top of page

From about 1850 the Dobson brothers in America had as much to do with the keeping up of interest in the banjo as anyone. .. except perhaps SS Stewart.  As performers, teachers and instrument makers their names became household words wherever the instrument was played.


Henry C Dobson opened a studio in New Your City in 1853 “to combat the prejudice that the banjo was an instrument meant only for Negros” and he numbered the cream of American society amongst his pupils.


The first banjo he designed along modern lines was made for him by Buckbee who subsequently made all the Dobson banjos (see below)  Dobson was the inventor of the so called “silver bell” banjo (c1858) with the all metal hoop which became popular on both sides of the Atlantic and was the inspiration for many other makes of banjos.


Henry Dobson’s banjos were sold with 9”, 10” 11” and 12” hoops and he claimed to be the first to fit raised fret as per the guitar in 1870 although it is know that these occurred well be for this time.

Dobson’s “Bell” banjo was a great success and many thousands were sold in America and Great Britain and for the English market he even made 6 and 7 string versions.  Clarence Partee mentioned that in one Chicago music store’s window he saw “at least a hundred” Dobson banjos on display.


In 1901 Henry went bankrupt, declaring that the day of the banjo was over but “The Crescendo”  said at the time that his failure was due to his lack of progress and enterprise and not any decline of the banjo as an instrument. He died on May 29th 1908.


David McLaughlin  wrote  (2013)  "Buckbee did not subsequently make all the Dobson banjos of his later modern line, the Great Patent Silver Bell.  Actually, though it is true that a vast majority of the Silver Bells are assembled from some if not all Buckbee parts, the final assembly (and sometimes finishing) was done at Henry Clay's studio shops, first at 1237 Broadway and then at 1368 Broadway from 1883 through the 1890s.


Some HCD banjos are nearly entirely Buckbee parts, some have a mixture of Buckbee parts with those of other suppliers, and some, if few, have no Buckbee parts at all. And of course, in 1897 Rettburg & Lange bought out Buckbee and upped the quality of those parts that HC was buying.


Even though Buckbee made banjos, they were mostly a banjo and drum parts supplier, similar to Stew-Mac and other parts suppliers of today. So, sadly, the consequence is that it is almost universally believed and accepted that each and every banjo made with Buckbee parts was entirely assembled and finished at the Buckbee factory and delivered as a completed banjo.


Another problem with people's understanding of Henry Clay's Silver Bell is that it is always assumed they are all "from the early 1880s" because of the patent dates stamped into them. Many of these Silver Bell banjos are from the late 1880s and all through the 1890s, and can be dated by their parts, assembly features, varnish used, etc., but not as easily by any numbers stamped into them."  


NOTE:  At  Sale of Musical Instruments in July 1911 through well-known London Auction House Puttick & Simpson of London lot 167 was:  A nickel hoop banjo by Dobson, in case, with plectrum.  In scribed” Presented to Birdie Brightling, Opera Comique, London 28th November 1881, from HRH Prince of Wales.  Birdie Brightling was the stage name used by American female banjoist Mrs Alice Lyman who was a success at a Clifford Essex, Kensington Town Hall Concert in 1910.  Brewster was her teacher.


pictures courtesy of The Guitar Factory

Henry C Dobson  1831 to 1908

bottom of page