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5-string banjos: tone ring versus hoop

Posted by corcoran on Friday, October 14, 2016

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There has been some discussion recently of the idea that tone rings are not necessary for producing the tone of Gibson 5-string banjos, and presumably other makes as well.  The discussion was prompted by Robby Boone’s posting of a video demonstrating the excellent tone of a Gibson RB-1 and Russ Carson’s similar posting of a video of the RB-1 that he just acquired.  The RB-1 has a hoop, not a tone ring, and this led Robby and Russ to conclude that the tone ring is unnecessary – and the stronger conclusion would be the tone ring contributes nothing to the tone of the bluegrass banjo.  True or false?  Let’s look at the evidence.

First, it is clear that excellent tone can be produced in Gibson banjos without tone rings, as Robby and Russ have demonstrated.  Similarly, some years ago Craig Smith was playing a custom Granada  that was fitted with a hoop rather than a tone ring.  It too sounded very good, and I was surprised when he told me (at a concert here in Saskatoon) that it lacked a ring.  To my ear, however, the sound of the hoop Gibsons is not as rich as the ring Gibsons, in that it is a bit brassier and does not possess the richness and depth of a good Gibson with a tone ring.  Mind you, the sound of the hoop Gibsons is still very good to excellent, but just not quite the same as the ring Gibsons.

Second, contrary to the view, the dogma really, that only high-profile heavy-weight tone rings weighing about 48 ounces can produce the classic bluegrass banjo sound, my model 6 Gibson sounds excellent with its original high-profile light-weight flathead tone ring – approximately 31 ounces.  It does not have the standard high-profile heavy ring as on Earl's, JD's, and Sonny's banjos (also on my Hubers), and yet its sound and tone are outstanding.  

Third, other aspects of the banjo’s hardware affect the tone.  The bridge makes a huge difference.  In my experience, for example, certain Huber or Snuffy Smith bridges work really well on my Gibson and Huber banjos.  Other seemingly identical Huber and Smith bridges do not work anywhere near as well on my banjos.  Who knows why?  Incidentally, my Gibson flathead currently sports a bridge by Chris Cioffi, who I call “the Banjo Whisperer,” and the Cioffi bridge opens up the banjo’s tone just fine.  In the same vein, the tailpiece can have a profound effect, an observation I made years ago when trying various TPs on my Gibson.  The tone was dampened by a 4-hump clamshell and a Presto-type TP, whereas the tone was optimal with a Price, a Prucha 2-hump, and the original Gibson TP (with “Florentine” engraving) that currently resides on the banjo.  I was surprised by the effect of the TP because I had not expected such variation.

In defence of the tone ring, however, I have to point out that switching tone rings can also have a significant effect on the banjo’s sound.   Some years ago a friend took the tone ring (whose brand I don’t remember) out of a parts banjo, and swapped in a Huber Vintage ring.  The banjo’s tone immediately improved, as was the hope.  Of course, the new ring may have fit better or more consistently with the rim, which also would result in improved sound.  But the point remains that the tone ring is not irrelevant, it is just not the whole story.

I have discussed this issue with Chris Cioffi, and we seem to have the same view:  The tone of a banjo is determined by complex interaction of a number of constituents:  the bridge, the TP, the tone ring, the rim, the mating of the ring or hoop to the rim, the mating of the rim to the neck, the head, and perhaps other factors as well.  And did I mention the player’s right hand?

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