Five-string banjoist Finley Duncan “Red” Belcher was born on August 8, 1914 in Kentucky and died August 16, 1952 in Swift Run, Virginia. Belcher was active in stage and radio performing as well as recording beginning in the 1930s; his band, Red Belcher and the Kentucky Ridge Runners, was featured in the late 1940s on the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia. Red Belcher’s primary banjo was this RB-7 Mastertone, which was shipped to Kaufman Music Store (location undetermined) on November 30, 1938 and was actually the first RB-7 to leave the factory. #409-1 remained essentially untouched from the time of Red Belcher’s death until 2015, when needed repairs and a complete setup were performed by master luthier Mark Bramlett of Woodstock, Georgia. Loose fingerboard and peghead binding were reattached; an old piece of non-matching replacement fingerboard binding was replaced and the new piece of binding color-shaded to match the original binding. Two large holes left in the fingerboard by the nails used by Red Belcher for fifth-string capoing were filled and railroad spikes installed at the seventh and ninth frets. One missing resonator screw was replaced with a prewar original, the fingerboard was cleaned and the frets were dressed, and a new head and radiused bridge were installed.
While later Gibson top-tension banjos are noted for their frequent departures from catalog descriptions, particularly with regard to plating types and inlay patterns, #409-1 conforms to standard specifications for style 7 with the exception of one chrome-plated resonator screw. The Mastertone decal is uncut and the twenty-hole flathead tone ring weighs two pounds. fourteen ounces; its buffed inner surface is commonly seen beginning in the late 1930s and has led players and collectors to refer to these later flathead rings as the “shiny face” variety. The factory order number is stamped inside the rim in a large sans-serif font seen on early top-tensions and a few other Gibson banjos of the same period. The tuners are Grover “two-band” tuners with ivoroid buttons rather than the “stair-step” Klusons with amber Catalin buttons seen on later top-tensions. Backup nuts were installed on the bottom of the flange long ago. #409-1 was shipped with a #121 chipboard case; Gibson’s original factory ledgers record the shipment of a more substantial #521 case to Red Belcher on November 16, 1942, and this case, showing signs of extensive use by Belcher, remains with the banjo.
Photos courtesy of an anonymous owner.