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deciding between wooden and rolled brass tone ring for open-back

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May 30, 2019 - 7:00:23 PM
4 posts since 2/10/2016

I am currently looking for a second banjo. I currently play on a Bart Reiter Galax (11" pot, Whyte Laydie tone ring), which I love. It sounds great solo and it cuts through even a big jam. However, I want something a little different. Something that rings a bit less... ideally something that gives a classic old-time sound in a small, tight jam or perhaps duet with a fiddle, even if that means it would be drowned out in a setting with more instruments. I want some plunk but without being too muddy.

I'm considering a Pisgah, and I *think* I have narrowed it down to a rolled brass tone ring or a wooden tone ring. Does anyone have suggestions between these two based on my desired sound?

I generally think wooden tone rings really excel on a 12" rim, but I have a hard time discerning the differences of a rolled brass ring on 11" vs 12". Does anyone have a strong preference?

Thanks so much!

May 31, 2019 - 5:55:41 AM

R Buck


2644 posts since 9/5/2006

The rolled brass tone ring will give you a solid sound with a bit more punch than a wood rim, but the wood rim will also give you a a depth of tone with a pop in the high end. They are very similar in tone. Play a variety of banjos and you will see for yourself. The differences can be subtle and there are many other factors that effect tone like wood choices, numbers of brackets, etc. We have a Ome Jubilee 12" from the '90's that is an early one of this model and a great sounding banjo with a real depth of tone.

May 31, 2019 - 6:06:11 AM



8651 posts since 11/28/2003

 I think a rolled brass tone ring on an 11" rim might not be vastly different than your Galax. There would be some difference for sure. But depending on other factors of your set-up - maybe not as much as you are seeking.

If you want "some plunk without being too muddy" maybe a 12" rolled brass would suit you. Perhaps the brass ring will brighten and strengthen the tone just enough.

All-wood banjo (no brass tone ring) can sound great.  But I think the wood-choice and rim construction are more critical on such a banjo.  I've played some wood-rim banjos that were very rich and resonant.  However some others seem dull and lifeless - to me.  

You didn't ask - but for my two cents worth - I'd also consider a Dobson tone ring. In my experience the Dobson ring adds "richness", "warmth" and a "woody" finish to the tone that is really appealing (to me) and quite different than the focused sound of your WL/Galax. 

BTW:  I agree with your assessment that an 11" WL is a fantastic banjo to cut through in a jam or string band.  With a great set-up, that type banjo has plenty of bass and works well for solo or duet playing too (as with a fiddle).  Fot those reasons, the WL is a string-band classic ... and an 11" Reiter banjo is my personal go-to for most situations.  In my experience a 12" rim banjo can be capable of a very cool, big, albeit less focused, sound - that is particularly suited to solo playing, duets and small groups.  However, I think a big, tubby 12" banjo sometimes may get lost in the mix with guitar, bass and too many other instruments. 

Best wishes!

Edited by - jbalch on 05/31/2019 06:10:24

May 31, 2019 - 8:50:48 AM

11940 posts since 6/29/2005
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There are four variables here - 11" brass vs 11" woodie vs 12" brass vs 12" woodie.

First, all things being equal, the main difference between 11" and 12" pots is that the 12" one will have more bass at the expense of the treble—what physicist David Politzer calls "growl vs sparkle.  You can achieve a similar thing by deepening the pot, and some builders make the pot proportionately deeper in a 12" pot than in an 11" one, a mistake to my way of thinking, because you lose the sparkle.

My tendency is to make 12" pots a bit shallower than 11" ones, which you can see in the picture below:

In the case of wood vs brass, the difference is more about the design of the pot than the material, and the tone ring is just one element:

So you can hear the differences, here are two comparative sound samples brass vs wood, both 11", and 11" vs 12", both brass.  Unfortunately, I don't have a 1-2-3-4 apples to apples here, but this may give some idea of the range of difference.

For some reason, the site changed the name of the 11" vs 12" comparison to "11". Don't ask me why.

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 05/31/2019 08:52:41

May 31, 2019 - 12:57:09 PM

3637 posts since 10/13/2005

Ask and you will receive! Some great responses above! I have an older 12" head Enoch Tradesman that I sawed 1/4" off the top and installed a 1/4" Stew/Mac brass tone ring. I wanted just a little more ring and and a little less ker-plunk and I got it. Better? Not necessarily but it is different. For more plunk I think a skin head has more influence for the better on sound beyond 11"vs. 12", or brass tone ring vs. woodie. More plunk, the Possum. Just a tad more ring, the Appalachian. You already have a 11", might be fun to try 12". banjered

May 31, 2019 - 1:46:58 PM

11940 posts since 6/29/2005
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Unlike bluegrass banjos, which are more focused in on a certain kind of sound, with openbacks, the world is your oyster and the possibilities are limitless.

Besides 11", 12", woodie and brass, you have other weights and metals.  A person I made a lightweight 12' openback with a teakwood tonering for, just won the traditional banjo competition at the Topanaga  banjo and Fiddle contest with it.   She is going to send me a video from the contest, which I will post on her original thread, of course.

So there's another thing to add to the equation— aluminum vs brass—the lightweight banjo I make has a 6061 aluminum tension hoop, bracket band, and tone ring skirt around the teakwood tonering.  It weighs 6# 8 oz.  These banjos are a bit "poppier"—you could say "plunkier", plenty of sparkle and sustain, and have a powerful cluck.  So bring it up to 12", and you are making the pop a little bassier, the heavy woodie tonering compliments the lighter metal alloy, probably tones it down and you have what I call the "dark hollow"sound (as in "I'd rather be in some dark hollow").  I can't wait to hear Cathy play "Cold and Frosty Morning which is what she played to win the competition.

Here's a video I made when I first made the banjo, not as good playing as Cathy, I'm sure.

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