Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Vintage Banjo Ukulele Buying Tips - part 2

In the last post banjo ukulele expert, John Bianchi gave us some vintage banjo ukulele buying tips and advice.  In this post, John gives us a break down on a TON of different vintage banjo ukes.  Again, I must express my appreciation to John for taking the time to write this up for us.  Hope you enjoy the rest of his article!  And don't forget to do yourself a favor and check out his blog.


The Banjo Ukulele:

Tips for Buying Vintage

By John Bianchi

Finally, here are a few brand recommendations for prospective buyers.

High-End Banjo Ukuleles

At the top of the vintage banjo ukulele pantheon sit three manufacturers, Gibson,
Ludwig and Abbott.  Instruments by all three manufacturers were played by British
film and variety star George Formby, who certainly had a good ear for the best.

Gibsons came in several styles.  Starting in 1925, the Kalamazoo-based shop
jumped on the banjo uke trend by creating the UB “trapdoor”, which was actually
a banjo-mandolin re-built as a four-string ukulele.  Feeling it was not a great instrument,
Kalamazoo’s craftsmen created a full line of banjo ukuleles the next year with the
flat-backed resonator models UB1, UB2, and UB3, and the big, flanged resonator
UB4 and UB5.  A year or two later – no one is quite sure of the timing – Gibson
offered big, flanged resonator versions of the UB2 and UB3.  All are highly sought
after, well built, and have a great sound.  Expect to pay between $600 for the UB1
and UB2 up to $4,000 for the UB4 and UB5.

Chicago-based Ludwig offered two models – the cheaper Ludwig Wendell Hall
Professional and the more expensive and highly variable Ludwig Banjo Ukulele.
The Banjo Ukulele came in several varieties, from a version that looked very much
like the Wendell Hall to the Art Deluxe version.  Banjo ukes were available in
nickel or gold plate and one version featured crown cut outs instead of the more
common ovals seen on the Wendell Hall.  Wendell Halls can be found nowadays
from about $1,200 to $1,500, and Banjo Ukuleles from $2,500+.  Both models have a
combination metal pot and resonator flange that makes the instrument surprisingly
light, bright and very distinctive in sound.

UK-based John Abbott and his son, John Jr. offered beautiful, handmade
instruments, which also had a combined metal pot and resonator flange, which was
accompanied in most cases by a convex wooden resonator.  Abbotts are extremely
light, highly resonant, and each is a unique instrument with an unmatched, unique
voice.  Both the Abbott and Abbott Jr. command high prices, and rightly so, and
almost only come up for sale in the UK.


There are dozens of mid-range manufacturers of banjo ukuleles, but there are a few
clear recommendations: John E. Dallas & Sons, Stromberg-Voisinet, and Slingerland.
I’d also like to nominate William Lange as a slightly underrated choice for the
prospective buyer.

Slingerland – unfortunately, the goodness of the Slingerland Maybells has been
widely recognized and the prices have gone way up on the 8” pot models, which are
actually the inferior of the two sizes in the opinion of many.  Still, when properly
set up, Slingerland models 24, 25 and 027 and 028 are good, powerful-voiced
instruments.  The 023 and outfit 30, with their resonators, are even better.  Expect
to pay about $250 for the 24 and 25 and up to $500 or more for the big
resonator backed models. 

John E. Dallas and Sons – While the Dallas line has skyrocketed in price in the
last two years because of the connection with George Formby, most class them
as mid-range ukes.  The Model C and D are first class and sound great (they have
arch-top tone rings, which isn’t common in a banjo ukulele). The model E is a rare
instrument, and is priced accordingly.

Stromberg-Voisinet.  The company that started life as the Groeschel Mandolin
Co. and ended life as Kay had one brief decade as a manufacturer of innovative and
musical instruments, very ornate and beautiful for the price, back in the 20s.  They
have a good voice, they’re light and easy to hold, and when set up properly are great
instruments. The banjo uke lines produced by S-V have risen steadily in value over
the last five years, and sadly, they’re now overpriced. Open backs can still be had for
about $100, while the big resonator “Buster Brown” and the Rose tend to be fetching
prices in the $350-$500 range, with some in the UK paying close on the equivalent
of $700 in the last few months.

William Lange & Co.   This New York City-based manufacturer started life as
Rettburg and Lange, but despite what some websites now claim, they never made
banjo ukes under that imprint.  As William Lange, they did produce a great range
of instruments for themselves, including Lange, Langstile, Banner Blue, Blue Boy,
White Swan, Paramount and Orpheum; for others, they produced the Avalon for
Henry Stadlmair, the May Singhi Breen model for P’Mico, the Bruno and the Vernon
for Bruno NY, a porthole-sided model for Wizard, and several others.  The Langstile
and White Swan are very good instruments, as are any of those created and sold
under the Lange imprint.  Those made for and sold by other companies tend to
be lower-end, but are still good quality.  Right now, Lange prices have stayed a bit
lower than other ukes of similar quality.

Low-End Ukuleles

There are many dozen low-end uke manufacturers, but by definition – most are
not so great.  Here are a few that are good money for value and which have a great

Slingerland’s low-end 7” pot models – including the 016, 20, 049 – are great,
bright-sounding instruments, and thought they are better-sounding instruments
than their 8” big brothers, they have stayed cheaper, ranging in price from less
than $100 to up to $300.  The open-backed model 20 and also several of the 8” pot
models were made for other companies to put their brand on or sell in their stores;
the result: you can get Slingerland-made Concertones, S.S. Stewart “University” and
“Collegian”, and no-names.  These instruments, especially the open-backed model
20, remain the best value in low-end banjo ukuleles.

Stella and Sovereign were imprints made by the Oscar Schmidt Company of
Jersey City, NJ.  Sovereigns are well-made instruments with a rolled, chrome pot
cover that functions like a tone ring, giving the Sovereign a great sound for the
money.  Stellas range from their bottom of the line instrument with a thin – nearly
flimsy – pot (which I would honestly avoid), to more substantial models, including
instruments with a non-flanged wooden resonator.  These heavier, 8”-pot models
– those with resonator-backs and those without, and the excellent Sovereigns are
relatively inexpensive ukuleles, ranging from less than $100 to up to $250, and they
can be good value for the money when properly set up.  By the way – the company
currently selling ukuleles under the name Oscar Schmidt, despite what their
promotional materials claim, has absolutely nothing to do with the original Oscar
Schmidt, which went out of business decades ago.

Chicago-based J.R. Stewart made the highly sought-after and now completely
overpriced LeDomino range of instruments (tiples, guitars, mandolins, ukes and
yes – banjo ukes), but they also produced instruments that were just as good –
especially the La Venecia and J.R. Stewart signature range of instruments.  These
can be found for about $100 to $150, making them a good value in a very decent
sounding instrument.

Over-rated or over-priced.

Some manufacturers make great instruments, but those are not necessarily banjo
ukuleles. Others make good instruments, and sellers – recognizing their popularity
- are starting to ask ever-higher prices for them, often to the point where the
instrument is not worth the price.  I’m ready to get flamed over the “overrated”
choices put forward here, but I base the opinions not on reputation, but sound and
playability.  So, if you’re a devotee of any of these, my apologies in advance.

Bacon.  Great, high quality banjos – pretty average banjo ukuleles.  The banjo ukes
built by Bacon are frequently offered for sale in the $500 to more than $1,100 range.
They ain’t worth it.  They sound thin and sometimes tinny, no matter how you set
them up.  If you want to make sure the money you invest in a Bacon instrument is
well spent, get one of their banjos instead of their banjo ukes.

LeDomino.  The banjo ukulele variety of LeDomino by J.R. Stewart is a nice,
smaller-pot banjo ukulele with a resonator, possessed of good sound and nice, light
construction.  They haven’t come up for sale with the regularity that they used to,
but when they do, they tend to be priced fairly high between $400 and $500 these
days.  But, their unique look means that they will probably continue to be priced
higher than they ought to be.

Richter.  Chicago-based Richter specialized in banjo ukuleles that often featured
tin resonators and asymmetrical headstocks.  I’ve never met anyone who played
a Richter that thought it was anything but a budget instrument, and yet, for some
reason, there are plenty of sellers who routinely price these instruments about three
times more than their actual worth.  You’ll often see Richters being sold for about
$400; about $150 is a more appropriate price, which is what they tend to go for in
straight-up auctions.

As mentioned before, Slingerland and Stromberg-Voisinet are good to great, but
sadly, that goodness has been recognized.  Prices have edged up to the point where
they are both getting overpriced for what you get.

Made in the 1950s and early 60s from cast aluminum, the Dixie is widely beloved.
It’s not a bad banjo ukulele, but it’s by no means a good one.  Still, it’s fun to play
something that looks like an art-deco airplane and it has a lively sound. Its routinely
being sold at prices ranging from $300 to an inexplicable $700.  If you want to
enjoy a Dixie, look for one being sold on eBay with a low starting price and try to
pay between $100 and $200.  In the 60’s, the company that made Dixie went out of
business and sold the dies to the Werco Drum Company, which is still in business
today in Chicago.  For about 8 years, they made ukuleles that featured the cast Dixie
neck on a wooden Werco hand-drum body covered with blue sparkly paper.  You
can get a Werco for between $70 and $150 these days, a better bargain than most

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