September 11th Trivia Question

This Contest is Closed
The winner is Jake Moskowitz


What is commonly referred to as a “flat head”?

  1. The predominant type of guitar used in bluegrass
  2. The favorite type of Gibson banjo tone ring configuration for bluegrass
  3. A bass fiddle with a flat wooden back
  4. A CF Martin mandolin with a top made from a flat piece of spruce that’s bent at an angle at the fat end
  5. A pre-war Dobro or Regal resonator guitar with a square neck made for playing Hawaiian style, held flat in your lap

ANSWER is “B, the preferred Gibson banjo design”

Additional Bowden Comments

Congratulations to this week’s winner, and it’s wonderful to see so many contestants, including new ones! Thank you for your interest. Again, let Lynn Lipton know if you’d like the questions to be done differently — we’re just looking to get lots of folks involved and having a good time, and perhaps learning things about bluegrass.

The typical guitar in bluegrass is called a “flat-TOP” (not a flat-HEAD). Close but no banana.

The favored (but not exclusive) bluegrass banjo is the Gibson FLAT-HEAD Mastertone model, which came in many levels of decoration. But at heart they all had a bent wooden rim that was nearly 11″ in diameter at the outer edge. A metal tone ring sat on top of this wood rim to make it LOUDER! A calfskin head was stretched over this metal tone ring and held in place by another metal ring called the “tension hoop”. Drum construction, basically. Most banjos since Day 1 had the skin head stretched to the full diameter of 11″. But in the 1920s Gibson, Paramount and Epiphone decided they would have the skin supported by a raised portion of the metal tone ring at the 9″ diameter point, 1″ INSIDE the outer edge of the drum construction. This gave a smaller vibrating surface of the head, and gave a “sharper” tone to the instrument (more treble, less bass…) Banjos had always had a reputation of being rather “plunky”, and this “raised head” or “arched top” construction of the tone ring was thought to be a big improvement in tone. All the other banjo makers retained the old full 11″ diameter bearing surface for the head (Vega, Bacon & Day, etc). Gibson made exclusively arched top/raised head Mastertone banjos for about 4 years. Ralph Stanley preferred the arched top/raised head banjo sound for his entire career (as do his followers today). About 1929-1930 Gibson decided that the market for the old fashioned 5 string banjo and the 4 string plectrum banjo probably was more satisfied by the old full 11″ diameter bearing surface for the head. The Gibson catalog touted this change, saying the “new tone chamber” gave “more sweetness and twang”. Gibson’s tenor banjos continued to use the sharper toned arched top/raised head design. Gibson stopped making banjos during WWII, and due to lack of demand did not re-offer Mastertone banjos until 1954. Oddly, they then returned to the 1920s arched top/raised head design for who knows what reason.

In the meantime, bluegrass music had been created by banjo pickers who had nearly all preferred the post 1929 “flat head”, full 11″ bearing surface, because it was louder. Snuffy Jenkins, Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, (not Ralph Stanley), Rudy Lyle, etc. Because they were the pioneers of bluegrass banjo, and their photos were all over the place, banjo players began to think “well I ought to have one of those flat head banjos like they use” (except Ralph Stanley’s fans!) By 1960 there was still a “split” in which type bluegrass banjo players would buy. Sonny Osborne and JD Crowe, being huge Scruggs fans, went out of their way to find the old post 1929 Gibson Mastertones with the full 11″ flat-head like Earl and Don played. Many, like Allen Shelton with Jim & Jesse’s Virginia Boys, were perfectly happy to buy a post 1954 new Gibson with the arched top/raised head. Some, like Douglas Dillard and Don Stover were very happy to buy old pre-war Mastertones with the 1925-1929 arched top/raised head. In the 1960s Gibson woke up and started to realize there was a market for the “flat-head” banjo design and they began to offer it again. By 1970 it was clear that the bluegrass pickers wanted that flat-head design, and Gibson made the flat head design the catalog standard, until they ceased making banjos about 2009. You can recognize a Gibson arched top/raised head banjo by the “circle within a larger circle” appearance of the white plastic head. The flat-head is just a big white circle of full diameter. (see photos)

The typical Martin mandolin indeed had a top made out of a flat piece of spruce (like a guitar) with a slight bent angle in it. This mandolin is quite “old fashioned” and quiet and never played a role in bluegrass.

There is a certain design of German bass fiddle with a back made out of a huge flat piece of maple or plywood. It isn’t called a flat top though. If anything it’s called a “flat-back”.

Finally, the Dobro (TM) steel guitar came in two varieties — with a typical guitar “round neck” meant to be played like a regular guitar held upright on your lap; and the Hawaiian style with a square neck which was played laying flat in your lap. These are known as “square necks”, not flat-tops. (You can also play the round neck variety flat in your lap, but you can’t play the square neck upright on your lap for “regular” playing because the neck is too huge to get your left hand around.)

Here is a photo of an old Gibson Mastertone “arched top” or “raised head” banjo (not the favorite bluegrass “flat head”).

Arched top/raised head Mastertone banjo, note the “circle within a circle” appearance of the white head.

Now here is a photo of the bluegrass preference “flat head” design. Just a big full diameter 11″ circle.

Full 11″ diameter “flat head” Mastertone

Note the different appearances of the heads in these photos of Earl Scruggs (flat head) and Ralph Stanley (arched top/raised head).

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.

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