Gibson RB-3 Mastertone #9411-1

#9411-1 is a historically significant and possibly unique banjo.  Made in the period when Gibson was making the transition from the two-piece flanges and fiddle-shaped pegheads of the 1920s to the one-piece flanges and double-cut pegheads more commonly associated with the 1930s, this banjo combines the then-new one-piece flange with the older fiddle-shaped peghead and style 3 diamonds and squares inlay pattern.  #9411-1 is also equipped with another feature that was just beginning to appear on some Gibson Mastertone banjos at the time: the high-profile flathead tone ring.  The wood is mahogany with two concentric rings of white/black/white purfling on the back of the resonator, both 1930s characteristics.

This banjo was in rough shape when its current owner found it; I’ll let him describe the former state of the banjo and the restoration work he undertook:

“The RB-3 came from Virginia through a business friend.  The owner had passed away and his nephew was selling all his stuff for his aunt.  There were a couple of old Gibson guitars also.  My friend was buying an old Mustang car.  He told me the banjo was unplayable (he had been a picker in his younger days) but it was the real deal.  When it arrived it had an EXTREME case of old banjo smell.  It is still smelly despite refinishing.  The following was found:  Neck very loose and cracked at the heel at the lag screws.  Bad repair using electric grinder and dodgy glue.  Peghead ears held only by veneer and end of peghead chewed up.  Inlays all okay.  Extreme fret wear right up past twelfth fret.  Signs of previous refretting.  Original fretboard replaced with ebony but this now needed dressing.  Fretboard thicker than original so that it was proud of the tension hoop (makes a nice low action).  Neck binding replaced but was now peeling off, showing traces of original (rosewood I think) fretboard.  Two original tuners replaced with Keith tuners.  Fifth-string peg not original but fitted with old button.  Original truss rod replaced but original D-shaped brass washer still there.  Part of old rod in the case.  Original case gone.  Back of resonator butchered by some very amateur inlay work.  Whole banjo, inside and out, covered with peeling varnish applied (probably with a knife and fork) over original cracked varnish with no preparation.  Mastertone sticker also varnished over.  Original hooks and nuts gone.  Replaced with 1950s-style items.  Flange appears to have been replated years ago–most of the die marks on the outer ring are buffed off.  It may even be a replacement but it is old and curled up.  Tone ring has had an uneven pattern of nineteen holes drilled in it since manufacture.  I guess it either had no holes or fewer holes originally.  Neck back has been shaved but this has actually made a very nice neck of it.  The old work to the neck was very well-done.  Everything after this was a disaster. 

Apart from the hooks and nuts, I have replaced the resonator hardware, the coordinator-rod nuts other than the long nut, and the two Keith tuners have been replaced with prewar pancakes (I have kept the old stuff).  I have veneered over the back of the peghead to hide repairs.  Rebound the neck, pulled inlays out and dressed the fretboard, refitted original inlays and refretted.  Unfortunately I cracked the corner of the Mastertone block.  Concentric ring inlay replaced and graving pieces fitted to resonator back where inlays removed.  I could not save the old varnish as the overcoating had grabbed on well enough to ruin it.  I had it all professionally stripped off and restained and finished with whatever that old type varnish is.  I did the inside of the pot myself as I did not seem to be able to impress on the guys the importance of keeping the numbers, the “Pat. App’d. For” and the sticker.  The outside (black oval) of the sticker is now not as sharp as it was but it is pretty good. 

The main thing to me is the sound.  It is just great even after all that work. . . I guess you have to think of her as an old girl who has had a lot of plastic surgery.  She is still the same underneath.”

Photos courtesy of an anonymous collector.