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Banjos

Posted by vt picker on Saturday, January 13, 2007

Yo Banjo Nuts, My wife Kelly, a banjo player herself and creator of this webpage, recently suggested that I talk to you about my banjos and I figured, hell, we bluegrassers enjoy yammering about instruments even more than playing them, so why not?

I started playing in 1967 on a Bacon Belmont my uncle Earl gave me. (Curiously, a student of mine Bob Leblond showed up several years ago with one just like it.) Around age fifteen, after seeing Phil Zimmerman playing an arch-top, I ordered one from Leo Erickson in Arkansas which I used through high school. A couple years later, Phil Rosenthal told me about Michael Allison (Providence Guitar and Banjo) who was building Mastertone copies. I bought a maple, nickel plated flathead that Orrin Star now owns. Finally, when Gibson introduced their reissue line around 1990, I decided it was time to invest in the real deal. (Unlike most Scruggsian lifers, I’ve never seriously entertained the idea of owning an original. I’m not comfortable handling gear worth more than my house.) My father and I drove out to Al Worthen’s shop, Mountain Music, in Old Forge, N.Y. I wanted a Hearts and Flowers Granada, my all-time favorite design, and Al had three which he graciously allowed me to molest for half an afternoon. I came away with “Maybelle” who has been my main squeeze for fifteen years now. Our only problem has been what to do when she was in the shop and I couldn’t afford a backup.

Things changed in 2005 when I won an Earl Scruggs Standard at the Merlefest banjo contest. I’d been thinking for awhile about trying a mahogany Mastertone (Bela and J.D. can’t both be wrong) and the folks at First Quality in Louisville agreed to trade me an RB75 for the Scruggs banjo. I’m now having a grand ole time comparing Maybelle to my new 75 “Jed.” Remember, most guys who’ve been at it for forty years would have gone through a dozen Mastertones by now!

The two banjos do sound different. However, it’s impossible to say why exactly since they are physically different in several ways. One is maple, one mahogany. One gold, one nickel. Maybelle has a smaller, slightly V-shaped neck. Jed has the slightly lighter “Crowe” tone ring.  And Maybelle has been played for fifteen years; Jed is brand new. I did make sure at the outset that the heads were both tuned to G#. Head tension is a subjective issue, but I’ve found that changing the tension less than a semitone, as little as a quarter turn on the lugs, can make a very audible difference in the overall sound. So it certainly makes sense to keep track of head tension when setting up your instrument or when trying out a new one. Ditto the tailpiece tension. I keep it well up off the head for a big, open sound, as opposed to a sharper and more focused tone. String gauge choices also impact tone. I use a 10-11-12-20 set for the high overtones, the “air” in the sound, characteristic of lighter gauges as well as for their flexibility which allows greater articulation of hammers, slides, pull-offs and chokes.

All things considered, the sonic difference does seem to fall in line with what people say about maple versus mahogany banjos. Maybelle seems brighter, ringier, though she does have a nice fat fourth string (think Scruggs circa Foggy Mountain Banjo). Jed is tubbier, rounder, perhaps a little heavier in the low midrange (think more recent Crowe). And I do appreciate the increased focus on bass response in recent years; mahogany necks and resonators, heavier bridges, looser heads, larger air chambers etc. In the days of skin heads, you needed thin bridges and maximum head tension to get any brightness at all. Old habits die hard; it’s taken years since the switch to plastic for everyone to realize that a change in setup tactics was in order. In an instrument with little sustain, “fatness” can be a real psychol



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