Why is a Greg Rich era Gibson Banjo superior to other eras of Gibson production?

Greg Rich was hired by Gibson to improve the existing banjos starting in 1987 to revive a slumping quality that had taken over their banjo design.

Basically Gibson stopped making banjos in the late 30″s even though you see banjos sold by Gibson into the 40’s. The early 40’s Gibsons were made up of existing parts left over from earlier production.So there was a period from about 1937 through 1948 where no parts were made. When Gibson started making banjos in 1948 they went to the bowtie fingerboard and used inferior rims and tone rings. I remember in 1964 taking lessons at a music store from John Hickman. The store had a brand new Bowtie Gibson Banjo for $365 and nobody wanted it because it sounded terrible.

Gibson was purchased by a few corporations before 1987 and costs and quality were cut to the point where the Gibson Guitars had plastic bridges that were not even glued on. They were screwed on with screws. The banjos had similar reductions in quality in the mid 1960’s where the rims were only 1/2 in thick rather that 5/8 thick. The tone ring hung over the side.  In the early 70’s gibson came up with the RB 250 Model which was Based on a 2 piece flange design with a flathead tone ring. This provided too much wood that actually interfered with the sound of the banjo having a 3/4 inch shell. To further support extremely low quality the rims were made of multiple plays of thin wood. Approximately 12 plys. This was far easier and cheaper to bend than the 3 ply hard rock maple rims or the 1930’s Gibsons. Basically profesionals would not play these banjos they were so bad. (Let me mention at this point for people that own these banjos today that the effect of 40 to 50 years of age have actually made these poorly constructed banjos sound pretty good.)

So if you have one of these you may like it because age does change the way musical instruments sound and the original inferior production methods could be compensated with an aging process that has made these 1960’s and 1970’s Gibson banjos sound good today.

Fast forward to 1984. Gibson decided to make the Earl Scruggs model banjo and went to Stewart McDonald and purchased parts and assembled the Earl Scruggs Banjo. The parts were good quality but the assembly was inferior with poor neck fits, tone rings that were too tight on the rims etc. Some people have taken these banjos apart and refit the parts and have a pretty good sounding banjo.  Although it was clear that Gibson was experimenting with changes the original Earl Scruggs model fell short of the pre World War 2 banjo designs.

For reasons unknown to me Gibson wanted to make banjos as close to the mid 30″s banjos as possible and hired Greg Rich for that purpose in 1987. He basically assembled a group of highly talented individuals that knew how to manufacture banjos. They used the best materials available along with good fits and created a superior product that is the closest banjo to a 1930’s banjo that exist.They used a Kulesh tone ring that Richard Kulesh had developed that was close to the prewar tone ting. Gibson had exclusive rights to this ring during this period.  Richard Kulesh’s  son still makes rings but they are not considered to be as good as the Rich Era Kulesh Rings.  There was a total change in product design that reproduced the pre war sound by changing the design, the parts and assembling one of the finest teams of builders during the Greg Rich era at Gibson.

Greg Rich left Gibson in 1993 and the quality remained high because of the parts used and the knowledge.The quality and desirability of the banjos did deteriorate somewhat but the Gibson banjos made post Greg Rich era are still phenomenal instruments and are highly desirable.  The significant improvement in design is found when comparing Greg Rich era banjos to previous models not as much when comparing the Greg Rich banjos to models that followed the Greg Rich era.

The Rich Era banjos under the direction of Greg Rich are considered the Creme de la Creme.

2 thoughts on “Why is a Greg Rich era Gibson Banjo superior to other eras of Gibson production?

  1. Urs-Rainer von Arx says:

    Thank you so much for this excellent and clear explanation, Geoff. I did not really know this but I have continued to be amazed by the amazing clarity of my banjo, especially and also when I play it above the 18th fret. It pierces the sound carpet of any collection of instruments, and in a very charming way. I have had so many compliments on my banjo’s tone, I continue to be amazed. The only other banjos that sounded anything like it were both from 1929 and 2.5 times as expensive. This banjo is absolutely amazing and pure joy to play.

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