By Mike Kropp
The bluegrass banjo world was recently treated to some very positive news regarding Wade Mainer’s famous 1930s Gibson Granada five-string banjo. During the fall of 2012, Steve Huber restored the “Wade Mainer Granada” to the original 1930 factory specifications. This fine prewar original five-string flathead Granada banjo spent too many years of its life with replaced modern “upgraded” metal parts. Steve’s diligence to bring this treasured banjo back to its prewar specs creates a fascinating story for all lovers of the banjo and pre-bluegrass history. The following is the timeline and the interesting saga describing this important banjo’s rebirth.
The mention of Wade Mainer’s name to any old-time/bluegrass music lover evokes reverence and love for this early music pioneer. As a member of Mainer’s Mountaineers, his career and his banjo playing was well-known to country music fans worldwide. Much has been written elsewhere about Wade Mainer the musician, but there is an equally important tale to relate about the Mainer Banjo and Steve Huber’s contribution for the excellent restoration of this iconic instrument.
Let’s start at the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Mich., when in 1930, RB Granada #9530-4 is born. Early 1930 marks the time that the rim and neck were produced for this banjo as the FON (Factory Order Number) attests. As was the case with the five-string and plectrum models produced at that time, many of these banjos were not actually assembled until later on when an order came through for the particular model. In early 1930, tenors were all the rage and few plectrums or five-strings were sold. Joe Spann’s excellent documentation tells us when the parts were produced, but the absence of the shipping record for this Mainer banjo leaves a question as to actually when it left the factory. Exactly where or when Wade Mainer purchased this new banjo is unknown, but from that point forward, Wade used this banjo for the remainder of his career. Of course, to the bluegrass banjo collector and player, the extremely rare original five-string Granada prewar flathead banjos are considered the “holy grail” of the Gibson Mastertone banjos produced during the golden era of 1929-1941.
The Wade Mainer Granada is arguably, after Earl’s Granada, the most highly regarded banjo of all the Gibson Flatheads of the 1930s. The provenance of Wade’s ownership and his use of this banjo adds a high premium to its worth. A few years ago, this banjo was offered for sale by Stan Werbin of Elderly Instruments. During these times of reduced value for vintage instruments, this banjo had a seemingly high price tag of $160,000. While many suffered sticker shock, there were collectors who viewed this price as reasonable. The association with Wade made this banjo a prize; however, there were some issues with the banjo that were questionable.
In 1961, Wade had returned the banjo to Gibson for “refurbishing.” The gold plating was wearing, and he wanted the banjo spruced up. At that time, Gibson no longer did any plating in-house. Re-plating would have to be parceled out to another contractor. So, Gibson returned the banjo to him with all new shiny gold-plated metal parts—including a new tone ring, hooks, nuts, flange, tailpiece, tension hoop, and tuners! They used the then current RB-800 model’s parts for this “upgrade.” During the 1960s, it was a fairly common practice for the well intentioned folks at Gibson’s repair and customer service departments to “upgrade” instruments for customers.
In 1990, while Greg Rich was with Gibson, the Wade Mainer Granada was again returned to Gibson for a set of new parts that were closer to the original specs. These new reissue parts were vastly superior to the 1961 parts from the 800 series, and the banjo was returned to Wade sporting a more decidedly prewar look and sound. This was the condition of the banjo when purchased from Elderly by its new owner. The new owner was none other than Pete Kuykendall, the owner and general manager of Bluegrass Unlimited. The dollar-figure actually agreed upon and the details of the high-caliber negotiations and “hondeling” between Stan and Pete remain a mystery.
However, when Pete acquired the banjo, he had the unique vision and passion to finally restore this important banjo to its original 1930 factory specs. Of course, finding original Granada parts from that prewar era was a daunting task. Pete contacted Steve Huber, noted musician, collector, “Gibsonologist,” and renowned banjo maker in the prewar-style.
Steve Huber has long been the go-to person who specializes in finding restoration parts for the one-piece flange banjos of 1929 through the 1930s. His expertise is unsurpassed as regards to certifying Gibson’s old metal parts as original and genuine. Joe Spann, author of the acclaimed Spann’s Guide To Gibson 1902-1941, works with Steve at Huber Banjos and graciously lent his expertise to this written project as well.
Steve knew of an original flathead tone ring that was on a TB-6. Steve recounts that the FON of the tone ring donor was FON #9301-31, a TB-6 which was shipped on 17 September 1937 to Eugene Smart Music in Mansfield, Ohio. In the Gibson shipping ledgers, it is noted as a “bargain,” probably in reference to the non-engraved tone ring. The original owner was a pupil of Mr. Smart named Lloyd McKinney. Lloyd told Steve that Mr. Smart sold the TB-6 to him for only $55—about a third of the actual retail price. Mr. Smart commented that the reason for the discount was because the banjo “had the flat-top ring.” Obviously, Mr. Smart wasn’t too keen on the new flathead tone rings!
Worth noting is that this TB-6’s parts were created in late 1929, but the actual banjo was put together and shipped to the music store seven years after the FON was assigned to the banjo! The tone ring in this Style-6 was not engraved. Steve comments that this ring was most certainly destined for a Granada, since the only non-engraved gold-plated flat rings at that time were installed in the Granada Model (Style-5 and -6, Florentine and Bella Voce, all had gold-plated tone rings with engraving). Consequently, Steve arranged to purchase TB-6 #9301-31 from Lloyd. Steve later sold the flat ring from this banjo to a collector who had a 1930s TB Granada. This TB Granada had the rim cut down to accept the full flathead ring.
When Pete commissioned the Mainer banjo restoration, Steve contacted the owner of the prewar TB Granada and purchased the non-engraved Style-6 tone ring along with all the other metal parts from the TB Granada! Quite a coup! Unfortunately, this TB flange was too tight for the Mainer banjo. Rather than use this flange and have to alter the original rim or flange to accommodate a perfect fit, Steve used a correct fitting early nickel-plated ’30s flange and re-plated this flange to an original old style gold finish. The rest of the other metal parts from the TB Granada are now installed on the Mainer banjo as well: these include the hooks, nuts, armrest, clamshell tailpiece, engraved tension hoop, resonator hardware, and the mother-of-pearl Grover 2-band Tuners. To top it off, Steve installed an original 1930s gold friction-style fifth string tuner with a pearl knob.
The three essential elements for returning an original flathead prewar one-piece flange banjo to its original specs are: the original three-ply wood rim; the original period flathead tone ring; and the prewar flange. This trio of parts is the heart and soul of the banjo. Miraculously, over the years, no alterations were ever made to the original wood rim, even during two retrofits preceding this new chapter. Steve reports that the tone ring from the TB-6 fit perfectly on the original rim without any alteration needed to the wood or the metal. This particular flathead tone ring is the prized high-profile heavyweight bullnose version. Note that most Style-6 banjos had the lightweight high-profile flat ring, or the low-profile lightweight flat ring.
Finally, the Mainer banjo is now sporting all the correct period parts and sounds fabulous. Pete’s wishes to return this important banjo to original 1930 factory specifications were satisfied beyond his wildest expectations. It was his dream come true to be a part of the evolving history of this banjo. At one time, Pete had considered having the instrument placed in the International Bluegrass Museum, but the story took its final turn just a few months ago when Pete sold the Mainer Granada to another player/collector. The new owner and steward of the Wade Mainer banjo is Geoff Hohwald, widely known in the banjo community for his instructional methods and penchant for original Gibson flathead banjos from the golden era. Geoff used this banjo recently on several Easy Gospel Songs video lessons online. The banjo has made the pilgrimage with Geoff a few times to Steve’s shop for visits with a little tweeking on the setup. By all accounts from Steve and Joe, this banjo is quite an amazing tone generator—a most excellent sounding instrument.
Of course, some may think that changing parts on any old flathead reduces the value. However, it is quite common practice for players and collectors to replace worn or broken original parts on these old banjos. Flanges, tailpieces, tuners, and even resonators of the correct period are often utilized for these restorations. I know of several original flatheads that have used period-correct parts to replace broken flanges, resonators, armrests, tailpieces, and tension hoops. This practice generally has little to no effect on the value of those instruments.
As to the question, “Is this banjo original?” Yes, in terms of having all the correct period parts present, but it is not ex-factory original, even though the parts are original ex-factory. The provenance on this particular banjo is so strong that it makes up for any slight loss of value due to the parts being swapped from other similar era banjos.
I asked Steve what the banjo is now worth and he replied, “Whatever someone is willing to pay!” I prefer to believe that the banjo’s worth is still considerably high and might fetch even more now than the asking price when Elderly had it. This banjo is not only highly collectable, but is also a superb professional banjo. It’s a great sounding and great playing rare bird. The accompanying photos of the banjo at Steve’s shop, during and after the restoration, document the final chapter of one of the world’s most important banjos.
Steve will soon be producing a small run of Limited Edition Huber Wade Mainer Models to commemorate Steve’s role in resurrecting Wade’s Granada. Details will be released soon, so stay tuned!
I would like to thank Steve Huber and Joe Spann for their gracious outreach and supply of all the valuable information and historical data. My discussions with them provided me with all the key information and some of the best anecdotal stories that any writer could hope for. Last, as the owner of two prewar flatheads and a “Gibsonologist” in training, I offer my special thanks to Pete Kuykendall for enlisting me to write this article.