The first iteration of the "ball bearing" Mastertone
Circa 1925 Gibson RB-3

© Frank Ford, 2000; Photos by FF

I'm particularly drawn to this banjo because it is a first step in the evolution of the famous Gibson Mastertone banjo. Yes, Gibson had made banjos previous to this one, but those were not true resonator banjos. This one has the full resonator, a very heavy shell, and the quirky "spring-and-ball" construction. In changing the head, you had a potential of dropping all kinds of bouncy little parts around the room. If memory serves, it was our old pal, Lloyd Loar, who advocated the spring arrangement to maintain head tension regardless of weather.

Not long after this banjo was made, the teeny "Mastertone" letters were dropped from the peghead in favor of an engraved block of pearl in the fingerboard. The tubular tone ring was replaced with a brass casting, which was much brighter and louder sounding.

This particular instrument is all original with the original five string neck. It has the reputation of being the best all-purpose banjo, good for either bluegrass or clawhammer. That is, of course, another way of saying that neither group of musicians really wants it all that much! And so it is, but a really cool early step in the development of what we now call the bluegrass banjo. I think it's important to realize that literally every feature of the stereotypical bluegrass banjo was developed in the Gibson factory - resonator, cast tone ring, heavy shell, thin neck, truss rod, coordinating rod, you name it.

Please click the small image

The famous "ball bearing" tonering sits on top of 1/4" balls supported by springs set into the shell, for constant head tension.

The fifth nut is made of bone, turned to resemble a little bowler hat.

The resonator is simply bolted right through the flange. Later instruments had special brackets.

In the photos below, note that every other hole in the flange is large enough to clear the nut. You can remove the flange without losing head tension.

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