Notes on playing the banjo uke (and the regular ukulele), as well as some of my favorite songs and videos, but mostly, you'll find information here on my particular obsession - the many models of banjo ukulele offered by Stromberg-Voisinet in the 1920's to 1931.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"Golden Gate" Gibson UB-5 Banjo Ukulele

Since last month, I've been playing a good deal, first Ben Mealer's and my little trio, "The Three-Quarter Quartet", both at Sonic Uke's Halloween Ukulele Cabaret and then at the Jalopy Theater, and with "Amity Rose & the Dead Cowboys" at Joe Silver and Suzy Savoy's "Ukulele Rumble" and again this Saturday, 10 PM at the Vagabond Cafe on Cornelia Street in NYC.  And, next Friday, again with the 3/4 Quartet at the Holiday Ukulele Cabaret at Jimmy's No. 43, 7pm on East 7th Street, with more holiday stuff coming up.

I haven't done a lot of videos lately, but here's one from just a couple of days ago - A 1928 number that was a hit for Al Jolson, written by him, Billy Rose, Dave Dreyer and Joseph Meyer.   A fun number to sing and play, and - as I just got my Gibson UB-5 back from being repaired at TR Crandall Guitars - I though this would be a good opportunity to hear this instrument.

Here are a few photos of what was the top-of-the line of Gibson's banjo ukulele range of instruments.  This 1926 UB-5 is my favorite uke for a couple of reasons.

In terms of sound, its not like the Abbott and Ludwig banjo ukes, which are more lightly built and which have a flange and pot that are integrated and made of cast alloy.  The Gibson is heavier, and the pot is a laminated ring, very much the same as the pot on the basic UB-2/UB-3 ukuleles.  Coupled with a metal - I think brass - flange and a full walnut resonator, the Gibson UB-4/UB-5 and UB2 Deluxe/UB-3 Deluxe are HEAVY.  However, with that brass tone-ring, the sound of the UB-4/UB-5 is anything but heavy.   If anything, its mellower than other Gibsons, and reminiscent in tone (and very similar in hardware) to their Mastertone line of banjos.

Anyway, I'm no Gibson scholar, but I can tell you that despite the weight, this is the best playing instrument I have and certainly the best uke I've played.

I'm the second owner of this particular uke, and at some point in the 40's, the uke met with an accident and lost a section of the resonator rim on the player side.   you can't really see the rim in this picture (you can see it better in the above shot), but the crack, which I just had glued closed, doesn't effect the sound at all.

In addition, over the years, the gold plate has worn away in places leaving the flange green in places and worn and grainy all over.  Either you hate this and have to have it re-plated, or you look upon this as original condition and would never touch it.  Me, I fall into a third camp: is it rusting and does it need repair?  If - as in this case the answer is, so far, "no," then I don't touch it.

Gibson really pulled out the stops on the UB-4 and UB-5's decoration, but it's always tasteful.  The UB-4 is identical except that it's overall nickel-plated, not gold.

On the UB-5, even the barrel tuners that Gibson seemed to use on everything are gold-plated.   So are the Presto tailpiece and the little screws that hold the resonator firmly in place.

Though the finish is gone in several places on the resonator back, I like the worn, non-flashy look of this UB-5.

You can see the fellow who originally owned it played the heck out of it and never left it sitting in it's case, which you have to like in an instrument that has retained its characteristic sound.

Played and cared for to a degree, but not babied.

See you next time...


  1. Terrific! I think a well playing uke with dings, scratches and worn out spots gives it a certain mojo that you can't fake. The Golden Gate Bridge is a scant 2 hours away and we almost always plan our trips to SF to include a trip across it.
    Keep up with the videos. I love em'. Thanks, Dean.

    1. Dean -

      I agree. It's always nice to come across that pristine instrument that's been sitting in its case for a few decades, safe and secure, but there's something odd about it, like life suspended. Having an old instrument with a little more character is more appealing to me, being slightly worn myself.

      Funny thing about that tune; it was written in 1928, before the bridge project was even proposed. It's hard for me to imagine what that space looked like without the bridge. Even harder to imagine why you'd write a song about it~! It must have been equally gorgeous without the bridge in place. :)