• The Banjos of Earl Scruggs - Part 3

    Joe Spann is a life-long card carrying banjo player with a professional background in genealogical and historical research, staff and facility management, fiscal planning and collection development. He is the author of Spann's Guide to Gibson 1902-1941.

    This second part of a three-part article was co-authored with Steve Huber, Huber Banjos.

    See Part 1 | Part 2

    Since he was a young boy, Earl Scruggs had been listening to a very special banjo. He first heard it being played over the radio by the "North Carolina State Banjo Champion" Fisher Hendley. Then, during his teenage years, he watched Snuffy Jenkins perform on the very same instrument at barn dances and schoolhouses in Cleveland County, North Carolina. The sound of that specific Gibson Mastertone RB-Granada banjo was part of his psyche, a beloved childhood talisman which must have seemed always just beyond his reach. Now, as a grown man early in 1949, he was standing in the studios of WCYB at Bristol, Tennessee staring at the battered remains of that very instrument, hanging around the neck of childhood friend Don Reno, banjoist for Bill Monroe.

    The pre-war Gibson Mastertone Granada was a premium instrument. The metal parts were all gold plated, and the armrest and tension hoop also received a simple "Moorish" influenced engraving pattern. The neck was constructed from high-grade curly maple and was stained a dark rich color known as Sheraton Brown. The resonator was covered in a matching curly maple veneer with a hand-rubbed Cremona sunburst on the back. Triple binding on the neck and resonator (white/black/white) added to the fine detailed look of the model, and solid mother-of-pearl tuner buttons mounted on Grover De Luxe gold-plated tuners finished the banjo off with an elegant touch.

    Hard Times for the Granada

    Regrettably, the banjo now in front of Earl bore little resemblance to its original glory. Fifteen years of daily professional use had certainly taken their toll. But most of the serious damage could be attributed to a Greyhound bus ride from Fort Riley, Kansas back to Buffalo, South Carolina. Young army enlistee Don Reno, who did his Basic Training at Fort Riley, sent the banjo home via Greyhound bus when he shipped out in 1943. When it arrived, his parents stuck the banjo under his bed and didn't touch it for two years. After Don completed his service in 1945, he returned home to find that the banjo's finish had been ruined by a cake of violin rosin which had melted in the heat of the bus ride. Adding insult to injury, the rough jostling of the ride had spread the sticky powdery particles all over the neck and pot. Don did his best to clean up the mess using sandpaper to remove the rosin (and the finish) from the neck. Touring with Monroe had done nothing to improve the situation. On the day in 1949 when Earl saw the banjo at Bristol, the pot metal tension hoop was broken from stress, and the tailpiece was cracked. The gold plating was flaking off the flange, and the metal underneath was turning a dark copper color. Don was barely limping along with the instrument, trying to bear up under Monroe's intense touring schedule.

    But Earl Scruggs wanted that banjo.

    The Trade

    According to Don Reno, Earl had actually been trying to trade him out of the RB-Granada since 1941. But unfortunately for Earl, he never had anything worth trading for. Don certainly wasn't interested in the old mail-order banjo Earl played as a young man, and the RB-11 wasn't exciting either. At Bristol in 1949 the tables had turned. Earl lost no time in proposing a straight trade to Don, the RB-75 in "like-new" condition for the well-worn remains of the RB-Granada. But however tempted Reno might have been by the one-sided offer, he just couldn't do it in good conscience. His banjo was truly a wreck, and Earl’s RB-75 was in near-mint condition. Finally Don hit upon a solution; he would even up the deal by throwing in a Martin D-18 guitar. The trade was done and witnessed by Ralph Stanley, who happened also to be in the studio at WCYB that day.

    Now the wreck of the RB-Granada belonged to Earl. How would he make it playable?

    Two promotional photographs taken just a few months later on December 11, 1949 in Cincinnati, Ohio may provide the answer. In both photographs Earl can be seen holding the old RB-Granada. The cracked original Grover De Luxe tailpiece has been replaced with a very basic Kluson-made tailpiece, exactly the same type of tailpiece which came on Earl's RB-11. The broken tension hoop appears to have been replaced, as the one in the photos is clearly intact. So Earl must have found a replacement tension hoop. Detailed photos taken of Earl's banjo in the 1980's (prior to restorations by Greg Rich and Snuffy Smith) clearly show pre-war Kluson hooks and nuts installed on it as well. These are the exact parts that would have been standard issue on a 1940-41 Gibson RB-11 banjo. Therefore, it would seem probable that the fate of the old road-worn RB-11 was to become a parts donor for the much-beloved RB-Granada.

    The Granada: Back to Gibson

    But as the months went by, other issues began to surface. The flange continued to deteriorate, losing most of the rest of its gold plating. The frets were worn out and needed replacing. The neck had lost much of its original finish and was also very large, making it difficult to play in the upper frets. Earl decided he had nothing to lose by trying to thin down the neck himself so he took a wood rasp to it. The thinner neck started to warp, adding more problems. It was clearly time to send the banjo back to Gibson for a complete overhaul. Early in 1950 Earl did just that, with written instructions to fix the frets, neck and flange. He also carefully instructed the Gibson Company to preserve the original tone ring.

    Earl would not see the RB-Granada again for almost a year, and when it was finally returned to him, it would be a very different banjo. But in the spring of 1950 all those problems were in the future. His immediate task was to find another Gibson Mastertone to play while his beloved RB-Granada was gone.