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Oct 18, 2019 - 6:03:43 PM

Bill Rogers (Moderator)

USA

22455 posts since 6/25/2005

Bluegrass players are always, it sometimes seems, looking for a better setup to improve she sound of their banjo. A number of players, and luthiers, have achieved good reputations for doing setups and improving the sound of bluegrass banjos. OTOH, old-time players tend to either mostly ignore setup issues or do their own.... Is my observation correct, and, if so, why is this true? I think it’s because bluegrass players tend to want their banjo to sound like Earl’s or Ralph’s, and usually have a Mastertone-style banjo—making it relatively easy to know how to set it up. Old-time players, though, are all over the lot with the sound they seek and the kind of banjo they play. That would make it harder to develop a standard way to set up a banjo. Your thoughts on setups?

Oct 18, 2019 - 6:12:55 PM
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Players Union Member

doryman

USA

709 posts since 11/26/2012

Although all banjo players are generally less evolved than the typical musician, the clawhammer banjo player, unlike the bluegrass player, has been known to posses and use tools.

Oct 18, 2019 - 8:24:08 PM

86 posts since 1/2/2019

Playing guitar - electric and acoustic - since childhood, I learned to do set ups, bridge, truss rod, etc. I would eventually set up all my friends electrics and was a whiz with floyd rose bridge set ups. I have no fear of turning this or turning that, soldering, putting new stuff in taking old stuff out, etc.

Banjo was a new thing. But, I knew what I wanted and the sound I wanted as a clawhammer player. I now have my trusty drum dial and keep my heads tuned (I like 89 for a Renaissance head and 91 for my Goodtime), and am experimenting with different bridges and want to try out some different tailpieces. I think set up is very important for a banjo and learning how to do it yourself will save a lot of money in the long run.

Next up, changing the head. I will experiment with this on my Goodtime. Plus, I've ordered some nickel plated strings as opposed to the steel strings most players use. I will see how this impacts the tone. The truss rod on my custom banjo is perfect, no need to tweak - but I would have no hesitation. I took apart my century old banjo to see how the dowel stick worked. Lots to learn. For me, its fun and just part of playing and knowing my banjo.

Oct 18, 2019 - 10:10:20 PM
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rcc56

USA

2307 posts since 2/20/2016

I used to do a bit of violin work. Although I've fitted and adjusted quite a few soundposts and fitted and re-carved quite a few bridges over the past 35 years, I have to admit that I don't understand violins. But I did learn this from my violin work:

Set-up won't turn a poor instrument into a good instrument. Poor set-up may, however, kill the tone of a good instrument. I find this to be true of string instruments of any type.

I too, have noticed that many players of Mastertone style banjos tend to be very concerned with set-up, sometimes to the point of obsessiveness. I also see this among dobro players. But it seems that trends come and go over the years-- sometimes a brighter, sharper tone is considered the best, sometimes a deeper, bassier tone is more in style. And then, there are always a few who simply want whatever produces the loudest sound.

I am an open-back player, and I like a sound that is clear in the trebles and has a little bit of pop to it, but is not excessively bright. I also like a good bit of bass response. It takes a good banjo and a fair amount of work to produce the tone I like. I've been able to get that sound most easily from my Bacon ff Professional. I've been able to get a lot of the same from some of the old spunover banjos, especially some of the better Stewarts. I've found it difficult to keep the high end from being too bright on old Vega Whyte Laydies and Tubaphones. Maybe I'm missing something there, but it seems that when I try to temper the high end with lower head tensions or fiberskin heads, the sound of the whole turns to mush.

I have an old Tubaphone, but I'm not happy with sound of it with the Renaissance head that came with it, no matter how much I experiment with the tension.  I've yet to try a fiberskin head on it, but I don't expect that to give me what I want, either.  I may just have to bite the bullet and go to the trouble of mounting a skin head, and hope that it will deliver something that I like.

Many of the younger open-back players seem to prefer a tone that sounds dull to me. They don't seem to be interested in Stewart style banjos, and I don't know whether or not they would like my Bacon. The "plunky," somewhat dull sound seems to be pretty popular these days, and it doesn't take much set-up to get it-- a fairly loose head, and an off-the-shelf factory bridge left at full thickness will easily produce the "plunky" tone on a modern open-back banjo. Of course, some modern open-back players are much more particular, and indeed will go to great lengths to find the head tension, head material, and bridge style that suits them the best. But it seems that there is no "standard" for open-back set-up, so that might be why open-back players might be more likely to do their own set-ups, or simply ignore the matter.

Mastertone players seem to agree [at least to a certain degree] on at least a few things that are believed to produce the "best" sound. For example, a G# note or 89 to 91 drum dial setting for an initial head tension, top-frosted heads of good quality [though they might not agree on the best brand], three footed hard maple bridges with ebony tops [perhaps with the upper part thinned just by just a small amount], and [ideally] necks that are well-fitted at an angle that allows the coordinator rods to be locked in at "neutral."

I have always looked at Mastertones and open-backs as being creatures of the same genus, but of different species.

Some of you older folks might remember a time when Stelling banjos [and the "Stelling sound"], were overtaking the Gibson banjos of that time period in popularity. When Gibson made an effort to improve their banjos, they gained back a lot of the ground that they had lost. Since Gibson has now been retired from the banjo making business for quite a while, the popularity of their brand is once more being eroded by small shop builders, and even some of the upper line imported instruments.

Edited by - rcc56 on 10/18/2019 22:25:28

Oct 18, 2019 - 11:25:16 PM

Bill Rogers (Moderator)

USA

22455 posts since 6/25/2005

quote:
Originally posted by doryman

Although all banjo players are generally less evolved than the typical musician, the clawhammer banjo player, unlike the bluegrass player, has been known to posses and use tools.


smiley

Oct 19, 2019 - 1:30:59 AM
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2257 posts since 4/29/2012

I've always messed around with bridges, played with various heads and tensions, tailepiece pressures etc. I didn't even know the word "setup" until I came across the Bluegrass obsessives on BHO. I've never adjusted a trussrod (only one of my banjos has one - the others being too old or too cheap) and all but one of my banjos have dowel sticks not rods (the exception being a single rodded Goodtime) . But if I was gong to do the Bluegrass thing and aim to make my banjo sound like that of a well known performer which one would I go for ? Leaving aside the old masters how would I make a banjo emulate Adam Hurt on one day and Ken Perlmann on another ? We are lucky in that there isn't one "The Sound" and that some of our heroes played on pretty cheap, pretty awful banjos so we are more aware than the wannabe Earl or Ralph clones that the player is much more important than the instrument.

Oct 19, 2019 - 6:24:39 AM
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m06

England

8022 posts since 10/5/2006

The OP identifies that bluegrass banjo players often want to sound like a Earl Scruggs or Ralph Stanley. As an OT banjo player I'm not in a position to comment, so will take his more informed word on bluegrass choices.

From what I read some Bluegrass banjo players seem to hold one model of banjo as a holy grail. In the OT community folks may be interested and pay higher prices for a banjo made by say, Kyle Creed. That's part culture and part rarity. But there's no way one banjo model is held up as an 'ideal' by players. Even the modern tendency to assume that 'OT banjo=open back', though common, has no technical basis. On a humorous note, I've played several banjos made by Kyle Creed and guess what? I didn't sound like Kyle Creed.

In my experience OT banjo players (including myself) are every bit as interested in the way their banjo sounds, and therefore the set-up. But...from what I hear and observe it's more about tweeking to find the tone and action that we personally like rather than emulating the sound of anyone else. That results in a wide diversity of preferences. I have never heard an OT banjo player say, for example: 'I want my banjo to sound like Kyle's'. Though occasionally I can detect the influence of another banjo player's style on a fellow picker.

There is no 'standard' OT banjo set-up. I come pretty close to having a personal 'rule' and that is to swap out the plastic head for a skin head. Close, most of my banjos have skin heads, but not a rule. Because I have one particular banjo that to me just gives it's best with a Ren head.

I wonder also if personal banjo technique is more diverse among OT pickers than bluegrass pickers? Therefore, no 'standard' set-up alone would deliver a singular, given OT sound anyway.

Edited by - m06 on 10/19/2019 06:34:21

Oct 19, 2019 - 8:08:57 AM
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Players Union Member

jduke

USA

1050 posts since 1/15/2009

Bluegrass music was introduced as a sound, a banjo sound, a mandolin sound and even a vocal sound. Yes, much has changed about Bluegrass music as it has evolved, but yet there remains an adherence to that music as it was introduced. Old time music started out being a very diverse music from home made banjos to store bought banjos, and everything in between. Playing styles too, were as diverse as the banjos.

In Bluegrass music, there were only a handful of banjo players (who helped create and define that music) to emulate. In old time music, we had hundreds, or thousands of musicians, banjos, techniques and vocal styles that were passed along to us as examples.

I think there is a much greater latitude in what we accept as old time music than there is in bluegrass and that counts for the many differences in banjos and set-ups. I think most of us old time style players are just as concerned about our insturments and their set-up, we just have more sounds to chase after. Makes me wonder if those of us who play old time have more banjos than bluegrass players because we have so many different sounds to choose from.

Oct 19, 2019 - 9:18:08 AM
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9051 posts since 2/22/2007

Bill it may be because we have recordings of folk musicians playing a cheap or poorly setup banjo and making magic with what they had. I can say the same for Delta Blues players on their cheap guitars with rusty strings. I want the finest banjo that I can manage but I know that it's not the instrument that matters.
"I've got an old guitar won't ever stay in tune. I like the way it sounds in a dark and empty room"
Stuff that Works, Guy Clark.

But Bluegrass is a specific sound with it's own specific requirements.  Like a symphony, it's got to be right for it to work. 

Edited by - banjo bill-e on 10/19/2019 09:20:00

Oct 19, 2019 - 11:33:52 AM
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Bart Veerman

Canada

4458 posts since 1/5/2005

"Old-time players, though, are all over the lot with the sound they seek and the kind of banjo they play. That would make it harder to develop a standard way to set up a banjo."

 

Yup, they're all over the map all right. Many of them want to emulate the sound of their hero(s) just like the bluegrassers. Not only that, they often want to emulate the sound of specific recordings.

There are trends to consider as well. The current one seems to be for high action and really tall bridges are usually used to achieve that.

All in all, they're just as, if not more, obsessed than the BG crowd and it seems there's quite a few different "standards." smiley

Oct 20, 2019 - 7:25:49 AM
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Players Union Member

rudy

USA

14577 posts since 3/27/2004
Online Now

Lots of great comments here!

With what's been said so far I don't have disagreement or anything in particular to add, but the question of "setup" is intriguing as it relates to the two basic flavors of banjos cited here.

"Bluegrass" banjos are more or less easy to quantify, and setup on those banjos can be more easily defined because the details of how they are made are very similar.

The open back world is much more diverse, and the banjos that compose them run the full gamut of possibilities.  As time goes by I've seen the "flavor of the month" change, but the diversity still persists.  That makes chasing a particular setup difficult.

As someone who has made quite a few open backs I have to say that I've enjoyed the results of experimenting around with the basic form, and I've come to the realization that they are much more individualistic then their Bluegrass / resonator counterparts, and therein lies part of the charm.  In on instance I made two closely identical open backs and there was still a detectable difference in their tonality.  My own interest lies in examination of the shortcomings of the basic designs and doing what I can to correct what I see as deficiencies.

I also look at them as having more of an individual personality; you can raise them the best you can and then you have to be willing to accept them as they are.  I really love the aspect of putting a new one together and discovering what comes out the other end.  I've also found that open backs like a certain amount to settling in time before they blossom into their adult tone.  I don't make any judgment in the first 30 days.  Maybe it's the banjo or maybe it's me, but my perception certainly changes.

You can dress 'em up any way you chose, natural hide, 30 buck bridge, custom cast tailpiece, an assortment of tuning mechanism choice, scale length, or fingerboard width, peg head design, ornamentation or lack thereof, or any of the other variables in design, but they still have an underlying personality of their own.  That's what is so special about open backs IMHO.  wink 

Oct 20, 2019 - 7:35:53 AM

17 posts since 9/25/2019

I'm very new to banjo and clawhammer style. I've been a guitar flatpicker and finger picker for 50 years or so. I have become good at setting up and fine tuning guitars and I am picky on having the sound that I like. When I got my openback Bart Reiter a few weeks ago I knew almost nothing on how to even set one up. I was able t get a lesson with a local well known player and he played mine. He said it was set up fairly well but he adjusted the bridge a bit and that was it. I'm enjoying it tremendously, I think much more than guitar. I love the clawhammer sound and what it is capable of producing. I'm sure I'll be experimenting with a different head and strings. I have enjoyed reading this thread and I've learned some good pointers.... Tony

Oct 20, 2019 - 10:38:24 PM

Paul R

Canada

11751 posts since 1/28/2010
Online Now

I've messed with all my banjos - bridges, heads and head tension, stuffing, tailpieces.

I was at the Twelfth Fret several years ago and picked a banjo off the wall and thought it was the sound I wanted. However, over the ensuing years my "ultimate sound" changed a bit. But the 100+ year-old Orpheum seldom matched the sound I imagined. I finally traded it for a Jake Neufeld (it was a Neufeld I traded in '78 that set me on the quest for a decent sounding banjo - oddly enough, my "new" Neufeld was made in '78) in March. The folks at the Twelfth Fret said that they were going to put a skin head on the Orpheum (it had a skin head when I bought it, but it split), also nylon strings. I also have a resonator banjo (Liberty hardware) adjusted for clawhammer (arch top, head looser for CH sound (the arch top makes for a smaller diameter effective head surface), stuffed, wider spacing at the bridge). It was my main "playing out" banjo until the Neufeld came along. The Neufeld has a 20-hole tone ring, which Grant McNeil calls "the poor man's Tu-Ba-Phone tone ring".

I think the Bluegrass concentration on "one" sound is because the initial exposure was so explosive that it immediately became the model for others to imitate. It was also performance music, at least initially on radio. The old-time music came from a variety of sources, each with its individual/regional style. The recent resurgence in playing styles (other than/in addition to CH) serves to feed the diversity of tones. I listen to lots of banjos on YouTube and take clues and cues from the players, and "ideal tone" is shifting ground.

Oct 21, 2019 - 12:07:08 PM

Bill Rogers (Moderator)

USA

22455 posts since 6/25/2005

In the early 60s, when I started, players learned to work on their instruments because there was often no alternative. I’ve never hesitated to take banjos apart, work on them as needed, whatever. Now new players want instruction, it seems, on every little thing. If it doesn’t involve things like refretting or resetting a dowelstick—go for it. You’ll learn a lot , and you can always undo/redo changes you don’t like. [A thought on changing times. I had, as I suppose most males at the time also had, basic woodshop and metal shop classes in 8th grade. So I had learned how to use hand tools and glues—stuff like that. That instruction is far less available now.]

Oct 21, 2019 - 12:28:26 PM
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m06

England

8022 posts since 10/5/2006

quote:
Originally posted by TangoDelta59

I'm very new to banjo and clawhammer style. I've been a guitar flatpicker and finger picker for 50 years or so. I have become good at setting up and fine tuning guitars and I am picky on having the sound that I like. When I got my openback Bart Reiter a few weeks ago I knew almost nothing on how to even set one up. I was able t get a lesson with a local well known player and he played mine. He said it was set up fairly well but he adjusted the bridge a bit and that was it. I'm enjoying it tremendously, I think much more than guitar. I love the clawhammer sound and what it is capable of producing. I'm sure I'll be experimenting with a different head and strings. I have enjoyed reading this thread and I've learned some good pointers.... Tony


As you accumulate playing time on your new banjo you’ll be in a better position to assess any future set-up changes you make.

We become more attuned to changes to the familiar with time.

Edited by - m06 on 10/21/2019 12:30:27

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