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Sullivan's made Gibsons?

Posted by irasmith on Monday, March 24, 2014

At my jam this week, I ran into a long time friend who I consider a fine Banjo maker, and player. I was showing him my RB-250 (2002 Gibson), he was telling me that it was possible that Sullivan assembled or made various portions of the Jo. Seems after or before the "Flood" the Gibson Co. was slowing down production. While I know Sullivan as a first rate Banjo maker, I was not aware of this.

Can anyone tell me the history of the Sullivan relationship with Gibson.

Please take it easy on me if this some well known fact, I just wanted to know


7 comments on “Sullivan's made Gibsons?”

stanger Says:
Monday, March 24, 2014 @10:15:58 AM

Hi, Randy…
It's true. Back in the late 80's, Gibson's Montana division, which makes all the Gibson acoustic flat top guitars, made the rough necks and did all the inlay work. The resonators came rough for the supplier (I can't say for sure who that was) and they were bound and trimmed in Montana. The rims also came in rough and were lathed and fitted with the tone rings as well, then all the parts were sent to the Nashville shop for final sanding, finish, and assembly.
I worked for them in Montana at that time under Steve Carlson, the former owner of the Flatiron Mandolin Co. Steve sold his company to Gibson, and was the reason why all the owners decided to built a shop there for only the Gibson acoustic instruments. Montana also made their mandolins there as well.
Steve was a banjo player, so he knew what it took, but when he left, his replacement knew nothing about banjos, but the Sullivans sure did. Bill Sullivan, the founder, knew as much about old gibsons and other brands as anyone I've ever known, and his company, which made only banjo parts at that time, was very well known and respected.

The Montana operation lasted until about 1995-97. Then Sullivan, who was already in Nashville, took over making the rough necks. They also supplied the other stuff that was done earlier in Montana. It made good financial sense, as they were just across town instead of on the other side of the country.

All the Gibson parts were first rate in 2002. The Sullivan necks were all very fine and consistent, and all the other parts except for the tone ring came from Jaroslav Prucha, a Czech banjo maker and parts maker. Prucha owns a machine shop and specializes in only top quality banjo parts. He also makes exceptionally fine banjos in small numbers, about 60 a year, of his own design. Some are Gibson clones.

The practice of building banjos entirely in-house ended after World War II, and only a few ever made all their parts in-house to begin with. Most banjo rims, old or new, were made by drum factories that were set up for that work, and most of the common parts, such as the bracket hooks, tailpieces, etc. were either made by small machine shops here under contract, or were made in Germany. Pre-war, Gibson used a local foundry to cast their tone rings, used a local plate shop for the plating, etc.

Making necks by hand isn't what most folks think. Every craftsman has strengths and weaknesses in his abilities and skills, and I've played a lot of hand-made necks that weren't very good. The greatest problem for any instrument factory is consistency; if one really good worker who has a critical spot in the production leaves, there is almost always a period of inconsistency that follows as a new worker learns the job. Since the banjo is a bolt-togther instrument, the new workers always think the critical things, like the feel of a neck, it's width, etc. is easier to make than it actually is.

CNC machines do one thing exceptionally well; when they are programmed correctly and kept in top shape, they produce very high level consistency. Every current banjo factory uses them now, and only a few single-person shops continue to make necks by hand for that reason. Some of the small builders buy neck blanks that are completely un-shaped, but are cut to proper length, but many are now buying necks that are rough- the peghead shape is cut and the neck is profiled, and the slotted fretboard and truss rod is installed. The maker supplies his specifications, and receives a neck that needs to be bound and sanded. Sullivan was one of the first to use CNC machines.

These days, Carlson also does the same. Back when I went to work for Gibson in 1989, Steve had already designed and built one of the very first CNC machines; it was primitive by today's standards, and was used only for cutting pearl and abalone shells into the final thickness needed for inlays. It worked well, and only needed one operator… we called him Lonesome Bob, because he was part of the Gibson crew, but we seldom ever saw him.

irasmith Says:
Monday, March 24, 2014 @1:32:26 PM

Hey buddy,

Wow, this is great information! I consider it "straight from the horse mouth"! I bought my Jo from NDJohn here on the hangout, his impression of the fit, form and function is what sold me since I respect him very much. The tone ring on it is a Klush sp? so from your comments, it's not stock, but I was most happy with the neck, as it feels PERFECT in my hands. I can appreciate your comments about the manufacturing process, since I have been a Tool Designer for about 30+ years. Yep, that one craftsmen retires, or goes away, and there is a huge hole to fill anywhere you go. CNC is a great tool, but nothing can replace the workmanship from a skilled artist, AND a Banjo player like Steve! Since the Banjo is a collection of parts fitted up to make it what is, I'm not surprised that Gibson farmed out the work.

Thanks again Mike, you gave me the information I was hoping for, and then some. It was good to hear that 2002 was a good year for the RB-250!

See ya!! Randy

stanger Says:
Monday, March 24, 2014 @1:55:31 PM

Hi, Ira…
Your banjo probably doesn't have the Kulesh tone ring unless John swapped tone rings. By 2002, Rick Kulesh Sr. had died (I think he died in a traffic accident), and his son had taken over. I'm not sure of exactly what happened- it may have been the contract had expired, or it may have been something else, but Gibson switched to another foundry that made equally good rings, in my opinion. I once had a student who owns a 2002 Scruggs that had it's original Sullivan made neck broken by accident, and Gibson replaced it with an equally good exact replacement. His Mastertone is just as good sounding as any I've ever played, and I've played a handful of pre-wars over the years.
A lot of players agree with my estimation. The Kulesh rings are excellent- I have one installed that I bought while working for them- but in my thinking, there are several foundries making equally good tone rings now. Kulesh was only one of the first who really paid close attention to his casting methods, and to me, it's not the materials as much as the use of the best casting methods used constituently that makes the biggest difference.

I've always thought the RB250 was the best and most consistent model Gibson has ever made. It now has the longest production history of all of the Gibson banjos; except for an 18 month period in 1990-91, when Gibson replaced the 250 with it's earlier sister, the RB3, only the 250 never went out of production after the end of WWII. The RB3 was dropped quickly after the management realized the 250 was what the buyers wanted the most.
In truth, some of them weren't so hot. When Norlin owned the company, they did many things to cut back on their expense of production, trying to get Gibson more competitive with the Japanese imports of the 60's and 70's, when the Japanese were whooping them in both quality and price. But after the present management determined that quality, not price alone, was what the Gibson heritage actually was, the banjos that were made after 1985 were all better than they had been for the previous 20 years.

Even at their worst, the Gibson RB250 was used on more recordings by excellent players than any other Gibson, old or new. The professionals always favored the 250, as it always had the right combination of looks, price, and banjo tone. it's one of the best workhorse banjos ever made.

stanger Says:
Monday, March 24, 2014 @1:56:20 PM

…sorry i got your name wrong!

MrManners Says:
Monday, March 24, 2014 @6:15:01 PM

sullivan is based in louisville ,i am curious did they move an operation to nashville for this,of course the 2 cities are only about a 3 hour drive apart,just curious--not trying to nit pick this fine bit of knowledge i just learned from you stanger---tom

stanger Says:
Monday, March 24, 2014 @6:52:56 PM

right you are, MrManners. I forgot and got the 2 villes mixed up.

Paulie Ray Says:
Monday, November 9, 2015 @2:29:21 PM

Do you know what tone rings and necks were on the 2001 ESS?

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