The StraightLine (SL-5) Tailpiece Chronicles

What I originally called the StraightLine tailpiece began in December 1981, there being no decent tailpieces available for banjos at that time, other than a German copy of the Kershner. I laid out all the tailpieces I had on the kitchen table in Grand Prairie, Texas, where I operated Price Banjos from September 1979 to December 1983. I considered the best feature of each one; the string length from front edge to bridge from the Presto, the hinged design and yoke of Kershner, rugged cast construction from Ode and wide string spacing (same as the bridge spacing) from Oettinger.

When the drawing was over, there was the StraightLine, in something very close to its present form. The drawings were taken to a machinist in Irving, Texas, who made a master from aluminum. My friend, Metz Castleberry, sculptor and art founder, made a set of castings from silicon bronze, the medium of choice for small sculptures. The first StraightLine was essentially handmade, even the plating done in the Price Banjo shop.

Over the years, there have been minor changes in design and manufacturing methods. The first 200 were made from investment castings, and I built the jigs and fixtures for the several drilling operations and did all the sanding and assembly in my workshop in Grand Prairie. I even plated a few, then found a good plater in Irving.

After my return to the Army Medical Service Corps in January, 1984, there was no further production until Jimmy Cox of Five String Music in Topsham, Maine made a second set of tooling about 1986 and made about 200. Jimmy had only a lathe, no milling machine, and devised some very clever methods, very labor intensive. He used sand castings, building up an investment casting to use as a single pattern. Being a one-off casting method, casting costs were quite high. Jimmy added the third string slot, which I had elected not to do on the initial batch. I liked the change, especially from the functional aspect, but even cosmetically.

Because of the labor and casting costs of the Maine batch, I went to Precision Pattern in Tacoma, Washington, who tooled up about 1988 and made a batch that was to be 200, but only yielded 115. Those were the first that were cast from a 16-on match plate. They were plagued with finish problems due to gassy castings and sometimes irregular border widths. By the time I retired from the Army and moved back home to Oklahoma, that stock was pretty well depleted. There would have been no more tailpieces at all, had it not been for the faith and support of Bill Keith, who invested heavily into what I had. That motivated and financed a return to production.

Another machinist undertook the production of the StraightLine, and of course, disdained the use of $7000 in Tacoma tooling.....he started from scratch, made his own tooling, and produced several hundred more. These were the best to date, but the tooling was a little complicated and loss rate too high, so that machinist bailed out. I was given a lead on a machinist who had recently suffered an aircraft parts contract cancellation, and was looking for new projects. Of course, he didn't like the tooling from either previous batch, so he made his own from scratch. His worked wonderfully well, and he has now made somewhere around 3000 that are superb in quality. He has also made the first couple of batches of the new SL-8 mandolin tailpiece.

How to approximately date your SL-5:
1982-4 Investment casting, smooth texture underneath, mostly handmade by Gary Price, solid brass hinge pin, marked "Price U.S. Pat Pend" No slot for third string.

1986 Sand casting, third string slot, made by Jimmy Cox entirely by lathe operations. Marked "Price US Pat No 277,869 (no periods)". The logo and lettering are rather delicate and the string grooves underneath are cast in. Well finished, high quality.

1988-91 Sand casting from match plate, marked "Price U.S. Pat. No. 277,869 (with periods, heavier type)", strings grooves are machined in, some castings were more porous and the finish may not be as good. String hook size was larger than the original specifications in this and subequent batches until 1995.

1992 Volker Precision, same match plate, high quality castings, some may be manganese bronze or red brass, but mostly silicon bronze as in previous batches. The decorative border on these, as well as many of the Tacoma models, may have been narrower on one side than the other. At Bill Keith's suggestion, a relief was cut into the front of the hinge boss, so there would be two bearing points to rest against the tension hoop. In case of string breakage, the banjo was likely to be less out of tune. Next, the match plate was modified by cutting out the center 3/8" of the hinge boss. There were then two small bosses, allowing disassembly of the tailpiece and providing two bearing points.

1993 WDM Machine, new soft jaw tooling, Bridgeport CNC mill. After the first batch, it was decided that the first match plate was not adequate, so a new one was made to provide more consistency and sufficient material on each piece. Yokes were cut from castings, as before.

1994 WDM, shape of the yoke was changed from square corners (somewhat rounded) to a Y-shape with graceful compound curves. The corners served no functional purpose (Kershners had adjustment screws there, but the dual hinge bosses did the same thing) and these were more attractive. On the next batch, the yoke profile was modified to accomodate a proposed stamped version. One batch of squared yokes was cut from yellow brass extrusion, then the change in shape was made. All subsequent yokes are cut from extrusion.

1995 WDM, string hook size was reduced to conform to the original December 1981 drawings.

1996 WDM, relief cut for the strings above and behind the string holes.

1999 WDM, changed from sand castings to yellow brass extrusions, eliminating occasional problems with pitting from micro gas bubbles.

1999 WDM, no logo on underside due to extrusion change.

Thoughout this period, adjustment bolts have been specially fabricated with 1/4" hex heads to match the standard brackets, and the hanger bolt nuts cut to match the standard bracket. This is much more expensive than using common hardware, but no compromise in quality is acceptable.

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Gary Price
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