I am in the market for a fretless banjo. I have been looking at Ode Magicians and Pisgah Possums that are available right now. My concern is that both have wooden tone rings. Not sure how well these would work in a small jam with fiddle and guitar. Does anyone have any experience with either of these models? Any experience with tone ring vs wooden tone ring?
A former bandmate of mine played a fretless Enoch Tradesman with nylgut strings (no tone ring, ren head). The band was 2 fiddles, guitar and banjo and she cut through the mix in a very nice way. I was surprised that she got so much volume out of a banjo set up that way. She used a frailing pick. Really nice sound. -TD
If you are going to be playing in a small jam a banjo with a tone ring can be overpowering. A banjo with a wood ring might be ideal for that situation. Ome and Pisgah are fine banjos. You might also check out Zachary Hoyt and Mark Hickler who both build banjos with no tone rings.
I “learned” fretless on a Tradesman. It worked even in a medium size jam, though I play steel and use a pick. I did also play it with nylgut and the playability was easier, and tone was great, along with good volume. But very plunky. I now have a wood tone ring Chuck Lee, and I love it and have gotten many compliments on it. I also have a fretless with brass tone ring, and the tone difference is distinctive, but in a pleasant way.
I cannot recommend the Tradesman enough for a first time fretless. Plus it is super light, and if you want you can easily add a dobson tone ring to it. I cannot speak to the ODE, but it seems nice, and I’d pass on the Pisgah personally, but that is me.
Also consider some of the small builders that sell on the BHO, Hoyt, and Nate Calkins (who I think has one already built and for sale).
If your bridge, setup, and playing technique are right for the strings, most banjos can produce similar levels of volume and projection with gut/synthetic to what they get from wire strings. With a thin, tight head, and a very lightweight bridge of the right density, gut strings have a punch and clarity to their sound which makes the slower attack and decay of steel strings sound a little unfocused and mushy by comparison.
I have a short-scale fretless by Brooks Masten that I'll be listing for sale soon. He used a vintage spun-over pot and made all the hardware himself. It has a nice walnut neck (with his signature Indian head penny inlaid in the headstock) with a thick ebony fingerboard and a goat skin head and nylon strings.