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Some thoughts on setup of a "Tennessee 20" tone ring

Posted by Paul Bock on Monday, January 24, 2022

     As mentioned previously, the "Snowflake Special" now has a new tone ring, an older (probably 25 years or so) NOS "Tennessee 20" s/n 274,  The tone ring was an easy "slip fit" to the rim and I had the banjo back together in under an hour (including some "tinkering"; sorry, it's in my blood, LOL!).  For initial setup I tightened the head to some semblance of playing tension, and after trying it out I felt that the banjo definitely sounded much better.  I thought that it was a tad "heavy" on the bass side, but that was OK for the moment.  As nearly as I could tell, the head "tap-tuned" to about a G.  This all happened last Saturday, Jan. 22, and I played the banjo several times since but made no further adjustments.

     Today (Monday, Jan. 24), I received a "DrumDial" and this afternoon proceeded to calibrate this instrument on a glass-top table, very flat and stable.  Then I checked the banjo head at six points around the circumference of the head, about 3/4" from the stretcher band.  The numbers on the dial ranged from 82 to 83, maybe plus or minus a fraction here or there.  At that point I played the banjo for a couple of minutes (to acclimate myself to the sound) and then carefully tightened the hooks all the way around, about equally.  I then rechecked with the DrumDial and the numbers had changed to between 89 and 90.5 or so.  Again I played it, and the difference was VERY apparent - and very satisfying!  I didn't check the "tap-tuning" but I felt like the sound was "there" (well, definitely so in comparison to how it sounded before!).

     Never one to leave well enough alone (I'm an engineer, remember?) I carefully backed the hook nuts off just a "tee-ninesy", and a re-measurement showed numbers from 87.5 to 88.  Again I played it, and was actually surprised that the presence and "punch" of the sound seemed to have dropped off just a bit - not drastically, mind you, but I could hear (or thought I could hear) a difference.  Once more I SLIGHTLY & CAREFULLY tightened all the hooks just a little, and when I finished I was at almost exactly 89 on the Drum Dial at every location and "the sound" was back.  BTW, the "tap tuning" sounded to my aging, feeble ears like a G#.

          After thinking it over a bit, I have decided that this tone ring, on my thick two-piece-flange rim, seems to "like" a DrumDial reading of around 89 to 90.  I'll check it over the next week or so week and see how much variance occurs, if any; I don't expect too much because it's not a brand-new head (it's about a year old).  FYI, the head is a Remo 1100M or whatever they now call the model with light frosting on top.

       FINAL THOUGHT:  There's no question that you can find what YOU consider the banjo's "sweet spot" by the tried & true "adjust, then play, then adjust, then play, etc." method.  However, a drum dial does make it easier to "get close" to begin with, and can also provide "target" readings that others can use for their initial setup, possibly saving them some time in finding the "sweet spot".  Also, I think a Tennessee 20 ring has a fairly narrow range of adjustment for whatever "best sound" you're looking for, and my "best sound" may not be YOUR "best sound!  The fact that some professionals (like Bela Fleck) prefer a "tap-tone" setting of F# simply says that they prefer a DIFFERENT sound than those who preach "88 to 90" for a drum dial setting - and of course, the brand of head fits in this "equation" as well.  There are MANY "degrees of freedom" at work here!

     I remember back in the 1980s, a very excellent banjo player named Billy Wheeler that I met locally had a banjo that was so "thuddy" I almost couldn't play it, but when he got on stage and played into a mike it sounded FANTASTIC!  (FYI, the banjo was originally an archtop and had a Steve Ryan conversion flathead ring in it.)  Billy (like a lot of others at the time) was looking for the best *STAGE* sound as projected to the audience, so - whatever floats your boat!

     Have fun, but KEEP PLAYIN!



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