RB-3 Mastertone #9602-12, the “J.Clark/D. Sinclair”

The 1930s style 3 Mastertone with one-piece-flange and flathead tone ring is an iconic banjo among bluegrass players, being associated with such legendary players as Rudy Lyle and J.D. Crowe.  #9602-12 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers) is one of the especially coveted original five-string examples of the model.  It conforms to standard specifications for the model with mahogany neck and resonator, two concentric rings of white-black-white purfling on the back of the resonator, nickel-plated hardware, double-cut peghead, and the leaves and bows inlay pattern.

This banjo is discreetly marked inside the resonator neck notch with the name of the original owner, “D. Sinclair” and the date October 1930, which corresponds to the revised prewar Gibson banjo chronology established by researcher Joe Spann.

Here’s the full lowdown from owner William B. Anderson:

“I purchased this banjo in May of 1985 from George Gruhn and Calvin Minner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee.  I could not sleep the night before my trip to get the banjo so I left Little Rock about 1:00 a.m., arriving at Gruhn’s and sleeping a couple of hours in front of the store until he opened. 

Calvin, a banjo-picking friend of mine that I had first met in Mountain View while competing in the National Grandpa Jones Banjo Contest, called one day to offer me the first chance to buy this instrument.  This was a very special day.  To acquire a prewar Gibson flathead banjo was a lifelong dream of mine. 

This banjo was later owned by Mr. J. Clark of Victoria, British Columbia.  The banjo bears the “Made in the U.S.A.” stamp on the rear of the peghead.  Gruhn Guitars became aware of the flathead when they received photos and a request for appraisal instigated by a banjo instructor named Cahill in Canada.  A lady student of his had inherited the banjo from her dad.  Upon learning of its value, she decided to learn on a less valuable banjo. 

The banjo came complete with its original bridge, bracket wrench, armrest mute, and truss rod instructions, in its red-line hard shell case.  Around 1990 at my request, Marty Lanham of Nashville, Tennessee replaced the original frets with guitar frets and the friction fifth-string peg with a geared peg.  The original frets and fifth peg are saved along with the armrest mute, which was uncomfortable.

This instrument has been played by J.D. Crowe, Bobby Rodgers, Russell Sparks, Scott Vestal, Robby Boone, Sonny Osborne, and Bobby Hicks, to mention a few.  I have played this banjo all around the Arkansas area, both performing and recording with various bands:  David Leatherman and Stone County, New Stone County, Timber Creek, The Old School Bluegrass Band, Josh Love Band, radio and television commercials, etc.”

Photography by Jason Burt.