I have devoured everything in print, audio & video that I can find which might reveal to me the secrets to the tone achieved by my all-time favorite player, Bela Fleck. Here is a summary of my gleanings and inferences:
Wide mahogany neck w/ radiused ebony fingerboard. Mastertone pot (yes, I know it's a pre-war) Remo head tuned to F# 1" tall radiused maple/ebony bridge, aprox 3 grams Presto tailpiece, raised off the tension hoop, with almost no down force. Strings - .010, .011, .0125, .020W & .010 Action - pretty low.
What I really love about what I hear in Bela's instrument is the complete absence of any harshness, especially in the trebles. The intonation also seems to be dead-on, both in the inherently troublesome first-position unisons as well as WAY up the neck. Not loud in absolute terms, but clear, well-defined and articulate, and yet decidedly warm throughout.
Here's the question. If you were to start from the drawing board up, how would you spec out a banjo if you were trying to emulate the tone of his magnificent RB-75? Assume the inavailability of vintage parts, and take Bela's awesome playing technique out of the equation. How close could you get with modern materials, techniques and intuition?
Also, are there any builders already claiming to be able to duplicate this sound? Bela has lots of instruments, but I don't believe he endorses anything, but perhaps someone even has a "signature" model ready to go?
Bela stated in some article that he has used all different head tensions over the years, and if my memory is serving me correctly he said it has been as low as F and as high as b, or maybe c. One has to assume that with all his recordings that we have heard one of each. Just something to think about when trying to decide that the F# is responsible for the tone you may have heard.
Also when you hear him live you are hearing a combination of his pickup and microphone. The pickup does add a deeper quality to the mix. Not sure what he does on recordings as far as the pickup.
Oh... I once had Bela play my banjo and you know what? It sounded a lot more like his banjo while he played it than when I did.
Bela's action isn't low according to Robin Smith who builds most of his necks. His is closer to 1/4" at the 22nd fret. The reason for the 1" bridge is he wants more downforce on the head to offset the muffling of the sound due to a larger neck according to Robin. I have a Bela Fleck RB-75 copy made by Robin Smith I recently had in the classifieds. You can view some photos on my homepage.
I emailed Bela a few years ago about his set up on his favorite RB 75. He mentioned the thick neck, high bridge, head tuned to F#. He also pointed out that it was an old flathead and the rest was in his hands. Just my opinion, but I'll bet the fact that it is an old flathead would allow for tuning a head that loose and still getting a nice tone. Every modern banjo that I've tuned that low has sounded like an empty bucket. Hollow and lifeless.
The string guages that Bela uses are med-light, 10-11-13-22-11
When did he switch from 11-12-13-22-11?
I know a long time ago he used to use 11-12-14-22-11 as it was published in Frets magazine, or some other magazine and this was also listed in Masters of the 5 String. Though about 4 years ago I asked him what he was using and he said he was using the 11-12-13-22-11.
Well, while Bela Fleck is, without doubt, an extraordinary banjo player - he is also an ordinary banjo player in that he changes his setup now and then. Perhaps not quite so often as some of us though.
The banjo I built for him had a 7 1/4" radius to match his Mastertone radius. With 1" bridge and somewhat low action as mentioned here, I think it was about 1/8" at the 12th fret. I have all the measurements somewhere but I don't know I could put my hands on them easily.
One of the big things that defines Bela's tone, in addition to his set up, is where he plays relative to the bridge. His is the only banjo I've seen where the head shows the big worn out spot several inches away from the bridge, and hardly at all near the bridge. Watch him play and his right hand seldom stays near the bridge; he very lightly anchors his ring & pinky and it almost floats most of the time.
I saw Bela's banjo up close and personal this summer .... didn't John Monteleone make the neck?
The legendary wide fingerboard and high bridge are the factors that impressed me the most .... I didn't notice action that was anywhere near 1/4 at the octave ... more like 1/8th I'd bet
the sound is all him ... but the old pot is very sweet throughout the range .... he can hit it hard and it never sounds harsh.
Mike Tuttle builds a great Mahogany "fretmaster" .... very "bela" like wide fingerboard ... he puts a 1" bridge (old wood) on it ... compensates the neck angle at the heel for very playable action ... wide bridge spacing.
Totally custom setup ... We have 2 .... they are wonderful ... and the high bridge really assists the non-harshness of the the tone thruout the range.
Rob Smith's banjos are AWESOME as well .... one of our Tuttles has a Smith tonering and mahogany rim ... it sings