Gibson RB-11, the “F.M.”

“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 34, 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 and has recently been refretted by Nashville lutheir Tom Stadler.  Like the majority of style 11 banjos, this example is not numbered, but the instrument’s specifications indicate a likely date of 1937; the presence of double side dots at the twelfth fret is generally thought to have started in that year, while style 11 banjos dating to 1938 and later generally feature the smaller-diameter brass hoop, giving a raised-head appearance.  The rim thickness of approximately .590″ below the flange is also consistent with a production date of circa 1937.

Although the provenance of this RB-11 is not known, the initials “F.M.” were inscribed on the underside of the flange by a previous owner.  This example demonstrates the tone and power which can be produced by an original tone-hoop prewar banjo, as heard in the following sound clips of “Home Sweet Home” and “John Henry”: