Gibson RB-7 Mastertone #F690-4, the “Frank R. McGhee”

#F690-4 was originally shipped as an RB-7 on October 2, 1942 to a Frank R. McGhee.  The dark-finished maple and nickel-plated flange and armrest are typical of style 7 banjos, while the inlay pattern and the chrome-plated tone ring, tension hoop and brackets, and Grover “clamshell” tailpiece are characteristic of style 12.  The “Made in U.S.A.” label inside the resonator, along with the finish on the end of the neck heel, would normally indicate that the banjo was originally shipped outside the United States, but the location of Frank R. McGhee has not been determined.

The factory order #181-1 is stamped inside the rim and penciled on the neck heel.

The rim shows evidence of having been reworked at the factory, with a cap apparently applied to the top.  The tone ring, which weighs exactly three pounds, also displays signs of factory modification; it appears that the twenty holes did go all the way through the metal as originally drilled, and after the ring returned from plating some additional metal was removed from inside the ring to open up the holes.  Taken together, these irregularities in the rim and ring are illustrative of the idiosyncratic nature of Gibson’s banjo production in the early 1940s.

The neck of #F690-4 exhibits very nice figure in the maple and has a distinctive low profile, with a front-to-back depth of just over 13/16″ at the twelfth fret.  The banjo retains its four original Kluson tuners with Catalin buttons; the original fifth-string tuner has been replaced with a geared tuner which has an original Catalin button from another banjo installed.

The first documented history of this RB-7 after its 1942 shipment from the Gibson factory comes in the 1960s when it is said to have been owned by noted player Paul Champion in Virginia; the circumstances of Champion’s acquisition of the banjo are unknown.  Champion sold the banjo to Walter Lipton of Euphonon Strings for $600 in 1966 or 1967; Lipton installed Heli-Coil inserts in the flange holes and shortly thereafter placed the banjo in storage in the Washington, D.C. area while he was living in Germany.  Tut Taylor found out about the banjo and traded Walter Lipton a one-of-a-kind lyre peghead Martin 000-45 for it; not long after, Taylor sold the banjo to Ron Norman, a player in Atlanta, Georgia.  Ron did not like playing on a radiused fingerboard and had the fingerboard replaced with a flat ebony board and the banjo refinished by luthier Bob Givens.  Several years later, Ron sold the banjo to his twin brother Don who owned the banjo until early 2020.