Because of their good tone, powerful sound and superb craftsmanship, the Bacon & Day Silver Bell tenor banjo is considered by many musicians to be the finest tenor banjo ever made, making it a sought-after collectors’ item.
The hard-driving banjo in bluegrass music is a familiar sound to most 21st-century Americans. But, before the stylings of Earl Scruggs, Don Reno and Ralph Stanley created the distinctive sound of bluegrass, banjo playing (and banjos) in America were quite different. From modest roots as a gourd-based instrument to today’s sleek wonder of acoustic engineering, banjos have always adapted to America’s changing musical tastes.
In the complex history of the banjo, no instrument stands taller than the Bacon & Day Silver Bell tenor banjo. The B&D Silver Bell is considered by many musicians to be the finest tenor banjo ever made. Silver Bells are valued for their good tone, powerful sound and superb craftsmanship. Although four-string tenor banjos have been displaced by five-string, bluegrass-style banjos (except in traditional Irish music), Silver Bell banjos are still a sought-after collectible among banjo enthusiasts. Bacon & Day Silver Bell tenor banjos command higher prices than tenor banjos by any other maker.
As with other banjos, the design of the Silver Bell was driven by the musical needs of the times, and more than 200 years of American musical history passed before the Silver Bell arrived on the scene. On the frontier of Colonial America, banjos were extremely rare. The area encompassing the Eastern Seaboard to the Appalachian Mountains was populated mostly by immigrant Germans, Scots-Irish and English, and they coaxed their music from homemade fiddles and dulcimers. Banjos were Southern plantation instruments, created by African slaves for their own entertainment. As the plantation culture developed, so did the banjo. Early banjos were not much more than gut strings stretched across a stick with a goatskin-covered gourd at one end to provide amplification. The rudimentary music they produced was created by plucking or strumming with bare fingers. Little about the instruments resembled the modern banjo.
With few exceptions, banjos were always found on Southern plantations throughout the 1700s. It wasn’t until the 1830s that what we recognize as the “modern” banjo was introduced to the general public when Joel Sweeney, a white minstrel performer from Virginia, first used the instrument on stage. During the Civil War, thousands of Union soldiers encountered the banjo, and many of them carried the instrument back to their homes in the North and West after the war. Over the next 30 years, homemade banjos appeared in almost every part of the country, varying in construction details like size, frets, number of strings and construction materials. Commercial banjo manufacturing began in the late 1800s, so banjo sizes and accessories became fairly standardized: steel strings replaced gut strings and flatpicks (popular with mandolin players) replaced finger strumming.
Bacon and Day headstock decals always read “B&D.” They may also have model designations.
Banjo necks are sometimes replaced; if the neck is clearly marked B&D and matches online photos of similar models but the serial number on the body does not match up, the banjo probably isn’t all-original.
The banjo became hugely popular as a parlor instrument. It was cheaper than either a piano or an organ and, unlike orchestral instruments, it didn’t require accompaniment (guitars didn’t become popular until after the First World War). Fretted string instrument orchestras began to appear in most large cities; it was reported that by 1900, New York City alone boasted more than 10,000 banjo players.
Over the years, banjos adapted to the changing musical tastes of big city residents. While traditional tunes remained popular in rural America, cities like New Orleans, Chicago and New York were tapping their toes to the new sound of Dixieland Jazz. Dixieland bands required a solid rhythm section, and in most bands that rhythm was provided by a tuba, a banjo and a drummer. Dixieland banjo players were required to strum a solid chord-based rhythm behind the band, and old fashioned five-string folk banjos were just not up to the job. A new type of banjo was needed: one with a shorter scale (neck length and fret positions) tuned to make it easier for a player to strum chords. The banjo also had to produce enough sound to play a melody line that could be heard over an assembly of brass and woodwind instruments while still being able to play softly when required. The short-scale, four string banjo was developed to meet this need and composers quickly incorporated the sound of the new jazz tenor banjo into their compositions: Ferde Grofe’s arrangement of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” includes a tenor banjo part that calls for widely spaced chords that are nearly impossible to play on old-fashioned banjos using conventional tunings.
One of the most popular banjo performers of the early 20th century was Fred Bacon, a noted five-string banjoist playing in the classical style. In 1906, Bacon began the Bacon Banjo Company in Vermont. Bacon’s small shop couldn’t keep up with the demand for his brand of instruments, so he contracted with the Vega Banjo Company of Boston to produce most of his banjos. In 1921, Bacon partnered with David Day, the general manager of Vega, to create the Bacon & Day banjo line. Less than a year later, the first Silver Bell banjo was introduced. Silver Bells were manufactured continuously by Bacon & Day from 1923 to 1938, when a hurricane destroyed the factory. For a brief time, B&D banjos were made by the Gretsch Company, which bought out Bacon & Day in 1940.
A label on a 1927 Bacon Banjo Co., Inc., Silver Bell, noting it produces “Banjoes of Quality.”
Another mark noting the instrument was made by the Bacon Banjo Co. in Groton, Conn.
The serial number on the 1927 Silver Bell. The numbering started in 1923 with four numbers beginning with the numeral 9.
When evaluating a Bacon & Day Silver Bell banjo for investment, here are a few points to note:
• Bacon and Day headstock decals always read “B&D.” They may also have model designations;
• B&D serial numbers were consecutive from their creation in 1923, and the earliest numbers have four digits beginning with the number 9;
• In addition to Silver Bells, B&D models included the Symphonie, Montana and Ne Plus Ultra (by 1931; serial numbers had progressed to 29,000-plus);
• Serial numbers had reached 35,000 when the hurricane struck in 1938;
• From 1939 to 1940, Gretsch continued to use B&D serial numbers and stamps. Banjos made from 1939 on were not made by B&D, even if they use the B&D or Bacon name. Gretsch produced banjos under the Bacon name until 1967. Check the serial number for authentic B&D banjos;
• Banjo necks are sometimes replaced; if the neck is clearly marked B&D and matches online photos of similar models but the serial number on the body does not match up, the banjo probably isn’t all-original.
Check the tailpiece to make sure it’s intact.
Of course, condition is important when buying any banjo. The following inspections don’t require any technical expertise; assessments can be easily made:
• Check for a warped neck by looking at the banjo from all angles. The neck should be straight;
• Check for severely worn frets. Indentations in the frets that cause buzzing when the note is played will need repair;
• Check the tailpiece to make sure it’s intact;
• Look for inlays that are lifting and other missing parts like bracket shoes and hooks (bolts that attach to the rim), strings and bridge;
• Check the head for splits and the resonator (back) for damage;
• Check the tuners and make sure the banjo is tunable.
This B&D Silver Bell sold at Heritage Auctions Galleries in 2011 for $2,800.
Prices for all-original B&D Silver Bell banjos in excellent to good condition will fall into the following ranges:
• 1922-39 #1: $1,400-$1,700
• 1920s #2: $1,800-$2,200
• 1920s #3: $2,300-$2,800
• 1933-39 Montana #1: $1,800-$2,200
• 1920s Montana #3: $2,800-$3,400
• 1933-39 Symphonie #1: $2,500-$3,100
The deluxe version of the Silver Bell was called the “Ne Plus Ultra” (Latin for “the ultimate”). Price ranges are as follows:
• Ne Plus Ultra 5: $7,000-$9,000
• Ne Plus Ultra 6: $9,000-$11,000
• Ne Plus Ultra 7: $14,000-$16,000
• Ne Plus Ultra 8: $21,000-$26,000
• Ne Plus Ultra 9: $21,000-$26,000
The B&D Silver Bell is history and an item of interest for every serious collector of musical instruments. Silver Bells are regularly available, and most still sound as good as they ever did.
The story of the banjo isn’t over. As musical tastes develop and players like Bela Flek and Tony Trishka continue to push the banjo in new directions, there will be more changes coming for the instrument. In the meantime, Americans can enjoy the banjo stylings of the new masters or turn back the clock to the days of Dixieland and spend some downtime listening to the tenor banjo stylings of Eddie Peabody and his contemporaries.
Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.
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