Day: September 5, 2014

Banjo Newsletter | Huber Tone Ring Review

Banjo Newsletter | Huber Tone Ring Review

The following review of the Huber tone ring appeared in the September 1998 issue of Banjo NewsLetter, and was written by Eddie Collins. It appears with their permission.

Even among players who read Banjo NewsLetter, I would venture to say there are many who do not fully understand the role a tone ring plays in creating the sound that emanates from a five-string banjo. I have experienced many students who read about tone rings and ask how to tell if their banjo has one.

A tone ring is just one element in the pot assembly. In a Gibson Mastertone style banjo, the wood rim is the basic “shell” to which all other components are attached. A tone ring can be thought of as a metal collar that rests on top of the rim. It is the shiny metal (if you have one) that you see as you look down at your instrument when playing it. There is usually a groove on the bottom side of the ring rests on top of the extended upper edge of the rim. The banjo head is then stretched over the top of the ring and usually secured by bracket hooks that pull down on a tension hoop. Tone rings actually come in many styles, but it is the ring in a typical “flathead” banjo that seems to generate the most discussion.

I have talked to banjo builders who view the tone ring merely as one of many components that create the overall tone of the instrument and therefore feel it not as critical a piece of hardware as some might think. Others, view it as the most critical item (along with choice of wood) in producing the overall sound characteristics of a particular instrument. Having now used two of what many consider to be the best tone rings available in my 1971 Gibson RB 250, I join the school who believe that the tone ring has a significant impact on the tone produced by a particular instrument.

Many pickers come to the conclusion that they want a different tone ring in their banjo because they aren’t happy with the tone they are currently getting. Assuming your instrument has a tone ring, it is already in a class above the “starter models” on the market. However, before changing tone rings, you should have an experienced set-up person inspect your instrument. There are numerous adjustments that can be made that will improve the tone of your instrument that won’t require the investment of dollars or time incurred should you decide to change your tone ring. Assuming you have tried various adjustments, such as tail piece angle and different bridges and still believe you can get a better sound out of your instrument, then consider installing a Huber Vintage tone ring in your banjo.

To fully appreciate what a tone ring can do for your instrument, you really should have an idea of the tone you are trying to attain from it before you go changing tone rings. The “pre-war Gibson sound” seems to be what most players (especially bluegrass pickers) would like to get out of their instrument. The Vintage ring was created to mimic that type of tone when placed in other (less expensive) instruments. I would remind people that what they think is the “pre-war sound” is not what they hear on Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Banjo album. The sounds attained there had as much to do with the recording techniques and equipment as it did with Earl’s banjo. Having once played a vintage Granada (worth at least $30,000 on today’s market), the sound I remember could be characterized as one of clarity, brilliant highs, rich lows, and heightened volume compared to other instruments. Assuming this is the sound you are looking for, you should not be disappointed when choosing the Vintage tone ring.

First off, I was extremely happy with the sound my RB 250 was getting with a Kulesh 10-hole tone ring before I was asked to try the Vintage ring. The Kulesh ring was a huge improvement over the original Gibson ring. Previous to the Kulesh, frets 8 – 12 had a lower volume response compared to the rest of the neck, so I was having to attack notes in that area differently. The Kulesh improved sustain, clarity, and provided a sense of evenness to all notes up and down the neck. So, unlike many customers changing rings, I was not looking to change my “sound,” rather to see how the Vintage ring was different than the Kulesh. For the sake of comparison, all other elements – such as brand of strings, tail piece tension, type of bridge, etc. – should remain the same. Therefore, I kept my set-up the same: Vega light gauge strings; Remo medium crown frosted head; Hot Spot 11/32″ bridge; and a Kirschner tail piece adjusted to medium tension.

Changing tone rings requires that you remove the neck, which is done by removing the head and then loosening the coordinator rods (this will take most people at least an hour). It is a good idea to clean all the elements of the pot assembly at this time, since you will rarely get your components to this denuded state. Cleaning will arguably produce clearer highs in and of itself. Upon taking the 20-hole Vintage ring out of its shipping box, I noticed that the shiny nickel plating was only on the part of the ring that would be outwardly visible once installed. The rest of the ring had a charcoal gray musty finish to it. The underside of the ring had fine lines in it, similar to those of a brake drum that has just been turned. The weight of the Vintage ring closely matched that of the original Gibson which is slightly lighter than the Kulesh.

The Vintage ring easily laid on top of the rim and produced a slight resistance against the wood when it was rotated on top of the rim. When turning the rim upside down, the Vintage tone ring fell right off – as it should.

I eventually installed a new head and set of strings and tightened the head down to the approximate tension I remember having on the old head. To test out the tone of your instrument with a newly-installed tone ring, you will want to place the resonator up to the back of your banjo without securing it. It was a good thing I didn’t secure it, as much adjustment was required to my set-up to get what I considered to be the optimal tone out of the Vintage ring. With a similar set-up to the one I had with the Kulesh installed, it was immediately noticeable that the Vintage had a much brighter tone and increased volume. Being that I play a lot of jazzy stuff with mellow tones, I felt some adjustments were needed.

First, I loosened the head tension from resonating at an Ab to a G. This improved the bass response, but I still had lots of highs. Although I noticed elements of great clarity and brilliance in every note up and down the neck, I was still interested in making adjustments. I raised the tail piece angle so that there wasn’t as much pull on the strings against the back of the bridge. I made sure to position the bridge for correct intonation, at which time I began to notice tremendous sustain on each open string note. The highs remained bright and full even after several adjustments were made to increase the low-end response. I would describe the bass as rich, but not fat. An additional adjustment that I made had to do with my right hand when I was playing. The “sweet spot” on my instrument (for the rich tone I was looking for) moved 1/2″ farther away from the bridge towards the neck than my previous position.

While I had always enjoyed the jazzy sounds I got with my Kulesh ring, I immediately noticed how great the Vintage ring was for getting that “bluegrass sound.” There was tremendous clarity in each note and great note separation, which made playing your typical 3 – 2 pull-off a breeze. There was noticeable power and evenness up and down the neck. Once firmly in a bluegrass state of mind, I pulled out my capo and tried keys such as Bb and B. Wow! Power and ease of playing characterized my experience – “Train ’45” never felt so good.

O.K., so now I needed to try out the newly installed ring on my bandmates. They felt that the bluegrassy pieces had more drive to them with my new set-up. The Vintage ring provided enough volume that I could employ my customary light right-hand attack and be heard just fine, which allowed me to play fast tunes with greater ease. I handed my instrument to our Dobro player, who is a great banjoist as well. He uses a strong attack in the right hand. The results were that everyone left the room! It was so loud you could hear it in my neighbor’s yard even though all of my doors and windows were closed. The great thing to me is to have that kind of potential volume and use just what is required. As our bass player aptly put it, “if that instrument with that tone ring were to get in the wrong hands, it could be the ruin of many a friendly jam.”

Later that same day, I headed to our local bluegrass jam and received many compliments on my instrument’s tone. Other pickers tried my banjo out and all agreed that it was a good sound for bluegrass. I noticed that frets 4 – 7 responded well when playing in melodic style. Again, I could easily adjust the right hand attack to get the required volume necessary to maintain drive in a piece, such as Salt Creek, that vacillates back and forth between melodic and Scruggs styles.

It would be interesting to test the ring in higher priced/quality instruments being manufactured today to see if the results were similar to what I experienced. Obviously, with the cost of vintage instruments being prohibitive and the cost of a new Gibson and other quality brands starting at around $3,000, changing the tone ring in your current banjo may make perfect sense.

In summation, If you are looking to attain many of the characteristics associated with the pre-war sound, such as increased volume, clarity, and note separation, then the Vintage tone ring is for you. You should immediately notice yourself playing your instrument with greater ease, thus increasing your speed. It would seem that any picker playing a banjo with a Huber Vintage tone ring on it would want to sit and pick bluegrass tunes all day. Just think what might happen if we were to get Bela to install one on his banjo!!!

BNL Steve Huber and the Story of the Vintage Flathead Tone Ring

BNL Steve Huber and the Story of the Vintage Flathead Tone Ring

The following review appeared in Banjo NewsLetter Online. It appears with their permission.

Steve Huber and the Story of the Vintage Flathead Tone Ring

Here’s what the pros are saying about the Huber Vintage Flathead Tone Ring:

Sonny Osborne: “The Steve Huber tone ring is like taking a step back into 1934. Someone finally did it right, Steve being that someone. Every step is right. All the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted. You can’t go wrong with the Huber ring.”

J.D. Crowe: “It reminds me of my old flathead -3. It sounds great. It’s got enough bottom end to it, but it’s also got a little more pop—and more of a clearer sound with an edge to it. It’s a good, solid all-around tone ring that will adapt to most old shells.”

Jim Mills: “I own two original prewar flatheads and I can say that the Huber ring is closer in overall tone, weight, dimensions and overall appearance than any of the competition I’ve seen, and I’ve tried them all. I’ve played nothing but the Huber ring in all of my shows for the last year with Kentucky Thunder. I also used it on most of my recent “Bound to Ride” recording.”

Frank Neat: “I think he’s got something going for him. It’s the closest thing to the prewar that I’ve heard. We’re using them in Sonny’s banjos and I’ve put them in some of the prewar archtop -3s and they’re real good. It’s cleaner up the neck and it gives you a better overall tone. I heard Sonny playing his Granada on stage not long ago and then Dana Cupp came out and played on his Osborne Chief with the Huber ring. It was real close!”

Ben Eldridge: “I like the fat sound of the third and fourth strings. The tone is very even all the way up and down the neck. It’s the way a banjo ought to sound. I love it!”

I heard that my ring sounded different and I decided to try and copy it,” says Nashville banjo player turned tone ring manufacturer Steve Huber. From such modest beginnings, comes one of the biggest banjo stories of the year, the development of the Vintage Flathead tone ring.

Emulating the sound of a prewar Gibson flathead tone ring might sound like an easy proposition to those unfamiliar with the processes involved, but those in the know will tell you that it is a difficult task indeed, something close to discovering the Holy Grail of bluegrass. For this reason, it is all the more noteworthy that in the several months since its release, praise for the Vintage Flathead ring has been unanimously enthusiastic (see box). While many of us know Steve as a formidable bluegrass banjo player with an innovative traditional bent (check out “Pullin’ Time” [Strictly Country Records 41] and the cover story of the Aug. 1996 issue of BNL), his destiny as a tone ring developer par excellence now seems almost inevitable.

Combining life and work experiences as a machinist, mechanical engineer, instrument repairman and bluegrass musician, the idea for the Vintage Flathead tone ring came to Steve about three years ago, just after he’d turned his back on life as a bluegrass road musician and settled down in Nashville with a relatively comfortable day job as a manufacturing engineer. “I thought to myself, what else can I do that’s banjo related? One day, I had my own tone ring out of the banjo and was tinkering with it. When I hit it with a mallet, I noticed it rang differently than other tone rings. It got me to thinking that since I already knew how to make banjo parts, I could replicate it if I found out what’s in it. I knew the sound that I wanted,” says Steve.

That sound was the one emanating from Steve’s own 1939 Gibson RB 75, an outstanding and unique original prewar flathead. Owning this instrument helped fuel an intense desire to learn more about the Gibson banjos of this era. Working as a repairman at George Gruhn’s in Nashville, Steve absorbed as much information and lore as he could from co-workers John Hedgecoth and Sam Calveard, adding to what he had already learned on his own and from Gibson banjo authorities such as Frank Neat, Curtis McPeake and Snuffy Smith. “I visited both Frank and Curtis a few times before I even moved down to Nashville. I made a point to play every prewar Gibson I could find and even take it apart, if I was allowed to! I’ve learned a ton from those guys,” says Steve.

With the decision to create a new tone ring came the determination to create the best ring possible through careful research and close supervision of the entire production process from pouring to plating. “Well, if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna go the whole way,” says Steve. “I knew that I wanted to turn them by hand and I wanted to plate them the old way.”

The first task was to learn more about the metallurgy behind the prewar rings. This is not as straightforward as it sounds, as Gibson produced rings that varied significantly in weight, dimensions and bronze alloy content between the introduction of the flathead design in the late 1920s and the onset of the Second World War. Adding to these differences was a prewar manufacturing process in which the same heat, or batch of metal, was often used in multiple pours, with the leftover bronze being recycled in the making of another ring. “Copper and tin are the two main elements in bronze. As you pour and repour that bronze and as you use the gates and risers that come off of it,” explains Steve, “the percentages of these metals change. The result is a bunch of different kinds of rings out there.”

To date, Steve has analyzed around twenty rings. “I looked at as many as I could to see if there was a pattern and pretty much there is, although once in a while you’ll find one where the percentage of copper, for instance, is way down or way up,” says Steve.

This lends credence to the conventional wisdom that the Gibson banjos of the prewar era tend to sound more like each other than they do to many newer instruments—yet there is indeed no uniform prewar flathead sound. Each banjo tends to have its own individual character, based on a very large number of variables including the tone ring itself, the type of wood used for the rim, neck and resonator, the general condition of the instrument, the presence of gold plating, etc.

“The metal makeup of the ring and its weight have a lot to do with the different sounds. I’ve weighed Gibson rings that are as light as 45 1/2 ounces and heavy as 56 ounces, so even the weight can be all over the place. Generally, the heavier the ring, the higher the pitch will sound when struck with a mallet. My old prewar ring and the Vintage Flathead rings both ring between a C and a C#,” says Steve.

In referring to the banjos of the prewar years, Steve explains, “There are bad ones, there are good ones, and there are great ones. I came to the conclusion that I wanted to copy my own ring, but not without doing the research. And I discovered that most of the rings that played well, that I really liked, had a formula very close to my own ring.”

After settling on a formula, Steve then began the daunting task of recreating that alloy anew. “That was the most fun part of this thing,” says Steve. “It took three pours for me to get it where I wanted it. I would turn a ring and put it on a banjo. The first rings sounded good but I could tell that they weren’t sounding quite like mine, and the analysis proved it. I knew what needed to be fixed, what to add. Quite a few rings were scrapped but I was hell-bent to get it right.”

In contrast to the prewar production process, Steve guarantees a consistent formula in the Vintage Flathead ring. “I order a certain alloy and I pour only one time, so I know what’s in each ring. What’s left over, I sell back at a lower cost. The big lesson I’ve learned through experimentation is that what you put in the furnace is not what you get out of the furnace. But I’ve learned what I have to do with the alloy to get a ring that’s at least 99% identical to my own prewar ring,” says Steve. Steve oversees the process from start to finish in the manufacture of the Vintage Flathead ring. The first step involves the pouring of the bronze alloy into a sand mold in a process called sandcasting. “You heat the bronze up in a furnace and pour it into a mold made of sand. The sand used is a very special sand. It’s very dense and wet and doesn’t move a bit.”

“From there, it cools and you break it out of the mold and knock off the gates and risers, which are needed to pour into the mold,” explains Steve. “Interestingly enough, with the gates and risers on it, the ring weighs about 18 pounds! After you cut those off, you’re down to about five and a half to six pounds. At that point it kind of looks like a tone ring—the basic shape is there. Then I turn the rest off down to approximately three pounds on the lathe. As Frank Neat says, ‘You basically just take away what’s not a tone ring’,” says Steve with a gleam in his eye.

After the ring is turned on the lathe to the dimensions needed to fit on the rim, the nickel or gold plating comes next. “I wanted the plating like they did it in the 30s. With most of today’s plating, a ring will come out shiny because of the brighteners used in the tank. I use a different chemical makeup in the nickel tank so you get a duller look, initially. Then in order to make it shine, I prep the ring by buffing it on the outside and then I plate it. Then I go back and buff the outside only once more. There were rings from the 30s that were shiny on both sides, but the majority that I’ve seen were not buffed on the inside where the holes are, so that’s the way I’m doing mine. I just buff the outside and leave the inside with the dull nickel look, like in the old days,” says Steve.

The gold plating process also calls upon prewar production processes not commonly used today. “Most of the banjos today are gold plated over nickel,” explains Steve, “but most of the old Granadas were plated over copper. Gibson used to offer a triple-gold plating as well, so I do that too. In this case, it’s just in the gold tank longer to put more gold on it. I do both my gold and my triple-gold over copper. A very thin coat of copper goes on the ring so that the gold will adhere to it.”

A continual point of debate among banjo enthusiasts is the degree to which gold plating can change the potential of a given ring. Steve was curious about this himself and set up an experiment to answer just this question. “I’ve taken one ring and nickel plated it and put it in a banjo,” says Steve. “I’ve taken that same ring out and stripped it, copper flashed it and put the gold on it and put it back in the banjo and played it. There was definitely a difference. Then I took it out and I put more gold on it, the triple plating, and put that back in and I heard another difference.”

“I can’t tell you physically or scientifically what’s going on, but some of the best old Granadas have a little zing to them. The sound gets softer but you don’t lose volume. It seems like the more gold that’s on the ring, the more you go in that direction. But that may not be for everybody,” says Steve.

The Vintage Flathead Tone Ring is offered with nickel, gold and triple gold plating and is designed to fit all Gibson and related banjos from 1988 until the present. In the case of an older rim, modifications will sometimes have to be made to either the ring or the rim itself, a custom service that Steve offers from his shop in Nashville. “I try to make modifications to the ring itself, especially if it’s going on a tenor banjo that’s had an archtop ring. However, some rims, like on a Gibson RB 1 that’s never had a ring on it, simply have to be cut down,” says Steve, “but in most cases, I can easily turn the ring to fit any shell.”

Ultimately, the proof is in the sound. So, what makes the Vintage Flathead sound unique? “You can really tell how open the banjo is with the fourth string,” says Steve. “That’s pretty much what I hit first when I pick up a banjo. And with this ring, the fourth seems nice and deep. The other change I hear is up the neck. Good older banjos seem to pop when you get up there, you feel the paint peeling off the wall. This ring seems to go along with those characteristics. It really sounds good up the neck.”

“There’s less overtones in the ring when you strike it out of the banjo than some other new rings. You can hear the fundamental note very easily. Therefore, I think when you play it, you actually have a little more decay of those overtones that you don’t want anyway. There’s an even ground where you have some sustain of those tones you need and you have some decay and it all works out right. You can really hear every note that you play on this ring,” explains Steve.

With the increasing number of professional players choosing to retrofit their banjos with the Vintage Flathead ring, an exciting buzz has been created about this product. Banjo legend Sonny Osborne, in conjunction with banjo builder extraordinaire Frank Neat, is offering both a nickel or gold plated Huber ring in a new limited line of professional custom maple banjos under the Osborne name called “The Chief.” In addition, Steve plans to manufacture his own instruments around his ring.

In closing, Steve says “I’m real happy with the ring. I’m going to keep making them as long as people want them and when they stop wanting them, then I won’t make them. It’s that simple.” Frankly, Steve, it looks like that time might be a long way off. You can purchase or get more information about the Vintage Flathead Tone Ring by calling Steve Huber, (615) 264-4959.