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Sullivan Conversion Ring and 1925 Gibson Ball-Bearings

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Feb 14, 2020 - 10:18:11 AM

Bribak

USA

452 posts since 8/18/2010

Hello all,

I just purchased on the Hangout a 1925 Gibson TB3 Ball Bearing Tenor (8049-10) with “shotgun” skirt. I haven't even received it yet, but in the meantime I've been researching to find everything I can about these old ball-bearing Gibsons. This is my first old Gibson banjo ever. It appears I am only the second owner. Unfortunately, it does NOT have the springs, ball bearings or washers with it. The bridge, head, and strings are not original either. The head is a pre-EPA Weather King. Everything else looks original – tailpiece (Grover Patent Presto), tuners (Grover 2 tabs).

I plan to keep this a tenor for Irish music - my newest passion. But I REALLY love the flathead Gibson tone. I am hoping I fall in love with the tone “as is” but after reading everything I can on the Hangout here, I know that these ball-bearings are supposed to have a mellower, quieter tone. That may suit me just fine. I'm hoping it does. I won't know till I get it and do some experimenting with strings, bridges, etc.

One thing I keep running into in my research is a reference to installing a drop-in Sullivan (or other brand) CONVERSION RING to achieve more of a flathead tone. As I said, I am hoping I really like the existing tone - and there seem to definitely be fans of these particular banjos and their “sweeter” tone. I also understand that there is the option to try flipping the existing tone ring. But I also know how I am - and at one point or another I will probably get curious enough to want to try dropping in a conversion ring and see what I think. Here is my main question:

I have read a lot of recommendations for the Sullivan Conversion ring. I've also watched multiple videos of people who have put them in their ball-bearings and those have been really impressive sounding videos. But I also read more than one comment that people don't think these rings will fit all the early “shotgun skirt” 1925 ball-bearing models. I wouldn't want to cut the rim in any way. Can anyone shed light on whether this is 100% factual or not about them not fitting? What is special about these early shotgun skirt 1925s that makes the Sullivan ring (possibly) not work? What would I look for on mine to determine whether it would fit or not? Is there anyway to modify the ring itself to make it work without ruining the positive effects of the ring?

I have looked all over to try to find a good picture of how these Sullivan Conversion rings look and sit on the rim. I haven't had any luck. I have also emailed First Quality banjos but haven't received any reply. If there are any of you out there who can share some info about making a Sullivan Conversion ring work with these older 1925s or can explain why it is not doable, I would really appreciate it.

I'm really excited about this banjo. Can't wait to get it and do some experimenting.

Thanks in advance for any help. If this post would be better suited for a different FORUM, let me know.

Brian

Feb 14, 2020 - 10:55:24 AM
Players Union Member

JHook

USA

156 posts since 7/17/2011
Online Now

There have been some saying that email responses are slow most likely because of First Quality moving south. If you call them they will most likely answer, always have for me.
(502) 995-5651

Feb 14, 2020 - 11:49:20 AM

beegee

USA

21467 posts since 7/6/2005
Online Now

For Irish music,I think flipping the tone-ring over is a good option and a cheaper one.

Feb 14, 2020 - 12:17:31 PM
likes this

12523 posts since 10/30/2008

I can remember when there was a drop in replacement flat head ring ONLY for the 1925 shotgun skirt ball bearing!

Huber also makes drop in tone rings for ball bearings, last I knew.

Just ask the seller if the conversion ring fits your 1925 "early" rim.

I put a Cox flat head ring in my 1926 Granada and it gave a HUGE, DEEP tone. Playing in indoor jams people were almost put off by it. Too loud.

I have no idea how that sound would go over in Irish music.

I can tell you that for bluegrass, flipping the ball bearing ring upside down doesn't make a huge difference. Nothing to stop you from trying, but it changes the "look" more than the "sound".

Have fun with your new old Gibson!  I don't know what you have been picking on, but I wouldn't be surprised if you just LOVE the ball bearing sound just the way it is.

Edited by - The Old Timer on 02/14/2020 12:18:25

Feb 14, 2020 - 12:34:50 PM

1130 posts since 12/27/2005

I bought a Sullivan conversion ring for my 25 ball bearing 8118 and it did not fit. I spoke with Eric and he said for his ring to work he would have to turn the rim slightly.

Feb 14, 2020 - 12:59:24 PM

Bribak

USA

452 posts since 8/18/2010

Thanks to all for the replies so far. Wanted to let everyone know that I just received an email from Eric Sullivan letting me know he is on the road and will give me a call hopefully tomorrow regarding my questions.

I currently am playing an Irish tenor archtop banjo (Clareen). It is a great sounding banjo and well suited to that style of music but I have never heard any banjo (tonewise) that moves me like some of the old Gibson flatheads do. It has been hard to get used to the brighter archtop tone that is more popular in the Irish setting. In my bluegrass days I was always searching for that deeper flathead tone. That Gibson "clang" was the holy grail. Whether this Gibson I'm getting will be suited as well as my Clareen to play Irish style with other people I don't know. Since most of my playing is done at home alone, that's not the biggest factor. I want to find a banjo that I just can't put down simply because of how it sounds to MY ear. I'm not worried so much whether it is louder or cuts through enough to be heard with other Irish players in a session. I am hoping to find the kind of tone that I hear in a clip like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnT6edCC4no

Regarding one of my original questions:
Does anyone know what the difference is (rim or skirt-wise) between the early 1925 ball bearings and the later ones (1926 and later non-shotgun skirts) that might be responsible for the Sullivan ring not fitting (if that is in fact the case)? There seem to be too many comments relating that view for their not to be some substance in it.

Thank you all for your comments.

Feb 14, 2020 - 1:07:32 PM

Bribak

USA

452 posts since 8/18/2010

quote:
Originally posted by bobdenver1961

I bought a Sullivan conversion ring for my 25 ball bearing 8118 and it did not fit. I spoke with Eric and he said for his ring to work he would have to turn the rim slightly.


Bob:  Thanks for your response.  That doesn't sound too encouraging as yours is even later than mine.  So does that mean the rim was slightly too wide (diameter)? Or the banjo's skirt was too long? Something else?   I have no knowledge with regards to rim differences.  At this point I really don't want to have anyone change the rim in any way.  If someone could "guarantee" me tone like the clip above, it might eventually be worth it, but I know that is an impossibility.  The one in the clip is even later than yours (8161-7). 

Edited by - Bribak on 02/14/2020 13:12:35

Feb 14, 2020 - 1:26:33 PM

1130 posts since 12/27/2005

I don't remember exactly what rim modifications would need to be done. I think it was some sort of lip that needed to be removed. Eric at Sullivan was pretty helpful and knew exactly what the issue was with the 25's.

I checked with Huber and he could make a custom ring that wouldn't require cutting that would fit the 25 ball bearings.

All this was a couple of years ago so things may have changed.

I used the original tone ring with the springs and washers and it sounds great.

Bob

Feb 14, 2020 - 2:40:09 PM

2408 posts since 4/16/2003

If you have to have a flathead ring on a 1925 ball-bearing, Steve Huber may be the guy to talk to, as he can "custom-cut" a ring to fit.

You'll probably have to send either the rim or the entire banjo to him, however.

I'm wondering if he could fit an HR-30 ring to it...?

Feb 14, 2020 - 4:32:30 PM

Bribak

USA

452 posts since 8/18/2010

I've seen multiple references now to Steve Huber being able to possibly make a ring for the 1925. I imagine that would be significantly more cost than the Sullivan route. I will file that away for future consideration though.

It would be great to find that there could be some modification made to the Sullivan ring to make it fit the '25 rim (rather than a modification to the '25 rim).

Feb 14, 2020 - 7:15:29 PM

3791 posts since 5/1/2003
Online Now

I bought this ring used a few yrs ago for my 8415-23ball bearing and it fit fine. If you look closely you can see the previous owner removed a small amount if metal from the lower inside lip.
I've often wondered if it was removed so it would fit a '25 rim. If you want to try it we can talk.

I should mention that there can't have been more than a trace of metal removed,the ring still weighs 3.2 lbs on my bathroom scales.


Edited by - Ks_5-picker on 02/14/2020 19:21:59

Feb 14, 2020 - 8:53:56 PM

Bribak

USA

452 posts since 8/18/2010

quote:
Originally posted by Ks_5-picker

I bought this ring used a few yrs ago for my 8415-23ball bearing and it fit fine. If you look closely you can see the previous owner removed a small amount if metal from the lower inside lip.
I've often wondered if it was removed so it would fit a '25 rim. If you want to try it we can talk.

I should mention that there can't have been more than a trace of metal removed,the ring still weighs 3.2 lbs on my bathroom scales.


Rod,  I really wish I knew enough about this banjo that is coming that I could make a judgement whether your ring might work or not.  If I understand the regular design at all, it seems the skirt might be too short?  To be honest, right now I'm clueless because I've never even looked at a ball bearing banjo and until I get it and look it over and try it in its current configuration for a while at various settings, I won't know whether I even want to consider changing rings.  My understanding is that the skirt and tone hoop are actually two separate pieces.  But I'm not even sure of that .  After I've had it a while and see what I can do with it, I might possibly take you up on your offer to try it if the ring is still available and it seems like it would fit.  Initially, until I better understand how everything fits together, I think I will just try to focus on the standard configuration to educate myself about what might work in the future.  Is this a conversion ring of some kind?  It's not a Sullivan Conversion ring...correct?  Do you know the maker?  The idea of a modified ring rather than rim does appeal to me.  Would the trimming off of some of the inside lip be done to allow the ring skirt to set lower?  Is that the theory?  Would a height difference of this ring possibly raise or lower the action to such degree it would present a problem?  As you can see...I don't yet have a good grasp of how all these things will tie together.

Hopefully when Eric Sullivan calls he can help me better understand what kind of mods might be necessary to a ring or rim to make a conversion ring work on this particular banjo.  I do really appreciate your reply and your offer but unfortunately I don't think I'm ready for it at this point.  I feel like I should give the regular ring a good trial before I start experimenting.  Right now I'm just trying to understand what my options might be in the future.  That video I linked of Jim Britton playing the '25 BB with the Sullivan Conversion ring just got me drooling about future possibilities...  That one sounds so fine.  Just what I'm hoping for.

Edited by - Bribak on 02/14/2020 21:12:40

Feb 15, 2020 - 5:14:47 AM

4430 posts since 11/20/2004

I would also watch for any chance to obtain a set of springs and balls to put it back original. It took me a few years to find a set for a '26 I had, but I finally did and was very pleased with the sound vs a Sullivan conversion ring. The conversion ring was stronger and dryer, but the original setup really had a wonderful old tone that I preferred.

Feb 15, 2020 - 5:28:46 AM

Brett

USA

2029 posts since 11/29/2005

My 26 tb3 also has a tiny ledge which I assume later 26 and onward ball bearings didn’t have. Not much of a ledge but just enough to prevent a tone ring from full seating. Everyone I spoke with, a fellow in Huber’s shop I don’t recall, and Bill Blaylock, said they’d need my rim for Trimming to fit their rings.
I wanted no trimming of the wood, so it could be returned to stock if I chose. I can’t tell you what Sullivan said because it was lots of unanswered emails and unreturned phone messages.he was having couple rings done for me and another guy, Mike Haag on here. Mike lives near there and would stop by, to try and get some traction, but despite foundry delay for ice storm, etc, no conversion rings materialized. After several months of that I gave up waiting on that conversion ring. I was willing to even take mine unplated, but it was obvious this route wasn’t progressing.
Undeterred, I bought a used Steve Ryan conversion ring from Arthur Hatfield, which didn’t fit the little tiny ledge on my early 26 rim, and I machined the very bottom outside lip down myself and it’s a pleasure to this day.
Ball bearing conversion rings get kinda pricey, as they’re not just laying around. And you have to decide either have a machinist remove some of your metal tone ring or have the offending wood ledge lathed off your rim. I’m all for modifying a used $200 tone ring rather than permanent modification of nearly 100 year old parts.
The couple responses and interest I did get, from Huber and Blaylock shops, were more money than I was interested in spending because I was unsure I’d like it or keep it. But, I’m tight. Not one to throw around more than couple hundred on a tone ring. I guess because Im unsold on magic tone rings. If I recall, those shops who would respond it was well into $500 and over territory.

Feb 15, 2020 - 6:07:51 AM

Brett

USA

2029 posts since 11/29/2005

Correction, I machined off the outer lower lip so it was shorter to sit on the stock early ball bearing rim ledge. Mine did not have the shot gun hole skirt, which I think is extremely cool. But it still had that tiny ledge. If mine had the shot gun hole skirt, I think I’d keep it stock, that in itself is such a neat feature. My ball bearing was fine, stock, plenty of volume. The only difference I hear is more focused and huskier note with flat head vs ball bearing ring assy. I don’t know that the springs and balls and washers really do much to change tone. I have others with and without tone rods that sound fine too. Concentrate on learning or paying for good setup and playing techniques before spending is usually more productive but I do like to tinker. I need to get mine out and try it out stock without the springs and so forth, to see if it sounds more like my style 00.
Also like the mastertone on peghead like the 25. The style 5 is really a visual pleasure to observe and would be my ball bearing choice if funds didn’t matter.

Feb 15, 2020 - 6:32:31 AM

3791 posts since 5/1/2003
Online Now

My ring was sold to me as a modified Sullivan, but there's no markings,which is standard,I believe.

Feb 15, 2020 - 9:27:42 AM

Bribak

USA

452 posts since 8/18/2010

Thank you all for this great information. 

Bobby - I will be keeping my eye out for a set of ball bearings, springs, and washers.  The gentleman who sold me this banjo posted some really great photos in the ad:  https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1FwjGK6q0FkIXW3x9bhHi1DR7xHEECxQb

A concern:  If you look at photo #11, it almost looks to me like the holes have been plugged.  I hope not.  It may just be that I'm looking all the way down to the bottom of the holes.  What do some of you think?   Also in that photo you can see that it looks like the backing plate for the armrest has been stored on the inside through one of the holes in the shotgun skirt.  So I know I will be taking it apart to retrieve that.

Brett - That is a lot of great information.  Thanks for sharing that.  I too don't want to modify the rim.  I'm not willing to spend a lot of $ before I try this banjo out in its current configuration.  If I knew a drop in Sullivan would work - as is - I would probably get it now because I would like to try it at some point.  The thing about the Sullivan ring is I'm not even sure of how they look.  I have found different photos and descriptions of what people are saying are Sullivan Conversion rings...and they look and are described differently.  Some have holes, some don't.  Maybe they have gone through different stages of development? Here are some Hangout comments I've found relating to Sullivan rings:

They are no-hole, and they're solid. No air chamber whatsoever. He said that if you turn them upside down, the bottom looks just like the bottom of an arch top.

When I talked to Eric about their conversion rings, he said that some people had a cavity turned out in the bottom of their rings, and had the twenty holes drilled in the slope face. He said they didn't sound good. He thought that leaving the full amount of material in the Sullivan conversions was important to get something approximating the weight of a standard Flathead ring.

 

Yet I've seen numerous photos of supposed Sullivan Conversion rings WITH holes.  I know that if you buy one new from their website now it shows no holes.

 

Rod - Your ring is tempting to try.  If I was sure your ring was a Sullivan and would fit my rim, I'd definitely be interested in purchasing it even now for trying down the road.  But I'm not sure whether it would be workable without modifying the rim.  Your ball bearing  (8415-23) is quite a bit later than mine (8049-10).  So the fact that it fit yours fine (even with that ring modification) makes me concerned that it wouldn't fit my early '25. 

 

Again, thanks to all for their replies.

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