Serious collectors and students of pre war banjos, guitars and mandolins know this odd name – Kel Kroydon. It was the brand used by the Gibson company in the early 1930s for their wooden toy division, later used as a brand for less expensive instruments as well. The Great Depression in the US was not kind to many small manufacturing companies, and Gibson was no exception. Despite the earlier popularity of the Gibson mandolin, the dawn of the 1930s found them with more mandolins than customers, and they turned to making toy sailboats to stay afloat.
These toy boats were sold to stores under this Kel Kroydon brand and Gibson soon began to make notably less expensive instruments available through mail order catalogs (like Sears and Montgomery Ward) using their newly fashioned Kalamazoo brand. Before long, Kel Kroydon instruments emerged as well, and banjos, guitars and mandolins were all made using this name.
The Kel Kroydon banjos did not use a tone ring, making them less expensive to produce. Instead, a thin, rolled brass tube was installed atop the rim, making the banjo appear quite similarly to the popular arch top tone ring banjos of the period. The Kels also were made with plastic, pearloid overlays on the resonators and fingerboards, and were painted with bright colors. For Gibson, the use of solid color paints and a pearloid laminates allowed them to use less attractive or evenly grained woods on the instruments – again lowering their price.
These Kel Kroydon instruments were only produced by Gibson for a few years, but Tom Mirisola of Stoneham, MA has resurrected the brand after obtaining the rights to produce instruments under the Kel Kroydon trademark. Tom is making three new Kel Kroydon banjo models, which retain the vintage look of these older banjos, but made to a higher standard of quality, and using a modern flathead tone ring. Tom retains the distinctive Kel Kroydon peghead shape, and the pearloid resonator and fingerboard – which he describes on his web site as MOTS, shorthand for the indelicate “mother of toilet seat” by which this ersatz pearl has been playfully known in the banjo world for some time.
Tom is proud to announce that he will have two of his new Kel Kroydon banjos on display in Nashville at the SPBGMA convention in February, his KK-11 and KK-46 models. He reports that banjo players have enthusiastically embraced his project, and that several have been sold simply based on word of mouth reports even before regular production began.
The new Kel Kroydon banjos are built in Nashville, TN in Robin Smith’s shop, and new owners can choose among a number of neck and rim options in creating their own vintage replica banjo.