The Tone Ring tests are over until further notice.
I will no longer be testing tone rings.

For Late-breaking News Concerning a Brand New Tone Ring,Click Here.

with historical notes

If you have tried all else--changing your head tension, replacing the bridge and changing your string gauges, and you are still not satisfied with the sound of your instrument, do not despair, there are still other things you can do. One of these is to change out the tone ring.

There are more than a dozen different tone rings available on the open market. The following contains a review of as many of these as I have been able to procure, and is a set of on-going tests of tone rings. These rings are tested on normal Gibson rims and on Tone Bell(TM) rims as well.

I do not own any interest in any of the manufacturers of these rings. I pay for them myself, and I try to test them under as rigorous a set of conditions as possible.

If you have a 1960-1987 Gibson Mastertone, chances are that you can greatly improve the sound of your banjo by trying one of these new tone rings. This is especially true of Gibsons from 1960-1980 or so. If you have a flathead Mastertone banjo, most of these rings will be a drop-in replacement. Other flathead instruments might require some alteration to make the ring fit properly.

If you have an "archtop" or raised head instrument, and you wish to convert to flathead, there are some conversion tone rings available from various sources that will give you that option with a minimum of inconvenience. However, if you want to try the standard flathead style tone rings, you will have to either alter the original rim permanently or have a new rim made to fit your resonator flange and the tone ring of your choice. Personally, I would choose having a new rim made. This will minimize loss of value should you try to resell the instrument.

Criteria and materials used
In November of 1996, I purchased a Buck tone ring from First Quality Music Supplies. In December of 1996, I purchased a Tennessee 20-hole tone ring from Janet Davis, along with 2 banjo rims, a Gibson resonator flange, and some other necessary hardware. I also acquired a Kulesh 10-hole tone ring from Bernunzio's. I have modified one of the rims so that it meets the requirements of the Tone Bell(TM) system, that is, I have used a 3/8" corner round router bit to round off its inner edge. The other rim is unmodified.

Both rims have been stained and lacqered. On the banjo with the Tone Bell (TM) setup, I am using a Gibson RB-100 neck which I purchased from Wyatt Fawley of the Banjo Loft. The resonator I am currently using is basically a Gibson resonator--actually a mahogany veneered resonator made by the same people who manufacture the Gibson resonators.

The standard Mastertone (TM) rim is equipped with an Iida neck and resonator, functionally the same as the Gibson equivalents. The neck is made of a wood that looks like mahogany. The fingerboard is ebony veneer over a laminated base. These parts came from an instrument purchased from Elderly Instruments.

Additional notes on the rims used in the tests
Since the tests have started, I have had some questions asked about the rims used in the tests. I am now using several different rims. They are all recent rims made of 3-ply maple and cut to fit standard Gibson tone rings, except for the two that are cut for Stull tone rings. All are stained and lacquered.

One question I received was whether I had tried these rings on any prewar Gibson rims. No, I haven't. There are two reasons for that. One is that prewar rims are hard to come by. The other, more logical reason is that most of the people who are changing tone rings around on their instruments are using newer instruments with rims that are less than, say, 30 years old. The age of the rims I use is in keeping with the rims that most banjo players will be using as well.

The exception to this is the use of the tone rings in conjunction with the Tony Pass Lost Forest submerged wood rims in the most recent tests.

The banjos are strung with Gibson Earl Scruggs medium gauge strings or the equivalent thereof.
The banjos are fitted with Snuffy Smith compensated 5/8" bridges, Price tailpieces and 5-star frosted heads. The banjos are equipped with Gibson one piece resonator flanges.

The Control Banjo
I am using a 1996 Gibson Earl Scruggs Standard model as a control banjo. It is equipped with a Price tailpiece, Earl Scruggs medium gauge strings, and the head is tightened to 9 kg.-cm. The head is the one installed at the factory. This is a particularly exceptional banjo for a new one.

I have weighed each tone ring on an accurate electronic scale, and have also tested them to determine their resonant frequencies. For the resonant frequency tests, I suspend the tone ring from my left index finger, with the finger at the lag bolt hole. I then strike the ring on what would be the upper edge ig the ring were mounted in an instrument. I use my right index fingernail to do the striking. I compare the notes produced by the ring to notes on a Proteus 1 synthesizer tuned to A=440. The notes are rounded to the nearest pitch. All of the pitches so far have been in the octave around middle C to C above middle C.

Here are the results so far:

Characteristics of the Tone Rings

Buck no-hole
3# 6.7 oz.
clear and powerful, plenty of bass, sustains well
would not fit
would not fit
5-Star no-hole
3# 5.8 oz.
Eb, with overtone at G, strong overtone at Bb
clear and powerful, plenty of bass, sustains well
would not fit
good, clean sound with plenty of sustain and power. rim modified slightly to allow fit
Stull Model 4 (20 holes)
3# 6.7 oz.
Fundamental E, with overtone at G#, secondary overtone at B
not tested
very powerful, clear response over the entire range of the instrument, very clean, good sustain
very loud. response over whole fretboard even. lots of upper overtones. see note
Stull Model 4 Special (no holes)
3# 6.2 oz.
Fundamental E, with overtone at G#, secondary overtone at B
not tested
very powerful, clear response over the entire range of the instrument, very clean, good sustain
very loud. response over whole fretboard even. lots of upper overtones. see note
Stull Model 12 (20 holes)
3# 6.6 oz.
Fundamental E, with overtone at G, secondary overtone at B
not tested
very powerful, clear response over the entire range of the instrument, very clean, good sustain
very strong and clear over entire range, lots of volume. good combination.
Stull Model 12 Special (no holes)
3# 7.8 oz.
Fundamental E, with overtone at G, secondary overtone at B
not tested
clean crisp sound, good response over entire range of instrument, good sustain, powerful
very strong and clear over entire range, lots of volume. good combination.
Kulesh 10-hole
3# 5.6 oz.
fundmental E, overtone G#, overtone louder than fundamental
very strong and clear
strong sound after increasing head tension, not a good choice for this installation
Kulesh Big 10
ca. $400
3# 2.9 oz.
fundmental D, overtone G, overtone louder than fundamental, another overtone at Bb. Other overtones also present.
very strong and clear
strong and powerful, well suited to this installation
Gibson-Kulesh 20 hole
3# 3.9 oz.
fundmental Eb, overtones G, Bb overtones louder than fundamental
very strong and clear (in Scruggs model)
very good sound, even response, requires careful attention to head tension
McPeake-Kulesh 20 hole
3# 1.7 oz.
fundmental D, overtones G, Bb overtones louder than fundamental
very strong and clear, good bass, clean sparkly sound, excellent tone ring
Strong and clear, well suited to this installation.
First Quality Professional
3# 0.9 oz.
G, with overtone at Bb (faint hint of a lower D)
strong and clear, very clean
5-Star Flathead
3# 0 oz.
C#, with overtones at F# and G#
clear and powerful, plenty of bass, sustains well
would not fit
would not fit
Gibson J.D. Crowe
available only with purchase of J.D. Crowe model banjo
2# 15.7oz.
D, with overtones at G and Bb
Clear bass, clear treble, very even all up and down the fingerboard. Excellent tone ring. See note at end of table.
in progress
Steve Huber Vintage Flathead
2# 15.5oz.
C#, with overtones at E and G. This is the only tone ring so far in which the fundamental really stands out.
clear and powerful over the entire range of the fingerboard, plenty of bass, sustains well, when needed. (5th string not "ringy")
very powerful, lots of sustain, good, clear tone over entire range of fingerboard. exceptional sound.
Steve Huber Vintage Flathead Triple Gold Plated
2# 15.5oz.
C#, with overtones at F and Ab. Like the nickel plated Huber ring, the fundamental really stands out.
Even better than the nickel plated version --a bit sweeter sound, perhaps. very powerful, clear --a classic sound. Mellow.
Price Classic
3# 2.3 oz.
F# with overtone at C# and a faint one at G#
A very powerful tone ring. clear, very mellow, see review.
Tennessee 20-hole
2# 14.7 oz.
G, with overtone at B
clean and crisp, plenty of bass, but not as much as Buck
strong and clear, very clean
very strong, loud and clear, good combination
Epiphone 18-hole
1# 13.4 oz.
not bad, I wouldn't purchase one, though.
will not fit
will not fit


The headings refer to the name of the tone ring, its retail price, its weight, frequency when struck, and the rim upon which it is tested. The tone rings are listed by weight, with the heaviest at the top of the list.

There are a couple of terms that I use that may be interpreted differently by various people, so let me define some terms. When I refer to fundamentals and overtones, I am referring to the lowest pitch that is produced by the tone ring when it is struck (fundamental) and any other notes above it which sound at the same time (overtones).

When I refer to sustain, I am referring to the ability of the banjo to sound a note until it is released by the left hand. I am not referring to the "ringy" aftertones that are so detrimental to clear playing.

n/a*=retail price unknown, purchased used.
n/a**=came with Epiphone banjo.

Notes about the J.D. Crowe tone ring
I finally was able to try out the J.D. Crowe tone ring. For specific impressions of that tone ring go to the J.D. Crowe tone ring test.

Note about the prices
The prices quoted above are the retail prices from the manufacturer or an authorized outlet at the time of purchase. Some of the rings were purchased used. For example, the Gibson-Kulesh ring was a trade-in that I purchased from Janet Davis. The First Quality tone ring and the 5-Star Flathead (20-holes) were trade-ins that I purchased from First Quality. The 5-Star Flathead (no holes) came from Janet Davis. They are no longer made, so they must be purchased used. The J.D. Crowe tone ring is usually available only on a new Gibson J.D.Crowe model banjo, so I had to find someone who had a used one to sell.

When conducting the tests, I often purchase used tone rings. When you consider that I am in the process of testing more than a dozen different rings, you can see that any savings is a big help!

The chronology of the tests
As of January 15, 1997, I have done the following:

First, I tried each of the rings on the Epiphone banjo. Because the Epiphone rim is configured differently from the Gibson rim, the tone rings hang free on their inner edges, producing aTone Bell(TM) installation automatically.

As of June 1, 1997, I have temporarily halted testing tone rings on the Epiphone banjo rim. The reason being that any rim that works well in a Tone Bell (TM) mount will generally work well on this rim. I will resume testing on this instrument later.

January 8, 1997

I have now set up my experimental banjo. So far, the only ring I have tested on it has been the Kulesh 10-hole ring. Althought this ring exhibited singularly shrill qualities on the Epiphone body, When installed on a Gibson rim, it performs as one would be led to believe, considering the rave reviews it got in the various magazines. On a regular body, it is a great tone ring. It may not be suitable for the Tone Bell(TM) system.

I have tried the Kulesh 10-hole ring on the Tone Bell(TM) body. Instead of being shrill, as it was on the Epiphone, it was somewhat muffled. The expected overtones were not present. Perhaps the banjo needs adjusting.

January 9 revision

I adjusted the head tension on the Kulesh ring, raising it by 33%. This produced a much more brilliant tone, with good sustain and volume. However, it was not as loud as the control banjo, nor was it as brilliant. Things are curiouser and curiouser.

January 15 update

I decided to seemingly violate all of my principles of head adjustment and increase the tension on the Tennessee 20 hole ring (installed on the Gibson rim). I first raised it to 10 kg.-cm. on each bracket. This made it more brilliant and louder. I then increased it to 11 kg.-cm. on each bracket, and the loudness and brilliance increased. However, it did not reach the loudness of the control banjo.

Next, I installed the Kulesh ring on the Gibson rim and performed the same experiment, with the same head tensions. As I increased the tension, the sound became louder and brighter. The Kulesh ring sounds louder to me than the Tennesse 20-hole ring, but still not as loud as the control banjo.

January 17 update

I have installed the Tennessee 20 tonering on the Tone Bell(TM) body, and tightened it considerably. At the new tension, it is as loud as the control banjo. The sound is similar, but not quite the same. there is plenty of bass response. The banjo is clear up and down the range of the neck. This is a good combination.

Additional notes:
I have chosen 13 kg.-cm. as my upper limit for head tension. Any tighter than this is too tight. Bass frequencies begin to suffer at this point on most instruments.

I have now received a second neck and resonator for the experiment. This will allow for more interesting comparisons and quicker changes of setup.

Check this out!
Tone Bell (tm) testimonials
January 17, 1997
Jeff Bush of New Jersey informed me via e-mail that my head tension of 11 kg.-cm. was quite high compared to his, when measured with a recently calibrated torque wrench. His head tension measured about 5 inch-lbs. This is about 5.7 kg.-cm. There is a likelihood that my torque wrench may be out of calibration. It has never been calibrated, and Jeff's has. However, I do not use the torque wrench to set the head tension. That is done by tapping and adjusting for best sound. Once I have determined the best sound or the resonant frequency by tapping, I then use the torque wrench to make sure that all of the brackets have the same tension. Even if it is miscalibrated, at least the error will be the same on all the hooks. There are other factors that may come into consideration also, but I won't go into them. those of you who use these tools know what they are.

So use the torque wrench as an equalizing device only.

Drum Torque Wrenches Now Available Via Internet!

The Neary Drum Torque wrench, which is the one I use for my banjo adjustments, is now available from Janet Davis Music.

I have modified mine slightly. The Drum Torque comes with a special fitting that will straddle a banjo wrench while it is on the bracket nut. I found it very convenient to permanently attach the bracket wrench to the "straddle" fitting with ribbon epoxy (available in auto repair shops, hardware stores, etc.) If you wish to do this, order an extra bracket wrench. You will be glad you did!

February 3, 1997

Special Report

Tone Bell(TM) Hit of SPBGMA!!

I took the Tone Bell (TM) banjo, the RB-100 described above with the Tennessee 20 tone ring, to the SPBGMA (Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America) Convention in Nashville on January 30th,1997 Over the next few days, several prominent players tried it out and all were quite favorably impressed.

Let me make this perfectly clear--none of these people are endorsing this banjo--these are strictly their comments. Scott Vestal liked its volume and clarity--so did Janet Davis, and Don Jones, the left-handed banjo wonder, liked its purity of tone.

All who played it agreed that those who had told me that it wouldn't work should have tried it before judging it.

At least one major manufacturer expressed an interest in experimenting with it. I will reveal more when it is appropriate to do so.

The JLS Tone Rings
(Stull Tone Rings)
If you look in the classified ads in Banjo Newsletter or Bluegrass Unlimited, you will see a classified ad for a tone ring that will give your banjo the sound of a pre-war instrument. Are these claims justified?

Darn close!--Very darn close!

The Stull tone rings come in 2 models, the model 4 and the model 12. The model 4 has basically the same internal configuration as the standard Gibson tone rings. The model 12 has less of the metal machined away on the inside--leaving a flat surface inside the ring. Each model is available with or without holes. My current plan is to test only the models with the holes, although I may try the others later. The Stull rings have a skirt that is about 20 thousandths of an inch longer than the normal Gibson skirt, so the inner edge of the tone ring does not contact the inner part of the wood rim unless the rim is modified. This may contribute to its powerful sound.

April 2, 1997
I have tried the Stull Model 12 on both the Mastertone and the Tone Bell(TM) rims. The sound is outstanding. On the Tone Bell(TM) rim, The sound seems to come from deep within the banjo, instead of off the head. It is a full, clear tone, different from the Tennessee 20. There is lots of "bite," yet it is clean and clear. This is, so far, the best dollar value of all the tone rings I have tested. The sound is one that would please the most discerning banjo player.


Stull Model 12 Tone Ring Surpassed!

Stull Model 4 Has Classic Sound!
June 4, 1997
I have completed the first round of testing on the Stull Model 4 tone ring. In an A-B-C test with my Scruggs model and a banjo with a Tennessee 20 tone ring, the results are interesting. The Model 4 tone ring was louder than the Model 12 (judged by the comparison of both models vs. the control instrument and the Tennessee 20 instrument.) The tone of the Model 4 is rich, clean, loud and vibrant. In my unsolicited, unpaid and totally voluntary opinion, the Stull Model 4 tone ring is the best dollar value in a tone ring on the market today. It has much better low end than the Tennessee 20, with all of the bite and brilliance you could ask for.

I made sure that this tone ring would perform at maximum capability, so I had a rim specially made for the test. The tests were conducted with the Model 4 tone ring mounted in traditional style on a rim that was cut 20 thousandths of an inch lower on its outer edge, so that the tone ring would seat all the way down.

It compares very favoritably with the new Gibson rings--so much so, that if I were not completely satisfied with the sound of my Scruggs model, I might consider changing over to this tone ring. I will be making a permanent addition of a neck to this rim so that I can keep this banjo. This tone ring, as well as the Stull Model 12, may be obtained from JLS Banjos in San Antonio, Texas or you can order it from Janet Davis Music. You will need to modify the rim very slightly to take this tone ring.

Results of the Tone Bell(TM) Tests with the Stull Model 4 Tone Ring
I have tried the Stull Model 4 tone ring in the Tone Bell(TM) instrument. The results were interesting and quite strange. The sound is extremely loud. However, there are lots of upper overtones present. There was little difference in the sound of the banjo when playing near the bridge and playing near the end of the fret board. I tried loosening the head, and that brought more mellowness back into the sound of the instrument without losing much volume. However, I prefer the way this tone ring sounds in a standard installation. The model 12 ring is far superior in the Tone Bell (TM) system.

June 20, 1997
I have tried yet another setup for the Stull Model 4 tone ring in the Tone Bell (TM) configuration. In this case, I used a Remo Weather King high crown head--top frosted, in place of the 5-star head. I also tried different bridges and head tensions. The most satisfactory results came with a Grover bridge and a head tension of 7 kg-cm. This gave me quite a bit of volume and fewer harsh upper overtones. The contrast between picking at the end of the fingerboard and picking near the bridge is restored. This is an acceptable combination, although I prefer the Model 4 tone ring on a standard Gibson rim.

The status of the tests

Everyone's opinion of tone rings is subjective and subject to all sorts of variables due to setup,etc. However, the ranking of the tone rings, I have tested so far is:

For normal Gibson type rims:
(1) Paul Hopkins Full Flathead Ring, Paul Hopkins Traditional Cut Flathead,Tennessee 20, McPeake-Kulesh,Steve Huber Vintage 39, J.D. Crowe, New Kulesh Big Ten, Price Classic (these are listed in the order tested, not necessarily in the order of my personal preference)
(2)Stull Model 4 (rim modified to accept longer skirt), Stull Model 12 (rim modified to accept longer skirt)
(3) Gibson-Kulesh 20 hole (placed third because of price and restricted availability

I should point out that some of the most outstanding sound came from the Hopkins-McPeake Conversion tone ring on an archtop style rim. It is a hard combination to beat,

For Tone Bell (TM) rims:
Steve Huber Vintage 39
(exceptional sound, but requires restraint on 5th string)
Stull Model 12
Tennessee 20
Kulesh Big Ten
Gibson-Kulesh 20 hole
These 4 tone rings are all very close in quality of sound.
Stull Model 4 with Remo head and Grover bridge, lower head tension.
One big advantage of the Stull tone rings over the similar sounding rings is the price.

If you have a recent Gibson banjo, you will find that the Tone Bell (TM) modification works well with the existing tone ring. If you are not satisfied with the sound of your recent Gibson banjo or you have a 1970's through 1987 model (pre-Gibson-Kulesh)*, you will probably find that investing in a Stull Model 4 tone ring will give you a truly fine sound. For this tone ring, I recommend that you use the installation procedure that Jim Stull details in the sheet accompanying the tone ring, not the Tone Bell (TM) system.

*Note: The Kulesh family started supplying tone rings to Gibson in 1987. The original name of the company was Anti-Friction Products.

I still have a couple of tone rings to test. The results will be posted as the tests are completed.

Janet Davis Now Manufacturing Tone Bell (TM) Rims

For more information, click here

A Special Note Concerning Archtop to Flathead Conversion Tone Rings

I have been conducting some experiments with archtop to flathead conversion tone rings. For the continuing investigation, click here.


Notes on the Steve Huber Vintage Flathead Tone Ring

A Special Thought Concerning the Tone of any Banjo
Most of us have never actually played a pre-war Mastertone. I have played several instruments that were pre-war instruments, and several that were purported to be pre-war instruments. Some were good, some were not. Most of the differences were in setup, with the exception of those instruments that were simply bad attempts at copying old instruments.

Each of us has an idea of what a banjo should sound like. I cannot tell you what is the best sound for you. Neither can Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne or anyone else, and they would be the first to admit this. All I can do is tell you what I hear, what a given tone ring will do under various circumstances, and, to the best of my skills, tell you what I did to get the banjo to produce a given sound.

I purchase these tone rings with my own funds. Nobody tells me how to judge a tone ring. I am not "married" to any of the manufacturers. If I like a tone ring, you will know it. If I don't, you will know that, too. All of these descriptions are subjective. But they are based on lots of experience, and the methods used allow the results to be duplicated. This is the basis of scientific investigation. And that is what you find on this page--facts, not folklore.


Special Report on First Quality Music's Ball Bearing Conversion Flathead Tone Ring
In the latter part of May, 1997, I converted a 1926 Gibson TB-3 to an RB-250, using the flathead conversion tone ring manufactured by First Quality Music. This is a drop-in conversion that requires no fuss at all. I found that it was necessary to use a modern tension hoop and modern hooks for the conversion, so if you are in the position to do one of these, order the tension hoop and the hooks and nuts at the same time. This will save you a lot of trouble.

The banjo sounded fantastic! In fact, I have an instrument now with a 1925 ball-bearing rim and a Sullivan conversion ring in it. I had to do a little work on the rim to get it to fit, but it is a really fine sounding instrument.


For those who have been following the tone ring tests, please make the following note. I had some data posted for the Steve Ryan tone ring. This was a listing that was set up in error. It was a duplicate of a list for another tone ring. It should not have been posted. The actual Steve Ryan tone ring tests will start soon. Watch the chart for further developments.

Report from SPBGMA 1998

I took my banjos to SPBGMA again this year. This time I had two Tone Bell (R) banjos. One had the RB-100 neck and resonator and a Stewart-MacDonald no-hole tone ring, the other had a Flying Eagle neck and matching resonator and the Tennessee 20 tone ring. I showed these instruments to several very knowledgeable banjo players and setup experts. Each one liked the instruments. There is a certain richness of tone, without harshness, plus amazing volume that really attracts the ear. I had a chance to hear other people play these instruments, and I was personally amazed at how good they sounded. Rather than make a list of people who liked the instruments--primarily because I have not asked permission to do so--I will simply say, "If they sat down and played them, they liked them."

Go back to tone ring tests
Go back to Banjo Setup
Go back to My Music
Contact Bill Palmer

©2006 Bill Palmer. All rights reserved. For permission to republish contact Bill Palmer. The opinions expressed on this page are strictly Bill Palmer's. Mastertone, Stelling and the other brand and model names are the property of the manufacturers and other people who own them.