c.1895 Elias Howe "Superbo" 5-String Banjo

Update: I've updated the production info of this instrument.

I picked this up on the weekend, locally, and did the necessary work on it this morning. This banjo dates to around 1895 and bears the "Superbo" brand on the dowel with "E.H. Co" (Elias Howe out of Boston) and "20" all on the dowel stick. Now, Howe was a retailer/distributor so most of the Howes appear to have been made by other manufacturers and simply labeled as Howes. This Superbo is no different.

The fellow I bought this from (and the fellow he bought it from) were under the impression that this is a Lyon & Healy product. I'm assuming that's because it looks like a few similar L&H-sold "Washburn" and L&H-brand models from around the same time. This is very misleading, however, because L&H was often buying products from other makers to supplement their own production when they were in transitional periods for their brands.

I used to think this was a Cole-made product since it's similar aesthetically to one, but after reading up on the (excellent) Regal instruments book with its information on Regal-made/sold banjos in the late 1890s (under the Regal and Imperial brands), I'm actually pretty sure this is the same style as a Regal-catalog banjo that was also marketed under the L&H Washburn name for a very short time. Since L&H bought Regal instruments to rebrand throughout their history, it's not unlikely.

So, that bit of historical wish-wash being done, what about the banjo? Ah, yes! It's awesome. 10 7/16" spunover (lip on both sides) rim, what looks like a dark-stained birch? neck in good shape with a thick ebony fretboard and ebony headstock veneer, fancy pearl inlays throughout the neck and headstock, late-1800s Champion pegs, a full 26 1/4" scale... and... and...? great tone & volume!

All the true "repair" work had been done on this banjo previously. The dowel was reset not too long ago, a newer 5th peg had been installed, and a new nut and head installed. There are also a few replaced nuts (though most are original) around the rim and the tailpiece is a 1920s-style Waverly tenor banjo type.

Oh! And before I forget to mention it, the back of the neck, wood interior of the pot and the dowel have been oversprayed with a top-coat of finish. I'd imagine this was done when the new 5th peg and other repairs were done.

My work included correcting slight neck warp through a fret level and dress (it's essentially perfectly straight -- there's 1/64" of relief in the neck, now, which is about as much as most guitars have after setup, anyhow), cleaning, and full setup. It plays effortlessly with 3/32" action at the 12th fret and is strung with lights (20w-9) in steel. This came to me with mediums but I never suggest medium steel strings on anything older than 1930s banjos. Just to make sure the neck would take the lights, I remeasured neck relief after bringing the strings up to pitch and it's still dead on.

The greeny-yellow-browny-pink inlays are awfully pretty in that good-quality ebony fretboard. This one is really a beaut, especially considering that the inlays were left plain (non-engraved).

This has a newer, but used, Remo "frosted top" head. This gives the banjo a nice tone for both clawhammer and two and three-finger picking styles.

Like many folks marking where their banjo feet should sit on the head... the original owner of this instrument marked it in the wrong place! Fortunately, the "upper" of his marks to correspond to where the back of the bridge should be.

Nice plated-brass heavy-duty hardware. The nickel plating shows some wear and tarnish but looks lovely overall.

...such a pretty rim.

The hardware is very, very typical of Boston-made instruments. I would expect different shoes and hooks if this were a New York or Chicago instrument.

The Grover "Champion" pegs have the 1888? I think patent date on them.

These are friction pegs but they work nicely.

The fellow who installed this 5th peg both shimmed and glued it in, so it's secure, but of course a pure friction fit would have been ideal.


Here's the "Superbo" stamp. 20 may be the model number.

Good "double-spun" rim with hoops on both the top and bottom of the rim. This gives it strength and also an integral tonering where the head meets the rim.

Neck brace and ebony shims are in good shape. Note that there is a back-angle hardwood shim between the end of the fretboard/neck and the pot as well.

The Waverly tailpiece is later, probably from the 1920s.


Anonymous said...

Definitely a Lyon & Healy built instrument, based on the hardware, neck shape, construction style, inlay patterns, ect. Cole did build some Superbo banjos, but this is not a Cole product.

Not a double spun rim, which would have silver cladding on both the inside and the outside of the wood rim.

Antebellum Instruments said...

I concur -- I've been using the double-spun terminology incorrectly for a while. A looong time back I was told that when it was lipped on both sides that was "double-spun." I have much correcting to do. :)