Faced with sharply declining banjo sales in the face of the guitar’s increasing popularity, Gibson made the decision in 1937 to dramatically overhaul its banjo line. All existing Mastertone models were discontinued with the exception of style 3, which was lowered in price from $100 to $75 and emerged renamed as style 75. The other Mastertones were replaced by the new top-tension models, trumpeted in the 1937 Gibson catalog as “the alarm clock that is going to wake up new possibilities in banjo playing”.
The top-tensions were innovative in a number of ways. The most obvious was their namesake head-tightening design; players no longer had to remove the resonator to make the frequent tension adjustments necessitated by calfskin heads, since the brackets were adjusted from the top of the pot rather than the bottom. Top-tensions borrowed other design features from Gibson’s extremely popular line of archtop guitars, including solid-wood resonators with carved backs, bold Art Deco looks with large, geometric inlay patterns, a more guitarlike peghead shape, and radiused fingerboards. The flathead tone ring, which had been limited for the most part to plectrum and five-string Mastertones, became the standard for all top-tensions regardless of neck configuration.
The three top-tension styles, 7, 12, and 18, were roughly equivalent to the earlier styles 3, 4, and Granada. Style 7, pictured here, was made of maple with nickel-plated hardware and bowtie inlays similar to those used on the postwar style 250, but embellished with three slashes engraved on each side.
#763-3 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers) was originally shipped on May 6, 1940 to The Melody Shoppe in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The earliest ownership of the banjo is not known, but in the early 1960s it was sold by Vic Rigsby, a five-string player from northern Indiana, to Dean Crum, who along with his brother Don was featured on The Jimmy Dean Show in the 1960s. At the time Crum acquired the banjo it was set up with a Gibson RB-250 bowtie-inlay neck and the resonator had been refinished blond. The banjo now features a mahogany neck by Robin Smith and the resonator was refinished to original specifications by First Quality Music. Threaded inserts have been used to repair the flange.
The factory order number of this banjo is stamped in the rim using a different font than that normally seen on prewar Gibsons; this somewhat larger, sans-serif type can also be seen on TB-7 #390-13, RB-12 #411-2 and TB-2 #824-10.
Photos courtesy of Dave Hollender.