What is going on with Gibson Banjos?

Gibson JD Crowe Blackjack modelLong before Les Paul started thinking about solid body electric guitars, the Gibson company – then located in Kalamazoo, MI – was known as one of the premier makers of banjos in the US. They provided tenors for the explosion of popularity in that style of banjo in the early 1900s, and their Mastertone models from the 1930s through the early ’40s serve as the standard of excellence by which all modern banjos are measured.

But since the flooding of the Cumberland River in Nashville ravaged their production facilities in May of 2010, Gibson has not assembled or shipped a single banjo. Nor have they been willing to discuss the status of banjo building in their future plans.

Halting production in the wake of the flooding is easily understood. The Nashville shop, located just by the banks of the Cumberland near the Grand Ole Opry House, was completely destroyed by the flood. Both the showroom and the assembly areas had several feet of water sloshing around. Parts and tools were floating on the surface, with ruined machinery below. It was deemed irrecoverable, and the site was abandoned with banjo and mandolin luthiers sent to work in other Nashville production facilities.

Numerous calls and emails to Gibson for comment since have been met with stony silence. Existing dealers have only been told (for the past 3 years) that no banjo production is expected each year. One call to the main Gibson customer service line verified this fact, and that no banjos have been shipped since the flood.

It seems a fair question to ask: what is going on with Gibson Banjos?

Prewar Gibson banjo potThe demise of their 5 strings was not only a shock to the dealers who represented them, but very nearly caused the collapse of First Quality Music in Louisville, who had been manufacturing the Gibson banjo components for some time. The Sullivan family had tooled up substantially to support this production, and it accounted for nearly half their annual revenue when it disappeared in a flash after the flood. First Quality has since restructured, and have survived the financial jolt by refocusing their efforts on their own Sullivan Banjo line, and the Derby City turkey calls they make from scrap neck wood.

Gibson mandolins, which had been made in the same shop at Opry Mills destroyed by flood waters, have recently resumed production, but no word whatsoever has been offered where banjos are concerned. The Gibson web site still shows several banjo models listed, but only their Asian import series by Epiphone is available for sale.

Is it possible that the company whose banjos are so intimately enmeshed with bluegrass music is abandoning their production forever? It seems that the banjo lovers, dealers and collectors who have supported Gibson these many years deserve an answer to that question at the very least.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.

  • Marc Horowitz

    The creature that runs the company could care less about banjos. He’s a bottom-feeding bottom-liner with no aim other than preservation of profit. Well known in the musical instrument industry as an unbalanced, capricious clown, this unfeeling monster once fired nearly his entire sales force on a whim. No doubt still preoccupied with fighting the charges brought against Gibson by the Feds (Lacey Act violations), banjos are the LAST thing on his mind. On the bright side, Gold Tone, Deering, Stelling, Nechville, Sullivan, Yates and many other fine shops are turning out great instruments. Support the small maker!

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  • Wayne Morrison

    Wow! News to me. I don’t own a Gibson banjo but I do own a Jackson Browne guitar and it’s a fine one. As for the raid, I think it had to do with politics, not environmental issues.

  • RLee

    I can’t see how you couldn’t make money putting the Gibson name on a quality banjo, so there must be something forthcoming.

    There are some big names out there manufacturing high-end banjos, and an acquisition would make sense too.

    Agree that the Feds action was entirely political. In view of the current IRS-targeting scandal involving conservative groups (and ownerships’ politics are well known), how could you not conclude otherwise? Even the country the wood was imported from had no issues, just our crazy anti-business government bureaucrats.

    With respect to the first poster, I do not know the owner personally, but I was in the Opry Mills store many times, and everyone working there seemed quite happy with their jobs, the company, and the instruments.

    • Darren Sullivan-Koch

      Right on! This government is so anti-business. That’s why we give corporations such massive taxbreaks and allow them to repeatedly commit multiple ethical and legal violations without prosecuting them.

  • stevena

    This video of the raid on Gibson is interesting.

    http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=e84_1385443130

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