Review of the Gary Vann Carbon Fiber Tone Ring
My biggest obstacle in giving an objective review of this product was to overcome my bias as a traditionalist--wood and metal, that’s all I want in my musical instruments. Because of it’s strength, durability, flexibility, and lightweight properties carbon fiber is an excellent choice for things such as adjustable truss rods but it doesn’t belong in an instrument in any other vein. At least that’s what most of us think. For me, this attitude was reinforced by my previous experiences playing carbon fiber guitars.
To say the least I had my doubts about the acoustic properties of carbon fiber and it’s use in musical instruments especially for a component as critical as a tone ring. My initial “tap test” of the Carbon Fiber tone ring added to my suspicions. The “ping” test as it is also known by left me wondering if I’d hit the tone ring or a dismantled cardboard box--I heard nothing that would make me believe that this product would work well as a tone ring. I expected the product to sound brittle and too mellow for my taste.
Gary says that the tone ring requires a tight fit. For ease of installation this product receives the highest marks. Installation on my old Stew Mac pot was a breeze. It fit right on with no modifications whatsoever and it only took me a few minutes. However installation on some banjo pots may require some modification of the Carbon Fiber tone ring (not your pot itself which is good news.) The Carbon Fiber tone ring is very easy to work with. Installation on my pot did require that I drill a small hole in the Carbon Fiber tone ring for the lag bolt. My household drill did the job very smoothly and the material was quite easy to work with. If the owner ever desires to return to the original configuration the Carbon Fiber tone ring is very easy to remove. It’s inner lip sticks out over the inside of the banjo pot and you can tap it out and uninstall it very easily.
I tested this product on a 70s/80s Stew Mac kit banjo with a multi-ply rim, mahogany neck and resonator. The Nashville style tailpiece was above the tension hoop and about 1/8 inch off the top of the Five Star top frosted head. From my experimentation it seems like the Carbon Fiber tone ring prefers a slightly looser head (around a “G”.) I used a medium weight Nechville Enterprise Bridge and circa 1980s National fingerpicks.
I was very well pleased after I installed this product and began to play. The brashness of a full weight tone ring had disappeared and the tone was quite pleasing. After playing for a while it sounded like somebody gave my banjo a Valium, it calmed down and produced a very refined sound with no overtones. The banjo still produced a nice pop and crack just as it had with a full weight metal tone ring. The absence of the brashness without compromising much volume left my banjo with a pure and very pleasing tone which could best be described as somewhere between a high quality cast metal tone ring and a wooden tone ring. The tone is woody but powerful, loud but not brash.
Overall I must say that on the first five frets I saw no noticeable difference in tone or volume. The treble notes were perhaps clearer than they were with the full weight tone ring with less overtones. The mid-range was excellent and no noticeable power or volume was compromised in this registry. Although the banjo was performing at almost full volume I noticed that it sounded ever so slightly more mellow up the neck. The banjo noted clear all across the fingerboard. The more I play my banjo with this tone ring in it the more I want to play it. The sound has grown on me. The sound is as good if not better than any cast metal tone ring in it’s price range.
It is important to note that the maker of this tone ring makes no claim that his product “sounds better” than a cast metal flathead tone ring only that his product is much lighter (it weighs only 4.25 ounces) and that is results in no loss of volume over a metal tone ring.
What’s the competition like?
This product lives up to expectations so the next question is what are the other alternatives are there in this category of “light weight” with “no loss of volume” and how do they stack up in terms of price?
The choices that come to mind are...
Helix rim changeout
I have no direct experience with the Helix rim changout. This obviously would require not just modifying your current rim but changing the entire banjo rim itself. The cost is about $100 less than a carbon fiber tone ring.
Wood Tone Rings
A wooden tone ring would allow you to experiment more with a different variety of woods and therefore voices for your banjo. However they do weigh slightly more than the carbon fiber tone ring and based on my experience they do not have the acoustic qualities of the carbon fiber ring. On the plus side the cost would be less than half of a new Carbon Fiber tone ring.
A Rolled Brass Hoop
This would be the most inexpensive alternative ($25-50) but would certainly be more mellow and have less volume than a full weight flathead ring. This alternative would likely also require a modification of your existing rim.
I would have no quams using this product even if I weren’t looking for a more lightweight banjo as it performs as well if not better than any metal tone ring in it’s price range. Because it is carbon fiber there are can be no inconsistencies in formula or casting the ring itself. The quality of this product is top notch.
However if one is concerned only with reducing the weight of their banjo then my only critique of this product would be the price itself. For the price of one carbon fiber tone ring an individual could purchase two wood tone rings and would then have the freedom to experiment with two different tone rings.
Overall, I doubt that there is a better alternative in light weight tone rings that do not compromise volume or tone. I highly recommend the Carbon Fiber tone ring because it is easy to use, requires no modification of your existing banjo pot and produces a beautifully refined tone without compromising volume.
The only challenge that remains is for pickers to be willing to abandon tradition and a bias against carbon fiber and fuzzy up to a non-traditional tone ring material. If you do so you will not be disappointed, at least I wasn’t.
Saturday, November 23, 2013 @1:50:57 PM
I really enjoyed your review.
where can I get one, and what is the price?
Sunday, November 24, 2013 @10:25:02 PM
Thanks for doing this review! Any chance of a video of you playing it?
Monday, January 13, 2014 @1:27:08 PM
As the maker of these rings I find this a very fair and accurate review. Price is always an issue with carbon fiber. My fiddles go for A$3600 and my archtop guitars A$4400.
Still, with the exchange rate going in favour of the $US by over 10% since this review you now get a better price! Contact Gary Vann.
gary vann Says:
Thursday, January 16, 2014 @4:27:02 PM
thanks frankie , good review but its not all about weight saving and volume, any ring in this price range has to have a good tone , i am pleased you were able to get a good sound out of an old kit banjo but
i would have liked you to hear it installed on a good 3 ply pot with a remo head , i find the 5 star heads too heavy and dont bring out the best tone in a good ring , the multi-ply rims also are not noted for producing the best tone , i have been using these rings for over a year now and i am amazed at how well they respond to setup changes , the tailpiece tension or lack of is critical for good bass response , thanks again for taking the time to try out the carbon rings .
Thursday, January 16, 2014 @6:02:17 PM
You make very good points. I agree that multiply rims don't produce a tone equal to three-ply. I've always kind of thought that it added a bit of brightness but you lose the depth of tone that comes with a three-ply rim. I think the head depends on the banjo but overall I agree about the Remo vs. Five-Star heads.
I can see how the Carbon Fiber ring would do better with a Remo and three-ply rim.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014 @10:05:53 AM
What is the actual difference in total weight? 13 1/2 lbs vs ?
Tuesday, January 28, 2014 @10:07:59 AM
Hard to say the difference in total weight because all banjers are different. This stew mac kit banjo in the video had a multi-ply (like nine or so) rim.
The Carbon Fiber Tone ring weighs about 4 ounces I think and a metal tone ring can weigh up to and some over 3lbs. So you are loosing about 2 1/2 lbs on most banjos.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014 @5:58:49 PM
Can't help thinking it's a match for a Nechville…
Friday, January 31, 2014 @4:06:26 PM
Last summer, I ordered both Stelling and Gibson-styled tone rings from Gary and have installed both. I couldn't be more pleased! Not only are they significantly lighter (adding a TravelLite case for my Stelling lightened the load by 7 lbs!), but they sound great. One jam I play in includes a professional banjo picker of many years. He played it and loves it also. There it absolutely no loss of power nor of sustain. Also, in defference to what Frankie found, I set it up exactly the same way as with the brass tone ring: a 5-Star head tuned to A. I did have to sand the inner "lip" that Gary puts on the tone ring, however, and it fits extremely tightly on my rim. I use a 5-Star to slightly darken my Golden Cross, as the maple does tend to be very bright. Since I'm refinishing the neck and resonator on my Deering GDL, I haven't yet played it, but Gary said that he has played his Deering with no loss of tone nor power. I highly recommend the carbon fiber tone ring to anyone, but make sure you know how to set up your banjo for the best sound.
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