The golden age of banjos (1880-1920), sometimes referred to as the classic age, featured what many banjo players consider to be prime instruments. Collectors and musicians covet instruments made during this era and may pay up to 1,000 times the original price of the instrument. If you think you have one and are considering selling it, learning how to identify a golden-age banjo will help you determine if you truly have an instrument of value.
Identify the names of banjo makers from the golden age of the banjo. These makers include Slingerland, Lyon & Healy, and Stromberg-Voisinet (became Groeschl Company in 1890), Buckbee, Rettberg & Lange and J. B. Schall. While some of these banjos have no outstanding features to differentiate them from other models (besides the stamped name on the tailpiece or head stock), others can be identified through specific characteristics. J.B. Shalls feature a unique fifth-string tuning peg that extends from the side of the neck; Buckbee has tuning keys that extend through the top facing of the headstock. The Rettberg and Lange banjos resemble the Buckbees because they were made in the same factory.
Identify name brands. These include the Star brand by Lyon and Healy around 1890 and Maybell by Slingerland in the early 1900s. The Slingerland name will be located on the strut of the banjo and a seller's name typically on the tuning head. The Star brand can be found stamped on the back of the tuning head with the words "Star Trademark" enclosed in a pointed star logo and the letters "LH" intertwined.
Look for tailpieces marked with the words "Lyon and Healy" or the intertwined letters "LH," which indicates a patented tailpiece by Lyon and Healy. The name or letters will be stamped on the tailpiece, indicating the banjo was made during the golden age by Lyon and Healy. These tailpieces were sometimes included on Washburn banjos produced during the golden age.
Locate the shoes on the edge of your banjo. Heart-shaped metal shoes around the banjo body edge indicate a Washburn banjo produced in the 1890s. These banjos often featured the Lyons and Healy tailpiece. These instruments also featured figure 8 tuning heads.
Carl Hose is the author of the anthology "Dead Horizon" and the the zombie novella "Dead Rising." His work has appeared in "Cold Storage," "Butcher Knives and Body Counts," "Writer's Journal," and "Lighthouse Digest.". He is editor of the "Dark Light" anthology to benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities.