Béla Fleck Bluegrass Heart Gold Tone banjo on its way

For years banjo players have drooled over Béla Fleck’s 1937 RB-75 conversion banjo, the one that he has played since 1982. It’s a beautiful instrument, and helped cement his sound into every banjo picker’s brain through his landmark 1988 release, Drive. We also saw it in his hands through the New Grass Revival period of his career, and in most any setting where he was playing acoustically.

And now Gold Tone is poised to release a replica signature model banjo for Béla, which they are calling the Mastertone Bluegrass Heart in reference to Fleck’s latest album. Gold Tone now controls the Mastertone trademark. The banjo is based on the Gold Tone OB-3 Twanger model, which was introduced as a copy of J.D. Crowe’s iconic and original RB-3, know affectionately as Banger, with its no hole tone ring. Many modifications have been made in creating this new banjo, all with Béla’s direct input.

We reached out to Marc Horowitz, who sold Béla the RB-75 years ago, and who had also served as his banjo teacher back in the ’70s. Marc is probably the best known banjo player in New York City and has been for some time. He has also worked in the industry as a manufacturer’s representative for a number of instrument builders, including Gibson, Alvarez, and Gold Tone.

Marc described how the prewar classic ended up with Fleck in the first place.

“I recall when I was working at Mandolin Brothers in 1982, and Béla told me to keep an eye out for a pre war for him. This one came in as a tenor with a cut rim, suggesting that it was originally meant for an arch top ring, but was later cut for a flathead.

I called Béla and told him it would probably bring $7,000 in the store, but that he could have it for $4,000. He asked about getting a custom neck made with a wider, radiused fingerboard.

I’m good friends with John Monteleone, who used to do repairs at Mandolin Brothers, but had moved on to building fine arch top guitars. So I called and asked if he might be willing to make a neck for Bela. John didn’t really want anything to do with banjos back then, but he said, for Bela… sure. 

John and Béla feel that the distinctive tone of this banjo has a lot to do with that heavier neck, resulting from his request for a wider spec. At first Béla thought it was too heavy, but he decided to get used to it rather than try another neck.”

One day when Wayne Rogers of Gold Tone was talking to Horowitz on the phone – the company also makes a Marc Horowitz model banjo – he suggested to Rogers that a new model relating to Béla’s Bluegrass Heart tour might be a good idea. Fleck already had a strong relationship with Gold Tone, and has used a couple of their banjos on tour and in the studio, primarily in his work with his wife, Abigail Washburn. In particular, he plays their Missing Link baritone banjo and their cello banjo.

“I asked Wayne if a replica of Bela’s original banjo would be of interest. Of course it was, and I told Wayne I would ask him.

So I called him to gauge his interest in having a replica made, and he was immediately intrigued, saying that he has wanted something like that for a long time. It was to be based on the pot for the OB3 Twanger. So using that as the basis we started going back and forth on specs, and we prototyped three or four times. The factory in China that builds the Gold Tone banjos is now dedicated solely to making their instruments, with a new owner committed to removing the negative stigma about the quality of Chinese made instruments. She is an attorney over there who is very detail oriented.

We changed and improved a lot of details from the OB-3 as Béla played the prototypes – different resonator brackets, head, and tailpiece among them. Béla wanted to use the Keith tuners like he has on his 75, but the cost was too high for production. He said from the start that he wanted to make sure that this could be affordable for everyone. So I suggested the Rickard tuners, which are as smooth as glass with a 10-1 ratio because they don’t use conventional tooth gears. He approved the Rickard tuners and we were set to go.

Bela tried out each of the prototypes, and we went over every detail. He ended up wanting a thinner neck, fingerboard to back, so we changed that to suit his preference.”

Now the first four pieces are expected to arrive in Florida next week, with a full run of 70 pieces coming in January. One will go to Marc as a keeper, and Rogers plans to send one to Gabe Hischfeld in Boston to try out, and to a few other online banjo influencers.

Bela is playing the prototype now out on the Bluegrass Heart tour, which you can see in this video of the tune Strider, with Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Bryan Sutton, and Mark Schatz.

Gold Tone is taking orders now for these first two consignments of Bluegrass Heart, Béla Fleck signature models. The selling price is $3699 with a custom-designed, high impact case, and can be ordered either right or left handed

You can see all the specifications for this banjo online, which generally follow what you would expect in a prewar replica.

One deviation is something Béla specifically requested. Instead of the script brand logo at the top of the headstock as is common in nearly all banjos, it has a heart inlay made of what looks to be red tortoise shell.

Horowitz said that he is a believer in Gold Tone, and the quality instruments they produce. He plays a Twanger himself in professional circles, and says that many fellow pickers are astounded by how it sounds at such a low price.

“We’ve all worked very hard to make sure that people get away from believing that just because something is made in China, it has to be low quality. It doesn’t matter where it’s made, it matters how it’s made.”

Visit Gold Tone online to see the Bluegrass Heart and all their other models.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.