Gibson RB-3 Mastertone #9528-7, the “Ola Belle Reed”

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 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  The first, second, third and fourth string tuners are Grovers, while the original friction fifth-string peg has been replaced by a geared tuner.  The rim is three-ply maple with a high-profile twenty-hole flathead tone ring.  The pegheadis double-cut.

This banjo was formerly owned by renowned old-time musician Ola Belle Reed.  She was normally seen in public playing a 1950s RB-100, but this wreath-inlay RB-3 was her “at-home special banjo”.  Reed sold the banjo in 1978 and it was acquired by its current owner, Joe Deetz, in 1983.  He says, This has been my banjo for over twenty-five years and I have played it professionally all of this time. The frets and nuts are still the original.  This banjo has the original finish and is a true cannon–sweet tone when you want it and all the power you could want. The beauty of great banjos is the harder you push them the more tone they deliver. They never sizzle out–not to be confused with playing loud–but they have the full range.”

Photos courtesy of Joe Deetz.  Ola Belle Reed photo courtesy of David Reed.