Mastertone Labels: Real vs. Fake

Gibson Mastertone banjos made from 1925 through World War II bore a gold decal inside the rim, outlining the “Gibson Mastertone Guarantee”:

“Any defect in materials or workmanship, except heads, strings and pegs, will be repaired free of charge or replaced with another of same style or value, if returned to our factory charges prepaid.  Gibson Inc. Kalamazoo, Mich.”

The bad news is that this famous decal has been reproduced in large quantities since at least the 1970s, with the sad result that many banjo buyers have spent their hard-earned money on a “vintage Gibson Mastertone banjo” that is in fact a partial or total fake.

The good news is that with a little education, these fake decals are not hard to identify.

Let’s start with a look at the real thing, as seen in a 1935 PB-3 Mastertone:

The Mastertone decals used by Gibson were water-transfer decals, like those used on model airplanes.  Once applied to the wood rim, they almost become part of the surface.  There are a few places where this label has been scratched and part of the label has actually been worn away at the bottom where it wrapped slightly around the bottom of the rim, but the thing to notice is that the label has acted more like paint than like a stuck-on paper label.  Next, notice the “i’s” in the words “workmanship” and “will”–they line up exactly.  More about that in a minute.  The font used on these prewar Mastertone decals is also quite distinctive, especially the sans-serif capital “g’s”.

Now for our first fake decal:

This one really has nothing going for it–the font is wrong, the “i’s” don’t even come close to lining up, and the decal shows wrinkling.  The gold background is also the wrong color with no metallic sparkle to it like a real decal would have–the whitish border is another dead giveaway.

Next candidate:

This one’s better, but the “i’s” still don’t quite line up.  There’s also an edge visible outside the black border and the decal shows tearing, which would not be seen on authentic example.

Let’s see if the forger had better luck this time:

Nope.  The muddy color, the wrinkling, the tearing, the misaligned “i’s”. . . a fake label doesn’t get much worse than this.

Except for maybe this one:


Let’s cleanse our eyes with one more example of the real thing, this one from a 1930 TB-3 Mastertone:

Nice gold-leaf-type background, correct font, aligned “i’s”, no edge showing outside the black border, and a spot of wear above the last “e” in Mastertone but no trace of wrinkling or tearing.  Perfect.