Gibson started building banjos in 1918, and in early, the banjo was rapidly evolving with design changes from year to year. In 1923, they introduced the high-end Style 5 to solidify the company's identity as a premier banjo maker. At the time, players needed a louder banjo to fit in with louder brass instruments. The "trapdoor" resonator rolled out in 1923 as a means of increasing the volume and cut, thereby improving the banjo's versatility. This intriguing design involved a hinged plate on the back that can be opened or closed to make the tone louder or softer.
In the 1920s era of Vaudeville and Dixieland jazz, tenor banjos dominated the scene. But since the '30s, the 5-string has taken over! Because of that, there is a cottage industry of builders and banjo enthusiasts devoted to rigging old tenor pots with 5-string necks.
At some point along the way, this 1923 Gibson TB-5 was outfitted with a 5-string neck, and the results are very special! We're not sure who did the conversion, but the workmanship is extremely impressive, and there was sincere effort to maintain as much originality as possible. The headstock matches the appropriate "Snakehead" shape, and the inlays were painstakingly duplicated. The sunburst finish on the back of the neck even matches the gorgeous brown sunburst on the back of the resonator. A truss rod was added reinforce the neck, but the cover was discreetly hidden into the peghead inlays to maintain the period-correct aesthetic. The original tuners and heel cap are both in place on the 5-string neck, too.
Because of the ball bearing tone ring, this TB-5 Conversion is not a bluegrass banjo. It produces a warmer, mellower sound more for old-time or folk music. The trapdoor is intriguing—with the internal clip, the resonator can be held open or closed, making a substantial difference in sound. Cosmetically, there's not much to argue with on this banjo. All of the hardware and fittings appear to be original, and the original pearloid covering around the pot is beautiful and in place. The inlay on the back of the resonator shows some serious workmanship for 1923. Perhaps it's relevant to note that Lloyd Loar was at Gibson when this banjo left Kalamazoo.
This 1923 Gibson TB-5 conversion includes both its original case and a new hardshell case that fits it perfectly. The original 4-string neck is included, and it looks like some extra strings may have been added at some point. Whacky, but probably why someone decided it was a good candidate for a 5-string neck. Because of the originality of the pot and the awe-inspiring artistry of the conversion, this Gibson TB-5 feels like a true find!