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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Low-Tuned Banjos


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J-Walk - Posted - 10/08/2011:  18:41:26



Let's talk about low-tuned banjos.



These are banjos that are typically tuned 5 half-steps lower than normal. So, standard G tuning (gDGBD) is standard D tuning (dADF#A). Similarly, Double C tuning (gCGCD) is Double G tuning (dGDGA).



The legendary Bowlin 1865 banjo qualifies, but so do many others. Many gourd banjos are set up with this low tuning, as well as most minstrel banjos.



I've owned a Bowlin for several years, but it never got the attention it deserved. Last week I was in local music shop and saw a recently-made minstrel banjo hanging on the wall. I took it down, played it, and bought it. I really didn't need it, since it's very like my Bowlin. But it sounds very different to my ears (not as "growly"). And it looks very cool. I don't know who made, it but it was displayed in a museum at one point as an example of a Boucher replica. After I took the photo, I moved the bridge forward so it has a 24" scale length -- just like my Bowlin. And that seems to be the sweet spot for tone. It has friction pegs, but I'm considering installing some Pegheds.





So I've been playing this banjo almost exclusively for a week. I've never been much of a fretless player, but I'm really getting comfortable with it. And I can understand why people can get addicted to this type of banjo. It's really fun to re-figure out D tunes played in "G" tuning. Some work great, others are almost impossible. 



In any case, I suspect that there are lots of low-tuned banjo players here. Introduce yourself and tell us about your banjo. What's good and what's bad.  Ask questions, etc.



I want to learn more, and also want to know who else at the BHO plays this type of banjo.



 


Clodhopper - Posted - 10/08/2011:  20:03:17



Mine is a banjo I built 2 years ago.  I had it out today to play during lulls at a farm museum harvest festivals where the whole family was volunteering baking soft pretzels in an old Kalamazoo cook stove.  There are pictures of the banjo on my home page.  I've always been happy with how it sounds, but I carved a little more wood off of the bridge yesterday (homemade bridge, not the one in the pictures), and I think that woke it up a little.  i just wish I could figure out how to play with others with a low tuned banjo.  It seems like I'm never in the right key.



Edited by - Clodhopper on 10/08/2011 20:07:43

J-Walk - Posted - 10/08/2011:  20:21:12



Yeah, if you're relating it to a normally tuned banjo, you need to learn those tunes as if they were in a different key. 



Regarding bridges, I'm starting to think that the lighter the bridge, the better the tone. And I really like those bridges with the wide string spacing. It seems pretty common with low-tuned banjos.


Tinfoot - Posted - 10/08/2011:  21:18:01



I have been rather interested in low-tuning for quite awhile, but know next to nothing about it... what are the defining hardware characteristics of an "well set-up" low-tuned banjo? Nylgut/gut strings, skin head, 12" or bigger pot, etc?


Mirek Patek - Posted - 10/08/2011:  22:05:18



John, I hope I am not distracting your thread about low-tuned [5-string] banjos too much if I add that I am using low-tuned [tenor] banjo for frailing when I am in Ireland as their [tenor] banjos are also tuned 5 half-steps lower than normal.



In case somebody wants to try frailing on tenor banjo (as described at banjosessions.com/?p=86 and archive.banjosessions.com/feb10/patek.html ) there is the list of useful tunings:



Starting from standard CGda tunings, the "High bass" DGdg tuning mimics the gDGBD and gDGCD tunings of 5-string banjo. "Low bass" CGdg tuning mimics the gCGBD and gCGCD tunings.



Starting from low Irish GDae tuning, the "High bass" ADad tuning mimics the low dADF#A and dADGA tunings of 5-string banjo. "Low bass" GDad tuning mimics the low dGDF#A and dGDGA tunings.



Mirek



 



 


GSCarson - Posted - 10/09/2011:  06:37:49



J-Walk, I converted one of my normal 26" scale 12" pot open backs to a low tuned banjo a few years ago.   I normally have it tuned for double D or A but an octave down.  Its fretted but I built it with a radiused board and because the strings are nice and fat its very easy to slide and it almost feels like a fretless when you play it, a lot of fun.  Reed Martin's old minstral banjo is tuned that way and I always liked how it sounded when played in tandem with a normally tuned banjo for A and D tunes.  There are two recordings on my music page including one of the same banjo with normal tuning and one after it had been converted.  I started out making fretless mountain banjos and these lower tuned banjos have got me planning a couple more with larger pots and low tuning, I really like them.  You new banjo is pretty cool, like the look.  I have also come to like extra wide spacing on my banjos.   Glenn C.



banjohangout.org/myhangout/mus...p?id=9214



 


JimThorn - Posted - 10/09/2011:  07:09:11


I'm a low-tuned banjo player. I play minstrel tunes on my Prust banjo, and I have a gourd banjo on the way. I usually keep my banjo tuned to Briggs' Tuning (dGDF#A), but sometimes I tune up to dADF#A. I'm currently learning some tunes from Bob Flesher's "The Minstrel Banjo: Stroke Style." I own a few early banjo tutors, but I can't read music just yet.

As to bridges, in Buckley's "New Banjo Method" (1860), it says "The bridge should be made of soft pine wood, as the vibration is much better." This seems to go against current thought.

banjered - Posted - 10/09/2011:  07:31:58



I have a tradesman with Minstrel Nylgut tuned down to E (eBEG#B). When I tried to take it down one more step to open D (dADF#A) the string were too floppy and had a poor tone and the strings were too slack to hold their pitch very well. I had the same set-up on a Ramsey Standard that I liked the tone better, with its brass tone ring. I got rid of it only because I don't like Ramsey's fifth fret area set up. However, when I play at the Farmer markets, people tell me they like the sound of the tradesman. I think I need to have someone else play it and me to listen to it a few feet away to hear what it really sounds like. The Ramsey seemed to me to have a better balance between ring and plunk, plus being slightly longer in scale (26&1/4" versus 25&1/2") it seemed to be more at home with the lower tuning. Still wanting that open D tuning, I now have a short scale 18&1/2" brass ring banjo with regular Nylgut that sounds pretty OK. I've listened to the Gold Tone low-tuned cello banjo (just on the internet) and so far I don't care for it.  I still want a banjo to sound like a banjo but that's just my ears and YMMV.  Thinking all this, I bet a ringed banjo with a 27" scale would work for me for a low D tuning.



 



Oh, on the Nylgut low 4th string, I've taken to using a classical guitar 4th D string and then lowering it to B for  the E key tuning above. For awhile I tried using classical 5th A strings but they were breaking  pretty regularly within a month ( had about 4-5 breaks before I wised up). So with this set up I am becoming fabulously rich at Farmer's markets making ones of dollars - Ha! Banjered


mwc9725e - Posted - 10/09/2011:  07:45:29



I've been trying it for a while, using Nylgut minstrels on a Lyon & Healey, tuned down to E, and even D. I've decided I don't like playing it. The Nylgut strings feel like rope, and they don't offer enough resistance to make clawhammer feel comfortable. I do love the sound, but.......

John Gribble - Posted - 10/09/2011:  07:53:03



Love my Bowlin with the big fat strings. (That's the secret to low tuning.) The thing speaks with real authority. I've had it for three years and play it daily. 


deuceswilde - Posted - 10/09/2011:  07:57:57



Hello, my name is Joel Hooks (you said to introduce yourself).  



The banjo I play mostly was made by George Wunderlich for himself (I used good old fashioned guilt to get him to sell it to me). It was built using standard "New York School" construction and the aesthetics are based on the banjo Frank Converse is holding in the photo with Tommy Peel.  As many of you know, George uses historically appropriate craftsmanship with period tools.



The neck is quarter sawn mahogany with an ebony veneer fingerboard.  The rim is oak with a cheery veneer on the outside.  The stretcher hoop is iron and the hooks and brackets are brass.  It had nylon strings on it when the photo was taken- I use gut now. It has violin pegs and they work just fine- if you are having trouble with yours, you need to have them refitted by a violin mechanic.



One of the common myths is that a smooth arm banjo can not be played much higher than the 5th position.  Eli Kaufman is found of saying "Cellists don't have any problems."



I play in both styles- guitar (pulling up at the strings) and banjo (striking down with the first and pulling with the thumb).



Bridges-  Jim is correct- pine is fine.  So is basswood and harder cedar.  There are three documented patterns of bridges known at this time.  The one from Al Baur's collection, said to be as early as the mid 1840s, the one found in the Rice book, and the Converse template.



The Baur bridge is not only the most visually striking, I find that is works the best.  And here is a tip that I borrowed from the violin... Make the bridge slope slightly shorter under the treble side.  This allows for a larger area of travel for the bass and lower strings while keeping low action for the higher strings for ease of playing in the upper register.  String spacing on this bridge is similar to the classical guitar- very wide.



 




VIDEO: Far South Reel Medley
(click to view)


maryzcox - Posted - 10/09/2011:  09:51:08



Fun, aren't they?



Best wishes,



Mary Z. Cox



maryzcox.com




   

Bufo Bill - Posted - 10/09/2011:  09:54:57



Hi, Bill from Wolverhampton, England here. I am pretty new to the low tuned banjo, it was in fact R.D. Lunceford's album "Cotton Blossom" that introduced the sounds to me and in particular his track "Last Chance". I am unfamiliar to the idea of altering the scale length via bridge position, perhaps someone could explain it's uses and the practical aspects of this technique?



My tuning is the result of a little experimentation on my part, cGCFA I don't know if this is a tuning that others have tried, but I certainly find it interesting.



I would be interested to know what string guage  to use as far as nylon sets go; I currently have Chris Sands mediums on and while I get on okay with them, they are somewhat slack compared to what I have been used to in the past?



I suppose I need to learn much more about this topic but I confess that I am hooked already.



All the best from Bill.



 



Edited by - Bufo Bill on 10/09/2011 10:06:34



Bufo Bill's Pride and Joy: 1880's English Fretless Banjo

   

Bart McNeil - Posted - 10/09/2011:  15:47:22


J-Walk:

None of my business what you do with it but I would hate to see you give up on the violin tuners...If they don't hold their tone then a simple solution I have found is to rub a little violin rosin on the shaft, I have done that to all my friction tuners standard as well as violin and haven't had any trouble with slipping out of tune for a couple of years. I guess I just think your instrument is really nice as is. even though an un-signed reproduction.

Bart

J-Walk - Posted - 10/09/2011:  16:43:44



The tuners hold fine. It's just that they're kind of finicky when I need to make a small change. It takes much longer than it should.



The Peghed tuners look identical to the current tuners, so the aesthetics wouldn't be affected at all. If it were an old banjo, I probably wouldn't even consider it. But this is actually one of the least expensive banjos I own.


J-Walk - Posted - 10/09/2011:  16:55:21



Hi Joel Hooks. 



Love that video!  What's the scale length on that banjo? Do you always play that close to the bridge? I guess that's common for that style. 


John Gribble - Posted - 10/09/2011:  17:46:08



Bill, the Nylygut strings on my Bowlin are gauged .76 mm (1st and 5th), .85 mm (2nd), and .94 mm (3rd). The 4th string is a D'Addario Classical Guitar A-5th, normal tension. 


John Bowlin sells these sets directly and you can contact him through the Hangout. 


If you slide the bridge forward towards the neck, you shorten the scalelength and raise the pitch without having to retune (much) or use a capo. You also change the tone of the instrument. There have been some do this in order to play in different keys.  I'm not one of them, so I can't speak with any authority. 


 


quote:


Originally posted by Bufo Bill




Hi, Bill from Wolverhampton, England here. I am pretty new to the low tuned banjo, it was in fact R.D. Lunceford's album "Cotton Blossom" that introduced the sounds to me and in particular his track "Last Chance". I am unfamiliar to the idea of altering the scale length via bridge position, perhaps someone could explain it's uses and the practical aspects of this technique?



My tuning is the result of a little experimentation on my part, cGCFA I don't know if this is a tuning that others have tried, but I certainly find it interesting.



I would be interested to know what string guage  to use as far as nylon sets go; I currently have Chris Sands mediums on and while I get on okay with them, they are somewhat slack compared to what I have been used to in the past?



I suppose I need to learn much more about this topic but I confess that I am hooked already.



All the best from Bill.



 






 


Strumelia - Posted - 10/09/2011:  17:48:55



I have a fretless gourd banjo (10" diam gourd) that I tune down to E and F tunings, with nylgut strings.  It's super fun and what a rich deep tone.



Lately I have been playing my 13 year old 11" pot Ramsey with string strings, tuned down to E and F as well, experimenting with various lower tunings.  I like it for a change, and sounds great.


J-Walk - Posted - 10/09/2011:  17:55:24



If you slide the bridge forward towards the neck, you shorten the scalelength and raise the pitch without having to retune (much) or use a capo.



I actually tried this today, with a modicum of success. To raise the pitch by one note (e.g., G to A)  requires a pretty drastic change in the bridge position (mine was pretty much centered on the head to start with).  But then your fingers need to adjust to the shorter scale length.



A good player could probably adapt quickly. But I quickly put that bridge back to it's normal position. I might play around with this some more, though.


deuceswilde - Posted - 10/09/2011:  18:32:46



Thanks!



The banjo was built using the template and proportions in Frank Converse's 1865 "Green Book."  The string length is 27 1/2."  I find that placing the bridge in the center makes the tone a bit muddy. Many builders of wire banjos put the bridge in the center in attempt to deaden the shrill on metal strings, a sound preferred my more than not.



That said, there are many pictures of banjoists with the bridge in the center.



If a shorter scale is needed, one can go to the other side of center towards the neck and still get a sharper tone.



Yes, right in front of the bridge is where I get the clearest and sharpest tone with nice note separation for arpeggios.  The bridge in the picture is not the style I am currently using or in the video.  I've been using the" Baur pattern."  It is the most common shape that is found in pictures of mid-19th century banjo players, and it sings.



This banjo is so strong toned that I'd put it up against any bluegrass banjo.  That is the thing about these "tub" banjos, they are really resonant.  Mine shakes and vibrates in my hands.  It is a completely different experience than playing a thin-toned banjo (I love to play those too). 



I also always play with a thimble. They glide and bring out the tone in these beasts.  But like the violin bow, they take practice.



banjodatabase.org/images/GURA8...ePeel.jpg






dangibson - Posted - 10/09/2011:  21:40:31



quote:


Originally posted by Bart McNeil




J-Walk:



None of my business what you do with it but I would hate to see you give up on the violin tuners...If they don't hold their tone then a simple solution I have found is to rub a little violin rosin on the shaft, I have done that to all my friction tuners standard as well as violin and haven't had any trouble with slipping out of tune for a couple of years. I guess I just think your instrument is really nice as is. even though an un-signed reproduction.



Bart






Go easy on that violin rosin -- better yet, don't use it at all.  You'll distort and enlarge the peg holes.  Violin shops sell peg dope that will do the job without doing any damage.  I use cheap bar soap as suggested by George Wunderlicht in a video available  on You Tube.



Edited by - dangibson on 10/09/2011 21:41:15

Tackhead - Posted - 10/10/2011:  10:04:57



Like John Gribble, my Bowlin is top dog. But I do have and play two George Wunderlich instruments--a 13" tackhead and a 12" Boucher. The last two suffer immensely in the Tallahassee humidity, so they see only seasonal use (fall and winter).  I use Briggs tuning mostly but twiddle with a couple of others--mostly tunings from RD's Cotton Blossom collection, e.g., Last Chance and Over the Mountain. As an aside, Round Peak-style tunes sound great on the Bowlin, e.g., Train 45.



~John


strokestyle - Posted - 10/10/2011:  14:40:22



Here's a recording of a low tuned orchestra JB Schall circa 1910ish.



Original tune by Banjo Billy Mathews called "Red Bud".



Even though Billy is playing Colin Blair's Schall on the recording, I really enjoy my low tuned JB Schall 28" scale length 12"+ metal spun pot. It's the "digestive" banjo for playing late into the night.




JB Schall Orchestra Banjo


JB Schall Orchestra Banjo


Red Bud Original Tune by Billy Mathews

Tinfoot - Posted - 10/10/2011:  17:08:50



Okies, so how do you maintain string tension? Is it the string gauge/material that does the trick? Or some other hardware factor, like a bridge higher than 5/8"? I tune my 5th to "d" and it goes weeble-wobble on me...



Edited by - Tinfoot on 10/10/2011 17:09:12

J-Walk - Posted - 10/10/2011:  17:55:52



Tinfoot, you need to get thicker strings for low tunings.



Nylgut minstrels are a good start. See how those work, then adjust if necessary.



elderly.com/accessories/items/ANGMB.htm



You'll probably get better results with a 12" rim, although I'm not positive about that. 


Tinfoot - Posted - 10/10/2011:  18:30:40


Wow, those ARE thicker.

Hmm, and I just put in an Elderly order last night... DOH! But thanks, J-Walk! It is a starting place for me for down the line when I get bored with my Hillbilly Transformer's current configuration. :)

jbalch - Posted - 10/11/2011:  18:42:33



I have four low-tuned banjos.  They are great fun to play...love the sound too:



George Wunderlich 14" rim 27" scale : banjohangout.org/myhangout/med...archived=



 



Jeff Menzies 13" rim tackhead:



banjohangout.org/myhangout/med...archived=



banjohangout.org/myhangout/med...archived=



 



Jeff Menzies Gourd: banjohangout.org/myhangout/med...archived=



 



Wayne Sagmoen 12" Dobson (made for standard tuning...but I prefer it tuned down).



banjohangout.org/myhangout/med...archived=



banjohangout.org/myhangout/med...archived=



banjohangout.org/myhangout/med...archived=



 



 



 



 



 



Edited by - jbalch on 10/11/2011 18:45:05

maryzcox - Posted - 10/11/2011:  18:46:59



And John Balch really knows how to play them too.  In fact, he sounds awesome on any of his banjos.



Best wishes,



Mary Z Coxcool



 


Tinfoot - Posted - 10/11/2011:  19:53:09


Mmmmhmmm.... The gourd really sounded delicious! ... yes, pun intended. >_<

stigandr5 - Posted - 10/12/2011:  16:30:05



They're not on there now, but for a long time I used Nylgut Minstrels on my canjo (which has a 25" scale length) and tuned them up to a double Bb tuning (dBbFBbC). I loved the tightness of the strings but the slightly lower tuning. Next time I'm in the U.S. I want to get a set with a Nylon 4th string. The metal ones always fall apart way before my other strings need to be changed.



Here's a video of the canjo with the tuning I described.




VIDEO: "Bought-Back Beauty" Fretless, Clawhammer Canjo (N.A. Wendte)
(click to view)

   

handsup8 - Posted - 10/14/2011:  11:49:15



Ted Ingham here, from Montpelier, Vermont. I have played a Prust tackhead for a couple years and recently purchased a gourd banjo from Teilhard Frost--fiddler, harmonica player, and singer extraordinaire from the Canadian duo Sheesham and Lotus. I've posted photos of the Frost gourd on my homepage. Check out  Sheesham and Lotus if you haven't already:



sheeshamandlotus.com/



The Prust is a 13" head with nylguts, and I love to play it. Here are a couple tunes



John Lover's Gone: banjohangout.org%2Fmyha...ID%3D11340" target="_blank">hangoutstorage.com/jukebox.asp...D%3D11340



Lo Baked a Hoe Cake: banjohangout.org%2Fmyha...ID%3D12238" target="_blank">hangoutstorage.com/jukebox.asp...D%3D12238



Train on the Island: banjohangout.org%2Fmyha...ID%3D12239" target="_blank">hangoutstorage.com/jukebox.asp...D%3D12239



I'll post some tunes with the Gourd when I get em recorded. Most of the time I play the Gourd in standard C tuning (gCGBD) dropped down a fourth, but I also use Open G (to open D) and Double C (to double G).


Bart McNeil - Posted - 10/16/2011:  05:31:19


Very interesting for tonal comparison... Thanks... Love to see photos of them for comparison sake as well as sound. Sounds like a nice collection.

hoverflytheo - Posted - 02/26/2012:  16:01:41



I've built a fretless salad bowl banjo, which I've got tuned to dGDF#A. I'm still experimenting with the ideal scale, but I like the sound and feel with a 26 1/4, and it has the advantage that I adjust to it quicker after playing a normal banjo.



Using a shorter scale puts the bridge closer to the centre of the head, which I don't like on that banjo, since it's a tackhead so it's already looser than a tensioned head. It also makes the strings slacker, which in turn gives the banjo less "bite".





I've also recently been playing around with nylgut minstrels tuned to fBbFBbC on another banjo, with a ~25 inch scale. They were a bit loose down at eAEAB, at least for faster clawhammer tunes (fine for picking and slow tunes.) I think it would be less of an issue with a fretless banjo, but if the strings are too loose, they bang against the frets...



Edited by - hoverflytheo on 02/26/2012 16:07:48

J-Walk - Posted - 02/26/2012:  16:30:44



And Jason Mogi has one in the classifieds:



banjohangout.org/classified/27125



If I didn't have two already, I'd be all over this. Seems to be very Bowlin-like.



 



 


R.D. Lunceford - Posted - 02/26/2012:  20:29:14



 


I missed the beginning of this thread, so let me take your mentioning of the Bowlin Fretless as an opportunity to yet again endorse that instrument.  John's banjos are unique in that they are fitted with mechanical friction tuners, the rational of which is the ability to retune extensively without wear to the peghead... this was done to accommodate the clawhammerer  who uses multiple tunings as opposed to the minstrel banjoist who sticks to one or two tunings and for whom friction pegs present less of a problem.  The tuners that John has selected are expertly antiqued like the rest of the banjo's hardware, fit the general style of the instrument, and are correct to the time-period John is reproducing.



Subjectively speaking, I find the proportions that John has worked out to be very pleasing.  This is something that is naturally intuited by the beholder without often knowing the underlying reason.  This sort of innate taste and understanding reveals John as a master craftsman in the classical mold.



I've been playing my Bowlin for 9 years now, and it still amazes.  I'd nearly swear it is a living entity rather than a mere musical tool.  Actually I take that back.... it is alive.



In my opinion, through its proportions, sonic characteristics, and simple elegance, John has created the finest example of the modern, historically-based low-tuned banjo.



 


B0bIII - Posted - 02/26/2012:  22:54:08



quote:


Originally posted by deuceswilde




There are three documented patterns of bridges known at this time.  The one from Al Baur's collection, said to be as early as the mid 1840s, the one found in the Rice book, and the Converse template.



 






Does anyone have or know where I can find a picture of a Converse and Rice bridge?


fiddlemike - Posted - 02/26/2012:  22:59:45



I recently bought one of Eric Proust's tackheads. I tune to either dADF#A or dADGA. i changed the nylon strings to Nyglut Classical Banjo Strings. I had some violin peg dope that I bought off Amazon and use it on the pegs and slippage is a thing of the past. I am playing it more than my other banjos now. I love the deeper thrum and thunk. Not having frets makes it easier to find a more pleasing microtone when playing. Although my banjo does have fret marker lines. Once benefit I found is that the arthritis in my fingers is bothered much less playing the nygluts than steel strings.


mogi - Posted - 02/27/2012:  03:35:44



Here's a sound sample of the low-tuned fretless I have for sale in the classifieds:



banjohangout.org%2Fmyha...ID%3D25545">banjohangout.org%2Fmyha...ID%3D25545" target="_blank">hangoutstorage.com/jukebox.asp...D%3D25545







banjohangout.org/classified/27125



Edited by - mogi on 02/27/2012 03:45:39

stigandr5 - Posted - 02/27/2012:  07:41:26


Mogi,

That's a gorgeous instrument and the sound clip is great!

Nathan

whyteman - Posted - 02/27/2012:  13:45:04


I have a banjo with an old Lyon and Healy pot and newer neck tuned down to D strung with nylagut. The neck is fretted which is a good thing for me. With the nylaguts, you get a nicer slide over frets anyway. My recording of Dixie on my music page was made on this banjo before the skin head split. The new fiberskin head does not sound as "growly".

Don



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