“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 electric lights inside the pot were frequently used by players before the advent of plastic heads as an aid in keeping the calfskin heads of the day dry and tight–they also added a flash to the banjo’s stage appearance.
The hardware is nickel-plated, the tailpiece is what 1930s Gibson catalogs refer to as the “Grover first model”, and the tuners are Grovers held on by two screws. The serial number appears on the back of the peghead as frequently seen on banjos from the late 1930s; the letter prefix “D” indicates a production date of 1938 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers).
S.S. Stewart sold a banjo under its own brand in the 1930s which was manufactured by Gibson and was virtually identical to style 11. Earl Scruggs was playing an RB-11 when he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1945.
Photos courtesy of Keith Davis.