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.