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The banjo reviews database is here to help educate people before they purchase an instrument. Of course, this is not meant to be a substitute for playing the instrument yourself!

7088 reviews in the archive.

Block rim: Sullivan roasted block rim

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 8/6/2020

Where Purchased: Sullivan Banjo Co.

Overall Comments

Eric Sullivan of Sullivan Banjo Co. has long produced stellar banjo parts & instruments, and his latest offering does not disappoint. New to the banjo world, torrefied (or roasted as Eric calls it) wood has been in the decking industry for years due to its superior strength and being chemically free. The wood has recently made it into the world of musical instruments, as its properties happen to make it useful for sound, not only structure. 

The rim in question is constructed from southern red maple (acer rubrum). The aim was to push the boundaries of rim design not only in construction but wood variety, to see how these factors really affect tone, if at all, in a Mastertone-style instrument.

Over 18 years of picking, I've tried many rims and none accomplished what this one does. As a prewar purist, I'll admit I too was skeptical about the block design. But after hearing and playing on this rim, I am a believer. According to Eric, the block style he makes uses 1/4 to 1/3 less glue than a 2.12" 3-ply rim, a fact that I found impressive since it meant more wood and less adhesive--always a good thing. 

The standout feature of the rim is the wood. Compared to kiln-dried wood, the roasted maple is incredibly light and resonant. Lightly tapping on the rim produced a loud, musical "ping" compared to typical kiln-dried rims that sound dead and unmusical when struck. My rim weighed 14.6 oz after turning. Most other rims weigh anywhere from 16 - 22 oz. The lower mass combined with the reduction in wood volatiles makes the block rim incredibly responsive. Volume is strong, tone is dry yet sustains when you want it to.

Apart from owning an old one, there is nothing else I've tried that comes this close to the prewar sound. That's a bold claim! But after 18 years of trying this tone-ring and that and never getting anywhere, it is clear torrefied wood is the key. And, compared to the rings marketed today (many of which cost $800-$1000), the rim is an affordable option for once.

I'm giving the rim a 9 simply because I believe one of Eric's other offerings--torrefied old floor maple--to be even better, owing to the old northern growth maple.

Overall Rating: 9

Bridges: Sullivan Roasted Maple Bridge (11/16)

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 7/11/2015

Where Purchased: First Quality Music Supply

Overall Comments

One of the best bridges on the market today (2015) for 5-string Bluegrass banjo. The main difference it has from other bridges the way it produces tone, which I've found to feel louder (though my gauge told me no volume gain compared to a kiln dried maple) and be both drier and sustain more. This is helpful for the player wanting to hear their banjo more during a jam session, or helps solve that pesky problem with a banjo that projects well but prevents the player hearing what is being played. Also, the bridge produces a much clearer tone than a regular kiln-dried maple; very full, but less "woody" than other kinds of bridges. Bass is keener, not as fat, but not bright. The biggest difference was the treble: much stronger, clearer, and bell-like. The entire spectrum of tone is drier than kiln wood yet more sustaining.

The wood is somewhat lighter weight to kiln dried wood (my sample was 2.28 g). Thus the bridge may require a slight set-up adjustment since there is a smidge of bass "loss." I lowered my head tension from G#+ to G#, which improved the bass response and retained treble clarity. Remember that with any bridge, set-up factors in, and the head tension may need to be raised or in this case slightly lowered for optimum performance--don't judge a bridge by the sound, try different set-ups! The test banjo was mahogany with gold plating, old wood rim. Old wood tends to be deeper in tone than newer wood, so results may vary depending on your rim of choice.

Highly recommended, if you want a clearer cleaner tone, this bridge is the one for you. Also, has a more metallic ring to it which I particularly like; woody bridges lack bite and sizzle, this just rings and rings. Probably my favorite bridge for Bluegrass music.

Overall Rating: 9

Tone Rings: Kulesh 20-hole tone-ring

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 6/13/2015

Where Purchased: Janet Davis Music Co.

Overall Comments

The tone-ring was cast by Richard Kulesh of RKW Co., and is his version of the famous sand-cast 20-hole bronze tone-rings from the 30s Gibson Mastertones.

As a replica of 30s prewar tone-rings, the Kulesh is decent. The dimensions are considered "standard:" the tone-ring has a larger interior diameter than original prewar tone-rings, and the skirt (side) is shorter--.375 rather than the prewar spec .400 - .407. This makes it interchangeable with most modern Mastertone-style rims provided the rim's top diameter is around 10.860 - 10.900. The interior of the ring has the marks of either where a lathe held the ring during machining or from poor machining, since prewar rings are smooth on the inside without extra shapes, while the Kulesh is not. The rolled edge of the tone-ring leaves too much surface area for the head; pickers will find getting the right tone will require somewhat more head tension than other tone-rings.

The ring weighs heavier than most. My 20-hole weighed in at 3lbs and 4+ ounces, which is heavier than your typical prewar replica tone-ring. The plating is very substantial, quite thick nickel with modern brighteners. 

The tone is certainly "prewar." There are crisp highs, good lows, and the tone is generally very even and strong. Not as clean as a Bluegrass tone should be, but the ring is quite affordable and the tone reflects this. Apart from hitting the general high points of the prewar sound, the Kulesh tone-ring is somewhat less bell like than the prewar tone: it lacks a certain metallic clang that good prewar rings produce when properly set-up. 

When paired with a good maple rim that is not too heavy, and when the fit of the ring to the rim is a good "slip fit" (no unnecessary tightness requiring force to remove), the tone is pleasant and should please most pickers. As a replica, if you are looking for a prewar spec ring, this is not the best option, but as a tone-ring, it is a good option that outperforms many competitor rings in the same price range. The tone-ring is not weak in sound, it easily cuts through a jam of the standard Bluegrass instruments, and can be heard in a "cluttered" jam as well. A good upgrade ring for banjos that come with cheap tone-rings, but not a good replica prewar ring. 

Overall Rating: 7

Bridges: Snuffy Smith Style III

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 9/10/2013

Where Purchased: Given by friend

Overall Comments

If you are looking for a bridge to help you attain the old banjo sound or "prewar sound," Snuffy's Style III bridge will help get you there. Placed on a properly set-up banjo, the bridge will deliver strong bass and very clear highs--the clearest so far that I've found on a production bridge for the price. They resist sagging well, are very strong, yet light weight, transmitting sound very quickly and efficiently to the banjo head.

As of now, Mr. Smith has passed, but his product remains a solid standard of his passion for the banjo. Google them, eBay them, HO them, whatever your search preference...but grab them up when you can. 

I give the product a rating of 9 due to imperfections and some lack in product consistency and appearance. The tone, however, is the most important aspect the bridge offers the prospective buyer, and here it most certainly does not disappoint.

Overall Rating: 9

Tone Rings: Burlile Tone Ring

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 9/10/2013

Where Purchased: Direct from manufacturer

Overall Comments

The bottom line is this tone-ring is the finest of its kind made in the country today.

The reason for the perfect rating is for the product's unparalleled comparableness and Jim Burlile as a metallurgist and luthier.

Contrary to every other tone-ring on the market, Mr. Burlile's offering is an actual prewar ring that the 21st century picker can own. The only "con" is the product's lack of musical maturity, something which regular picking changes, and quite rapidly. This ring has the fastest "play-in" time of any prewar spec tone-ring I have tried, a fact which I attribute to both the high quality of materials and proper casting techniques. In fact, Jim has gone above and beyond the workmanship found in genuine prewar tone-rings. Whereas in the 20s and 30s it was common for two rings to be cast at the same time for cost efficiency, Jim pours each ring one at a time in a separate casting. This means that each tone-ring ends up with all the ingredients it needs; no other tone-ring in the pair ends up with a better alloy than another. 

In owning the ring, one does not simply "have a tone-ring to show for it;" rather, one pays the price (admittedly high) for the ring and Jim Burlile. Getting Jim more than justifies the cost to the picker, as he is undoubtedly the most knowledgeable, considerate, and honest luthier I have ever known. As many have already said, Jim never hypes or markets his product, whether verbally or through the Internet. Refreshingly, Jim chose to allow his product to speak 100% for itself. This is one of the many things money simply can't buy, and it ensures the prospective buyer alone decides what to make of it without frustrating seller hype. Nothing is worse than the luthier who fills a buyer's head with empty nonsense about what he thinks his own ring can do/sounds like. That is a decision the buyer should make on his own, and Jim more than allows for this. 

The tone-ring also offers its owner the satisfaction of knowing it was made with the finest ingredients. Unlike other makers, Jim refuses to use pre-made alloys and ingots for the tone-ring ingredients. This decision pays off in the added value of the ring's appearance and quality. Jim believes as the top chefs do: cooking begins with the best ingredients. Jim spares no cost in buying the metals; if a shipment is costlier than the last due to certain reasons, he pays it, since product consistency is more important to him.

Jim's attention to detail is not in the physical appearance of the ring, but rather in its construction. Many small but important casting facts are ignored by builders because of ignorance or R&D reasons, but Jim practices these special procedure. The result is a tone-ring that does not look perfect, but that sounds the way it should. All other rings have some kind of tonal imbalance or imperfection, but Jim's ring is a dazzling display of tone from the lowest D note to the high C. No one area of the ring is muted or less vibrant, in fact, the high positions sound stronger than the low positions. One does not have to consciously pick harder to keep the tone consistent. In addition, the rings have the lightest response to touch of any ring on the market. This allows the picker to completely relax and allow his/her tone, not technique, to be the focus. Better music results--music closer to the way real Mastertones sound. 

Many builders such as Deering with their Tenbrooks and '06 tone-rings make similar claims about the "musical purity" of their product. However, it is evident from their casting procedures that their rings only come close but do not equal all the aspects found in Burlile rings. As said before, you won't find Jim saying any of these things about his ring...I may be saying them, but not him...he simply builds them right. Isn't that the way Americans used to behave?  

True American craftsmanship of the 19th and 20th centuries existed beyond what people said about it. The builders built and said little to nothing about what they did, for they were inwardly proud about what they had done and had the discernment to know it was their buyers, not themselves, that had the power to say the glowing praise about their products. Jim continues in this now-rare tradition, and it is something on which no one can put a price tag. 

If you are a discerning picker, are undaunted by the asking price, and care about the quality of music you make (not how expensive a product you can own to brag about on the HO and with friends), I highly recommend purchasing one of Jim Burlile's tone-rings. Frankly, a picker cannot make a much wiser decision for their playing enjoyment.

Overall Rating: 10

Bridges: Wadsworth Bridges

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 11/27/2011

Where Purchased: Through Hangout member along with several other parts

Overall Comments

I am very impressed with this bridge. While not for everyone, it certainly does the trick in getting what most pickers would want. I purchased it in accordance with my upgraded banjo, since it was recommended to me; although I can't see why it wouldn't work on many other banjos, too.

For those looking for that elusive prewar rumble, this bridge will not disappoint. The key is to leave it on the banjo for 48 hours...every single one I have tried, while slightly different in tone, opens up wonderfully. The bridges sound rather average and unappealing when first installed - it takes a little while being installed and picked to really shine. Don't be affraid to pick it hard for the first few days, either. They all seem to like that. Once the bridge has opened up, they will bounce back amazingly quick to the "ideal" spot even if the entire banjo hasn't been played for days.

One of my favorite things about the bridge is how light weight they are. Because the wood is much drier than most other bridges I have tried, this means you can have a slightly thicker/taller bidge without the normal change in tone and volume usually associated with them. I've been using 11/16" bridges forever, simply because I like that particular height, but I have never been satisfied with the tone they give. The smaller 5/8" bridges have always sounded better to me, since the smaller mass brings out the kind of tones I like to hear in a banjo. With the Wadsworth bridges, that problem is gone!

I don't think they really "add" any particular tonal quality to the instrument as far as "highs," "lows," or "mids." The main thing seems to be that they just don't take anything away - they make each banjo's voice on which they're installed sound their best. I highly recommend Dave Wadsworth's product, especially for Mastertone-style banjos.

Overall Rating: 8

Tuners: McPeake Grover-style "pancake" tuners

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 11/27/2011

Where Purchased: Seller on the Hangout

Overall Comments

These are very good tuning machines. Not only do they look exactly like the old Grovers on which they're based (with, of course, the exception of the "McPeake" logo on the gear housing), but they operate better than only a few other kinds of tuner I've tried.

The only tuners that beat it as far as mechanics and tuning efficiency are the Keith tuners (both the D-tuners and regular tuners), Ptacek tuners, and Deering tuners.

I purchased the gold-plated versions used, and have been very happy with the plating quality, which not only matched the other plated parts on my banjo, but seem very close to the look of the gold on the old Grovers.

The buttons are ivoroid on square shafts, but other buttons can fit just as easily. Some minor fitting is required. The shafts turn beautifully, and require very little screw pressure on the respective knob to hold the string from slipping. The result is impressively smooth tuning with minimal effort.

In addition, the gear ratio of 3.5 (in reality, it is around 3.47 and change) actually makes tuning easier, as the knob can be turned less to achieve the desired pitch.

The internal gears seem much finer than other tuners I have tried. This shows up big time in the difference between the tuner's "up-turn" and "down-turn", i.e., regardless of how you tune, be it up or down in pitch, there is almost no delay between the user input and the string post's reaction. This makes them a particular joy to use, as there is less re-tuning. If there is any needed adjustment, the required effort is minimal and the result is fast.

I also like the fact that housings contain two brads. This ensures the tuning case digs into two parts of the peghead, making sure the tuner doesn't slip or slosh around in the hole. This allows you to use less pressure on the hex head bushings, leaving your peghead intact with less chance of chipping.

I highly recommend these tuners, not only for reproduction work, but for any banjo in need of better tuning performance.

Overall Rating: 9

Capos: Elliott Push Button Banjo B Capo

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 11/27/2011

Where Purchased: Hangout member

Overall Comments

Though used, I am thoroughly impressed with this capo.

I had heard talk of the Elliott capos for quite some time, and had refrained from purchasing one on account of their expense...but I now regret not having purchased one sooner!

Can a metal-frame capo be this good? Yes - when it is made by the skilled hands of Mr. Elliott. A Texas native, Mr. Elliott shows true pride of workmanship that few other capo manufacturers can boast. While there are capos that function similarly, there are NONE that look as good as they operate. The shiny steel frame is particularly attractive, not only because of the impressive sheen, but because it compliments the nickel plating of banjos. Other capos with matte frames don't seem as appealing to me. A small detail perhaps, but one worth mentioning in my opinion, and certainly worth the added expense, if any: it reveals the quality of the workmanship further.

Functionally, here are the high points:

OK, turn knob, use right? Wrong! First of all, the knob itself: it is not too large, not too small. Plus, it is bevelled on the bottom, something I find assists in appearance and function. The diamond-cut grip is tasteful and comfortable. Any adjustment is therefore quick and precise, unlike the miniscule adjustment knobs on other capos.

The bar that touches the strings is another area that is praise-worthy. I was surprised to find how tight the plastic sleeve gripped it. While it makes replacement a little tricky, it improves the tonal quality during capoing. Because the sleeve fits so snugly, there is no loss of tone, and no slipping that might occur with a looser sleeve.

The push-button mechanism is also impressive. The button is large, which means less trying to find how to press it and more rapid adjustment if necessary. Plus, it fits very snugly into it's slot. This increases effective use and tone. The tighter stuff is in my opinion, the less loss of tone there is.

Lastly, the capo, like all metal frame capos, enhances the tone of the banjo in capoed positions. Regular rubber type capos mute the tone of the strings, whereas the steel frame brings life and sustain. When you think about it, a metal fret is acting like the bone nut in keys like A or B. Since the frets are smaller and made of metal, there will be some difference in tone. That is where the metal capo saves the day so-to-speak. The added mass really brightens and strengthens the instrument's sound, yielding greater tonal consistency from position to position.

The only drawback I can think of is the degree that the bar opens on the capo. Fully open, the bar is less than 90 degrees. This makes removal from the banjo neck a little tricky, as the opening is not all that wide to begin with. On other capos, the bar swings well past the neck to around 140 degrees, keeping it away from the neck during removal. However, this is minor since I don't plan on removing the capo frequently - I just enjoy using it too much!

I highly recommend Mr. Elliott's capo. Though expensive, the price is worth it. Nothing beats and American-made capo, built with all the quality and care the musician deserves. Trust me, you won't regret owning one!

Overall Rating: 10

Rims: Sullivan Historic Old Growth Rim

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 11/8/2011

Where Purchased: Sullivan, through Cliff Fitch

Overall Comments

Every once in a while, something extraordinary is unveiled in the banjo community: a part, instrument, or accessory that stands not only as a musical thing, but also as a representer of the best of the best; the pinnacle. Such things carry not only a musical aspect, but also an historic and collectable one, as well. The Sullivan Old Growth Rim certainly fits this category.

This is a highly interesting rim. The fact is that it has so many facets, both in itself and in its design, makes it difficult to judge it by one standard or ideal alone. There are many aspects to this rim. A good place to start is with the construction:

Clearly, the rim is a masterpiece of human ingenuity and forethought. From the Sullivan shop all the way to the hands of Jimmy Cox, the wood that eventually becomes the so-called 'OFF' rim is given a care few other rims receive.

1. Clearly, the plies of maple, the joinery, and the tapered ends of the plies are all exemplary of the skill of the craftsman building these rims. Nothing is shoddy, suggestive, or carelessly assembled; each rim receives equal care.
2. The 'fit and finish' is particularly wonderful: the fitted rims are turned exceptionally well, and require very little extra fine-tuning, especially for the Mastertone-style banjo configuration.

--Obviously, the rims are constructed extremely well. The technical aspect of the rims is 10 out of 10 on quality and durability.

But a rim is more than its shape and those who put it into that shape. A rim is the wood itself more than anything else. It's weight, density, and grain structure are also important. In this regard, the OFF rims are less consistent:

1. By Sullivan's own admission in a promotional video for the Old Growth flooring, the wood is "very hard." Bill Sullivan goes on to point out how "hard the shavings are." While dense wood is important for sound, too dense can choke, even kill the tone. Density also means greater mass - and a too-heavy rim does not preclude a great sounding banjo. The weight and density of a rim is equally as important as its construction. Unfortunately, the Old Growth Flooring varies quite drastically in hardness and weight.
2. In this regard, less consistency can be found. While one is assured of finding a well-constructed rim, one is not so assured of acquiring a rim with the best wood within.
3. One of the key factors of great banjos, particularly with the best prewar flathead banjos, is the important tone-ring-weight-to-rim-weight. In other words, there is an important relationship between the weight and alloy of the tone-ring and the weight and density of the maple rim. Banjos with too heavy a rim and too light a ring will be lacking in some tone, power, and quality sound. Conversely, the banjos with lighter rims and heavier rings tend to "lead the pack" in tone, volume, and sustain (just take a listen to the Porter Church Granada, Earl's Granada, the Mack Crow '75, and the Snuffy Jenkins 4).

--Of course, the best way to get around this "fault" is to hand-select the rim so as to find the optimum weight and density. Unfortunately, if selection is impossible, one must take what one is given. In this regard, there is somewhat of a "luck of the dice" aspect to these rims. Therefore, the wood itself varies between 7 - 10 out of 10 overall.

Once installed, there is a final aspect to evaluate: sound. Obviously, when dealing with a rare product such as the Sullivan Old Growth Rim, the tone is certainly going to be unique; unique, however, can be both good and bad:

1. Perhaps the most noticeable characteristic about the tone of these rims is the way they vibrate. It takes quite a shake to get them to move! When they do vibrate, though, they do so intensely.
2. Unlike many virgin-growth maple rims today, the reclaimed factory floor wood has a more dramatic temperament of sound: if played regularly, the rim produces quite a loud, open, and vibrant tone; if unplayed for a while, they tend to lose some of their energy and life. This has a strong benefit and drawback: for the frequent picker, it offers unparalleled tone; for the closet picker, the results can be iffy and inconsistent.
3. The way notes come out of them is a little different: there is a greater initial peak of sound the moment a string is struck as compared to other rims. Some compare this immediacy of "response" to prewar banjos; others claim that this characteristic is exactly opposite of the old Gibsons.
4. The Old Growth wood can sound harsh at times. Perhaps due to its extreme density in certain cases, the OFF wood can be brash, and annoyingly so: when one wants the aggressive, unrelenting power of the hard-driving songs, there is plenty to go around. The sweeter things can be harder to find, though. Songs like Sally Ann can seem butchered if not given special care.
5. Some of the rims have been known to lack treble. While the obvious strength of the OFF rims are their bass response and good midrange, the treble end of things is a little disappointing, considering the power one can generate in the open string area.

--Clearly, the wood is both complex and simple in the way it transfers it's natural voice through the medium of the banjo. It is definitely not a "typical" sounding rim. It is more an acquired taste, appreciated through having heard it before. Persons hearing it for the first time might be enthralled or annoyed. It is certainly NOT a rim to just "go out and buy." It is like a fine wine and needs to be savored before drinking a full glass.

In the end, is it just a toss-up? Is the rim "just ok?" Hardly! Whatever others may say, it is clear to me that Sullivan HAS undoubtedly found something very, very special. The Old Growth wood deserves its rightful place in the rim world alongside Timeless Timber and the Pass rim.

A good thing to keep in mind is that, just because the rim itself does one thing and not another doesn't mean it cannot have a broad spectrum of tone; a rim is a rim and capable of only so much tone and color. What makes a banjo have the wide variety of tones and colors we have come to admire is the WHOLE instrument, not just the rim. While the Sullivan rim is certainly lacking in some elements, they are by no means devoid of excellent qualities: on the contrary, the rim, combined with a great tone-ring, resonator, and neck, will add even more to the sound. And that is the way it should be. Thank heavens banjos aren't just rims! It is important to remember, then, that the Sullivan rim, if for anything else, DOES ITS JOB & DOES IT WELL. The Old Growth wood behaves exceptionally well in the function of a banjo rim.

In light of all of this information and opinion, my rating does not fall into neat natural numbers! Despite all arguments, I highly recommend this rim on the basis that, unlike many other rims out there today, it does its job very well, provided that it is being vibrated by a great tone-ring, neck, and resonator. I preferred rating for this product is 9.25.

Overall Rating: 9

Flanges: Prucha Flange

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 11/3/2011

Where Purchased: Received with banjo

Overall Comments

The Prucha flange is one of the better flanges on the market. While mine came installed on the banjo, blanks can be purchased in both plated and unplated versions: these are ready for final trimming for new rims.

The quality of the metal is very nice. There are no problems with the pot metal itself, and is overall very smooth and even in finish and texture.

It holds its shape moderately well. Obviously, pot metal is prone to "pulling up" and this does happen over ensuing years of use.

My only gripe with the flange is probably the design of the holes through which the bracket hooks pass. Mr. Prucha decided to make a little "design modification" to the prewar spec flange by widening the diameter of the hole area; in other words, the diameter of the 24 holes in the flange (not the individual holes themselves, mind) is slightly wider than on most prewar flanges. The result is holes that are slightly farther from the rim than on the old Gibson banjos. Mr. Prucha did this so that when the hooks are under tension, they lie perfectly perpendicular to the pot - a cosmetic feature for sure, but one that is not a prewar spec. By contrast, the best prewar flanges from the 30s show the holes to be closer to the rim, creating a very slight inward angle of the hooks. While this is a bit visually jarring, it was done deliberately to lessen the chance of flange warpage.

Because of this purely cosmetic design feature, the flange requires a very careful seating, so that it contacts properly and tightly around the rim. An excellent fit will lessen the pulling up but not eliminate it.

On the other hand, this is a fairly minor gripe. Since most flanges today are fitted by competent luthiers, there is little chance of premature flange failure. And since most flanges are designed in this way by most makers, it is a common practice and in no way characterizes only Prucha.

I recommend this flange, especially the plated versions, which are suberb. If it is given a properly snug, full-contact fit, the flange should give years of satisfaction with only slight pulling-up.

Overall Rating: 8

Bridges: Zimmerman 'Vintage Z Elite' Bridge

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 11/3/2011

Where Purchased: First Quality Music

Overall Comments

I purchased an 11/16" height bridge from FQMS back in November 2006 and have been very pleased with the bridge over the past six years.

The initial thing I noted about the bridge was the quality of fit and finish: the work was clean and suberb. Unlike a great many of the other makers' bridges out there, the Zimmerman bridge was perfect: every line, angle, and profile was super smooth and fine. There was no chipping, denting, unevenness, or roughness of any kind. It was clear the bridge had been given special attention by the maker.

Second, the design was excellent. I particularly like the fact that they didn't rely on a 1/8+ strip of ebony at the top...theirs is much thinner. Again, a lot of the other makers use quite a hefty slab of ebony at the top of their bridges. This is done because ebony warms and deepens the tone generally, and this I believe was done to accomodate the growing popularity of the "thunking, woody" sounding banjo tones more prevalent nowadays. While that is fine, I have run into problems with these type of bridges; the tone ended up being far too muddy and clunky for my tastes. As a Scruggs picker looking for the "keening tones" of old, I needed a bridge that gave me that.

Zimmerman has one of the answers, for sure. The tone is certainly rich; at proper head tensions on tone ring banjos (G - A tapped), the bridge delivers a surprising amount of bass response for how thin it is - but it does not loose volume or musicality. Many of the other bridges I've tried lost some of their pleasant, musical nature when trying to deliver more bass tones. Not this bridge.

While I don't believe that a bridge can give you every single thing you want (it is a natural product), this one comes very, very close at doing just that.

The volume is also impressive. This is probably due to the wonderful quality of the Timeless Timber maple, which is old, dry, and treated. It is slightly less weight then virgin maple, and I think this improves the resonance of the bridge.

Finally, the treble is very sweet. Perhaps a bit too sweet for my personal tastes. This is perhaps the bridge's only weakness. It warms the treble so much that it gets just a little clang-y, losing some of the Scruggsy, bell-like sweetness I like to hear in a Gibson banjo. A simple remidy for this would be to moderately increase head tension.

Overall, though, this is an excellent, excellent bridge. Did I also forget to mention that it "plays in" with use? Superb!

I highly recommend Mr. Zimmerman's product.

Overall Rating: 9

Heads: Snuffy Smith banjo head

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 2/18/2011

Where Purchased: First Quality Music

Overall Comments

This is a very solid, impressive head. Frankly, I don't know why players don't use it, especially on their road banjos. Over-all, it is just so consistant, strong, and resilient. I suppose it is not popular, though, because the banjo world gets itself locked into paradigms every couple of years. is time for a change.

And a change we have for you: Snuffy Smith heads are the way to go if you want a really strong, popping sound.

As for the tone, I find it very pleasant. Strong, also. I can't overstate that enough. It does not sound mushy, or rather dull like some heads do. Plus, this kind of tone remains pretty much after the head has sufficiently stretched out, which is nice since it won't diminish somewhat like other heads. Also, there is good note separation with this head; maybe a little more than some might like. You can't make a mistake while using this head...every note needs to be fretted strong or you will get a real dry, annoying sound. If you have trouble fretting, or like a little more sustain, I would not recommend this head for you.

To obtain this fine tone, the head needs to be a a certain tension. I have experimented with these heads for the past five years, and after all my testing have found this:

On most banjos, SS heads prefer a tapped tension of JUST above G#. Anything more and the head gets to sounding real ugly, dry, and pinched. The optimum balance of ring and note separation is at or just a little above G#. I have a sound clip of this particular "note" in my audio files, so give it a listen.

In addition, this head prefers the looser head tensions. By looser, I mean RELATIVELY loose; nothing extreme like F#. Anything below a G and I have gotten a really muddy, mixed tone. Loud, but it lacks note separation and color. It seems dead.

One other thing I enjoy very much about this head is how stiff it feels. Usually a G# on my Taiwan Remo causes the head to get rather spongy, resulting in a first string that constantly goes out of tune due to the finger pressure near the bridge foot. This head is so stiff that I can really lay into it without getting the flattening of the treble notes that I do on other brands.

I have had this head on my maple Earl Standard, and my newer Blackjack, and between the two, I can honestly say that SS heads prefer maple banjos. They just give something extra to the tone...if I had to choose a word, it would be balance: balance between the treble and bass tones. Just gorgeous tone.

I highly recommend this head. If tightened properly, it will really improve the tone of almost any good tone ring banjo.

Overall Rating: 9

Bridges: McPeake "Lightning Bolt" five string banjo bridge

Submitted by Pickin furry paws on 2/15/2011

Where Purchased: Friend

Overall Comments

As a picker, I have tried dozens and dozens of banjo bridges. I find it amazing sometimes that I have collected the group that I have, and that I continue to add to it. Who knew that such a little item could end up sounding so "important," right?

The simple fact is that bridges will sound good/bad on any banjo. One thing that stands out to me, though, from the general fact, is that bridges do NOT make HUGE differences on banjos; if someone says they do, then the size of the difference is really the apparent difference to the person, not the actual, quantifiable difference of the part.

That said, I really believed I had "tried it all." That was until I received one of Curtis' bridges.

I am very pleased with this bridge. I know a great many people say this, but I guess you can add me to that list. One thing that pleases me a great deal about this bridge is that it does not take away anything from my banjo: some bridges give you something really good, but take away from something else equally as fine to give you that "boost." This bridge does not do that.

It does not:

1. Sacrifice bass for treble, or vice versa.
2. Sacrifice tone for volume or vice versa.
3. Sacrifice richness for clarity or vice versa.
4. Sacrifice balance for crack or vice versa.

This, more than anything else, is really good to my ear. This lack of extremes may have boosted the volume on my banjo. But there is no way to tell since I am not in possession of a device that measures decibels. I do feel as though my banjo has gotten a little louder, though, because of the sheer lack of negative tones from the bridge.

The construction is impeccable. Joints, feet, cut outs are all done with enough precision to suit my tastes. Plus, all the edges are rounded slightly, eliminating the potential for gouging your fingers or palm.

The string slots are cut very cleanly. Unlike other bridges I have tried, these do not contain chaff or burrs in them from poor slotting. They are also not V-tapered, but a gentle curve perfect for cupping the string. This has really increased the up-the-neck power in my banjo, since the strings touch the whole depth of the slot. Neither are the slots too deep or shallow. The 4th string slot does not swallow the string - something I particularly like since a swallowed D-string tends to impart a rather muddy quality to the note. This one notes very clear and loud.

The maple is open grained and old, a combination you don't normally see in old maple bridges. Typically, you'll find tightly grained maple so dense you have to get a microscope to find the medullary rays. Not this one. These bridges are from 2 - 5 grains (depending on height) and are constructed from old AND CAREFULLY AGED maple. Curtis dries the stuff perfectly, and this results in a bridge that neither wanders, bends, or sags. This lack of sagging is particularly nice as it keeps my 3rd string in more stable pitch. It used to be the offending string all the time, but now that all 5 strings are on the same "level" of vibration, the tone and tuning has improved somewhat.

Bottom line is, this bridge is one of the best values for money I have found. Curtis does not tell a great deal about the bridges on his site because he does not have to...they speak for themselves. They do not offer problems in their new state, and deliever consistant durability later in life. I have seen a great many older prewar banjos and conversions that use his bridges, and I now can see why.

I want to make it clear that this bridge is not a miracle cure for larger tonal/structural issues. Don't expect this little piece of wood to fix a huge problem, be it personal or integral, on the banjo. In other words, it is not going to remidy that lack of power in your open strings, or give you that 40DBs of volume you have been missing. It will enhance any well-constructed banjo by doing what it is supposed to while not interfering with your set-up, taste, or style.

Overall Rating: 7

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