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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Why do Pro's not play archtop banjos?


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Aaron Thomas - Posted - 07/24/2010:  06:37:42


Just wondering why you don't see very many pro's playing good archtop banjo. Some of the old prewar archtop's sound great. I just have to wonder if the craze over the modern Huber and Yates type banjos will ever fade away....

Deaf David - Posted - 07/24/2010:  06:46:05


Ask Ralph Stanley and Steve Sparkman.

Glenn Tate - Posted - 07/24/2010:  06:51:11


Doug Dillard, John McEuen, Steve Martin

hawksbill - Posted - 07/24/2010:  06:54:05


And many of us here...........

Daveasti - Posted - 07/24/2010:  07:05:24


I love the sound of an archtop. That said, I think there's a few reasons why the flathead is more popular with the pros. First, it can be hard to mic. The archtop sounds awesome acoustic, but mic'ed it can be too bright sounding over a pa. Not saying it can't be done right, but it is harder to dial an archtop so it sounds good over the speakers. Another thing is that an archtop isn't as versatile. It is harder to play "mellow" on an archtop.

From Greylock to Bean Blossom - Posted - 07/24/2010:  07:49:33


Allan Shelton, Don Stover

grich - Posted - 07/24/2010:  07:52:22


Larry McNeely

From Greylock to Bean Blossom - Posted - 07/24/2010:  08:00:54


I owe Aaron and apology as I too quicky read his questioin and made trite reply. Aaron asked why MORE pro's don't play archtops not why none play archtops. Aaron is an excellent player and much more knowledgable than I. Aaron of course knows all the players mentionied on this thread and asks a good question, why are there not more vintage archtops being played by big time players. Some of the old archtops sound outstanding. I recently heard Harley Brey's playing on one and the tone is rich, full, bright and beautiful.

tom elder - Posted - 07/24/2010:  08:02:21


Larry Mcnelly Carl JacksonBob Black sometimes.If i had to go onstage cold i would reach for the flat head it is more forgiving of lopsided dynamics which i tend to have till i get warmed up.I have to agree with dave easti on all counts except my mid 30s archtop is not bright at all.


Edited by - tom elder on 07/24/2010 10:41:40

Supertone - Posted - 07/24/2010:  08:03:54


I think Bob Black is playing an archtop these days...

R Buck - Posted - 07/24/2010:  08:34:35


I jammed some with Don Stover and he was playing a flat head back then.

Aaron Thomas - Posted - 07/24/2010:  08:51:08


it's just interesting to me.. i know there's a few players using archtop's but i'm surprised there are not more.. these old prewar archtops sound amazing if their set up right.

tombriarhopper - Posted - 07/24/2010:  09:23:55


People want to sound like Earl and since he plays a flathead, that's what many folks grew up playing. My opine...

Aaron Thomas - Posted - 07/24/2010:  10:08:27


I think there's a lot of truth in what you just said.. if Earl had played a archtop it would have changed the banjo world today.

Roll Player - Posted - 07/24/2010:  10:10:25


Maybe most pros just prefer the sound of flatheads?

Bill Rogers - Posted - 07/24/2010:  10:38:59


It's a banjo by banjo deal. I met Don Stover in 1963 when he was playing with the Lilly Bros. and got a great look at his Style 6 archtop. He said he'd switched from a flathead (and remember, these were all pre-war banjos) because he liked the sound of that archtop better.

tom elder - Posted - 07/24/2010:  10:51:40


Raymond Mclain used to play one mostly don't know what he plays now.I do not think earl would sound as good on an arch top .He invented his licks using the sonic palette of a flathead it would be at home more on a similar instrument.If he had always played an arch top he probably would have played differently.

tombriarhopper - Posted - 07/24/2010:  11:07:08


I put a clear head and a thin bridge on an archtop...the sound broke wine glasses! Not really, but you get the picture.

southerndrifter - Posted - 07/24/2010:  12:00:31


Little Roy Lewis told me a long time ago, if you want a good jam session banjo, use an archtop. If you want one that "cuts" a mic, use a flathead. Since that time, I've found that to be true. And since most pros play more often over a mic than in a jam, I would say that is why.

Banjophobic - Posted - 07/24/2010:  12:27:52


They have good ears.......Just kiddin! You archtop guys know we love ya.

pick1936 - Posted - 07/24/2010:  12:59:43


Some of Mo. Pros play arch top's----Jim McReavy,, danny Hopkins,, and sometime's Lonnie Hoppers,, Just a few I think of right off, There are many others, I remember also way back, when The great Eddie Adcock,, palyed an arch top Epiphone,, It sounded great.



Nechville. In Higginsville.

Granada90 - Posted - 07/24/2010:  13:07:42


quote:
Originally posted by tombriarhopper

I put a clear head and a thin bridge on an archtop...the sound broke wine glasses! Not really, but you get the picture.

That's the main reason I quit playing one.......went through a whole case of wine glasses!.....and good Italian wine ain't cheap!

TB-4 Guy - Posted - 07/24/2010:  16:21:28


quote:
Originally posted by Bill Rogers

It's a banjo by banjo deal. I met Don Stover in 1963 when he was playing with the Lilly Bros. and got a great look at his Style 6 archtop. He said he'd switched from a flathead (and remember, these were all pre-war banjos) because he liked the sound of that archtop better.



Maybe I've got a tin ear, LOL, bot both types sound pretty good to me, especially when played by a pro. To me, it's a very fine distinction. In fact, the very first five string I ever heard played close up was a a jam in a friend's house around 1964 and I recall being convinced that it was at least the loudest musical instrument I ever heard.

If I ever get a chance to pick up a vintage archtop, I'm certainly going to do it...every boy should have one.

Bellavoce - Posted - 07/24/2010:  17:34:40


quote:
Originally posted by southerndrifter

Little Roy Lewis told me a long time ago, if you want a good jam session banjo, use an archtop. If you want one that "cuts" a mic, use a flathead. Since that time, I've found that to be true. And since most pros play more often over a mic than in a jam, I would say that is why.



Lynwood, loved your work with Jimmy M.

Please excuse length of this post but when you have something to say... I agree with most comments here to one extent or another.

I love both archtops and flatheads, having played numerous examples through the decades, but thought I should throw in a few of my playing observations.

First, there are great raised heads and great flatheads, and some not so much. Setup is important and needs to be done individually for each banjo, acounting for player taste and capabilities. Responsiveness varies and optimally should match the player's nervous system response, strength, accuracy, and consistency. By responsiveness, I mean touch but also the speed that notes project from the instrument; some are faster than others. Attack and decay can vary substantially, as can dynamic range.

Some banjos are setup critical and others are not so much. Some I've played sound pretty fine within a very wide range and some do not. Also, the player's ears vary with age and there are other physiological factors like nerve continuity/response, muscle strength etc. What sounds good to one player may not to another. The weather has an effect too.

There are a number of general playing advantages and disadvantages between archtops and flatheads. Based on my own subjective experience:

Archtops do not generally blend into the band sound like flathead banjos. In a group, an archtop will always be heard even if you're trying to blend in or stay in the background. To me, this means that I need to play an archtop differently, usually favoring steady continuous rolling passages, minimizing flashiness so as to not distract from the singers or other soloists. Mind you, an archtop banjo can be a very annoying thing in the wrong hands.

With a flathead, I tend to harp on the 3rd/4th strings to provide accents and help support the bottom end of the band sound. They also tend to be more foregiving because the notes are slower and less well defined (more sustain). Flatheads offer more dynamic range for accents and fills also.

However, that being said, an archtop often has better tone quality and responsiveness up the neck for backup, particularly if your an on-the-fly composer (like me). Ever try a counter-melody, melodic passages, or multistyle effects? IMHO, the archtop wins out there, usually.

Tone color is often better in archtop banjos, especially in the higher grades. Certain archtops have a voice exuding a unique impressive character not available in many flatheads. Usually when you hear a flathead banjo with a fine voicing character, players tend to think they are somehow exceptionally special. Actually, truth be known, it may be rarer in flatheads and drives much more attention than usual.

On the other hand, the best flatheads (w/ good setup) are still able to do many things pretty well and some things exceptionally well; hard to beat in some areas. So, I long ago stopped thinking about which is better, and started playing both for what I like about each depending on the context, PA system, or recording setups.

When playing open air in a traditional band context, I usually prefer flatheads. But for recording, a high level archtop often has much better tone in the recording studio and is often easier to mike.

When playing festivals and other live gigs, I often check out the PA and mike setups before deciding which to play. If the setup is muddy, time for the archtop. If trebly, the flathead rules.

I have long been amazed at the archtop results playing melodics and chromatics, since AT's often are more consistent in tone and volume from the bottom note to the top, at least in ideal terms. With Scuggs style, can you sound like Earl with a AT? Not likely, even after adjusting the setup for more bass response. It's a different sound.

It's too bad that FH banjos often are considered better by many players. It isn't really so; one type will be better than the other in different playing styles and performing contexts. The other thing is that we (conciously or unconciously) get wired into whatever we're used to playing.

I love to play Chuck Erikson's old Harmony (Fender Concertone upgrade pot) banjo in jam sessions just to watch the player responses; has to be the best sounding Harmony on the planet. Feel the same way when I play my lowly KK10, the $50 banjo with the shameful (Earl) sound.

Get an archtop and other choices too, and see what I mean... Jerry Garcia used to play a mid 30's Style 3 Weymann five string, old Mastertones, Bacon, and others - still sounded like Jerry, which taught me that 80% of the tone is in the player. Many times, that is the real weak link in the process.

Cheers,
Earle White

Couchie - Posted - 07/24/2010:  18:17:37


I've been a life long arch top player. Ralph Stanley, Larry McNeely and Carl Jackson have shown me the light. I love all of those fine flat top banjos out there, but I've put so much time on the archtop that I cannot be changed.

Klondike Waldo - Posted - 07/24/2010:  18:17:39


quote:
Originally posted by Granada90

quote:
Originally posted by tombriarhopper

I put a clear head and a thin bridge on an archtop...the sound broke wine glasses! Not really, but you get the picture.

That's the main reason I quit playing one.......went through a whole case of wine glasses!.....and good Italian wine ain't cheap!


and cheap Italian wine ain't good?

Gronk - Posted - 07/24/2010:  18:29:23


My guess was offered by Bellavoce in his post. A flathead seems more sympathetic to an ensamble sound.

Deaf Lester Crawdad - Posted - 07/24/2010:  20:27:12


quote:
Originally posted by Aaron Thomas

Just wondering why you don't see very many pro's playing good archtop banjo. Some of the old prewar archtop's sound great.



I'd say it's pretty much a monky-see monky-do thing: the same reason why so many rockers play Strats and Les Pauls, Etc.

Beginning players tend to buy instruments that ape the choices of the players they most admire, and once they've grown used to the foibles of a particular type of instrument most people naturally tend to stick with it.

~Pete

Deaf David - Posted - 07/25/2010:  00:09:34


quote:
Originally posted by From Greylock to Bean Blossom

I owe Aaron and apology as I too quicky read his questioin and made trite reply. Aaron asked why MORE pro's don't play archtops not why none play archtops.



Then I, too, misread the querry. I apologize.

dhergert - Posted - 07/25/2010:  00:17:58


I've heard and played a lot of banjos, but I've never heard or played a flathead Mastertone that I really "fell in love with". I've played a number of archtop Mastertones that I did "fall in love with" almost immediately. So much so that back in the late 70s when I couldn't afford to buy a nice one, I made an archtop and still have it today.

And that is not to say that flathead Mastertones aren't any good -- I just think there's something about each type of banjo that appeals to certain people, and for me, between archtop and flathead, it's the archtop sound I prefer...

And there is another entry in this discussion too. After playing an archtop for about 25 years and loving it, about 10 years ago I fell head-over-heals in love with a Ballbearing Mastertone. In my experience, with the right setup these banjos can produce in one picking position the same wonderful brightness of an archtop, and with a slight switch of position, the best bassy sounds of a flathead, at the same time producing a beautifully vibrant tone that is unique to these old early Mastertones. As much as I've loved archtops for decades, for the last 10 years my Ballbearing has been the banjo I reach for when I need steel strings and an alto/tenor voice.

Again, though, I'd just say this is due to personal preference. We all have to find that elusive magic.

Best,

-- Don Hergert
Sweet Tidings Gospel Jam
sweettidingsgospeljam.com


Edited by - dhergert on 07/25/2010 00:33:20

stanleytone - Posted - 07/25/2010:  07:31:47


im glad most dont play archtops.sometimes ill be the only archtop around,and it just makes my sound that much more distinct.makes me sort of a curiosity,as if me being left handed wasnt curious enough!

tombriarhopper - Posted - 07/25/2010:  11:00:04


I drink the cheap French wine. My daughter lives in Paris and she said that the cheapest French wine will beat almost any other. For the wine glasses broken, thank goodness they were the ones I bought from Goodwill!

stanger - Posted - 07/25/2010:  12:52:38


I think one big reason why flatheads are so predominant now is simple availability.

Banjos come and go in popularity and interest, and there was a 20 year slump that finally ended about 16 years ago. Most beginners don't know anything about the best banjoists, other than Earl Scruggs and a few others who mostly played flatheads, so during that time when the banjo sales were low and slow, the larger manufacturers concentrated on making banjos that sold.

Importantly, the Mastertone style of construction also became the de-facto standard during this time, and when it comes to this construction, Gibson is naturally the first company that comes to mind. Gibson hasn't built an archtop banjo for nearly 40 years as part of their standard line. Where Gibson went, all their copiers, domestic and abroad, followed for years and years.

The current banjo boom in interest has left new players with a wide ignorance of anything but flatheads, and it's taken a long time of education to bring the interest in archtops back up. 6 years ago, when I first joined BHO. questions like this weren't often asked.

As was ably noted, the archtop banjo can be ear-bleeding piercing in tone if not set up carefully, and unexperienced players who tinker with setups most often end up with banjos that are bright and tight, because loosening things is more difficult than tightening them. For a very long time, this was how folks thought a banjo's sound 'ought to be', and a flathead is more forgiving in when everything's tight.

This perception isn't really changing, either- while the professionals who play flatheads have migrated to a softer, deeper tone with more sustain, which is the flathead's strength, I still hear far more flatheads played by amateurs at festivals that are cranked down to the max.

The archtop has quicker note decay. This is a real advantage for some playing styles, but not for others. When well set up and in the right hands, I've heard archtops that were equally as full sounding as flatheads, with a very special silvery shimmer to the trebles that is beautiful, but too many players simply have no experience with them now at all.

But, for sure, banjo preferences come and go regularly, and what was once old always becomes new again in the hands of the latest generation of players. Who can say what will become the favorite tone ring of the future? There were valid reasons why archtop banjos were once the most popular. The reasons haven't changed- they simply haven't been rediscovered. The general un-availability of good new archtops only slows this rediscovery up, but I think it will eventually happen.

... I'm just glad I have some good ones of both, and some banjos that have neither.
regards,
stanger

pick1936 - Posted - 07/25/2010:  13:41:23


How did I forget (Doug Dillard ) He was famous for His banjo music on His Arch--Top...




Nechville. In Higginsville.

archtop717 - Posted - 07/25/2010:  13:56:01


The archtop just plain has the POP for me. I played a flathead for a few years, but my style of playing is just perfect for the archtop tone. I will never go back. Mine is a Gibson 56. Great tone and not a lot of tin. Plays great up the neck and is right on the money when I need mellow or soft. Its also a great hard-drivin' banjo.

banjer5 - Posted - 07/25/2010:  14:57:08


Its easier to mic a FH cuz they have more bass response and a bit less in the high registers. I'll still keep my AT for jamming under the trees though.

impickin5 - Posted - 07/25/2010:  15:47:42


It's real simple folks. Just don't tighten the head on an archtop as tight as you would on a flathead and you will have a tone that is equal to or surpass the tone of a flathead.

Proud owner of a 1928 Gibby TB-3 conversion.

Ray

hawksbill - Posted - 07/25/2010:  18:48:44


I prefer an arch-top...because they sound important...

Aaron Thomas - Posted - 07/25/2010:  20:31:35


you all don't have to appolige.. your making some interesting comments.. i'll have to go back and read all of them.. some good thoughts on this thread.

gdoc - Posted - 07/25/2010:  20:47:24


Take a listen to an arch-top at Pat Clouds website when it's back up. (down for finishing touches right now)
That is one fantastic sounding banjo!

he has a few recordings posted. patcloud.com

gdoc - Posted - 07/25/2010:  22:42:04


I play the arch top because it has Balls.... REAL BALLS.......... well, er.... it is a 1926 Gibson ball bearing banjo............

southerndrifter - Posted - 07/26/2010:  05:54:01


quote:
Originally posted by Bellavoce

quote:
Originally posted by southerndrifter

Little Roy Lewis told me a long time ago, if you want a good jam session banjo, use an archtop. If you want one that "cuts" a mic, use a flathead. Since that time, I've found that to be true. And since most pros play more often over a mic than in a jam, I would say that is why.



Lynwood, loved your work with Jimmy M.




Thank you Earl!

Joe Jakonczuk - Posted - 07/26/2010:  07:09:26


James Talbert, a local pro, plays an Arkansas archtop and has no desire to even own a flathead. He picks very cleanly which I believe enhances the qualities of an archtop.

stanleytone - Posted - 07/26/2010:  07:40:47


for straight up bluegrass,i love the archtop.
for the more melodic tunes,the flathead does it for me.

Stevespickn - Posted - 07/26/2010:  10:04:07


It's just the sound most people want...they are two distinct sounds. If Earl had played an archtop, it would be the sound people would want. Look at the worth a a prewar all original archtop, vs. a prewar original flathead. A big difference. My first good banjo was a 1954 RB250 archtop..I thought it sounded great too, but later on when I got my hands on some good flat heads, I liked that sound better.
Ralph's banjo sound, matches his style of music. It is what "we" have become accustomed in hearing from him, or even Steve Sparkman.
Go see the top groups play live. Not only are they playing flatheads, but the majority will have the big G on the headstock.

Steve

The Pope - Posted - 07/26/2010:  12:28:44


I've played Chuck "Duke Of Pearl" Erikson's old fixer-upper; pretty amazing for the bucks he's got into it.

tom elder - Posted - 07/26/2010:  13:36:05


I keep seeing archtops described as if they have only one sound ,in truth they vary a lot.My arch top has a longer lasting note than my blay lock a little bit too much for the fast stuff i use a heavy bridge, head [remo thick frosted] and strings and pick away from the bridge.It is way to loud and obnoxious when set up thin for the way i play.I love it set up my way.I have seen other old gibsons that sound quiet different.They are nice also.Mine could not be made to have that stanley piercing sound it does not have a treble voice.

impickin5 - Posted - 07/26/2010:  16:29:17


Some flathead supporters tend to be "snobish" about archtops and like to "snub" any support for the archtop. Why is that? Just because Earl didn't play an archtop?

Ray


Edited by - impickin5 on 07/26/2010 16:34:10

hawksbill - Posted - 07/26/2010:  17:26:19


Setup is everything.....just different increments on the available spectrum...

banjoronny - Posted - 07/26/2010:  17:47:38


To me archtop banjos sound great.

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