boat paddle ukuleles

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Gibson UB-4 and UB-5

First of all, until recently, the two models were both considered to be simply UB-4, in nickel and gold plating.
In the 1930s the Gibson catalogs began to list the UB-5 as a separate instrument that had gold plating on the metal parts.   I posted a pamphlet that lists the models very clearly on March 22,2011.

Both models are identical except for the plating.  They are adorned with m.o.p. inlays at frets 3,5,7,10,12,15 and no two inlays are the same design on the various frets.  In addition to these inlays the logo "the gibson" is inlayed and below it there is a floral inlay similar to the Fleur de lis.  The UB4/5 has a deep reddish rosewood fret board.   They share the diamond cut out metal flange with the ub2/ub3 deluxe models.  The scale of the UB4/5 is the longest of the Gibson line and measures 7 1/2" to the 12th fret giving it a 15" scale.  I don't know if the Ub4 was ever produced with the block laminated rim but the two examples I have seen are both strip laminated.  Of those two one has mahogany on the sides of the resonator and the other is clearly dark walnut.   The back of both resonators are higly figured walnut that almost looks like burl wood in cut.

 The necks are darkly stained maple to match the rest of the instrument.
The UB4/5 was equipped with a Grover Presto Ideal tail piece that has a hinged top that opens to expose the string grooves.  The  two models I have seen have Ivoroid buttons on the Grover spring loaded friction tuners unlike the rest of the Gibson line.  (I don't know if the later gibson banjo ukes had these).  There is binding on the sides of the fret board that is white/black/white layered in 1/4 round.  The resonator also has this white/black/white binding around it's lower edge.  Last but certainly not least is the fact that the ub4/5 ukes were equipped with a 1/4" solid brass tone ring that was seated on the outer edge of the flat topped (truly flat) rim.

    The UB4 has a larger more open "banjo like" tone that is like any tone, difficult to describe in words.  They are heavier than any other Gibson because of the longer neck and flanged resonator. Fairly similar in weight to the Ludwig models.   It could probably be said that this model, in comparison to rest of the Gibson line is quite showy in appearance but nowhere nearly as extravagant as the banjos of other makers that had almost endless inlays,metal engraving and complicated peg head designs during these same years of production.

 The UB-4/5 is still quite understated and gives the appearance of a serious performers instrument.   It has a uniqueness that the entire Gibson line possesses in terms of sonority.  This model was stamped with a serial number that also indicates the year of manufacture.

 As far as rarity goes, I have seen two available at auction during the last year and few others in shops.  Of these, two were gold, and two were nickel plated.

I would consider the UB-4/5 to be a fairly rare find especially of the Gibson line.  They are handsome instruments by any standard.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Gibson UB-3

A very popular banjo uke not only for it's wonderful sound but it's beautiful design.  The first of the Gibson banjo ukes to be ornamented with fancy mother of pearl inlays. The inlays are elongated diamond in shape and have rosettes at the 5th and 10th fretsand the head stock has two diamonds and two rosettes.  The back of the resonator has purfling 3/4" from the outer edge.   The resonator on the UB-2 doesn't have this purfling but both models had binding in ivory colored plastic on the outer edge of the resonator. The fret board is thick pear wood. The UB-3 were one of George Formby's favorite ukes and he can be seen in numerous movies playing one.  One of my favorite spots is his song "Fanlight Fanny" where he sings the song in a kitchen and takes one of his more complicated and exciting solo breaks on a UB-3. These are fairly rare (by no means common)  instruments and I think I have seen about 5 for sale over the course of one year in auctions.  In auction they have fetched anywhere from $750-$1300 here in the U.S. .  They are often found with a lovely black to amber sunburst on the neck,rim and flat resonator.  The model I own is a deep coffee color with no sunburst. Again, they might be either a block laminated rim or horizontal strip laminated.  I haven't seen one without the interior veneer but I'm sure it's possible they might exist.   It would seem to me that Gibson used very effective glue on the m.o.p. inlays because I rarely see them with any pieces missing.  As I mentioned in the main post about Gibson banjo ukes, the rim on these and all Gibsons is likely to have seperated.  They are found with loose veneer or split laminations.  It can be repaired but can be costly when it involves refinishing.  The scale is longer than a soprano ukulele and quite comfortable for most sized hands.  In the addition to the inlays, the ub-3 has binding along the fret board which sets the frets in a bit from the edge and makes for very smooth chording and shifts.  This binding is plastic and if missing has to be shaped and sculpted out of larger stock material because it is not available in a small 1/4 round size.  The

pictures are of my own UB-3 that remains to have some restoration.  It is in great playing condition and is currently set up with Fremont Medium Ukulele strings, a Jeff Menzies calf skin head and a bridge of my own design and construction of Bloodwood with a Grenadilla saddle.

UB3 Deluxe

Gibson probably made this model before actually designing the UB-4 and the biggest difference would be that the UB-4 had a longer scale.   The ub3 deluxe has the exact same inlays as the ub3 but has the added diamond cut out flanged resonator.  I haven't heard one played, or played one but it seems with my knowledge that it would sound identical to a ub2 deluxe,ub4 and ub5 if set up exactly the same way.  As far as I know, different inlays would not effect the sound, and neither would a shorter neck.
I would have to say, these are probably very rare instruments.  I have not seen one for sale in a calender year and would guess that there were very few made.  As far as playing value goes, they are probably on par with the ub-4 in terms of sound and character.  If sold at a premium, this model would probably bring out the collectors when in excellent "collectible" condition.  When I use that term it's an indication, that collectors expect several aspects when buying.  All original condition,  no current replacement parts etc, original finish, or if not original, original with repairs to dings and scratches that are done in a historically correct manner.  They expect or hope for excellent plus condition, and if not in that condition, they ask for discounts for anything less than that condition.

The Ub-2 was the next Gibson banjo uke to be produced.  It's features included an 8" rim and the adjustable steel support rod that spanned between the neck and tailpiece inside of the rim.
The UB-2 Gibson
This one had major veneer separation inside the rim
and 2 types of post production stain.  

 This rod was threaded and allowed the fret board to angle downward and slope away from the top of the banjo uke.  This helps greatly when a low action is desired up and down the fret board.
    The UB-2 seems to also be called "baby gibson" which baffles me a bit.  The 8" rim was fairly well established as the largest desirable sized banjo ukes.   I would guess, that it's because they are fairly similar in appearance to the ub-1 in design.
The resonator had been poorly stained and thickly varnished
over old damage. After removed the varnish I stained it
 deep brownish black then lacquered it.

The original skin was re-mounted (Jos Rodgers).  The uke came with a chrome plated
Elton tailpiece and chrome brackets and hooks.  Gastly!  I found Gibson L brackets
which is what they came installed with.  The tailpiece is a current "Nashville" style
from Stew Mac.  Tension ring was heavily rusted.  The bridge is original.
  The UB-2 had about a 1/2" longer scale and would be easier to play for those of you with larger hands.  The UB-2 had dot MOP markers on the fret board also.  It was a great design and there are many very happy UB-2 owners out there since they are really the understated version of the UB-3.  I personally don't feel that the sound of the UB-2 has a great deal in common with the UB-1 in terms of unique qualities, but I must say that it is a powerful robust banjo uke that can can rival some of the most elaborate designs ever produced in the banjo ukulele world.
I left the head stock it's original color for now.

   There are examples of  sunburst finishing on the ub-2 but most often they are found in a medium to dark oak stain and even a blonde maple version.   I am as fond of the UB-2 for it's reserved power as I am of the UB-1 for it's rich colorful acoustic nature.

Now for the variation of the UB-2, the UB-2 deluxe which had a diamond flanged resonator and could aptly be called the "Big Baby".  It is certainly a big Gibson and again, depending on set up, should have nothing inferior in sound to the UB-4 and UB-5.  It has been equipped with and without the 1/4" brass tone ring. This might have been a post production addition that Gibson installed in the example that I have seen.  The scale is shorter on the UB-2 than the UB-4 but not so much as to be a problem when traveling up into the higher fret positions.

The addition of the flanged resonator gives the ub-2 deluxe a more open sonority, perhaps aptly called more "banjo" in character.   You can hear the sound bouncing around in the Gibson resonators and I am convinced there were extensive experiments at the factory before settling on a design.  It's a lovely sound, very colorful and flexible.  
The Gibson

Gibson made several models of banjo ukulele and there is a bit of difficulty in the terminology of the transitional models.  The models are basically :  Trapdoor, UB-1, UB-2,UB-3, UB-4, UB-5.  There was a variation on the ub-2 that had a flanged resonator called the UB-2 deluxe, and similarly the UB-3 can be found with a flanged resonator that was always included with the UB4 and UB5.  Gibson banjo ukes had archtop rims with the exception of the UB-4 and UB-5 which were equipped with a 1/4" brass tone ring that was placed on the outer edge of the rim.  The archtop design tapered up towards the interior of the playing edge and was rounded off on both edges of the rim.  (The flat top rim style was the opposite of this and tapered upward from the interior of the rim to the outer edge)  To my understanding none of the Gibson line ever had a flat top design.


The Gibson Banjo Uke line started with the "trapdoor" model that had a hinged back that could be opened to increase the volume and possibly to put a wadded cloth inside to effectively mute the banjo if needed.  This works quite well on this model.  It had a larger head (larger than 8") and is not generally thought of as being a great sounding uke compared to the rest of the Gibson line.  I have never heard one but can imagine from hearing other larger rimmed banjo ukes that it has a muddy sound in comparison.  This might have been overcome with a different bridge design if you have one of these and are looking to improve on the tone.  A wider stanced bridge similar to a banjolin bridge, or mandolin bridge might prove effective to cut down on the boomy muddy quality when strumming chords.  (again, this is my own speculation and please write me if I am off base).  The trapdoor model can be found with extensive m.o.p. inlays and they are quite collectible regardless of their tone.

The Gibson logo

Often painted gold in script, or stenciled on in script as "The Gibson", this was the standard logo for the Gibson guitar company until 1930 (some say 1937).  There are plenty of examples of the Gibson banjo uke line with "Gibson" written and they are presumably later models from the 1930s and 40s.

Gibson Banjo Ukulele Bridges

The original bridges varied, but were often a blocky sort of solid maple bridge with a raised rail for the strings to saddle on.   These bridges sound excellent and should not be tossed if you happen to get one with a used instrument.  I've bought and sold nine Gibson banjo ukes in various models and six of them included these excellent bridges.  I often see Gibson Ukes up for auction with this style of bridge, but cannot assume that Gibson made them since they can be seen on many other ukes as well.   They might be Waverly, or one of the other accessory companies that existed back then.  If you know of a catalog that includes these please let me know and if you scan that page I will gladly post it on this blog.

Gibson Rims
Gibson made two basic styles of rims (pots).  A blocked style similar to an igloo that often have veneer on the exterior as well as interior.  These were great rims when the glue has held together and to my ear have an equal quality of sound to the second type of rim which is strip laminated horizontally.  Both types of Gibson rim are prone to glue failure regardless of model number. Often, it is only the interior veneer that seperates.   On the strip laminated rims they often separate in the middle of the rim near the resonator screw holes.    They can often be re-glued with modern glues such as cyanoacrylate (krazy glue).    These types of glue are available in very thin formulas and can flow to seperated areas deep within a banjo rim and hold extremely well.  I've glued many Gibsons this way  and thus far have not ever seen one separate after the restoration. this type of glue can be stained over, but will protect the wood from stain if not cleaned after repairs.   It might be very well worth the effort to re-glue a Gibson rim in order to preserve it's value, but it can be replaced with a modern rim of identical dimensions too.   They were glued with a hide glue that often crystallized and became quite weak.

The UB-1

One of the smallest banjo ukes ever mass produced, they have a shorter scale similar to a soprano ukulele and might possibly be one of the greatest sounding instruments of the whole banjo ukulele family.  The tone of these 6" ukes is very unique and actually in many ways sounds distant almost as if it's being played through a vintage microphone.  They should never be underestimated for volume either and can belt out over a Dixie band easily when used with a felt pick and higher tension strings.  The ub-1 had a flat plywood resonator.   As far as it's rarity, I would not consider it terribly rare since there are almost always more than one up for auction and for sale in the used market.  They had slight variations in design during production and I believe were the second banjo uke design produced by Gibson, and the last ever produced in numbers.   They have no serial number and it would seem that when destined for export Gibson stamped "made in u.s.a." on the back of the peghead.   To my knowledge, all UB-1 Gibsons were equipped with black buttoned Grover spring loaded tuners.     The UB1 had a neck that was bolted on to the rim and there was no dowel like almost every other banjo uke in existence.   This was made possible by the fact that the rims were quite thick and sturdy and the string tension (gut or nylon) would have no chance of distorting the shape of the rim.   I would imagine that steel strings would possibly generate enough tension to do this, but they really would suffer from the use of steel strings.   I have often wondered if the lack of a dowel in the UB-1 might be the reason it has such a mysterious wonderful sound.
   I have to add that anyone starting out on the banjo uke, or seriously studying it would gladly appreciate what the ub-1 has to offer.   It might be my "desert island" uke so to speak, If had to pick one.  They are great players and should be played regardless of condition, be it mint or trashed.  They are convincing when plucked, picked, strummed, brush stroked, fan stroked and split stroked.   I guess it's obvious as to how fond of these I am and I share this fondness with many other players.
  The only drawback I can imagine about the UB-1 is that if you have large hands, you are a bit out of luck with this model.   The fingers will jam up above the first 5 frets.  It could be possible to attach a longer scale neck, and still enjoy the unique quality of the UB-1.  Prices tend to be near the $200-700 range for the UB-1.  There are many for sale that need extensive repairs such as veneer gluing on the rim, de-rusting, new skin, new or restored tuners, fret work, cosmetic repairs and finish repair.   The UB-1 was featured in an episode of "pawn stars" and given a surprising value of $1000.   This was probably an inflated price for dramatic effect, and the "restored" instrument appears to have been valued at that price complete with the rust that it had when found.  There seem to be plenty of UB-1 Gibsons out there, and paying ridiculous prices for them is not really necessary.  Many are in mint condition and need nothing but a fresh set of strings. Below, a clean example of a UB-1

  Banjo ukuleles.

 These instruments were very popular from the mid twenties through the thirties.   They were often used when a ukulele could not provide enough volume to project over the other members of a ragtime or jazz band and could fill out a rhythm section as a harmony instrument.  Many of the major manufacturers of guitars and banjos produced banjo ukuleles as a utility instrument.
  A quick line up of the more collectible  banjo ukes would have to include the exquisite instruments made by Ludwig, Gibson, Bacon and Day, Abbott, Dallas Co. , Lange and Stromberg Voisinet.

Ludwig Co.
The Ludwig company made banjos and banjo ukuleles for about a six year period from 1925-1931.  They offered very innovative designs on their banjo ukes that were new technology to banjos.  The main feature of these outstanding instruments were the solid metal rim and a tension ring that had no hooks but used bolts that could be adjusted from the top to adjust the tension on the skin.  Also, the entire rim/skin/flange and tension mechanism could be lifted out of the resonator as a seperate unit.  The dowel in the Ludwig Ukes has no pressure on it whatsoever from string tension.   The Ludwig came in two basic models, one with a thick flange that had "crowns" to vent the resonator, and the Wendell Hall model that had rounded slots as vents on the flange.

The  instruments with a crowned flange were available  in nickel or gold and a choice for the tuners as well (friction peg or planetary geared).   There are a number of custom instruments that Ludwig made as special order that had features like pearloid headstocks and fretboards and rhinestone inlays.   Over the past year I have seen approximately six of the Gold Crowned Ludwig banjo ukuleles for sale on the world wide auction site.  The prices have ranged from about $890-$3400 depending on condition.  It's my opinion that all of the Ludwig banjo ukes are extremely fine instruments are fine collectible investments.  I have observed about 10 to 15 Wendell Hall banjo ukes for sale during the past year and they have ranged from $650 to about $2300 in selling price.

 The difference in tone and construction is very slight on these instruments.  Physically, the flange design and inlay on the back of the resonator are the differences.

  Both basic models have identical dimensions of scale length, resonator dimensions, number of frets and neck thickness.  The gold plated model with crowns seems to be far more common than the nickel plated variety.  Of the six Ludwig's with crowns sold this year at auction I seem to  remember that one was nickel.

 I don't want to speculate, but I will in saying that the plating would have very little if any difference in the tone and character of the instrument.

 The Ludwig line is known for having a brilliant large robust sound, and the instruments are a joy to play in terms of comfort.  The photos are all details of a Wendell Hall model.  Both of the Ludwig models must be disassembled carefully.  The flange screws hold the entire rim assembly to the resonator.  When these screws are removed, it must be lifted up slightly near the tailpiece, then slide away under the fret board.  The angle of this is critical and cosmetic damage could occur if not done precisely.  The instrument is built quite sturdily throughout and is on the heavy side of the banjo ukulele choices.

Ludwig Finishes
   I should mention that the finish (lacquer/varnish) on Ludwigs are often in very poor condition.  They are usually cracked, flaking or completely worn off and it seems that user care may have little to do with this.  The entire Ludwig banjo line suffers from this and it might be something that would require restoration, complete refinishing or simply minor touch ups.  Humidity was probably are large factor in the condition of the finishes.  Ludwig finishes appear to "breath" as compared to other manufacturers and this allows the wood to swell and shrink which cracks finish.   Some finishes simply crack due to age when stored instruments are kept in a case at the back of a dry closet.   Also, cracks in finish are not necessarily  a negative thing when considering purchase of an instrument, many players prefer the soul and character of an original finish to a perfect reconditioned finish.  This topic is one of great debate both in the vintage musical instrument world and the antique market.  Often, a refinished instrument is considered less valuable as a "collectible" if the finish has been tampered with with in any way. This applies to all of the banjo ukes discussed on this blog.  There are times when a finish is simply not practical to retain due to extreme cracking and flaking, discoloration (sometime due to sun exposure).  Some finishes can be re amalgamated by applying a solvent to the finish which puts it in a liquid state again and it can reform.  This should only be done by a re-finisher that has full knowledge of this process.  This technique might take as much effort as a completely new finish.  Also, to those restoring instruments.  Try not to put a thick plastic looking finish on any of these vintage banjo ukuleles.  They didn't have finishes like new guitars do nowadays and it will lesson the value of your instrument when you sell it.