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!!!