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!
7077 reviews in the archive.
Where Purchased: JanetDavisMusic.com
I like a bright sound with good overtones, and the Ernie Ball Pickies finger picks are the best, in my opinion. HINT: Take a flat file, and file the underside of the striking point, so that it is thinner yet. The thinner your pick is, the clearer the sound, with better overtones. Do this also with your thumb pick (file it to a sharper point, and then thin the point so it is almost like a knife edge... giving incredible tone increase.) The result of this experiment is that my high-end bluegrass banjo now sounds better than any other banjo I have ever heard in my life, at any price range (I built my banjo with a Tony Pass rim; Fults Pro-5 tailpiece, mounted high; Bill Smith calfskin head, a bit loose; JLS tone ring; instrument detuned one fret.)
I have tried almost all the professional picks, and the Pickies are at the top.
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: local guitar store
The Dunlop is a standard for thumb picks, and is a good pick. I am writing this in order to inform the public as to how a thumb pick can be vastly improved. First, take hot water, and dunk your pick into the water for a few seconds to soften the plastic. Form the pick smaller or bigger as desired, to fit you thumb better. Needle nosed pliers may be used to curve the pick into a smaller circle, to fit your thumb better. Use cold water to set the plastic back into the hard state. Now, take rough sandpaper or a sharp object, and rough up the inside of the pick. This will help it to not slip on your thumb. For tone, the important hint is to take a flat file, and sharpen the tip of the pick, making it more pointed. Now take the file, and thin the pick, so it will almost have a knife edge. After doing this to my thumb pick (and the underside of my Pickies finger picks), my banjo has the best tone of any instrument I have ever played.
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: www.banjoseen.com
I am well-pleased with the 11” pre-mounted Natural Calfskin banjo head I purchased from Bill Miller (www.banjoseen.com). With the Remo WeatherKing, my bluegrass banjo seemed to lack in bottom-end warmth, and this head improved the tone and the “missing frequencies,” without undue loss of high-end frequency. It perhaps has just a bit less attack than the Remo WeatherKing, but overall I like it better. I have no regrets!
My banjo has a Tony Pass Thinskirt rim, JLS tone ring, Fults Pro5 tailpiece, and Kateyz narrow pegged-top bridge. The Fults Pro5 tailpiece is a presto design, and is adjusted to have very little downward pressure on the strings, allowing the head to vibrate.
I was impressed with the thinness of this head. This is one of Bill Miller’s secrets to good tone coming from a skin head.
How this head compares with the Vellum-processed head: The latter seems a bit rougher, but is also fairly thin. My openback Tony Pass Woodie sounds pretty good with the vellum-processed head. If I were to “vote” after using both, I would vote for the Natural Calfskin. You can contact Bill Miller to see if he has any comments as to the differences. The natural calfskin is more translucent, but became more white when I had it wetted and stretched into place during installation.
Comparison with the Goldtone goatskin head: I tried their head on both of my banjos, and then went to the Remo WeatherKing on both… and now consider the Bill Miller heads to be superior to both of them.
Hints on adjusting the head tension: You can use a Dial Indicator, but skin heads are so inconsistent in texture, that this is only an approximate indication of head tension. You can tap along the perimeter to check for brightness of tone; feel for overall head tightness; and look on the bottom of the head, to see if the bridge is pressing too far (or not far enough) into the head. A loose head gives a more muffled tone; an excessively tight head give a bright, choked tone.
In summary, you should seriously consider a skin head from Bill Miller, if you are looking for richness of tone, for either an openback or bluegrass instrument. My current preference is for the natural calfskin.
The downside: So far, I have had to re-tighten the head once a week since I installed the head a month or so ago. I am told this is normal, and the head will stabilize in time... So far this hasn't been an issue, as I can now tighten a head in just a few minutes. The tone quality to me is the most important thing. If the head never settles down, then I will later edit this review to reflect that...
I have never in my life heard a banjo that sounds better than what I now possess. I'm impressed.
-Ken W in Portland, OR
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: www.banjoseen.us
I finally got a decent skin head on my Tony Pass Woodie open-back banjo! I had tried the Goldtone skin head, but was disappointed with it. I had to file down the sides of the Goldtone just to make it fit, and then it sounded like it was too thick. With that head, the banjo didn't seem to have life. It is true that this was back when I was using a Goldtone Whyte Layde tone ring, and also didn't have a Drumdial indicator to help me know what is the proper head tension.
Bill Miller has about five different head materials to choose from, both unmounted or mounted. I chose the pre-mounted vellum processed calfskin, as it was listed as being a tough head. I later installed the natural processed calfskin on my bluegrass banjo, and have a slight preference for it, but both of these heads are awesome for sound.
As to installation, it was a dream. No filing was needed, and it fit excellently. I moistened the head after installation, to allow it to fit just a bit lower, and perhaps stretch out the head to perfection. When dry, I tightened it a bit more, and installed the strings and bridge.
As to tone: To me, this instrument now has the old-timey sound I was looking for. It is not muffled, has good volume, and now has more bass frequency coming out the back. I wish you guys could hear it... it really is incredible! My previous head was a Remo WeatherKing. I thought that was OK, but this totally "smokes" the synthetic head for that rich old-time sound. Even my wife commented that she could clearly hear more richness and dimension of sound (as compared to the Remo WeatherKing). This sound quality is further enhanced by my excellent Tony Pass "woodie" open-back banjo rim. With no metal tone ring, there is the maximum amount of wood to resonate and give tone. (The "tone ring" is the wooden lip at the top of the rim, roughly similar to a Deering Goodtone rim.)
Tuning the head was a little more challenging than with a plastic head; the drum dial indicator indicated some variance around the head. (I think there is some natural variation in thickness and texture of the head around the perimeter, as one would expect.) I used it to help determine what the maximum tension should be, and then used the sound of a metal pick around the perimeter of the head and the torque of the individual tension rod nuts as a guide concerning tightness. It sounds fantastic now. (Note: I am using the Fults Pro-5 tailpiece; without a presto tailpiece, adjusted really high off the head, you may not get as impressive results.) If you can afford this specific tailpiece, go for it.
Delivery: Bill shipped this out the next day by U.S. Priority mail. It arrived six days after ordering.
The outcome: If you are looking for a skin head, I strongly recommend you go to Bill Miller (www.banjoseen.us). I recommend his pre-mounted head over the Goldtone skin head. If you want the old-time sound, do not use a synthetic head.
Note: This review is now being edited, a month or two after the initial review. I still agree on the wonderful sound quality, but I have found that I have had to retune the banjo head about every week. I have heard that this is normal for a genuine skin head. Hopefully it will settle down after a few more weeks.
For quality and innovation, Bill Miller is on par with Bob Fults (top of the line tailpieces) and Tony Pass (top of the line rims).
From a satisfied customer,
Ken W. in Portland, OR
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: Bob Fults
Review of Fults Pro-5 banjo tailpiece:
Bob Fults has again advanced the banjo tailpiece to make others obsolete… possibly, even his own previous models!
Previously I was using the setup technique of having the tailpiece close to the head for best tone. I replaced my Fults 1934 Parallel with the presto-design Pro-5, and set the Pro-5 close to the head as I had done previously... and was disappointed with the results. Too bright and thin on tone. I notified Mr. Fults, who got word back to me through a local banjo / Fults tailpiece expert. His suggestion: back the tailpiece off further from the head; I was choking the sound. On doing this… having the head of the Pro-5 with only light downbearing pressure on the strings… the banjo came alive like it has never been before. For comparison, I again installed the 1934 Parallel, in this same higher-tailpiece configuration, and the Pro-5 was still the tone winner. How I think it does it: This new model is a lighter-weight presto design, and now incorporates a silver strip under the tailpiece head (where the strings make contact). The result is a brighter sound. Normally, this brighter sound might be offensive, as one wants some good low-end frequencies to come through. However, with the tailpiece tilted away from the banjo head, the high-frequency sound is decreased to the right amount, the low frequency comes through… and the banjo head is now more free to vibrate!
Benefits: The banjo head can now be lowered in tension, if desired, allowing the head to vibrate yet more freely. Apart from that, there is a lot less pressure on the bridge, giving less tendency to warp the bridge… even though the tailpiece is not of the parallel design. The instrument has better resonance and more “open sound.” I now get the beautiful higher end clarity, along with the lower end bass frequencies. I am impressed. I tried this on both my bluegrass banjo and my openback, and both sound “top in their class” with the Pro-5. I have already put on order a second Pro-5, so both of my instruments can have this upgrade. The first Pro-5 I got was chrome plated: the next is to be with gold plating. Gold not only dresses up the instrument, but is considered a tone metal, and might give yet better tone. The area where the strings make contact appears to be plated, possibly affecting the tone benefits of the strip of silver. Will gold make it sound better? We’ll see...
Downside? Stringing is just a bit more involved, as there are holes for the strings to go through; the 1934 Parallel had slots for the strings to slip under during installation. I am not offended at this, as the increase in tone more than compensates for the minor trouble.
The Pro-5 appears to have less downward range of motion available, as compared to the 1934 Parallel. (The Pro-5 head will bottom out on the tension hoop of my bluegrass instrument, before complete tailpiece contact could have been made with the banjo head. My openback appears to have a shorter tension hoop, and doesn’t have this problem. However, I do not consider this to be of consequence, as one doesn’t want to have the tailpiece extremely close to the head now anyway.
For a mount, I strongly recommend the XYZ mount. For only a few dollars more, it is Bob’s best mount. I started with the F-20 mounts, and replaced both of them with the XYZ. Incidentally, Mr. Fults is currently recommending the use of the upper mounting hole in his tailpiece, at installation. There are two holes on each side, where the tailpiece is attached to the mount. Using the higher hole will have the tailpiece sit lower in the mount..
In summary: If you are wanting to upgrade your instrument, buy the Pro-5 with XYZ mount. I may even end up selling my 1934 Parallels!
I appreciate the work Bob Fults has done in vastly advancing the design of the banjo tailpiece.
- Ken W in Portland, Oregon March 28, 2011
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: Tony Pass website
I bought two of Tony Pass' Thinskirt rims, one for my bluegrass banjo (with JLS #12 tone ring), and the other a Thinskirt "Woodie" for my openback banjo. (The Woodie has the tone ring as an integral part of the rim, roughly similar to the original Deering Goodtime.) I cannot speak too highly of these rims. They made a remarkable improvement in tone and volume to both instruments.
When my openback instrument was set up with a Goldtone Whyte Laydye tone ring and 3/4" thick multi-ply rim (from a Gold Tone custom kit), it sounded kind of mediocre to my demanding ears. The rim & ring was replaced with Tony's rim. The volume increase was remarkable. A man in our house church heard the previous set-up, and with the new rim, he commented "Boy that thing is LOUD!" The tone quality increase is as remarkable as the volume is. This is - in my opinion - now the gold standard for open back banjo sound.
My bluegrass banjo was originally made from a Gold Tone OB250+ kit, which utilized a "professional" three-ply maple rim. As stated, after upgrading to the Thinskirt, I appreciate the superior quality of machining, tone, and volume that the Tony Pass gives me. Also of note is that, previously, my Fults BlueRidge Parallel tailpiece was kind of muddy sounding when my strings aged only a few weeks. With the Tony Pass rim, the Fults BlueRidge really comes into its own, and gives a quality, deep tone with good volume.
The rim apparently gives its bass tone enhancement out the back of the instrument, where the rim obviously is. I ended up removing the resonator off my bluegrass instrument to get all this glorious tone. If I perform publicly, I can reinstall it, to project the sound out.
Tony's Thinskirt rims are like comparing a Stradivarius violin to a commonly-available high quality violin. The Stradivarius is noted for power and tone, and very possibly utilized submerged wood, as Tony Pass does.
To obtain ideal tone, my set-up is:
Remo WeatherKing heads, tuned to 88 (Drumdial tuner) with the JLS #12 tone ring, and 89 on the Thinskirt Woodie. As a rule of thumb, JLS rings take a loose head, and Woodie rims take a tight head, for ideal sound.
Tailpieces: Openback: Fults 1934 Parallel; Bluegrass: Fults BlueRidge Parallel (custom order).
Strings make a huge difference in set-up; I use only Gibson Earl Scruggs strings. Currently I am using light gauge, although I will try out the medium gauge strings. Incidentally, my common practice with both banjo and guitar is to have my strings detuned one fret (the G string is tuned F sharp.) This practice gives me more sweetness and resonance to the sound of the instrument. Both banjos are loud, even though detuned in this way.
In closing, I recommend the Tony Pass Thinskirt very highly. For me, the difference was immediate. Tony says that many folks have a delayed effect ("bam effect") in which the boost in tone doesn't come until after playing for a period of time. For me, it was immediate.
I hope this helps in your selection of a rim. Tony Pass is the best.
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: www.janetdavismusic.com
Yesterday I submitted a review in which I mentioned a 4th string buzz caused by the Shubb 5th string capo. Later, I discovered that the capo had a loose screw on the bar that attaches it to the instrument.It appears to be OK now that the screw is tightened. It is actually a good capo; just be sure to have snug attaching screws.
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: www.banjotailpiece.com
The latest creation from Bob Fults! When I custom-ordered it a month ago, reviews were not yet back from his team of banjo testers. It is basically a BlueRidge tailpiece in a parallel design, giving the benefit of all strings being at the same height. Like the original BlueRidge, it allows the use of tone pins and kicker pins (explanation on his site, www.banjotailpiece.com).
I purchased his following models:1933 (bright sound; apparent predecessor to the 1934); 1934 Parallel; and the BlueRidge Parallel with optional lead and silver (special order) tone pins. I tried the BlueRidge on my open-back banjo, and it cut out some tone. When I put it on my Goldtone kit OB250+ bluegrass banjo, it improved the tone, taking out the sharp annoying tones I otherwise had. (Incidentally, the 1933 became my choice for my open-back instrument...great tone).
The result? I highly recommend the BlueRidge Parallel, with the tone pins I selected. Tone pins contact the tension hoop of the banjo, and alter the tone according to the material they are made of. The silver tone pin gives a clarity to the tone, which I like. The lead pin deepens the tone, for a more mellow, sweeter sound. A brass “kicker pin” came with the tailpiece, and is basically a tone pin that is short and doesn’t make contact with the tension hoop. Without these devices, the tailpiece gives a lot of sustain, with very good tone. With the kicker pin, the tone is a bit more focused, with less sustain. This flexibility of tone control is of significant benefit. It is because of the option of these pins that I prefer this tailpiece over the Fults 1934 Parallel.
Incidentally, other tailpieces I have tried on my bluegrass banjo are the Goldtone Straightline and the Kersner. It is my opinion that the Fults BlueRidge Parallel (and 1934 Parallel) are vastly superior.
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: www.janetdavismusic.com
This device is not a gimmick. I recommend it without reservation. For the small cost, it improved the tone a noticeable amount.
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: www.kateyz.bb.com
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Mike Smith’s Katzeye Pegged Top banjo bridge. For my Goldtone kit OB250+ bluegrass banjo, I got the 5/8” old maple wood, with medium width, ebony top. This bridge gives better tone than all others I have tried (Snuffy Smith compensated; Sosebee; Sampson walnut old wood). The Snuffy Smith may have been a bit louder, but the tone was noticeably improved with the Katzeye. For my open-back banjo, I am using the 11/16”, old maple wood, wide width, snakewood top. This beat out the Sampson Walnut old wood bridge for tone, although the Sampson did have some good “old timey” sound to it.
I believe that these pegged-top bridges give the best tone of any bridges in current production, and I recommend them without reservation. Save money and go directly for it, instead of buying a bunch of other bridges first.
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: www.banjoteacher.com
Year Purchased: 2008
Price Paid: $900 ($US)
With the parts that came with this kit, the instrument was only so-so on sound quality. It had an annoying brightness (I ordered it with the same Sosebee bridge that comes with the ready-made OB250+; that bridge is thin and does not contribute to a Gibson Mastertone" sound). After replacing a number of parts, the sound quality was exceptional. See the "components" section of this review for the parts I swapped out.
Sound Rating: 9
The neck was cut such that when mounted to the pot assembly, there could be no string clearance. In addition, the bottom of the fretboard was putting force directly on the tension hoop, which is contrary to accepted practice. I reshaped the neck joint by hand, and added a .032" brass shim at the bottom of the neck joint, which gave me proper string clearance, and also relieved the pressure of the neck from the tension hoop.
Note: I tuned the Remo Weatherking head to a drum dial tension of 89. This gives the best brightness versus resonance. I had tried the Goldtone skin head and the Steward Macdonald Elite, but found the Remo to be superior in tone when the Fults tailpiece was used.
The tone ring did not mate properly with the head of the rim, resulting in a .007" gap one-third of the way around the top of the rim. This was overcome by a thin brass shim (with brass locally obtained from a hardware store.)
Setup Rating: 3
The maple wood is nice. I finished it with alcohol-based stain obtained locally, with the finish being Tru-Oil Gunstock finish from Walmart. This was recommended by Kimerer on his excellent Goldtone assembly website, www.thekimerers.com; (Google search will possibly find it easier.)
Appearance Rating: 7
The fifth-string tuner that came with the kit has too much free play in it, and annoys me every time I tune the instrument. I will replace it with a Schaller tuner, as I already did on a custom Whyte Ladie kit that Goldtone provided as a special order for me.
The Strightline tailpiece that came with the kit is average in quality compared to other low-cost tailpieces, but I replaced it with a Fults BlueRidge Parallel tailpiece, which gave vastly better sound quality. These are available at www.banjotailpiece.com
The Tru-Oil Gunstock finish I used is great stuff. It can give a moderately shiny finish, is easy to touch up, costs almost nothing... I would not recommend the use of laquer finish, which is costly, gives overspray, and is a hassle.
Reliability Rating: 5
Goldtone said the gap in the seating of the tone ring on the head would make no difference in the final sound. This is contrary to Steve Huber's policy of tone ring mating to the rim at all points around the top of the rim. (I shimmed the head to give proper mating surface to the tone ring.)
As to the mis-cut heel on the banjo neck, Goldtone offered to re-cut it, but didn't offer to pay for the shipping to do so. I did the work myself, by hand.
Customer Service: 5
To obtain really great sound, I went to the following parts:
Genuine bone nuts from www.janetdavismusic.com (the kit came with plastic nuts; then Goldtone sent me a bone nut, but it looked like porous bone.)
Fults BlueRidge Parallel tailpiece. This is the latest creation from Bob Fults, and it made a tremendous difference in sound quality. A Fults tailpiece is a "must buy" item.
Kat Eyz Pegged Top bridge, medium width, ebony top (available from www.kateyz.bb.com). This made a very significant increase in tone quality. Another "must buy" item.
Tone Mate tone enhance (brass piece that attaches inside the resonator; it really does enhance the sound... available from www.janetdavismusic.com))
Gibson Earl Scruggs light gauge strings. These really made a tone quality difference too.
Components Rating: 4
The Goldtone Deluxe case I ordered with this instrument is a great case, except that I had to make a rod to hold the top open! The top of the case will not stay open on its own.
This OB250+ banjo kit was not a bad deal... and the banjo has good sound... but if I had it to do over again, I think I would buy a pot assembly (high quality tone ring, precision mated to a Tony Pass rim) from Janet Davis Music, buy an OB250 Goldtone neck, and assemble this myself. That would give me the "guaranteed best" tone, for only a few hundred dollars more.
One advantage of building this kit is that it taught me how to be a banjo luthier. I would not have that skill today if it were not for my building a kit banjo. However, I do not recommend a banjo kit for anyone who is not mechanically minded. This thing does not just bolt together; the frets have to be installed by hand; the holes in the neck for the lag bolts have to be drilled with precision.
I spent 40 hours in construction, and another number of hours and expense in replacing parts, as I searched for that ideal sound.
Overall Rating: 7
Where Purchased: janetdavismusic.com
This is a great capo, but I just discovered that the abnormal sound I thought was a loose tension rod in the neck turned out to be the Shubb 5th string capo! It rattles when the 4th string is played on the banjo. Still, I like it, and I will put some device on it to keep it from rattling.
Overall Rating: 7
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