Bluegrass Trivia: December 30, 2022 – Secondary Instrument Brands

by Dick Bowden

This Contest is Closed
The winner is Todd Evans


Secondary Instrument Brands Trivia

Most folks have heard of the leading bluegrass instrument brands. Now I’m talking about mid-20th century major brands, before so many of the original makers abandoned bluegrass instruments or closed up, and before boutique luthiers exploded across the instrument spectrum.

Gibson made the Mastertone banjos and Master Model mandolins used by ALMOST all the pro performers. Violins tended to be “whatever”, usually old instruments, with no particular “brand” other than copies of Stradavari, Guaneri, Amati, etc. The leading bass fiddle was Kay. Dobros were made by, yes you guessed it, Dobro! Guitars were nearly all Martins.

Do you recognize any of these secondary brands of bluegrass instruments? Fill in the blank with what type of bluegrass instrument they made.

1. Vega__________________________

2. American Standard_______________________

3. Regal____________________

4. Gibson___________________

The answers are:
1. banjo
2. bass fiddle
3. dobro/resonator guitar/steel guitar
4. guitar

Additional Bowden Comments

Keerect and good job Todd.

Vega of Boston was probably the nation’s pre-eminent maker of 5 string banjos in the early part of the 20th century. Although they were not “bluegrass”, Stringbean and Grandpa Jones played Vega banjos on the Opry. In 1959 Earl Scruggs inked a deal with Vega for an Earl Scruggs model, to cash in on the folk boom. Earl posed for a lot of photos with his Earl Scruggs Vega banjo. However he didn’t play it much, he liked his Gibson MUCH better. In the northeast, Vega Earl Scruggs banjos were much easier to find in music stores than Gibson Mastertones. A few of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys performed on Vega banjos: Bobby Hicks and Bob Black were two that come to mind. Sonny Osborne worked with Vega quite a bit in the 1960s to develop a model that he endorsed with his name. It was a VERY good banjo. There were no other brands played by bluegrass banjoists that I’m aware of, until about 1970 when Fender and Ode/Baldwin banjos gained fairly widespread acceptance. Nowadays Gibson doesn’t even make banjos, so there are a dozen or so excellent makers using the Gibson design: Huber, Neat, Hatfield, Deering, Prucha, etc.

In addition to being a brand of plumbing suppliers, American Standard made bass fiddles — BIG bass fiddles. Many of the top Nashville bass players liked American Standards — if they weren’t playing super-expensive European “carved” basses. Kays and American Standards (and a few other US brands) were made of PLYWOOD. They were relatively cheap and STOUT, and good for musicians traveling in touring cars with basses strapped to the roof rack. A famous user of American Standard basses was Jerry McCoury, Del’s brother. Two other lesser known brands of basses were King and Epiphone. American Standards are generally regarded as the best sounding of the plywood basses.

Regal was an instrument company in Chicago that made “cheaper” brands of musical instruments. They never intended to compete with the “best”. When Dobro developed the Dobro model that became part of bluegrass, they did it for the Hawaiian and blues music crazes. Demand was so great that they couldn’t make enough of the instruments at their Los Angeles plant. So they SUB-CONTRACTED Dobros to Regal in Chicago. Amazingly, the deal also permitted to offer the identical instrument with a “Regal” logo brand on the headstock instead of Dobro! Dobro experts are able to recognize on sight a “Regal made” instrument with a Dobro headstock logo, based on tiny issues like the placement of screws or type of tailpiece. Regal branded instruments never got quite the same level of respect as branded Dobros, but they’re the same instrument! In fact, I stumbled on one for sale in New Jersey 10 years ago and snapped it up, cheap. Identical to a Dobro branded instrument. Nowadays there are several makers of excellent “resophonic” guitars: Beard, Scheerhorn, National, etc.

In addition to making the #1 bluegrass mandolin and #1 bluegrass banjo, Gibson also made the #2 guitar, at least in the old days. There are plenty of photos of Charlie Monroe (OK, pre-bluegrass), Lester Flatt, Carter Stanley, Mac Wiseman and others playing their Gibson guitars. Jimmy Martin came to Nashville to try out for Bill Monroe with a Gibson guitar. In fact, Monroe himself bought a Gibson guitar in 1939 to play “Muleskinner Blues” on the Opry. But once they all hit the “big time”, it was clear that the Martin “D” model guitars beat the Gibsons hands down. The only performer to stick with a Gibson guitar was Earl Scruggs, who often played guitar on records and live shows. At first he played Mac Wiseman’s Gibson. After Mac was replaced by Curly Seckler, Earl played Curly Seckler’s Gibson until it got run over by the bus around 1956-57! Then Earl switched to his own Martin D-18 (gotten in a swap with country musician Don Gibson of “Oh Lonesome Me” fame.) A couple of performers in current bluegrass bands still play Gibson guitars; Jeremy Stephens of High Fidelity uses 2 different Gibson guitars, and Charlie Cushman plays a Gibson guitar for gospel songs with The Earls of Leicester. Nowadays there are a dozen or so excellent guitar brands that generally follow Martin designs: Collings, Bourgeois, Henderson, Gallagher, Santa Cruz, Preston Thompson, PreWar, Circa, etc.

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

3 Responses

  • There was no generally accepted “secondary” brand of mandolin in bluegrass in the early days. HOWEVER, Gibson made a large line of mandolin models with 5 or 6 pear-shaped “A” model mandolins and another 4 or 5 types of “Florentine” style mandolins (mandolins with points and curlicues on the body and peghead) in their “better” line of instruments that were just below the “Master Model” and Lloyd Loar F-5s. Ranging from quite cheap to VERY expensive, there was a mandolin for anyone in the Gibson catalog for decades. Bill Monroe himself started out on a round hole “A” model (pear shaped) mandolin and then graduated to an “F” (for Florentine) model 7, just below the mighty F-5 Master Model. Look at any photo of a new band of youngsters playing bluegrass in the 1940s or 50s and you see them playing a cheaper Gibson mandolin. Yes, there were other brands of cheaper mandolins, but nobody played them in a pro or budding pro bluegrass band. The Gibson brand was the only one to play, for bluegrass.

  • Re: secondary mandolins, there is ONE famous photo of Bill Monroe holding an Epiphone mandolin taken about 1949. The Blue Grass Boys chipped in and bought it for him as a gift. Lord knows why. Perhaps his Lloyd Loar was at Gibson for new frets. It’s not known if Bill ever played it on shows or records. Epiphone generally tried to compete model for model with Gibson. They “tried” to do so with mandolins. To no success. To discover an old high-end Epiphone mandolin nowadays is a mighty rare event. I personally remember ONE showing up at a vintage instrument dealer.

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