When First Quality Music was founded by Bill Sullivan back in 1970, his goal was to supply the Bluegrass community with high quality parts, supplies, and services at very affordable prices. For the last 40 years First Quality has succeeded in doing just that with the introduction of many new and specialty parts for the banjo player and builder alike. Our background in banjos is unmatched in the industry having constructed over 30,000 banjo necks and turned over 32,000 pot assemblies, both old and new.
With our emphasis being on new construction and repair of vintage banjos, we never really tried to make a genuine copy of the famed pre-war Mastertone style of banjos. Although our banjos looked similar to the old Mastertones and our parts would interchange with them, all of the science behind them was geared toward modern machining practices, ease of procurement, reliability and price. Producing the best NEW banjo money could buy was our goal. This has worked out fairly well over the last 40 years but we wanted something more. We wanted our newest banjo to be able to stand toe to toe with the best that the 1930’s had to offer. Our goal was simple- produce a banjo that emulated every aspect of a 1930’s Gibson Mastertone flathead but make it affordable and replaceable. This idea was not new to the banjo world, but it was new to us.
In every new venture there are always hidden obstacles and unknown twists and turns that sometimes make you question your true intent and sometimes urge you to push a good product to market before it is a great product. We started the Sullivan Vintage 35 project with a strict set of goals that had to each be met before moving on. Simply put our aim was to produce a banjo that sounded like a 1930’s Mastertone flathead but was priced like a standard banjo on today’s market. What we found out over the next three years was that while it was very simple to say, it was not very simple to achieve.
The first order of business was to really determine what gave these old banjos their unique sound. We called a few friends that we knew had pre-war flatheads and asked them bring them into the shop for sound clips and comparisons. We realized right away that if you do not live with a 1930’s flathead daily, you cannot remember just how good they really are. That’s when we knew that is was going to be in our best interest to purchase our own. So in 2006, we added Myrtle, a 1935 Mastertone Style 3, to the family. Having this banjo in the shop every day has proven to be invaluable in our research and development as we could analyze and measure every aspect of this amazing banjo anytime we needed or wanted.
Where do you start when building a great sounding banjo? With the wood rim, of course. After turning over 32,000 rims, which included hundreds of pre-war rims, we had come to the conclusion that the maple we have available today is very different from what was used when these great banjos were first produced. While modern maple makes an excellent rim with great sound, it does not deliver the tone and punch of the pre-war banjos. The answer to this problem was quite simple. Get old maple, right? Well it’s not quite that simple. We tried maple that had been seasoned for extended periods of time. We tried wood that had been submerged under water for over 100 years. We even tried to artificially age wood to see if it would make a difference. Nothing we tried came close to that old pre-war rim. Nothing.
With extensive research from that time in history and a lot of outside the box thinking we hit on a possible solution- reclaimed wood. We realized that the maple used in these rims was probably the same as that used in the building trade from that same time period. Back then they did not use maple that was purely cut and set aside for banjo wood rims. They used what they were surrounded with- original virgin timber. The maple they used grew in a different time under different conditions, and these conditions contributed to the unusually high tonal characteristics found in maple from that era.
After a lot of hard work and maybe even some good luck we came across what we were looking for. A building was being torn down in the same part of the country where Gibson had gotten their wood long ago. This building was built in 1870 and maple was used extensively in everything from the structural beams to the flooring. This wood had been air drying for the last 140 years. We had our first piece of the puzzle, and the wood rim was ours.
Not wanting to just run out and claim wood rim greatness, we kept this rim under wraps for well over a year only using it in-house and on some of our own custom instruments. It was brought to market as our Factory Floor Rim in 2006 and has been used in over 500 banjos covering almost all current and past builders. This field testing has proven invaluable and has really given us the feedback we needed to use this rim as the foundation of the Sullivan Vintage 35 project.
Feeling really good about our progress, we turned our attention to the tone ring. The thought of why anybody would want to use the few days they are given on this earth to try to figure out the old pre-war flatheads crossed our minds many, many times during this phase of the project. In the beginning we asked a lot of questions and did a lot of listening. We gathered formulas from friends, online resources, old books, and any other source we could locate. What we found out was that everyone seemed to have their own opinion as to what the old flathead ring contained. To enter our own hat in the ring, we started getting an analysis from every tone ring we could access. After getting over 75 unique metallurgical breakdowns, we were starting to see patterns develop. All of the better rings had their differences, but all of them had certain characteristics that remained constant. With this new information at hand we decided to give making our own rings a shot.
At first tone rings came very slowly- a day for an idea, a few weeks at the foundry to make the ingots and castings, a few more weeks at the machine shop, and another week at plating. It was taking around 8 weeks to get a tone ring from the drawing board to our hands. What we found was that while we were waiting for our new rings, our ideas changed a lot and we had already moved on to the next thing when the rings finally arrived at our shop. Anybody watching the process could plainly see that this was not going to be the way to success.
At this point, we decided to invest in our own CNC lathe. Now we could eliminate the outside machine shop and shave a few weeks off of our R&D time. This move proved to be the shot in the arm that the tone rings needed. After having our own 1935 flathead ring computer measured and a computer program written to duplicate the cross section exactly, we were able to remove one variable that has plagued tone rings for years, consistency. We made several hundred rings this way, always keeping exhaustive notes on every aspect of the rings from metallurgical content to weight to pitch. Every detail was charted and used in making the next decision. Our rings were getting better when compared to the original we keep in the shop but something was still missing.
After more historical research and taking into account the environment that the originals were cast in versus what you can actually have a foundry do today, we knew what we had to do. We had to pour our own rings. Once we considered the dangers of 2000 degree bronze and tried to figure a way out but couldn’t, we purchased our own furnace. We could now be in complete control of the entire operation. After several hundred rings, we began to see more patterns. Everything matters- the purity of the metal used, the rate at which the metal is brought up to temperature, the length of time the metal is kept at pouring temperature, how the metal is cooled and so on. No detail was overlooked in the making of our new Vintage 35 tone rings. After everything was said and done we were able to reduce the R&D time for a new tone ring idea from right 8 weeks to just over 2 and a half hours less plating. Now we could get to business.
With a good handle on the wood rim and tone ring, we were able to change our focus to the rest of the banjo. There wasn’t a tremendous amount of work to do here, but staying true to the original design of the banjos from the 1930’s meant that we were going to have to make some changes. Our first big hurdle was the resonator and we knew the exact place to go for the absolute best pre-war reproduction resonator on the market. We currently use the pre-war spec resonators from Steve Gill. Steve has gone to great pains to faithfully reproduce the right curvature of the back and is using the correct construction techniques on the sidewalls. What we end up with is a duplicate of the old Mastertone-style banjo resonator that is so close in dimension, construction, and weight that you would not have a hard time passing one off as an original.
The metal parts of the pot assembly were also looked over with a fine tooth comb. To us, the old parts just seem to last longer and perform better. To get a better reason as to why they do better, we went to great lengths with our analysis of these parts and we now have duplicates that utilize the same brass and pot metal, as well as the plating, that was used in the 1930’s. We are very diligent in our efforts to not discount any detail no matter how small. If it turns out that the plating on the hooks plays a role in the final sound it won’t matter because we have duplicated that also.
Moving on up the banjo we now started focusing on the neck. This is the part of the banjo that most players have very strong opinions about. When we began this phase of the project the first thing we did was to get actual dimensions from as many true pre-war 5-string Gibson banjos as we could. Our neck profile is based on the dimensions we obtained from these rare necks. Each neck we made in the initial phase was expertly hand shaped to duplicate these old necks and after many necks, we finally produced what we felt was the perfect blend of pre-war shape and function coupled with today’s technology. We also found an anomaly in the fret scale of the old original necks. These old necks do not have a fret scale that is based on a geometric progression but rather is more closely related to that of a tempered scale. The math doesn’t work out, but the neck sure plays true. We made a decision early on that we would make these necks as close to original specs as possible so the details run very close to the pre-war necks: thin Brazilian Rosewood fretboard, thin overlay, double routed binding, countersunk lag screw holes, pre-war profile, etc. Our newly designed neck also received a new heel cut that allowed us to fit the neck extremely tight to the pot assembly ensuring the best fit possible.
With the rest of the banjo metal parts being duplicates of old original parts, the only decision that was left was what to do about tuners. This may have been to easiest decision of all. We made a call to Bill Keith of Beacon Banjo Co. and he supplied us with new tuners that were based on his famous D-tuners but were actually standard pegs. These new pegs from Bill are the smoothest we have ever felt and they could also be retrofitted with old style buttons. We tried a set on our first prototype and everyone was in agreement that these were the tuners to use.
With the dimensional specs finalized and all of the parts decided upon we went back to the shop for one last look into the past – color and finish. Many of the banjos of today are finished very beautifully but they are the wrong color when compared to the old originals. In our shop we have the largest collection of pre-war Gibson banjo necks in the country and this reference tool was invaluable in helping us to reproduce that old Granada and Style 3 color everyone is after.
With all of our components now completed and ready for final assembly, we looked to Myrtle for direction. The extreme level of care that was given to the fitting of the parts on the pre-war banjos was something that we wanted to be sure to copy. Many high quality banjos have all the right parts but they get short changed during assembly and set-up. This is where the science ends and the art of banjo making takes over. We never force anything together and this part of the process is never rushed. Many hours were spent on dialing in the proper set-up for these banjos and the last component we choose is the proper bridge. We cannot stress enough how much the proper bridge can help with the final sound. We have gone to great lengths to reproduce the best of the best in bridges. Some banjos respond better to hard bridges and some better to soft, so we always let the banjo tell us what bridge it wants.
The final result is the best banjo we have ever produced. It has crystal clear high end, distinct note separation, consistent volume from the first fret to the last, and strong bass… the list goes on and on. We have taken the challenge to capture the soul of the magnificent banjos from the 1930’s and wrap that up in a package that is both affordable and replaceable. We honestly feel that our new banjo, the Sullivan Vintage 35, is the best new banjo on the market today.