The prewar flathead five-string RB-3 could be considered the classic bluegrass banjo; Rudy Lyle, J.D. Crowe and Sonny Osborne are among the legendary players who established their reputations on flathead RB-3s from the 1930s.
This is one of the most sought-after of all prewar Gibson banjos—an original flathead five-string RB-3 Mastertone with a one-piece flange and the rare wreath inlay pattern. The majority of 1930s style 3 banjos had leaves and bows inlays, while a few featured the flying eagle pattern and a handful were made with the wreath pattern. It has been speculated that this small run of wreath-inlay style 3s was prompted by Gibson’s desire to use up inlays left over after the discontinuation of style 5, on which wreath inlays had been standard. Early Monroe banjo player Rudy Lyle played an RB-3 identical to this one.
Aside from the inlays and tone ring, this banjo conforms to standard catalog specifications for the style 3 of the period. The wood is mahogany, with two white/black/white purfling rings on the back of the resonator and single white binding. The hardware is nickel-plated and the tailpiece is the original Grover Presto. The original Grover tuners have been replaced by Waverly V2s on the first and fourth strings and Keith tuners on the second and third strings, while the fifth-string peg is the original friction type. The rim is three-ply maple with an uncut Mastertone label and a high-profile twenty-hole flathead tone ring. The peghead is double-cut.
This banjo is in completely original condition with the exception of the fingerboard; in the fifties, #9528-3 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers) was sent back to Gibson to have its worn-out fingerboard replaced. Gibson at the time was not concerned with historical accuracy, and simply installed a fingerboard with bowtie inlays as used on the then-current RB-250. When old-time musician and collector Harry West acquired this banjo he cut the as-per-original wreath inlays and had a new rosewood fingerboard installed by Tom Morgan. This banjo retains its original peghead inlays and is accompanied by its original case.
The original owner of #9528-3 is believed to have lived in the New England area. The underside of the tone ring is marked “Fontaine–Rensselaer, New York” in white paint. Harry West acquired the banjo from Mr. Fontaine, who had bought it from the family of the original owner.
Photos courtesy of an anonymous collector.