Gibson’s Mastertone Banjos

Gibson’s Mastertone Banjos
Photo: Kelsey Vaughn, courtesy George Gruhn.
This Gibson RB-3 five-string from 1925 is a rare piece, as is any five-string banjo from the era dominated by tenor banjos. But it’s more important as a representative of one of Gibson’s first steps in a desperate attempt to develop a competitive banjo.

Gibson recognized the impending popularity of the tenor banjo as early as 1918, when the first Gibson banjo was introduced. But unlike the innovative and prestigious Gibson mandolins and guitars, the Gibson banjo featured a relatively primitive design – with no tone ring – and was not at all competitive, with the instruments made by Vega, B&D, Paramount, Epiphone, and other companies that specialized in banjos. According to a 1924 letter from Gibson’s general manager Harry Ferris to the company’s board of managers, “The Gibson banjo had the worst reputation of any banjo on the market.”

Rather than fight the banjo makers head-on, Gibson had given “acoustic engineer” Lloyd Loar the task of creating an improved mandolin that would revive interest in the instrument. Loar came up with the Master Model family, headed by the F-5, which is legendary today but was a commercial failure when it appeared in mid 1922.

Fortunately, Gibson did not put all of its eggs in the Master Model mandolin basket. In March, 1923, Gibson introduced a new line of banjos called (not coincidentally) Mastertones. They had a hollow metal tone ring drilled with holes on its inner and outer sides. The ring was raised off the rim by a series of ball bearings.

The Mastertone name would forever associate the banjos with Loar and his mandolins, but the extent of Loar’s involvement in the ball-bearing tone-ring design is unknown. The photo in Gibson catalogs of Loar at his workbench shows him mired in mandolins, but there’s an old-style Gibson banjo propped against the wall at the end of his bench. A more likely suspect is Ted McHugh, who designed and patented the adjustable truss rod (still in use today in all Gibsons) and co-designed the adjustable “coordinating rod” for Gibson banjos. Since tone rings were metal, McHugh was probably involved. On the other hand, the concept of suspending the tone ring on ball bearings, and the odd configuration of holes in the ring (more of them on the inside than on the outside) would seem to be more akin to Loar’s “tuned” F-5 bodies than to the pragmatic designs of McHugh, who did not play an instrument. McHugh was pictured in a late-1928 banjo brochure with the title “chief engineer,” so the credit (supervisory, at least) for such post-Loar innovations as the archtop and flat-top tone rings goes to McHugh.

Prior to the Mastertones, Gibson’s top banjo was its original model. It had no model number. The tenor was model TB, the five-string was RB (for regular banjo), plectrum was PB, etc. Cheaper models, introduced in 1922, were called Style 1 and Style 2. With the introduction of the Mastertone tone ring, the number-less model gave way to three versions, designated Styles 3, 4 and 5.

The early Styles 3, 4, and 5 all had pearl-dot fingerboard inlays, and pegheads were the tapered “moccasin” shape. Their resonators set these Gibsons apart from the competition… but not in a good way. Players had the option of a hinged-back “trap-door” style or a shallow dish-like Pyralin (plastic) unit that fastened with a single screw. Compared to the Mastertones we’re familiar with today, these were rather primitive in design, and despite their official name, banjo aficionados today generally do not consider them true Mastertones.

By the end of 1924, Gibson’s chances for survival appeared to be dwindling. Lewis Williams, a founding partner and the general manager who had hired Loar, had resigned at the end of ’23. His replacement, the bluntly honest Harry Ferris, was forced to resign in late ’24. And by the end of the year, Lloyd Loar, too, was gone.

Nevertheless, the innovative Mastertone movement continued to pick up speed. In 1925, the Mastertones received a makeover, with a new “fiddle-shaped” peghead and a modern-style “cupped,” flange-mounted resonator. Style 3 got a bound fingerboard and diamond-pattern inlays. The new styling also brought changes on the inside of the instrument. This example from early ’25 has the second-generation ball-bearing tone ring, with the bearings sitting on springs rather than on the rim itself.

With the new design, Gibson finally had a banjo to be proud of, and they added the Mastertone name to the peghead in block pearl letters below the Gibson logo. To today’s banjo enthusiasts, that marks the beginning of Mastertone era. By mid 1925, the name was moved from the peghead to an engraved pearl block at the end of the fingerboard, where it remains today.

Although it was a professional-quality model, the 1925 Style 3 was still far from what are today considered classic specifications. It had a maple neck and resonator, as did the newly introduced Granada, while Style 4 was mahogany and 5 was walnut. It wasn’t until 1929 that Style 3 went to mahogany neck and resonator. At the same time, all the Mastertones got the “double-cut” peghead shape. Style 3’s resonator was also upgraded with the addition of two concentric rings on the resonator. Gibson changed the inlay pattern on Style 3 from diamonds to a fancier pattern (that still had some diamonds), although the 1925 diamond pattern continued to appear on some examples for a few years.

Gibson continued to improve functional designs, as well. By the end of 1925, a tone ring with no outer holes was implemented, and the rim was enlarged slightly (but with no change in the head diameter). The “raised-head” or “archtop” tone ring, with no inner holes, appeared in 1927, followed later in the year by a ring with 40 holes drilled on the inner edge. By late ’29, the 3 was available with the new one-piece flange, which replaced the earlier tube-and-plate design. Also in the late ’20s, Gibson had developed the “flat-head” tone ring and begun offering it as an option on Styles 3, 4, 5, and Granada. Two decades later, Mastertones with the one-piece flange and flat-head tone ring would become the Holy Grail for bluegrass players.

In 1937, the mahogany Mastertone model was renamed Style 75. Ironically, the most famous Gibson RB-3s were officially Style 75s. In the late ’40s, bluegrass banjo legend Don Reno traded a Granada to another legendary banjo player, Earl Scruggs, for a Style 75, and Reno will forever be identified with that instrument. Innovative stylist J.D. Crowe also played an RB-75, and in 1997 Gibson introduced a Crowe signature model based on his Style 75. The RB-3 returned in ’97, with the ’30s-style inlay as standard, though wreath-pattern is the only fingerboard inlay available on the model today.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s June 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.