickel plated metal plate which is screwed to the outside of the back, just below the heel of the neck. This little plate reads: "STYLE #1, B&D Silver Bell, Bacon Banjo Co., Groton, Mass." The back is attached to the flange with small screws.

The Silver Bell #2 was iidentical to the #1 with the addition of gold plated parts and a carved heel. Bacon carving is distinctive. Silver is rare, but seen.

All Montana models are very blonde. A Montana #1 is identical in all respects to the Silver Bell with these differences:
The neck was was made of white holly with a ivoroid or pearloid backstrap. (the backstrap on the Silver Bell is dyed pearwood).

The peghead overlay was either ivoroid or pearloid, with engraved and colored designs and lettering. The early ones were ivoroid, w/ the lettering engraving painted black. Later ones have white pearloid with several colors. Typically the have "Montana" in large diagonal ornamented letters in the center of the peghead, with designs above and below the letters. There is a small "B&D" with a design above them, and "Silver Bell" below them, next to the nut. The heel cap matches.
The pot is identical to the Silver Bell with the addition of a holly veneer. The resonator back is covered in ivoroid or pearloid, with the same turnings.
A Montana #2 has identical plating and carving as a Silver Bell #2.

Then, as the numbers go up, everything gets fancier and fancier. Colored rhinestones are inset into peghead, flange, and hoop. Inlays are added to the rim between the shoes, and engraving becomes more extensive. At the top end, all metal parts are engraved except for the hooks, and the resonator backs are either extensively engraved and colored (when pearloid is used) or solid wood that is heavily carved and colored. The heel carving on the top models is a full carve, and is either a lion's head with red or green rhinestone eyes, or an elephant's head with ivory tusks that have solid gold tusk caps.

You could literally get anything you wanted from the company. The top end models often have the player's name engraved into the peghead, unique color combinations, custom engraving on the resonator back, extra stones (or none at all) etc. These banjos cost around $2000, which would buy a house back then, and they made a lot of them!

There was a wide array of models... Besides the Silver Bell and Montana,( the two most popular), were the Sultana, Roy Smeck, and Symphonie (which had a 12" head). All except the Smeck could be had in grades 1-4. The grades 5-9 were all very custom and are rarely seen as anything but a Silver Bell and Montana.

The general look of the models was:
Silver Bell- yellow/borwn sunburst. Ebony veneer on top models, with solid ebony necks and reso backs on high end.
The elephant carving is only found on this line. Early fingerboards were all ebony, later boards had pearloid w/ engraved designs.
Early #7 and #9 models had ebony peghead overlays with genuine ivory inlays. Ebony boards had a wide center strip of ivory that ran the length of the board with highly engraved vine. Later models had pearloid boards with extensive engraving and coloring. The elephant's head is only found on the #9, and is more rare than the lion's head. The solid ebony back had a deep carving of a charging bull elephant, highlighted in genuine gold leaf.

Montana- white holly, white pearloid or early ivoroid. All wood is natural finished.
All fingerboards were ivoroid or pearloid- higher grades all had engraved fingerboards. Rare models are sliver plated in higher grades.

Sultana- dark yellow/red-brown sunburst. Unique engraving designs with Oriental theme on reso, with sunburst below the engraving. Engraving is usually brightly colored in contrast. All Sultanas have gold-yellow pearloid fingerboards and reso backs.

Symphonie- natural finished maple neck with pearloid covered reso back. 12" rim.
This model had an archtop version of the Silver Bell tone ring, and was the only one that had tulip-shaped holes in the flange.
This was a late model, and after Gretsch bought the company, the tulip holes were used universally. The bottom of the flange has a unique 'double bump' curve not found on the others. All use lots of white pearloid and are very brightly colorful.

Smeck- This was a short-lived model, as Roy endorsed anyone who threw money at him. Until Harmony stopped his use, he preferred to play his B&D over any of his other endorsed banjo models.
The Smeck is entirely covered in gold sparkle pearloid, similar to the binding on a Gibson #6. The engraving is unique- radio 'lightning', similar to the old RKO movie logo. It was either nickel or gold plated, no carving, and I've seen none with rhinestones.

The rhinestone use was common on everything from the #3's up in all the model lines, but was variable. Some banjos have a lot, some none at all. Some later high enders used rhinestones to form the letters instead of engraving, some big lettering was bordered with them.

All the gold plated banjos had metallic gold sprayed on the inside of the rim and inside the back of the resonator. The dowel stick was also sprayed, either silver or gold. This finish is light, and the resonator backs weren't sanded much before spraying.

The mute was always optional, but was popular. It is only found on the Silver Bell models. Unlike Gibson, none I've ever seen has a pickguard mounted above the head. On higher grades, the mute was engraved extensively.

Armrests were highly engraved on higher models and sometimes had inset rhinestones. The armrest was soldered to a couple of bracket hooks.

Montana was about 6'5" tall (or taller), and was from Brooklyn, but claimed he learned how to play in Montana, out on an uncle's ranch. (this may be doubtful). He was a good player, and also did trick shooting and rope tricks in his act. When all dressed up in his white Angora chaps and Tom Mix Stetson, which made him over 7" tall, he must have been an imposing stage presence. He always wore a white holster with carried a nickel plated Colt with pearl grips, a white leather vest, and wore a white silk bandanna.
whoooo.... long post!

Edited by - stanger on 03/18/2007 14:27:03

DIV - Posted - 03/18/2007:  14:23:36

I knew you couldn't resist posting!
Thanks for sharing the Silver Bell over the phone with me yesterday. Very nice!

Juggernaut Connoisseur,

DIV - Posted - 03/18/2007:  14:25:06

I wonder if Ome would entertain a custom order of a 5 string Classic Jazz banjo which is the closet reproduction of a B&D Silver Bell.

Juggernaut Connoisseur,

Daniel D. Tedder - Posted - 03/18/2007:  14:39:12

WOW! Just, WOW. If only I had the cash...(sob)

stanger - Posted - 03/18/2007:  14:52:27

Hi, Dan...
I doubt that Ome would make a reproduction but you could sure come close...

But if you ordered a banjo with an Artist peghead, with the Grand Artist inlays in the peghead and Monarch inlays in the neck, with their Griffin heel carving and a backstrap on a maple neck, with their gold plated and engraved Silver Bell (Classic Jazz) resonator with the heavy leaf carving on the reso back, and with their Bacon style mute, you would come real close. With the Sliver Spun tone ring and rim, of course.

The rhinestones could be left off. While they tend to really sparkle in photos, in real life they look duller.

Personally, I like the older Silver Bell models the most, with the extremely classy all-ebony black and gold look. My favorite pearloid covered banjos are the Sultanas... the coloring on them is dark, riich, and way cool. And I wouldn't buy a Gretsch-made B&D; they started making everything too garish, and those banjos lack the hand-made look and feel of the Bacons.

I didn't mention the non-Silver Bell models. The Senorita isn't so hot, but the early Blue Ribbon makes a great frailer with the resonator off. Unlike Gibson, when you take the reso off, you have a clean open back with no flange. The Blue Ribbon has a tone ring that is spun brass, but smaller and narrower than the Silver Bell. Some have just a brass bead. Both sound bright and good.

Actually, I think an Ome would be an even classier banjo than the old B&D's. It would be a better buy, too... instead of costing as much as a house, it would only cost as much as a car these days!

In my long post, I didn't mention B&D's construction strengths and weaknesses. The Silver Bell neck is a marvel- there is no stronger neck ever made... all those laminations really keep it stiff and straight. The mute's springs tend to relax with age, so I'm sure some of them don't work well anymore. The dowel stick is their weakest point. They tend to stretch over time inside the heel, and sometimes tend to loosen. Changing the action often requires making a new stick. I would certainly use co-ordinator rods on a new banjo.

stanger - Posted - 03/18/2007:  15:09:09

Hi, Dan T...
I had the opportunity to buy a VERY rare Silver Bell #7 plectrum last year, but $10,000 was more than I could afford. Even at that price, it was a good deal- Bacon popularity is still high world-wide, and top models usually sell in less than a week.

Of all the B&D's, #5 models are the most rare of all- I know of only one in existance. Most Bacon fans have never seen one at all. I'm sure the #5 is like the Martin D-21... just slightly less fancy than a #7 and just slightly less money when new. Most who ordered went for the #7. The #9 is actually far more common, relatively, than an All-American or Florentine, but they are exceedinly hard to come by because all owners keep 'em forever.

Of all the bnjos ever made, I have a total lust for the #9 5-string that Fred Bacon made for his banker. Incredible!

Grades 1-4 are most common, and a #4 is fancier than anything made by the competition at a similar price. Above that, it seems that most of the folks who bought the real custom jobs went for the #7 or #9.

There were gaps in the numbers... they are: #1, #2, #3 (I think, don't know for sure) #4, #5, #7 and #9. #4 and above tend to be widely variable in their engraving, coloration, use of stones, etc.

I used to spend hours at the Blue Guitar in San Diego, pouring through their old Bacon catalogs in 1966. I was totally flabbergasted at thei high end stuff, and still am. I got acquainted with the Silver Bell early on- a fellow player and I used to play in a pizza parlor, and he had a #1. 30 years later, I got one of my own.

Edited by - stanger on 03/18/2007 15:18:27

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