The New Paul Hopkins Full Flathead Tone Ring

A Very Special New Tone Ring With an Incredible Sound

I know what you are thinking. About once a year, almost like clockwork, a new tone ring that is “bigger, better, more like the prewar ideal” appears on the banjo market. And each time this happens, I start getting e-mails asking about how the new tone ring compares to the one that was the previous “champion.” This year will be no exception. But this year, the new contender is one that I saw before all the rumors and announcements started. And what a tone ring it is!!!

Those of you who have followed these pages have seen me evaluate lots of tone rings. I do my best to be totally unbiased about them. Sometimes I am swept up in the enthusiasm about a new tone ring. This time, I had a chance to try the prototypes of a new tone ring that really delivers the goods. Not only that, I got to take them to the IBMA and let other people try them out.

The full flathead tone ring is a normal, high profile tone ring, such as those found in Gibson Mastertone® banjos and other banjos that are built on their model. Paul uses the term “full flathead tone ring” to distinguish these tone rings from his archtop to flathead conversion rings, which are reviewed elsewhere in these pages.

During the 2002 IBMA Trade Show and Fan Fest, I had two banjos with Paul Hopkins full flathead tone rings in the booth with the Tony Pass Lost Forest rims. These tone rings were a chrome plated Paul Hopkins full flathead ring on a Tony Pass Lost Forest maple rim and a nickel plated Paul Hopkins full flathead tone ring on a Tony Pass Lost Forest birch rim. Paul also brought along a banjo with a gold plated Paul Hopkins full flathead tone ring which was mounted on a Tony Pass Lost Forest maple rim. While the tests were not done with “laboratory” conditions, here are the informal results.

During the trade show and fan fest, dozens of players sat in the booth and played these banjos. These included people who own or have owned prewar instruments. In fact, Paul Hopkins, himself, owns several prewar flathead Gibson banjos. These include a flathead Granada, a flathead RB-75 and a flathead RB-4, which we have reported on in these pages. His goal with these tone rings has been to capture the authentic prewar sound of his personal banjos. The combination of his full flathead tone ring and the Tony Pass Lost Forest rims has done a remarkably good job of this. The players who tried out these banjos all agreed that these banjos had captured a sound that was extremely close to this ideal, if not dead on.

One very telling moment occurred during the last day of the Fan Fest. One player sat down and tried Paul's banjo with the gold plated tone ring. He said, “There is no reason that every banjo in the (famous maker's name deleted to prevent embarrassment) booth can't sound like this.”

I pointed to the rims and the tone rings and said, "This is the reason they can't. They won't go through the trouble and expense to do what Paul and Tony have done." The player thought it was the setup, but once I showed him what was going on, he realized it was more than that.

So, what is going on with these tone rings? Well, here are the facts. Paul has been searching for the answers even longer than I have. He has analyzed the metallurgical formulas of more tone rings than anyone else that I know. I can't even begin to go into detail about what he has learned. A couple of months ago, he found a combination that looks, feels and sounds like the answer. I was really thrilled that he asked me to be involved in the trials of these new tone rings. Used in conjunction with the Tony Pass Lost Forest banjo rims, they have a sound that, to my ear, is very close to that ideal that I have been looking for. For more information, go to

Paul Hopkins is also the fellow who developed the Hopkins-McPeake archtop to flathead conversion tone ring. If you have an archtop banjo you want to convert to a flathead instrument, it is hard to beat. On a Tony Pass Lost Forest rim, it gives an amazing sound. I have reported on it at archtop to flathead conversion tone rings.

I should point out that these tone rings come even closer to the pre-war ideal when mounted on the Tony Pass Lost Forest birch rims.

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©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.