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New Intermediate/pro level clawhammer banjo (UK)

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Jun 23, 2019 - 8:06:38 PM
28 posts since 6/22/2019

Hi. Wrote a long post but got deleted because of a link (go back to fix the problem... but my post was wiped?)

anyway...

I own this banjo:

Ashbury-AB25 - Openback

I am looking to upgrade to an intermediate or 'semi pro' banjo (can't a pro make it sound good if it's solid wood and set up right?)

But I shouldn't be ignorant as I know there's a big difference in a £300-400 guitar and a £1300-1400 guitar (not so much in a £3000 guitar) but I digress...

I'm in the UK and open to anything. Seen Graftons but wonder if they're just another budget brand? I'm quite into the idea of a custom made one but guess I'd be looking at the US for that.

thanks

Jun 23, 2019 - 9:55:54 PM
Players Union Member

Neil Allen

France

780 posts since 6/15/2014

Graftons are not just another "budget brand" although their prices are highly competitive. They are built in the UK from imported parts by two (I think) specialist builders. The main cost of a banjo is the work required to put it together correctly, not the parts. The value of this work, when done in the USA and imported to the UK, is then subject to a weak exchange rate, whatever customs duties might be due, plus 20% VAT and don't forget the shipping costs. This explains the higher specifications that Graftons had (last time I checked) compared to American imports.

They don't do banjos that are highly decorated, but they are highly playable.

There are quite a few custom builders in the UK, but, frankly once you get beyond a certain price, you are paying for neck inlays and other beautiful but superfluous cosmetic extras.

Depends what you want.

Jun 23, 2019 - 10:04:16 PM

945 posts since 2/4/2013

Grafton's range from budget to quite expensive. They are parts banjos put together in the UK but the higher end models they turn and finish the rims.

andybanjo.com/trolleyed/4/39/index.htm

Eagle Music have the currently unavailable tubaphone model in their used section

eaglemusicshop.com/prod/used-b...phone.htm

There are custom banjo makers in the UK

Jun 24, 2019 - 12:00:17 AM

Bill Rogers (Moderator)

USA

22232 posts since 6/25/2005

I don’t know about cost or availability in the UK, but the old Essex Concert Grands, aka Special XX, are as good as it gets for clawhammer. You would not need another.

Jun 24, 2019 - 12:39:47 AM

AndyW

UK

447 posts since 7/4/2017

A few custom/small makers in the UK. Ballard banjers. Griffin banjos. Slim Jim Banjos. Mcleod banjos.

I've seen both a Ballard and a Slim Jim. Both very nice. Pricey of course.

I had a go on a nylon string Grafton last year. Seemed a step up from my Gretsch Dixie, with a bit more thickness to the neck.

Jun 24, 2019 - 12:42:38 AM
like this

m06

England

7757 posts since 10/5/2006

A better quality banjo is not just a 'better quality banjo' - a major part of a playing upgrade is acquiring a banjo that is a personal fit both in terms of build and your tone preference. A player's ability to understand and identify what is a personal fit and spend their money effectively is informed by experience.

If you have played a lot of banjos and you have identified which banjo (or choice from a narrow range of banjos) you're looking to buy, then the BHO classifieds are a great place to keep an eye on, bide your time and wait for one or other of those pre-used banjos to be offered at a fair price. Folks here know they are selling to other knowledgeable folks so prices tend to be sensible and fair. And a quality banjo will generally have been well cared for. Also most all BHO sellers will have a history here rather than the anonymity of eBay and that counts for a lot in terms of reliability and trust. If you need more info or photos just ask the seller.

Alternatively, if you haven't played many banjos that are significantly better quality than the one you currently play, then it pays to go to places where you can get your hands on as many different banjos as you can and get a feel for the differences. A quality banjo that has a neck that is too wide or too narrow for you, may be a 'better quality banjo' but it is not an upgrade for you. You can also listen to sound files and develop your awareness of tone differences.

Another option is to commission a custom built banjo. We are in a banjo making golden era right now. There are many superb and knowledgeable American luthiers who can build a banjo to your personal spec. There are also a smaller number of fine luthiers here, the equal of any in the US, who can build to your personal spec too and the money you would've spent on shipping can either be saved or put into the build.

You don't mention how long you've been playing banjo. A reputable 'beginner/intermediate' banjo (whatever that label means?) can take you as far as you want to go on your playing journey. Assuming you have a reputable, playable banjo that is well set-up there need be no rush into expense, or any further expense at all. However, the timing of any upgrade does have a big input on finding the right banjo that will ideally equip you to travel more personally determined on your journey.

The common mistake is to assume that a more expensive banjo is a simple 'tick-box' exercise that will automatically make you a better player. The truth is it won't; you make you a better player. A better quality banjo just enables you to shape and determine aspects of your playing more easily. Better quality provides scope not a short cut.

Edited by - m06 on 06/24/2019 00:56:52

Jun 24, 2019 - 1:04:54 AM

2130 posts since 4/29/2012

quote:
Originally posted by Bill Rogers

I don’t know about cost or availability in the UK, but the old Essex Concert Grands, aka Special XX, are as good as it gets for clawhammer. You would not need another.


Just about as rare and infrequent here. I like them too - but they're not  in the plunkier, shorter scale, scooped current trend. You don't have to go to the US for a hand built or custom banjo. Lots of good banjo makers in th UK. I play a Dave Stacey. Fantastic - but I think somebody told me he has retired. Saw Flatfoot Johnny recently  play his early banjos ( gourd and grain measure) at a gig where Clarke Buehling played one of his Boucher minstrels. So he may be worth a look for a clawhammer banjo. Lots of other good custom and low volume makers: Ballard, Griffin, Shackelton, Clifford Essex... A quick Google brings up others. http://www.wgfhowsoninstruments.co.uk/prices.html looks interesting.

Jun 24, 2019 - 2:17:17 AM
likes this

227 posts since 1/30/2019

Will Howson is really good. I have a 12"cherry, ebony tone ring custom built. It's my forever banjo.
See here youtu.be/VVqVwTQHm6g
Most of my YouTube posts are played on my Howson. Search Cerddoriaeth Fynyddig / Mountain Music in you tube and take your pick.
Cheers,
Andy

Jun 28, 2019 - 5:59:57 PM

28 posts since 6/22/2019

Thanks everyone for your replies, really helpful - I know the following so far:

1. I'd prefer a wider string spacing if possible than my ashbury. But it's not to bad.
2. I like the fibyrskin head tone more than my standard plastic head. But I haven't tried a renaissance head (I wonder if they're hard to change yourself, actually?)


I have a few questions - when they say 'ply or 3 ply rim' is that like a guitar being laminate wood? I'm assuming not. But I want to know how to distinguish cheap woods / materials. I like the look of a Pilgrim fibryskin with a scoop, on ebay, and it's mahogany which is a wood I absolutely love on guitars. Mellow and woody. But I'm not sure how to discern the quality of it.

It's a Pilgrim Rocky Mountain Resonator.

But from hearing you discuss the wood tone rings, that sounds right up my street. But I am curious to hear a white Laydee tone ring as some say that has a nice old timey sound.

Edited by - DeepRiverRuse on 06/28/2019 18:14:12

Jun 28, 2019 - 10:42:15 PM

945 posts since 2/4/2013

quote:
Originally posted by DeepRiverRuse


2. I like the fibyrskin head tone more than my standard plastic head. But I haven't tried a renaissance head (I wonder if they're hard to change yourself, actually?)


I have a few questions - when they say 'ply or 3 ply rim' is that like a guitar being laminate wood? I'm assuming not. But I want to know how to distinguish cheap woods / materials. I like the look of a Pilgrim fibryskin with a scoop, on ebay, and it's mahogany which is a wood I absolutely love on guitars. Mellow and woody. But I'm not sure how to discern the quality of it.

It's a  Pilgrim  Rocky Mountain Resonator.
 


My opinion is that Fiberskyn heads suck the tone on decent cheaper banjos and on other cheap banjos probably deaden out nasty over brightness. Whenever I've used a Fiberskyn I would describe the sound as dead. Changing the head is something every banjo player you should learn and it's not hard.

Rims are usually multi ply, lot's of thin strips of wood, on cheaper banjos or three ply on better banjos. My three ply banjos sound better than my multi ply banjos. Cheaper banjos are often mahogany multi ply.

The Pilgrim Rocky Mountain VPB018 (are you sure it has a scoop?) lies just above the cheaper end because it has a basic rolled brass tone ring. persoannly i'd look for something better. I assume it is this one because that has a fiberskyn head.

Jun 29, 2019 - 1:43:36 AM

m06

England

7757 posts since 10/5/2006

As Graham said. Fibreskin heads are the first thing to go on any banjo I've owned that arrived with one. And that relates to non-cheap banjos too. But that's just mine and Graham's personal preference. Some folks may be looking for the effect that fibreskin imparts. It's what you like that matters.

It's not even as 'logical' as us assuming that your preference for fibreskin head over a Ren head 'must' mean you are moving toward a preference for a natural skin head. The tone of skin heads can vary enormously depending on thickness, tension and set up. They can sound more or less bright. What is 'safe(r)' to try and convey is that skin heads offer a 'richer' tone with more 'depth' or 'subtlety' to it. But what does that ('richer', 'subtlety' or 'depth') mean to a person reading those words? How do we describe that reality in words? We can't; we need to go listen and play banjo with skin heads to experience it for ourselves.

And to answer your replacement question, a correct size plastic head (or a pre-stretched skin head) is very simple and straightforward to change with due care. Take the strings and tailpiece off, loosen all the hook nuts equally, remove the tension hoop, lift out the old head, rest the new head in place and reverse the process taking care to bring up the tension equally and gradually taking care not to over-tighten. You will have to re-set the bridge position but that too is no problem. Bluegrass banjo players might use a drum dial or tap-tuning to set tension but us OT/non-Bluegrass players generally use our ears and listen for the sweet point where we hear the tone we want. Here in the moderate climate of the UK do we have to endlessly adjust skin tension thereafter? No. That's a complete myth. You may find that on a winter evening taking a skin head banjo from a warm home, putting it in a cold car and then into a session in warm pub with a log fire will cause you to need to re-tune. But that's about the extent of the mythical 'inconvenience'.

I have a Bart Reiter Galax with a White Ladye ring. That banjo is heavier which affects the 'feel'. But mine will sound different to other same models due to differences in set-up. So when you ask what does a White Ladye ring sound like you are really just asking what does a particular banjo with that hardware sound like as set up in the workshop or store. Just as with a skin head banjos with a particular tone ring can sound very different. That is very relevant when buying a pre-used banjo that has been altered to the owner's spec.

Edited by - m06 on 06/29/2019 01:57:51

Jun 29, 2019 - 7:47:41 AM

115 posts since 10/9/2017

The OP mentioned Grafton Banjos, so let me put in a word for them. I travel to the UK frequently enough that it made sense for me to buy a banjo and store it at my brother-in-laws flat. I ended up getting a Grafton Clipper Whyte Laydie. Because Sterling is so weak at the moment, it was less than I paid for my Deering Americana, and it's definitely a step up. Well made, well set-up, and excellent service from Andy and his team. It's easy to play and I love the sound it makes - of course that's a personal thing.

Mind you, if you're looking to £1400 you can get a lot of banjo from places others have mentioned, but for half that you can get a very good model from Andy. Also check out John Alvey Turner: they have a really nice looking Old Time Wonder for less than a grand and other models as well.

Best of luck.

Jun 29, 2019 - 4:31:20 PM

28 posts since 6/22/2019

quote:
Originally posted by GrahamHawker
quote:
Originally posted by DeepRiverRuse


2. I like the fibyrskin head tone more than my standard plastic head. But I haven't tried a renaissance head (I wonder if they're hard to change yourself, actually?)


I have a few questions - when they say 'ply or 3 ply rim' is that like a guitar being laminate wood? I'm assuming not. But I want to know how to distinguish cheap woods / materials. I like the look of a Pilgrim fibryskin with a scoop, on ebay, and it's mahogany which is a wood I absolutely love on guitars. Mellow and woody. But I'm not sure how to discern the quality of it.

It's a  Pilgrim  Rocky Mountain Resonator.
 


My opinion is that Fiberskyn heads suck the tone on decent cheaper banjos and on other cheap banjos probably deaden out nasty over brightness. Whenever I've used a Fiberskyn I would describe the sound as dead. Changing the head is something every banjo player you should learn and it's not hard.

Rims are usually multi ply, lot's of thin strips of wood, on cheaper banjos or three ply on better banjos. My three ply banjos sound better than my multi ply banjos. Cheaper banjos are often mahogany multi ply.

The Pilgrim Rocky Mountain VPB018 (are you sure it has a scoop?) lies just above the cheaper end because it has a basic rolled brass tone ring. persoannly i'd look for something better. I assume it is this one because that has a fiberskyn head.


It may not do. It's just there is a slightly damaged one on ebay for £250 which is cheaper than its £350-400 asking price. I thought maybe it'd be in the right direction but actually it's also brass tone ring so may just sound the same. It's mahogany so maybe it's multi ply. I think my old Goodtime was 3ply? and this ashbury.. I don't know.. but I believe they were immitating the good time special with it so maybe it's the same?

I don't want to spend too much but I know I want a scoop - and I know I like woody tones. I am totally open to trying a renaissance head as I haven't tried one. I think if I got the right banjo, I could still get the tone I like by muting some of the sound with a t-shirt in the back or whatever, I am not set on fibyr skin because actually I agree with you that it could possibly deaden the sound too much. My mates banjo sometimes sounds a bit dead - it's definitely the quietest banjo I've ever heard and very frustrating for me playing my blueridge which is a cannon. I can't make it quiet enough. It's much easier when we plug in. Acoustically I keep telling him - he needs to buy a new one that is louder. He won't... stubborn mule.

Jun 30, 2019 - 3:41:25 AM

945 posts since 2/4/2013

quote:
Originally posted by DeepRiverRuse

It may not do. It's just there is a slightly damaged one on ebay for £250 which is cheaper than its £350-400 asking price. I thought maybe it'd be in the right direction but actually it's also brass tone ring so may just sound the same. It's mahogany so maybe it's multi ply. I think my old Goodtime was 3ply? and this ashbury.. I don't know.. but I believe they were immitating the good time special with it so maybe it's the same?


The Ashbury is multiply maple. It's a good starter banjo very similar to the Goldtone Cripple Creek CC100. Before the factory closed it was found under a number of names - I have the Pilgrim version although that had better tuners. I'd say don't fall into the trap of looking for banjos in that fairly cheap range because you'll probably end up like me with too many thinking the next one will be just the thing.

I did find "the thing", four of them actually, but there was more choice a few years ago and I still paid bargain prices. I spent to much time thinking mellow when I should have been thinking banjo. it was Renaissance heads and good setup that worked for me. Not just mellow but depth.

The Grafton no. 4 tubaphone I linked above still looks like one of the best options at present.

Jul 2, 2019 - 5:41:19 PM

28 posts since 6/22/2019

What's the Tuba tone ring like? I'm gonna have to do more homework. £499 is about my max budget I can justify on a banjo right now, I think, but I feel like I need to play a few to know. I am gravitating to a grafton.. There was a gold tone white laydee on ebay for £450.... wonder if it's gone.. how would that compare to the Grafton?


Thanks for all your help. If I can sell mine for £150-200, I'd buy the Grafton fairly swiftly. Mine just has a few splits/cracks in the rim sadly. Got it second hand. But it plays fine.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=34&v=MQXfX_HPW38

Found this video of it being played. Sounds lovely and I really do like the look of it actually - that's a renaissance head? And you say it's not available, but this seems to me to be the same banjo? Just more expensive as it's new. £499.99 doesn't seem so bad if its £600+ new.

Edited by - DeepRiverRuse on 07/02/2019 17:53:56

Jul 2, 2019 - 6:34:24 PM

28 posts since 6/22/2019

ebay.co.uk/itm/Ozark-5-String-...waq9cxMA7

found this too which the bloke said is similar to the Ashbury with the White Laydie tone ring.

seems there's a lot of options. My first banjo was a budget Ozark, it had a terrible setup, lol.

Jul 2, 2019 - 9:30:58 PM

945 posts since 2/4/2013

quote:
Originally posted by DeepRiverRuse

There was a gold tone white laydee on ebay for £450.... wonder if it's gone.. how would that compare to the Grafton?

Thanks for all your help. If I can sell mine for £150-200,

Found this video of it being played. Sounds lovely and I really do like the look of it actually - that's a renaissance head? And you say it's not available, but this seems to me to be the same banjo? Just more expensive as it's new. £499.99 doesn't seem so bad if its £600+ new.


A Gold tone White Laydie would be a good option.

You'll be lucky to get £150 for your banjo. The resale value of these Chinese made banjos is poor even if they are quite decent.

That video is the "No. 3" version which has a multiply rim. The No. 4 version was being sold for £735. This is the No. 4.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Lu5-HJtz7s

The Ozark has a multiply walnut rim. I'd want to hear it before buying. I have a Pilgrim White laydie with multiply maple rim. It's OK. Compared to my Gretsch with it's three ply rim it's not in the same league. The Gretsch is the same as one of the Gold Tone models.

Jul 3, 2019 - 12:57:47 PM

28 posts since 6/22/2019

Ah so a Multi-ply rim is inferior to a 3ply? It implies many layers of laminate wood right? so is there ever a 'single' ply rim in the same way there's solid wood guitar tops? ( feel maybe this is a silly question as a banjo rim is a lot thicker than a guitar top, right? )

If the retail price of the Grafton is as much as £700-800 I'm tempted to jump in at £499. It would probably have a decent resale value anyway I'd imagine, and give me something with a scoop and a decent head rather than what I have no which doesn't seem as ideal for old time banjo. Brass tone rings I'd imagine are very bright?

I can't remember if I've asked, but would a mahogany pot (makes my guitars woody and warm) have the same effect on a banjo as opposed to maple? (bright and focused?)

Jul 3, 2019 - 4:43:17 PM

AndyW

UK

447 posts since 7/4/2017

So you are looking cheaper than custom.

From what I've seen a whyte laydie tone ring adds over a hundred pounds to a banjo.

I have a gretsch dixie special. Nice to play, and sounds fine, next step up is a dixie deluxe featuring a whyte laydie. Never played one, but I've seen those often enough on ebay/gumtree, maybe worth searching for to see if you could get one cheap enough.

I tried another players andybanjo grafton last year, and it seemed a nice banjo, and I think better than my dixie. It was nylon strung with a thicker neck.

Jul 3, 2019 - 10:56:16 PM

778 posts since 3/22/2012

My Grafton Clipper was well put together from good parts and very well set up. The nut width was a little on the narrow side, so you might like to check that. Otherwise a confident recommendation from me.

If you can ever have the experience of working with a custom builder on your very own unique banjo, it's not to be missed.

Jul 4, 2019 - 2:16:25 AM

945 posts since 2/4/2013

quote:
Originally posted by DeepRiverRuse

Ah so a Multi-ply rim is inferior to a 3ply? It implies many layers of laminate wood right? so is there ever a 'single' ply rim in the same way there's solid wood guitar tops? ( feel maybe this is a silly question as a banjo rim is a lot thicker than a guitar top, right? )

Brass tone rings I'd imagine are very bright?

I can't remember if I've asked, but would a mahogany pot (makes my guitars woody and warm) have the same effect on a banjo as opposed to maple? (bright and focused?)


I imagine trying to bend a single half inch or thicker piece of maple would be a bit tricky if not impossible and probably not very strong. Certainly not to be compared with thin guitar tops.

I'm not sure the word is brightness for tone rings. I'd use presence and depth and volume. Tubaphone rings give volume and sustain. More sustain than Whyte laydie rings which have a sharp attack and quicker decay. I'd guess this could be described as a more focused sound. Which is what I like. I'm sure there must be comparison video out there.

Ignoring the cheap mahagany rim banjos, mahogany rims seem to be something that specialist banjo makers do. Larger companies like Deering produce banjos with mahogany necks and maple rims which does change the sound.

Jul 4, 2019 - 5:37:03 AM

28 posts since 6/22/2019

youtube.com/watch?v=xmECQrNsnXA

If it's going to sound anything like that it'd be a dream. That's the exact kind of tone I want (and it's a tubaphone) looks like a short scale or is that just my eyes deceiving me?

Would I be correct in saying a short scale creates a more mellow tone?

Sorry Graham if I'm grilling you I really appreciate all the help :-)

nearly decided..

Jul 4, 2019 - 7:26:05 AM

945 posts since 2/4/2013

I don't think that's short scale. Of course these carefully hand crafted and rather more expensive banjos tend to be in a higher league when it comes to sound. You can also see it in this video.

youtube.com/watch?v=qaB2sdXrzEA

Whether it's a £1000 of difference is another matter.

Jul 9, 2019 - 6:45:23 AM

28 posts since 6/22/2019

quote:
Originally posted by Remsleep

The OP mentioned Grafton Banjos, so let me put in a word for them. I travel to the UK frequently enough that it made sense for me to buy a banjo and store it at my brother-in-laws flat. I ended up getting a Grafton Clipper Whyte Laydie. Because Sterling is so weak at the moment, it was less than I paid for my Deering Americana, and it's definitely a step up. Well made, well set-up, and excellent service from Andy and his team. It's easy to play and I love the sound it makes - of course that's a personal thing.

Mind you, if you're looking to £1400 you can get a lot of banjo from places others have mentioned, but for half that you can get a very good model from Andy. Also check out John Alvey Turner: they have a really nice looking Old Time Wonder for less than a grand and other models as well.

Best of luck.


Do you know what the tone ring is in the Vega?

Jul 9, 2019 - 7:15:30 AM

115 posts since 10/9/2017

I’m pretty sure that that particular model doesn’t have one. According to Deering:
 

“The mellowest and most gentle banjo sound, a lovely full tone. The Old Tyme Wonder is reliable and exceptional in tone, playability, versatility and responsiveness, with a woody thunkiness that is perfect for old time string bands.”
 


It  has a Fiberskyn head that is not everyone’s cup of meat, but that’s easily changed. It looks like a step or 2 up from the Americana Artisan, which I can attest is a very nice banjo that also lacks a tone ring. It lists for $2099, which is ~£1600

Jul 9, 2019 - 10:13:38 AM

28 posts since 6/22/2019

Thanks.

I was just looking at this :


cliffordessex.net/index.php?_a...uctId=947

£750 is even less than this, and it's a hand made UK produced banjo. Looks lush too. He does one for £1500, but this one looks just as nice (alas I am but a novice)

 

Unfortuantely the demo here doesn't really give me a very good idea. He  seems to make it sound very bright...

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqz_mPJ7JTc&feature=youtu.be
It seems like this is more up my street than the grafton. Very much intrigued by lack of a metal tone ring.

Edited by - DeepRiverRuse on 07/09/2019 10:14:33

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