Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Lewis Clifton talks about the Gibson banjo-uke.....

A couple of days ago, Strummin' Simon at the Ukulele Restoration Barn did a blog-post (see right) about the Gibson UB1 banjo-uke - with some great photos of one he has just restored for his own use - and so it's an ideal time to post an article by the talented young player Lewis Clifton, about the famed and sought-after Gibson banjo-ukulele in all its forms.

Part 1 of the ‘Kings of the Banjo Ukulele’ – The Gibson

The Gibson Banjo Ukulele has a very sharp and rich tone, which is iconic to the great brand of Banjo Uke. Gibson started the production of their banjoleles in the mid 1920’s and were manufactured in Kalamazoo, Michigan, U.S.A.
In those days the Gibson Banjo Ukes were cheap and affordable. The range of their Banjo Ukuleles begun with the ‘Bog Standard’ UB1 for $10 all the way to the Gold Plated De-Luxe UB5, for $55. Which was a lot of money in those days!
Every single Banjo Uke in the range has a unique features or sound to it.

To talk about the Gibson Banjo Ukes we must start from the beginning, with the UB1.

Most UB1s were made before 1930, so most will bear ‘The Gibson’ on the peg. (If it was post 1930 it will just have ‘Gibson’ on the peg). I’ve played 2 or 3 Gibson UB1s in my ‘Ukulele Career’ and every time I pick one up, the same words are on my tongue, “It’s SO tiny!”. The UB1 has a 6-inch pot, but surprisingly it has a powerful ‘punch’. All wooden parts are made from mahogany, flat back resonator, tone ring fitted inside the resonator, Nashville tailpiece, friction pegs with ivory thumb grip, 5 bottom tension rods and a full sized fret board with 3 position spots.

The next model up from the UB1 was the UB2.

The UB2 is very similar to the UB1, in fact It’s just a bigger version of it. The only real difference is that the UB2 has 14 bottom tension rods and an 8-inch pot.

Over the years there has been a lot of confusion over the naming of the UB2 and the small UB3. Most members of the George Formby Society call it ‘UB3 non-resonator’. The reason for this confusion is that Gibson named the uke as different names in their catalogues.

The UB3 ‘Non-res’ is by far one of the most desirable from the range. The famous ukulele king, George Formby owned one and can be seen playing it in his films, “Off The Dole”, “I See Ice”, “It’s In the Air” and “Trouble Brewing”. The UB3 has an 8-inch rim and a flat backed amplifying resonator finished in a dark antique mahogany with a sunburst effect on the back and the neck. The rosewood fingerboard is decoratively inlaid with ‘Mother of Pearl’ diamonds as is the peg head. This Gibson model is also fitted with a tone ring, which gives it its lovely, crisp, rich and sharp tone.

Now, to make things even MORE confusing, lets add The ‘Big’ Gibson UB3 to the mix!

There are 2 types of Big Gibson UB3’s, The Standard model and the De-Luxe model. The only difference between them is that the De-Luxe model is more decorative. The Big UB3 has 16 bottom tension rods, a walnut resonator with a nickel plated flange with diamond cut outs, friction pegs with ivory thumb grips, rosewood finger board, and 3 mounting screws. Lovely to hold with a nice thin neck so you can get a good grip on the uke. Once again due to the tone ring fitted it has the iconic Gibson sound. I’m lucky enough to own a De-Luxe Big UB3, and I must say, It’s a lovely uke! George owned 3 Big UB3’s, one he used in his film ‘I Didn’t Do It’ which was De-Luxe model and another he used in his last television program ‘The Friday Show’ which was the standard model, (which is now owned by Andy Eastwood).

The next 2 ukes are also very similar, just that one is gold plated.

The UB4 was made from beautiful burl walnut with a highly polished durable finish. Over laid flanged resonator, grip tight pegs, a rosewood fingerboard, bound with white ivoroid and inlaid with attractive white pearl ornamentations. All metal parts were nickel-plated.

The pre-mentioned UB5 was the ‘Top Uke’ in the Gibson range, which was very similar to the UB4 but the UB5 was Gold Plated, which added $10 to its value.

The Gibsons are certainly some of the best ukes out there, and my UB3 is definitely one of my favorite ukes!

Part 2 will be coming up, but this time it will be on ABBOTTS.

Till then, Keep Plonking!

Lewis Clifton

I'm glad Lewis enjoys writing, as well as playing his banjoleles so magnificently!
Thanks for this, Lewis - and I'm already looking forward to the next one!


  1. Thank you so much for this information! I recently discovered a UB3 in the back room of our family music store and I want to learn everything about this cute little instrument! This helped a lot!

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment, I'm glad you found Lewis's article so useful! I'll make sure he sees it!


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