Gibson RB-75 Mastertone #EG-3239, a.k.a. "Papaw"
Gibson introduced the RB-75 Mastertone in 1937; the company's catalog of that year described their five-string, or "regular", banjo offerings as representing "The 'old time' banjo brought up to date by Gibson" and claimed that "this instrument is the most beautiful of all banjos in the hands of an artist", with the player provided "extra twang and ring in a Gibson Regular Banjo because of the special tone chamber". The "special tone chamber" to which the catalog referred was in fact the flathead tone ring which Gibson had adopted on its five-string and plectrum Mastertone models beginning in 1929.
#EG-3239 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers) was originally shipped from the Gibson factory on March 18, 1939 to "C.J. Angell", owner of the Angell Music Company in Mocksville, North Carolina. Current owner Jim Millsapps fills us in on the banjo's more recent history:
"I purchased the banjo from John Bowles in Mocksville,
North Carolina in 1976. John
Bowles had purchased it from a fellow in High Point, North
Carolina prior to my purchase. According to
John at the time of purchase, the banjo had been returned to Gibson in the early
1950s and the peghead had been reshaped,
old style Scruggs tuners added, and the early
1950s bowtie fingerboard
added. The peghead face had all the original factory
inlay still in place at that time. I played it for about a year with that neck
and had a Ken Kirk neck put on it. While the neck was off, I noticed that the
peghead 'ears' on back did
not show and assumed an overlay had been placed on the back of the peghead. I
removed it and the serial number EG-3239 and Kluson
tuner screw holes still remained. To be honest, I had never seen a
serial number like that and thought it was a
1950s bowtie neck!
A couple of years ago I had my friend Ronnie Bales of Bales Banjos do a
final restoration (fingerboard and peghead overlay) on it and the neck remains
on it today. He did a great job!
The banjo is a typical late 1930s RB-75 with a mahogany neck and resonator. There is no serial number in the shell. It has a 'shiny face' twenty-hole tone ring of unknown weight, Phillips-head screws on the L-brackets, wider binding on the resonator, and a handstop on the back of the neck. It also has the larger nut on the truss rod typical of late 1930s manufacture. I do not know what type of inlay was in fingerboard but I had seen a couple of banjos on either side of my serial number with the complete leaves and bows inlays and went with that pattern. It had the straight Gibson logo and style 75 peghead inlay as seen in the pre-restoration photo. The neck is somewhat small and narrow but plays well. It has a reproduction stretcher band on it and I added period correct Kluson tuners. It has been my main banjo since I purchased it in 1976."
Jim has graciously supplied a couple of sound files so we can all hear this wonderful-sounding old flathead:
When I Left East Virginia
Photos courtesy of Jim Millsapps.