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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Anyone w FIRST HAND knowledge of orphan pre war Gibson flat head tone ring

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

The Old Timer - Posted - 09/28/2019:  09:01:24

For years/decades I've heard and read about "orphaned" pre-war Gibson full weight flat head tone rings. For the life of me I haven't been able to puzzle out why such things exist.

Do any of you BHOers have FIRST HAND knowledge of or experience with finding/using such a beast? I'd like to understand WHY/HOW they became orphans.

Thanks if you have a story to tell.

I'm not looking to buy, or to debate value.

tlong - Posted - 09/28/2019:  09:54:19

Ritchie Dotson has or did have one,dont know the story behind it tho. He had it at Jim Mills prewar seminar.

Alvin Conder - Posted - 09/28/2019:  11:15:49

I have seen one that was orphaned due to a fire. Years ago and I didn’t really believe the story though it was told to me from a good friend. That ring was completely discolored due to the heat and I would also assume that any tempering or the like would be completely gone. He put it in a period correct Style 3 and it sounded to my then pretty young ears very good. But even then I would not touch it to buy.

I have another friend who got ahold of a original style 4 five string neck. That was the real deal and we always puzzled over what happened to the pot. He dropped it on a all original style 4 pot. So he really had (has) an all original Pre-war five string, but not really all original.

Things getting orphaned from one another can happen, but unless you have a solid back ground story with solid verification, I personally can’t believe it.

50,000 is a lot of verification and faith in my book.

rcc56 - Posted - 09/28/2019:  14:19:04

Personal knowledge? No.

The only legitimate sources I can think of are from water damaged, fire damaged, or butchered rims. That doesn't happen often.

Gruhn had a style 6 with a light weight ring from a fire damaged banjo a few years ago. Several people knew the story on that one, and I don't think there was any significant doubt about that particular story. I don't recall the name of the owner of the fire damaged instrument, though.

bobdenver1961 - Posted - 09/28/2019:  14:49:53

This reminds me of a saying I heard once:

"Gibson produced 500 prewar flathead tone rings and there have been over 700 authenticized."

or some such other number combination.

The Old Timer - Posted - 09/28/2019:  15:20:24

Tlong and Alvin thanks for your contributions -- at least "someone" has been close to one of these rare birds.

So, water damaged, fire damaged, boogered-up pot are potential reasons. I guess there is also the oft-rumored "unused tone rings found at Kalamazoo".

Still hoping to hear details on a real live one.

Alvin Conder - Posted - 09/28/2019:  16:12:17

A real live one = shaking hands with Sasquatch.

Ken LeVan - Posted - 09/28/2019:  16:31:23

Every factory I have ever been in has old parts stored somewhere that never got used for one reason or another. Most factories have a "morgue" where examples and prototypes of this and that are stashed away. Slight changes in a part can make it obsolete to those who know why it was obsoleted, and nobody wants to use it.  At the time they are discarded, they have little value—later on they are rediscovered.

Those parts are what I would call "orphans".

My own 1927 Granada has a rim made from the bottom of one ball-bearing rim with most to the part with the holes cut away and part of another rim glued on top, the joint being right where the bump for the tube was installed - there are a number of examples of these rims on high end 1927 and 1928 banjos.  Otherwise, these drilled rims might have become "orphans".

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 09/28/2019 16:32:21

rcc56 - Posted - 09/28/2019:  21:16:13

Bear in mind that Gibson did not run any banjo parts after 1942 because of wartime metal restrictions.

They did continue to ship banjos through 1944, but those banjos were assembled from whatever remaining parts were left on the shelves. We often see an odd combination of parts on those instruments.

While there may have been some hooks and nuts left over after the war, I am inclined to believe that all the tone rings and flanges were used up on the '44 instruments.

Anyone who has seen a few of Gibson's wartime guitars knows that they used every part they could find to get an instrument out the door.  If they ran out of something, they would improvise, using non-standard materials.

Few people today have any concept of how WWII affected manufacturing in the US, or life in general. The discontinuation of car manufacturing, gas rationing, victory gardens, Rosie the Riveter, tire shortages, metal shortages, coffee shortages, screw shortages, the list goes on and on.

Edited by - rcc56 on 09/28/2019 21:18:47

desert rose - Posted - 09/29/2019:  05:20:44

Whenever this search for bigfoot comes up, people seem to need to be reminded.

REMEMBER a period of time we now call WORLD WAR II?
During that time MANY of the major manufacturers stopped making what they made and shifted to helping the war effort. Another part of the war effort that ALL, repeat ALL companies were tasked with was supplying raw materials.

A company hoarding ANY raw materials from wood to metals knowingly would have faced the wrath of the law. And the public shaming would have potentially killed them.

Give it up, without ABSOLUTE chain of ownership verified any story of orphaned or " lost in a closet case of prewar tonerings " is pure blowing smoke.


desert rose - Posted - 09/29/2019:  05:23:01


Looks like we were writing the same thing at the same time

Oldtwanger - Posted - 09/29/2019:  05:47:32

It was Christmas time 1971 and I was driving to Florida to visit my mother. An old friend from the Air Force days, Herb Schottland, was living in Jacksonville, Florida and going to school there. I stopped by to spend a day with him and his wife Tressa.

While there, Herb mentioned that a friend, Bernie Michele (later known as Dixie Michele, luthier) had done some guitar repair for him and needed the money so we drove there – near Art Museum Drive, to pay him. While there, Bernie asked if either one of us was interested in an original prewar Gibson flat tonering. He explained that at one time he was interested in making replicas of these rings. He needed a sample to analyze and copy and had asked a friend in North Georgia, Amos Bigham, who dealt in such things, to find one for him.

Eventually Mr. Bigham located such a ring from a water damaged banjo and sold it to Bernie. The tonering venture never materialized and Bernie, needing cash, now offered it to me for $40.00. He produced the ring, very dirty and wrapped in a magenta piece of felt. I did not really believe it was a prewar but figured it was worth the 40 bucks anyway, so I handed him two twenties and we got in the car and went back to Herb’s.

When I returned home I threw the ring in a drawer and never looked at it again for many months. One day I was looking for something else and saw the cloth-wrapped ring, opened it up and decided to at least clean it up. The more I cleaned the better it looked. By this time I had acquired an original flathead style -4 and compared the rings – it looked good. I tossed it in the car and drove over to Tom Morgan in Takoma Park, Md and asked “what have I got here?” Tom eyeballed it carefully, made some measurements, and then got an original tonering down off the wall of his shop (the ring belonged to his brother Ross). Comparing the two, he said “what you have is a nickel plated 20-hole tonering from a prewar RB-3! Some months later I showed it to Harry Sparks who agreed with Tom Morgan’s assessment.

In 1983 I acquired TB-3 9489-25 and turned the rim on Larry Smith’s lathe in Brogue, PA to fit the 20-hole tonering. Upon assembly with a Harry Sparks mahogany neck the results were such that there was no doubt about the pedigree of the tonering.


The ring Tom Morgan had was acquired by him in the early sixties when he wrote to Gibson inquiring if a flat tonering from the prewar period might be available (he said it was for repair of an old banjo). Gibson shipped Tom a flat tonering with style -18 engraving and chrome plated! Eventually the ring found its way into a banjo owned and played by Pete Kuykendall of Bluegrass Unlimited.


A number of years ago I was converting a Kel Kroyden pot and looking for a tone ring.  I remembered a ring that an old friend in Virginia had shown me.  It was all discolored and black.  He had purchased it at a festival a dozen years earlier when an old man was walking around with it.  He asked the man about it and the reply was "this is all that is left of my banjo that burned."  It seems that he had a shop behind his house where he kept the banjo and something in the shop caught fire.  He said it was a gold Gibson.  My friend bought it and took it home, but never even cleaned it.  I asked if he would sell it and we agreed on a price.  Before cleaning, two spots of gold were visible with no sign of any nickle or chrome. After cleaning it was just bronze and the machining looked like my other original flat rings.  Measurements, photos and moldings were sent to my friend Steve Huber who confirmed originality.  It made a banjo that is as good as, and perhaps better than my other two prewar flatheads.

I call her "Kellie" 9782-3.


And, incidentally, my friend with the burned tonering also once purchased a newer RB-250 at a festival for 1500 dollars.  It had someones maple H&F five-string neck on it.  He got it home and looked at the neck, then got out his original TB-Granada neck to compare.  They were identical!  He drove up to see me and I agreed.  We drove up to Carlisle, PA where Steve Huber was playing that day and handed the neck to him whereupon he exclaimed "SOB"!  Where is the pot?  It was an orphan original RB Granada neck in almost pristine original condition.  He sold it a while before he died for an obscene amount of cash.

It happens.

Edited by - Oldtwanger on 09/29/2019 05:50:32

Ken LeVan - Posted - 09/29/2019:  05:50:17

Anything is possible.  I remember when I lived in New York in the 60s, someone discovered a few cases of brand new old Weymanns, never played, in a warehouse in Manhattan and nobody knew where they came from.

Bill Porter & Co., made a lot of parts for Gibson and they were able to analyze the alloy makeups of various tone rings.  I wonder what his take on this question would be.

Don't assume that just because they would be precious to most of us, there can't be loose parts floating around somewhere. There was a famous Johnny Cash song called "One Piece at a Time".

I remember visiting a very well known ceramic factory in Germany years ago, and we were looking through the morgue seeing if we could find old molds that could be resurrected. Lo and behold, there were molds and molded parts of busts of Elvis, Beethoven and Hitler, the latter being illegal, and nobody l remembered they were there.

Oldtwanger - Posted - 09/29/2019:  06:15:22


Originally posted by Ken LeVan


Bill Porter & Co., made a lot of parts for Gibson and they were able to analyze the alloy makeups of various tone rings.  I wonder what his take on this question would be.


Maybe Bill Porter will tell us about all the prewar flathead rings that were mounted on jigs at the company that produced calfskin heads for Gibson in the fifties.  They were Gibson property and were returned and eventually acquired by an employee.

Quagmire - Posted - 09/29/2019:  06:43:58

I sorta’/kinda’ remember Robbie McCoury having a banjo custom made for him by his father-in-law that had an orphaned pre-war flathead ring in it. Maybe somebody here knows details on that one?

Happy trails,

Randy in Germantown, TN

Update:  Confirmed my recollection in the June 2015 Banjo Newsletter interview by Greg Cahill.  Apparently, Robbie’s father-in-law took a job in the Kalamazoo Gibson plant in the 60s, hoping to spearhead an effort to return Gibson to the path of turning out banjos on par with the old pre-wars.  He was able to acquire several old pre-war rings, unplated, one that was dented - seconds, I guess?

Edited by - Quagmire on 09/29/2019 06:54:15

Ken LeVan - Posted - 09/29/2019:  07:35:33

When I was working at Corning, they were making very large pieces of Pyrex laboratory ware by hand because it wasn't feasible to do it on the production machines. I remember a 10,000 ml round-bottom boiling flask, looking like something from "Breaking Bad" There were two large brothers who could mouth-blow these things and they were astronomically expensive.

There were a lot of amateur winemakers at Corning (finger lakes), and these big flasks were perfect for fermentation, but too expensive unless you could get your hands on a "second", which had a bubble or some flaw in it.  I personally had two "seconds", and there was a fair number of them produced—you'd just go down there to this very dark medieval looking place like a Hieronymous Bosch painting, only lit by the fire from the melting tanks, and ask one of the guys if there were any 10,000ml  seconds. They'd take down your name and one would usually pop up in a day or so.

From what I understand about the production method for Mastertone tone rings is that it's incredibly wasteful—big bronze bagels are sand cast, then machined way down, with more waste material than actual finished product. There must have been rejects.

The Old Timer - Posted - 09/29/2019:  12:01:46

Fascinating contributions. Thanks everyone.

I've also had a private exchange via email about another verified orphan.

LouZee Picker - Posted - 09/30/2019:  05:31:09

Good read ! I love hearing old Prewar banjer stories!  smiley


hbick2 - Posted - 09/30/2019:  06:21:34

In the late 1970s, Harry Sparks and I were making banjos and banjo necks in my basement. Most of the necks were for Mastertones. We got a call from Bill Sullivan one day who said he had what he thought was an original flathead tone ring. At that time, Harry Sparks was possibly the most knowledgeable person in the country on Mastertone banjos, especially the tone rings. He looked the ring over and said it was definitely a prewar ring. There were details on it that no tone ring maker had ever reproduced. Plus, it was obviously turned using carbide burs, one of which had broken leaving a small defect inside the ring. It is possible that this ring was rejected for this reason. I traded Bill for it and put it in a Style 4 OPF arch top and it turned out to be a killer banjo.

There were also unsubstantiated rumors at that time that Ty Piper, from Oklahoma, would occasionally take a flathead ring out and replace it with an arch top ring. This is just hearsay and I have no direct knowledge of this ever happening. Did anyone else hear this?

Quagmire - Posted - 09/30/2019:  07:00:16


Originally posted by hbick2

There were also unsubstantiated rumors at that time that Ty Piper, from Oklahoma, would occasionally take a flathead ring out and replace it with an arch top ring. This is just hearsay and I have no direct knowledge of this ever happening. Did anyone else hear this?

Wouldn’t that leave a bit of a gap between the bottom of the arch top skirt and the rim that has been previously cut for a flathead?

Happy trails,

Randy in Germantown, TN

Benjamin Pedigo - Posted - 10/01/2019:  18:06:45

My cousin gave me his 40 hole raised head ring that was the only thing left of his banjo out of a fire at his dorm at Auburn U. I bought a prewar light flat head ring from George in the early 70s.

The Old Timer - Posted - 10/01/2019:  20:39:56

I had no idea so many banjos got burnt and flooded. Wow.

desert rose - Posted - 10/01/2019:  22:02:00

EXACTLY, its a dangerous world for... banjos ( g )


rcc56 - Posted - 10/01/2019:  23:01:08

How I learned about skullduggery in the Mastertone banjo world:

20 years ago, before I knew anything at all about Gibson banjos, the owner of a local music store called me to look at a banjo a fellow we shall call "John Doe" had brought in for consignment. "John Doe" had insisted to the store owner that it was a prewar Granada. It certainly looked old-- the metal was aged and pitted, the finish was checked and grainy, the bindings yellowed.

I called a friend that owned a couple of old Gibsons to meet me at the shop. He took one look at the inside of the pot, pointed to an angled joint on the inside of the rim, and said, "Gibson never did that!" Case closed.

After my friend had left, the store owner and I decided to take the head off the banjo and get a good look at the tone ring and mounting surface. The tone ring came off with no coaxing, and there on the mounting surface was written in ink: "Copy of Gibson Granada, made by Craig Hoffman for John Doe, 198_."

The store owner called John Doe, told him that the banjo had not passed inspection, and told him to pick it up immediately. The next day, the store owner called me and told me that John Doe had picked up the banjo, expressing extreme indignation and still insisting that the banjo was authentic. The store owner told him he was no longer welcome in the builiding for any reason.

Even though John Doe's name was written on the rim by the banjo's maker, the owner continued to lie even though he had been caught red-handed.

We found out that the reason the banjo looked decades older than it really was is because it had spent most of its life within two miles of the North Carolina shoreline. Constant exposure to the salt air had accelerated the aging process on both the finish and the metal parts.

Craig Hoffman [rest his soul] passed many years ago. John Doe may still be around. I've learned quite a bit about old Mastertones since then, but they are tricky and should be examined very carefully.

Their are lots of John Doe's in this world. They won't admit anything wrong even when caught. Learn all you can about labels, finishes, stamps, and engraving patterns, and be careful who you buy from. Take some time and study the pictures on It is a wonderful resource.

I'll save the story of the TB-75 conversion that had been monkeyed with for another time.  The owners of these banjos sometimes have a way of placing them with dealers who are honest people, but don't know the instruments well enough to detect problems.  Anyone who is in the market for a flathead should request the right for an inspection by an independent authority.  If a seller is uncomfortable with that, look for another banjo.  If a seller says anything that sounds fishy, walk away.

Edited by - rcc56 on 10/01/2019 23:18:03

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