September 17, 2006

#139: Best tone ring and the prewar sound

Tom from upstate New York, writes:

Pete,

only someone like yourself with loads of experience and knowledge can answer this question for an upstate New Yorker like myself who seldom gets to see many banjos. Everyone who is selling something has a claim. I simply want to know if there is one tone ring better than the rest? Of course I realize many factors go into the sound of a banjo.

With everything being the same, would one ring stand out as producing that sought after ideal prewar sound?  I was told today that Frank Neats banjos with Baylock rings were best.

Not only does every manufacturer have a claim, every banjo owner has an opinion. Hey everyone, what's the best hair color? What's the best religion?

Don't expect a consensus. And in the case of evaluating sound, how do we even know we're actually hearing the same way? Everyone has different taste, which is why all these different makers can stay in business. I know Frank Neat is a very trusted banjo man, and his work and his attitude seem quite good to me. Baylock rings, I’m not sure I’ve heard. Also, almost no one gets to compare a certain instrument with different tone rings in it, and nothing else different.

If this isn't the case, what brand or make of banjo does have a prewar sound?

Someone define "prewar sound". Let's remember, Earl Scruggs, playing a prewar flathead Gibson, recorded almost all his most important trend-setting stuff with a skin head, and the whole banjo tuned sharp, sometime almost a full fret. That's part of the "pre-war" sound, sure enough! Back into Ambiguityland!

I wonder if such an animal exists?

Sorry, this question just can't be answered precisely. I could talk for a long time on the subject, and others could rebut what I said, and nothing would ever be proven.

Practical advice: Try to hear in person as many specimens as you can. You might even take a banjo-buying trip to someplace where you can check out a variety, compare prices, etc. Try Nashville. Go to IBMA Fan Fest at the end of September, and do some shopping there, where most of the best banjo makers will have their stuff out. Between Curtis McPeake's place near Nashville, George Gruhn's, Gibson Showcase, and other places around town, you could probably find a banjo that said "Daddy" to you, and then if you play it with care for good tone, and treat it right, it will make good music for you.

Just about any good player can make just about any decent banjo sound really good, and when you compare the sounds, the bigger determinant is who's doing the playing and how.

Thank you. Tom

You're welcome, and best of luck with your new banjo, whatever it is!

Pete

 ad-masters.jpg
Do you have a copy of this unique "banjo bible"?