“The flashiest five-string banjo made” was how Gibson’s 1935 catalog described the RB-11. Style 11 was Gibson’s attempt to dress up a lower-priced banjo through the use of pearloid decorated with red and black silkscreened designs on the back of the resonator as well as the fingerboard and peghead, along with a colored finish on the rim, the sides of the resonator, and the back of the neck. Blue is the most commonly seen color for this finish, and style 11s are consequently sometimes referred to as “blue banjos”.
Style 11 banjos were not Mastertones and only had a small-diameter brass hoop sitting on top of the rim; they did, however, share the one-piece flange and maple rim of styles 3, 4, and Granada, and thus make excellent five-string conversions with the addition of a new neck and a tone ring. This example is a rare original five-string and has not been fitted with a tone ring.
The hardware is nickel-plated, the tailpiece is what 1930s Gibson catalogs refer to as the “Grover first model”, and the tuners are “two-tab” Grovers. The banjo retains its original fifth-string nut and friction fifth-string peg; the Elton pickguard was likely an aftermarket addition. The banjo remains in its original hardshell case. While style 11 banjos were in most cases not numbered, this banjo bears the penciled lot number 9938 on the neck heel, which would date to circa 1931 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers). In addition, “4X” is written in chalk inside the resonator; the significance of this marking is unknown. Somewhat unusually for a style 11, there is no Gibson label in the rim. The upper truss rod cover screw hole is actually positioned in the lower part of the peghead silkscreen design, suggesting that this peghead overlay may originally have been intended for use on a Kel Kroydon banjo where no truss rod cover would have been present.
This banjo is believed to have been bought from the original owner by Lester Dunn of Culloden, West Virginia circa the 1950s. It remained in the Dunn family until early 2009.
Although #9938 is in excellent condition overall, the neck wear shows that this banjo has been played and enjoyed quite a bit over the years; I’m sure that’s one reason it sounds as amazing as it does. The “Lester Dunn” can be seen and heard on YouTube being put through its paces with Fireball Mail and Long Journey Home. I was also fortunate to record Joe Deetz playing “Sweet Dixie” on this banjo at Banjothon 2009 in Maryville, Tennessee: