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Bridges to new sounds

Posted by Bob Buckingham on Sunday, April 1, 2012

I have been picking banjo for a long time.  It was almost forty years ago that Bob Campbell, of Campbell's Music Service in Spry, PA, showed me how to find the best bridge in the plastic box of bridges (they still had it when I visited there last summer BTW).  He showed me how to judge the grain of the wood, and to listen to the sound as we dropped it and  it hit the glass countertop.  We looked for a dense grain and the just right plink sound as it bounced.  Back then I was looking for a bridge to play bluegrass and often used similar Grover bridges on my clawhammer banjo, too.

Well, a few years have passed and my long time friend Glenn Carson (GS here) and I have experimented with many bridges.  He became well acquainted with Ray Alden and they spent time discussing the minutiae of bridge physics.  Meanwhile I was buying bridges and experimenting.  I spent a day with Lo Gordon, trying a range of bridges made of different woods on his wonderful Cedar Mountain banjos and evaluating how they modified the sound of each instrument.  An article appeared in Banjo Newsletter from that day of experimenting.

Since no style of banjo is exempt from my attacking it, I have also tried bridges in wide ranges.  Like the Emerson Power Bridge, which did nothing for me or my banjos.  I did like Snuffy Smith bridges and George Sosebee's are right fine. Sampson bridges are good for attenuating a birght banjo.  But two fellows who are following the lead of the late Ray Alden, are making bridges that really work for me.  Let me also say, I only play bluegrass banjo under threat of death or if someone holds a pile of dead presidents out for me to take.  It is too much work and I like old time better as I get old and cranky (read curmudgeon).

I have a banjo that Mike Ramsey and I call "Black Bart".  It is the first Bacon style banjo that Mike made with an internal resonator and it is a killer banjo.  It also marks a time in Mike's and a time in my life when both of our personal lives took significant turns. Over the years I have modified this banjo as my tastes have evolved.  I think Mike would approve.

If you don't believe in evolution, you obviously have not been paying attention. Like a ’57 Chevy, I have hot-rodded this machine with a Bob Smakula armrest, a Fielding tailpiece and until this morning it had a Sosebee, old cotton mill maple 11/16 bridge on it.  The sound was good but a tad wild.  The overtones were, well just too much.  This brings us to the two fellows who followed Ray Alden’s design for banjo bridges.

Will Fielding makes a fine banjo as does Greg Galbreath.  Both make bridges mostly of walnut, in line with Ray Alden’s design and here is where the finishing touch on the latest fine tuning of Black Bart comes in.  I was playing “Steam Powered Aero Plane" and feeling that the overtones were too much.  I dug into my secret supply of bridges and pulled out one of Will’s and one of Greg’s.  Will’s won over for being a tad bit shorter than Greg’s, but either one would have sufficed to give each note a more focused center and a warmer edge to the low notes.  It rounds off the highs with fewer extraneous overtones.  It is loud as all get out and when all of those other noisy players show up at the jam, I know that I will have horsepower to smoke any and all of them if need be.  (That is just an ego thing.)  I don’t know how one of these bridges would work on a bluegrass banjo but I am sure they will work for someone somewhere in the old time world. This afternoon when we join in our bi-weekly jam and all of those bluegrass banjos come out in honor of the late Lord of All Things Banjo, perhaps someone will hear my banjo in its distinctively non-bluegrass sound, or maybe not.

On another note altogether; may you rest in peace, Earl Scruggs.  Thank you so much for all the joy have brought to my lifetime.



7 comments on “Bridges to new sounds”

dbrooks Says:
Sunday, April 1, 2012 @10:15:50 AM

Nice comments, Bob. I'm not the tinkerer, but your "bottom line" remarks make a lot of sense to me. I appreciate these recommendations.

black flag Says:
Sunday, April 1, 2012 @10:49:22 AM

Bob--Over the years I accumulated a small box full of boutique bridges at $25 a pop; Sosebee, Emerson, Snuffy Smith, etc, but none of them sounded even as good on my Kalamazoo as a cheap Grover and seemed to bring out all its less desirable tonal qualities. I finally settled on an 11/16" Moon medium about ten years ago and have been reasonably satisfied with it--until now, that is.

Ray Alden certainly knew as much and more about acoustic engineering as anyone in the OT community, so perhaps it's time for me to take the plunge and try out one of those fancy bridges you recommend.

TimDreamer Says:
Monday, April 2, 2012 @9:40:58 AM

Words to think about. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Robert. I know that I don't have the greatest banjo in the world, but I'd like it to sound great.

pernicketylad Says:
Wednesday, April 11, 2012 @12:34:07 PM

Interesting observations Bob........don't get the "dead presidents" reference though?
Hope all is well.

Bob Buckingham Says:
Wednesday, April 11, 2012 @2:11:41 PM

Dead presidents = money.

fiddlemike Says:
Sunday, June 24, 2012 @10:24:27 AM

I experimented with a three pack of bridges made by stringbean45 and decided that I like the sound of a maple bridge with an ebony cap on my GoldTone BC-120. It gave it a much brighter, louder sound than the stock bridge. The price was reasonable at $31.50 for all three.

black flag Says:
Wednesday, June 27, 2012 @12:27:24 AM

I met Greg Galbreath at Elk Creek last weekend and bought one of his bridges, though I couldn't try it out on my banjo until I finally got back home today. Greg's Buckeye bridge is ebony over cherry and is a bit louder and warmer sounding than the Moon it replaced. I also got to try out one of Greg's banjos and was well impressed by the look, tone and playability.

Bob, I'd intended to say 'hi', but every time I caught sight of you, you were jamming or practicing to go on stage with the band. Really tough competition in the band contest this year--did "The Coyote Sisters" place?

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