Multiple Grammy Award winner and multiple IBMA Award winner Jim Mills, undoubtedly one of the best banjo players in the world, has played with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder for 14 years, played on two of Dolly Parton’s albums and other artists’ albums, has played with countless other top bands and artists on stage, and has made his own solo albums. He’s hung out with the likes of JD Crowe and his all-time hero and inspiration - Earl Scruggs. Jim is also the world’s foremost collector and authority on pre-war Gibson banjos; he literally wrote the book. After denying myself a Gibson since the 1970s, desire and envy has gotten the better of me and so I sought out the best to aid me with my indulgent acquisition.
Jim and his pre-war Gibson private showroom are located in the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina and may be visited by appointment only. You see, Jim has a personal approach to buying and selling these uniquely toned instruments and in my mind, I equated him to a matchmaker. I emailed him and told him my story and that I was looking for the last banjo I’ll ever have. He promptly replied with pictures of three banjos he thought might be good for me and we set up a date for a visit. Road trip aficionado that I am, I made the drive the day before and arrived at his showroom at the appointed time.
Jim greeted me outside and welcomed me and escorted me to the showroom, a museum really, that houses memorabilia and paraphernalia of all things Earl Scruggs and pre-war Gibsons and his own accomplishments and people he’s played with and done business with. The bathroom walls have framed letters from Dolly Parton for cryin’ out loud. One could spend hours viewing and discovering these items and they all have stories. After showing me the highlights including the one of a kind Mack Crow banjo, we sat and just talked for a spell, getting to know each other. It’s all part of the process and it just can’t be rushed. Jim is so personable and gracious and generous with his time. He wanted to know about me and my intentions and needs and he gave me a condensed education about the construction of these pre-wars, how to tell the different models apart, why they sound they way they do, how the old tenors are converted, and how to spot fakes and he answered all of my questions. He also shared amazing stories about Earl, the old banjos and others that have been to his showroom and bought banjos from him.
We then started pulling banjos and I asked him to play them, cause you know, I’m shy. Yeah, like I’m really gonna play a banjo in front of Jim Mills, geez. He was very accommodating though and played a selection of conversions for me and I was amazed at how they resonated in my chest, sitting across from him. Wow. Jim has a disarming way about him though and before I realized it, we were swapping banjos back and forth and I was playing them. In front of Jim Mills. Again, wow.
I had it narrowed down to a couple and then I noticed a gold plated 1927 ornate plectrum banjo. Whether it can be called a conversion is debatable I guess. It had the original checkerboard tenor neck, however it had been split down the middle lengthwise and spliced with a matching piece of wood to expand the neck to accommodate the 5th string. It was a gorgeous piece of work and apparently only one man in history has ever done that successfully. I played it. It was amazing. I had butterflies in my belly. I was so tempted. I looked at Jim and said “if I showed up at a jam with this banjo, it’s going to turn a lot of heads and I think everyone would expect more from me than my abilities can deliver”. He smiled at me and said “yeah, I get it. I felt the same way when I was young”. So, I gently replaced it in its rack on the display case and with a knowing look, he handed me back the 1929, Style 3, Mastertone conversion, with two piece flange and Bill Sullivan neck and I played with it a little while longer and then I gave him that look of agreement. Neither one of us had to say it. The deal was done. After that unspoken decision, he said, “this is a working man’s banjo”.
He took it apart for me to show me the three places where the serial number is supposed to be and the format and color they are supposed to be and that they all matched and the uncut and almost perfect condition of the Gibson guarantee label. He showed me a couple other items that confirm this is a genuine product. He wrote and printed the bill of sale and letter of authenticity describing its details and condition. Oh yeah, and he signed my @BanjoBen hat.
I asked him if I could video him playing it and he smiled and said sure. Here’s the video.
If you’re ever in the market for a pre-war Gibson, you must must must contact Jim Mills, you won’t regret it. His stories alone are worth the price of admission. As I drove away, I thought, what a sweetheart Jim is. I felt like I made a new friend.