Gibson introduced the RB-75 Mastertone in 1937; the company’s catalog of that year described their five-string, or “regular”, banjo offerings as representing “The ‘old time’ banjo brought up to date by Gibson” and claimed that “this instrument is the most beautiful of all banjos in the hands of an artist”, with the player provided “extra twang and ring in a Gibson Regular Banjo because of the special tone chamber”. The “special tone chamber” to which the catalog referred was in fact the flathead tone ring which Gibson had adopted on its five-string and plectrum Mastertone models beginning in 1929.
#FA-5101 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers) was originally shipped from the Gibson factory on May 24, 1940 to the company store of the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company in Stearns, Kentucky. The banjo remained unsold for years before finally being bought by a coal miner who later needed money and sold the banjo back to the store. Store owner John Hall never resold the banjo and decided he would learn to play it; Hall owned the banjo until 1962 when he traded it to a banjo player from Greeneville, Tennessee for another banjo and cash. The current owner acquired the banjo in December 1993.
While style 75 banjos displayed considerable variation in inlay patterns and even wood and plating types, #FA-5101 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers) is typical of one of the style’s most commonly-seen configurations. The wood is mahogany; the double-cut peghead is inlaid with the “diamonds and squares” pattern that had been used on style 3 banjos of the 1920s (see TB-3 Mastertone #9259-37, the “Bill Umeck”) and the fingerboard is inlaid with a truncated version of the “leaves and bows” pattern used on style 3 banjos of the 1930s (see TB-3 #42-18, the “Aloysius Schreibmaier”. The flathead tone ring is standard for five-string and plectrum style 75 banjos. The original Kluson tuners with Catalin buttons have been replaced along with the hooks and nuts and fingerboard.
#FA-5101 bears a true serial number rather than a factory order number, as was typical for Gibson banjos from 1938 to 1940. The serial number is stamped on the back of the peghead and the numbers 5101 are written in chalk inside the resonator. An earlier factory order number, #181-1, is evident inside the resonator; this same factory order number has been observed stamped inside the rim of RB-7 Mastertone #F690-4. Another RB-75 with serial number #EA-5691 has been observed with the digits 5101 overwitten in the resonator.
Photos courtesy of an anonymous collector.