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Mark Ralston's Banjo Tone Ring Exhibit at Clifftop

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Aug 13, 2018 - 11:32:58 AM
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6643 posts since 10/26/2005

Clifftop offers me the opportunity to meet up with some incredible folks! I've been a fan of Mark Ralston (Yellowstone Jewelry) for many years. Every year at Clifftop he presents a choice display of old instruments along with a tutorial on the how and/or why of their existence. This year's display was on Banjo Tone Rings.  But I scored a bonus round as he also brought along his "Fancy Trade Catalog Fiddles" display from last year, just in case someone missed it.

So here are 2 years worth of Mark's history and wisdom in one short video.  Enjoy!!

Clic on pic...

I'm so grateful folks like Mark hang out at Banjo Hangout (and Clifftop)!


Aug 13, 2018 - 11:55:38 AM
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1952 posts since 1/15/2014

A couple of corrections as we are talking history here.   The Billy Farmer tone ring did in fact catch on and sounded great. Fred Van Eps copied the design for his banjos. Other banjos featured similar tone rings, and one could buy aftermarket Farmer rings as well.  Of course, as with any of these tone rings it is imperative that one uses a period setup to experience what they were intended to do.  I imagine a Farmer ring would sound terrible with steel strings and a modern bridge, but people didn't use those back then.  With thin gut strings, a tight thin head, a tiny period bridge with no ebony cap, and period right hand technique they work extremely well.  

Part of the reason for the name of the Whyte Laydie was certainly the maple, but the banjo was also named after Fairbanks' yacht. The banjo featured the Electric tone ring (there is no such thing as a "Whyte Laydie tone ring").  The Electric ring shown in the original patent is slightly different.  David Day made the rings more substantial after he was hired on by Fairbanks, and it was this second version that was fitted to the Whyte Laydies.  

Edited by - csacwp on 08/13/2018 12:03:59

Aug 14, 2018 - 7:48:52 AM
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506 posts since 8/7/2017

Thanks for the video, Craig. Very neat, I learned a lot :-)

Edited by - BrooksMT on 08/14/2018 07:51:20

Aug 14, 2018 - 12:02:42 PM

2594 posts since 1/24/2004

Also a fan of Mark's here...  For anyone that hasn't had the pleasure, check out his YouTube while you're at it.  I particularly like the restoration of this primitive banjo that most folks would have left for dead, and this infinitely charming take on Rock the Cradle Joe that I've watched dozens of times.

Aug 14, 2018 - 12:55:24 PM

1475 posts since 12/26/2007

Craig -  tnx for doing the video to share my display..... it was fun.

Brooks & Mark - tnx for the kind words.  

John -  tnx for the historical clarifications.  I thought that Farmer's patent # 724833 (1903) was pretty close to the pot that I had on display..... it's close, but not quite the same.  Farmer's patent #724833 called for twenty "inwardly-projecting arms, preferably extending radially and forming a support for the metallic or resonant ring, over which the membrane is stretched....."  The arms were to be embedded in the pot wall, as opposed to the external arms in my example.  Other characteristics of my pot (cheesy, thin metal cladding on outside only, dimples in the wood at the top of the pot at the arm/shoe locations, neck has the Buckbee double-teardrop peghead) make me think that it's a low-end Buckbee with a tone ring after the style of Farmer's 1903 patent. 

Farmer's patent # 833517 (1906) is different, and Van Eps patent # 1364466 (1924) is close to the later Farmer patent;  both have four, stout, rigid suspension points for the tone ring.  I've never strung up the Farmer (Buckbee ?) pot, so I'm speculating that the twenty-four, springy little suspension pieces would dampen vibration of the tone ring.  Maybe I'll bend some 3/8" brass rod and see how it sounds.

The yacht White Laydie was actually owned by popular actress Lillie Langtree

Edited by - Mark Ralston on 08/14/2018 12:59:10

Aug 14, 2018 - 1:16:29 PM

1475 posts since 12/26/2007 I put the neck back on that Farmer/Buckbee pot and noticed the patent date of May 18, 1886 stamped on the dowel.  That date goes to patent # 342098 by Henry Hoseus of Brooklyn, NY.  The dowel isn't modified to accept the two or more curved springs interposed between the stick B and the head C, and which cross each other at the center of the banjo   Maybe I'll try to re-create the Hoseus hardware.  I still think it was made by Buckbee.

Craig.... sorry, but we're going to have to re-shoot that video ;)

Edited by - Mark Ralston on 08/14/2018 13:26:06

Aug 14, 2018 - 2:05:38 PM
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6643 posts since 10/26/2005

Fine.  But can we reshoot on Lillie Langtree's yacht?

Edited by - frailin on 08/14/2018 14:06:03

Aug 14, 2018 - 5:54:04 PM

4136 posts since 9/21/2007
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RE: Billy Farmer and Fred Van Eps, they were friends and played together.

Mark, I think you are confusing the Recording Banjo bowl patent with FVE's banjos built after electronic recording came in.

He only built the bowl banjos for a short time, specifically as an aid to recording acoustically. During that time he still played a openback with a Farmer tone ring.

I have seen three FVE banjos built with actual Farmer patent rings (complete with markings). Two were 5 strings and one was a plectrum (converted to a 5 string). The rest were built with rings made by FVE but of the Farmer design.

While I would not say that they caught on on a big way, there was a small and devoted following to the FVE banjos with Farmer rings that continues to this day. FVE built banjos with them until his death in 1960. His son Robert, unable or unwilling to continue without Fred, sold the remaining parts and tooling to Gariepy who built a limited number before his business ended (read Bob Flesher's article on what happened to him).

Below are photos of some different examples of FVE banjos using the Farmer ring.

The first is my FVE-- undated but built as early as the late 1920s or as late as the 1940s. The second is a very early, perhaps prototype, Van Eps banjo with a round Farmer ring. The third is a Van Eps Flush Fret that is late, perhaps late 1950s. The last photo (gold plated) is a Flush Fret build by Gariepy.

Edited by - Joel Hooks on 08/14/2018 17:57:53

Aug 14, 2018 - 6:02:55 PM
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6643 posts since 10/26/2005

Wow! Thanks for the discussion and pics, Joel!

Aug 15, 2018 - 8:30:28 AM

1475 posts since 12/26/2007

Joel - tnx for the input. Your banjo and the other FVE banjos in your post appear to be from the 1906 FVE patent. When I did some after-the-display research on Farmer & Van Eps' patents, I also found the FVE patent for the bowl device (above, 1921). I've seen other banjos with tone rings suspended away/above the rims on arms, but have not heard one played. Thanks Joel & John for commenting on the quality of the sound.

From about 1880 until 1925 seems to have been a peak period for banjo-related patents in the USA. If you're ever bored and want to kill an hour or two, look at banjo patents ( Most patents include some flowery language that evidently was intended to convince the Patent Office that the invention was worthy of patenting.

…..novel means for causing the tone to have a clear, metallic ring, and which also has means for setting free the sound waves..........

….. improvement of tone qualities both as to volume and brilliance..........

………insure improved tone in the instrument, greater permanence of tone, and greater stability of structure than has heretofore been common in this class of instruments..........

………the arrangement of a sound-board between the parchment head and the rim of the banjo, the object being to give a more powerful and finer tone to the instrument..........

……….an improved method of securing and stretching the head of a banjo upon the outer rim, or hoop, whereby the tone of the instrument is softened, and rendered more harmonious than heretofore..........

……….secure the head to the hoop as to increase the power of Sound or extend the Scale to a higher musical note or tone..........

……… promote and increase the tone or resonance of banjos, giving them a full, clear, and distinct sound, and at the same time contributing materially to prolongate the same..........

Aug 15, 2018 - 12:02:23 PM

4136 posts since 9/21/2007
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Aug 15, 2018 - 12:39:23 PM

1475 posts since 12/26/2007

Joel -  tnx for posting the clips....... yours is clearly a banjo with a clear, metallic ring; which also has means for setting free the sound waves; improved volume and brilliance; a full, clear, distinct and prolongated sound while at the same time a softened and harmonious tone, possibly also with a scale extended to a higher musical note or tone ! ! ! !

When I replace some of the hardware on my Hoseus banjo I'm going to ask you for your setup recipe, will send that banjo to you in NH, and will ask you to perform the same two pieces in the same attic location, and under the same moisture and barometric ambient conditions, all in the interest of musical science.  Maybe we can get Craig to video the performance.

Obviously I'm joking.  The player undoubtedly has the single, greatest effect on sound of an instrument.  I was fortunate to have Greg Adams play my Gad Robinson 5-string a couple of years ago.  He played from a vintage Gad Robinson's "Tenth Annual March" sheet music from my collection, and his (beautiful) sound couldn't have been more different from other people playing non-classical (stroke, Appalachian 2- and 3-finger, etc.) styles on it. Thanks again to you and John for broadening my perspective on vintage tone rings ! ! !


Aug 15, 2018 - 6:32:06 PM
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4136 posts since 9/21/2007
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Count me in!
That is actually the loft space above the world’s largest banjo thimble (and 19th century replica bridges) factory!

(Okay, so it is a unfinished attic above my car hole beside my house.)

Edited by - Joel Hooks on 08/15/2018 18:33:15

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