It’s been said many times of late that we are living through a golden age of banjos, a claim that seems easy to support. Even though the venerable Gibson Mastertone is no longer in production, there are a number of small shop banjo builders turning out replicas of the prewar Gibson masterpieces that look, sound, and play very much like the originals.
One such is a Hawthorn RB-7 style banjo which was recently sent to us for review. These pro grade instruments, along with a line of guitars and mandolins, are made in Kansas City, MO by Glenn Bradford and Mark Franzke who launched Bradford & Co Fret Shop in 2015. Glenn owns the business with his son, and is the banjo guy, with Mark on staff doing assembly and finishing. They sell directly to the public and through bluegrass-centered retailers around the country.
Glenn’s vision with Hawthorn Banjos is to focus in areas of prewar design that are not being built as commonly these days, like top tension banjos, Bow Tie models, and the use of no hole tone rings. He says that he chose the name Hawthorn for his instruments since it is the state flower of Missouri.
Gibson’s original RB-7 model was a top tension banjo, and so is Glenn’s. But Bradford manufactures their own brass hoop and flange there in Kansas City, along with their Ozark Thunder tone ring. With so many builders of quality banjo components these days, Hawthorn allows buyers to choose among the many options on the market for their own custom instrument. They will build you one with their tone ring, or rings made by Huber, Dannick, Kulesh, or Prucha, with rims made by Jimmy Cox, Brian Sims, or Tony Pass.
The RB-7 that I examined has a Huber Vintage ring on a Cox rim, with a carved resonator from Clancy Mullins. Like all top tension models, it is slightly heavier than most Mastertone banjos, owing both to the extra weight in the hoop and resonator. The tone is quick and very responsive, however, and it should open up into a fine five once it has been played in.
The Hawthorn is a very attractive banjo as well. The bound headstock follows the same pattern that Gibson used on the style 7, but with the Chrysler building inlay in the center like the style 12, and, of course, the Hawthorn name. Glenn has also replicated the Bow Tie fingerboard pattern on the bound rosewood neck, not the somewhat simplified inlay used later on the RB-250, but with the cuts along the side of the ties like the old 7s. Both the nickel plating on the metal parts and the finish on the figured maple neck and resonator sparkle under the lights.
It also plays very comfortably, though I would surely put on a lighter string gauge then what were on it from the shop. You can hear that “hollow sound” in the banjo that is so sought after these days, and I imagine that a custom order tailored to your personal taste in tone rings and rims would be able to dial in the exact sound you are after.
As configured, the Hawthorn RB-7 sells for $4500 with a hard shell Gold Level Ameritage case. Choosing other options, especially the Huber HR-30 ring and engineered rim package, could change the price considerably. You can reach out to Glenn online for questions about customizing.
Here are some additional photos of this beautiful instrument. Images of the other Hawthorn models can be found online.