By Donald Nitchie
When Tony Pass brought the Stelling banjo with the rim he had made for it to IBMA in 2001, little did he know it would lead to a new career. Tony had recently retired from a career as a machine designer, and had also become interested in banjos. His fascination led him to construct an openback rim for his own banjo. During this process he became interested in the varied properties of the wood he was working with. Tony began to experiment with new and old woods, (ultimately developing his Lost Timbre block rim, using sunken old-growth wood recovered form the Great Lakes).
The rim that Tony put in his Stelling in 2001 so impressed Geoff Stelling that they made a business arrangement, whereas Tony would supply Stelling with rims. Recently we heard that Tony had designed a new version of his rim, which Geoff has decided to use exclusively in his banjos.
"Tony has been making rims for me since about March 2002," explained Geoff Stelling. "They were the standard 3/4"-size rims that I¹d been using. A few months ago he sent me this new rim that was cut down to 600/1000s (just under 5/8"). And I tried it; it sounded good. The timbre, or the pitch, of the rim itself was lowered slightly from the 3/4" size. When you put this rim in a banjo it opens up the air chamber and gives you a bit more bass. Then Tony went further, and sent me a 1/2" rim, which lowered the pitch of the rim even further. And it sounded just fine. Then I put the original 3/4" rim back on the same banjo I'd been experimenting on, and I still liked it. It was like, which one do I like better? I couldn¹t really say. But I think what I heard was, the larger rim has more mass, and seemed to give you more power at all the ranges, but it might not give you the depth, or the bass. But it had everything else. Tony's new 600, which is the mid-size, didn't seem to lose that much on the treble side, but it has a bit more bass. So I opted for the mid-range. When I run out of the 3/4" rims that I have in stock, I'll switch to the 600. I think it gives you practically everything you'd want in a banjo. If you want more of one extreme or another, you can do that. But I think the 600 will please 90% of the pickers out there. And I think this is a good change."
"The new rim is called The ThinSkirt," explained Tony Pass, "and it is in the process of being trademarked. It's my standard block rim with a thinner skirt. Now this idea began about three years ago, when I took apart my first Stelling. Before I ever even made a Stelling rim, and being green to banjos, I thought the exact opposite of what was actually the case: if you make the rim thinner, you would get a brighter sound. And I sketched out ways of making a thinner rim with a larger air chamber, and drew the two different Gibson models: the one-piece flange and the two-piece, along with a Stelling. And in fact I drew them three years ago the exact same way I'm making them today. But it wasn¹t until a couple of months ago that I actually started on this. The reason being, I got a phone call one day from Chuck Lee of Lee Banjo. And Chuck said, 'I've got a question for you. I've got a bunch of your rims sitting here in different sizes, and my son is tapping on them notes. But the thing that's funny, how come the thinner the rim, the deeper the note?' And I said, 'I don't know. I thought it would be the other way around.' So I called Bill Palmer, and he explained that for banjos, the more wood, the more rigid. The more rigid, the brighter it is. I said, 'Well I'll be darned. I've been thinking the exact opposite all this time.' So the first thing I did was I made a 1/2 inch 12" rim for Chuck Lee to make a banjo out of. He sent it to me so I could put it up against my 3/4" and 5/8"s. My wife, who knows nothing about banjos, heard me playing the new banjo, and she said, 'Is this another of your experiments?' I said, 'Yeah, why?' She said, 'If you make a banjo any bassier than that, you're going to have to change the name, because it doesn¹t sound like a banjo.' I said, 'I got an idea, it's an old idea in open backs, but I think I've got a new idea for bluegrass banjos.'"
"So I called up Dave Schenkman from Turtle Hill, and he said to send him one to try out. Dave called me a few days later and said that he'd put it in his Master Flower. Dave said, 'That banjo was my most awesome banjo, and I can¹t believe the sound I'm getting out of it now. This is just unbelievable. But I don't hear what you are talking about the bass. The bass is still there, seems the same, but just clearer, more open.' And I said, 'Just wait for it.' Dave called me back fifteen minutes later and said, 'Tony, somebody turned up the bass on my banjo!'"
"So I figured we had a go here. This was about the end of June . I then called Geoff Stelling, and told him about the project, and what the results were so far. He said, send me two of them, so I can put them in two banjos, and compare them."
Tony has continued to experiment with these rims in the past six weeks. He sent several of them off to Bill Palmer to try out, and last month Tony went to Nashville, to Paul Hopkins's recording studio. He and Paul sat around for a couple of days, taking banjos apart and playing them. Paul's reaction was, 'You're on to something here.' "I opened up the air chamber, but that wasn't what I was going after. What I was going after was changing the sound of the wood. In a standard one piece flange Gibson, which has the least amount of wood removed, I changed it two whole frets-worth whole note."
Tony is presently applying for a patent. He says that another good thing about the new rim is it doesn't increase the price. "It takes the same time to make. I've got just one extra cut." Tony is also offering finished pot assemblies. We asked him to tell us about that. In making these rims for different customers, Tony said, "the number one rim that I was fitting, the biggest seller, was the Hopkins. That got to be very popular recently, running neck and neck with the Tennessee 20. I got to thinking about the shipping charges, and also the leg work to locate these parts. And I thought, why don't I centralize this? I talked to Paul Hopkins and Bill Sullivan about it, and they both thought it was a good idea. So I'm now offering a complete pot assembly, consisting of my ThinSkirt rim with a Hopkins full flat-head tone ring." The rim price with nickel plated parts is $880.
Tony is also offering a free PassPowered case sticker for those who use his rims. E-mail him at email@example.com with your mailing address.