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Jan 26, 2020 - 10:48:17 AM
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2761 posts since 2/18/2009

I've been thinking lately that this year I'd like to try making a convenntional resonator banjo, and I could use some advice on the parameters for a fairly normal middle-of-the-road design. I have Roger Siminoff's book on how to build a 5 string banjo so I think that should cover most of what I need to know, but I am particularly hoping for advice from BHO members on wood and hardware choices and resonator type.

I've made all of the wood parts of a resonator banjo at different times for different people, but the part I have the least experience with is resonators. I would like to use a one-piece flange, as I am familiar with how to fit them to the rim. The only resonators I've made were two Vega pie wedge type ones, about 5 or 6 years ago. Would it look silly or be impractical or otherwise wrong in some way to use this kind of resonator construction to make a resonator to Masterclone dimensions and install it on an otherwise Masterclone-ish banjo?

I am thinking of ordering Prucha hardware (OPF, tension hoop, hooks and nuts, co-rods, tailpiece etc) and the $200 flathead tone ring from FQMS/Sullivan Banjo. Based on my limited understanding I think that this hardware and tone ring are of good quality but not terribly expensive(which is the section of the parts market I'd like to aim for), but I don't know much about the resonator side of the banjo world. I have some new nickel Gotoh tuners on hand and I'm pretty sure those would be suitable for this project from things I have read here on BHO.

My understanding is that most Masterclones are built with maple or mahogany, but I may be wrong. I could do either of those, but I am also thinking about using cherry or walnut with curly maple binding and I'm wondering if either of those woods would be regarded as relatively normal by the resonator banjo community.

I will be very grateful for any advice on these matters, or anything else I should know before starting off into this new area. Thank you for taking the time to read this long series of questions.
Zach

Jan 26, 2020 - 11:51:17 AM
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7518 posts since 1/7/2005

Zach, I've used both Prucha hardware and the Sullivan flathead tone ring you are considering. The quality is very high on both, and I am very happy with the sound quality.

Maple, mahogany and walnut are all commonly used on Masterclones. I think the species of wood is less important to sound quality than is the density of your particular piece of wood. You can find relatively soft, lightweight maple and you can find heavy mahogany. The best sounding bluegrass banjos tend to be heavy, but you pay a price with the added weight if it will be played standing up on stage. I play sitting down, as do a lot of bluegrass musicians these days, so I don't mind the weight penalty.

Cherry is a less traditional choice, but should make for a good bluegrass banjo. But the appearance will be non-typical. Especially with curly maple binding. There's nothing wrong with unusual woods, but you have to be careful how you combine them. You often see curly or birdseye maple combined with purple heart, etc. To my eye, odd color combinations tend to give a banjo, guitar, or even furniture, a home-built look. Nothing wrong with that, but I tend to prefer a more vintage look on my banjo.

You'll probably get a lot of suggestions on this topic, because it's so wide open. And there will be plenty of examples that break the rules (rules...we don' got no stinkin' rules! ) yet work very well. Most masterclones I've seen tend to be extremely conservative in design. Seemingly the more like Gibson--the better. I personally would find that approach a little uninteresting. But a lot of players don't want their instrument to be "interesting". They want it to look like the banjo their heros play. And as such, that's the kind of instrument that is more likely to sell. And if you're planning to do it for a living, you can't afford to ignore market demand, or you will find yourself caught in a labor of love trap. While it's satisfying to build to your own taste and style, if you want to sell your work, you have to analyze and design to the taste of the marketplace. 

DD

Jan 26, 2020 - 1:12:17 PM
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2761 posts since 2/18/2009

Dan Drabek, thank you very much for your help. I will go with walnut for this one, since you say it's more usual than cherry. Since I've never built a complete resonator banjo I figured it would be sensible to start by making a quite conventional one, so that I would have it as a sort of baseline of comparison for divergences I might make on later ones, if I end up making more.

I know that the plastic or other synthetic bindings are more customary, but I don't personally like how they look as much as wood binding. On the other hand perhaps I should use something more normal for binding this banjo, I'll have to think about it. I'd like to bind the resonator at top and bottom, and the fretboard. I have come to like curly maple binding for dark woods, this is a recent example of how it looks, though not on a banjo.
Zach


 

Jan 26, 2020 - 1:52:40 PM
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6691 posts since 8/28/2013

Although I think it might be best to make your first resonator banjo along fairly conventional lines, I believe you should also incorporate a few details that will distinguish it from all those other Masterclones out there already. Wood bindings might be one detail that could accomplish this, and perhaps a distinctive logo could be used on the peghead.

Anything you do that can be pointed out as superior to another similar product can be advantageous.

Jan 26, 2020 - 4:48:53 PM

2825 posts since 5/29/2011

Good suggestions so far. I think you could incorporate the pie wedge design into the resonator and use maple inlays with no problem because they are cosmetic issues. If you are planning to use traditional Mastertone style hardware and design then the cosmetics are not going to change the structural integrity of the instrument. Having seen pictures of numerous banjos you have built I know that you already know what you are doing.
I have built several resonator banjos with shoe and plate flanges. They sound just fine but are hard to sell because people expect a Gibson design in a Bluegrass banjo. Maybe people are more open minded where you live.

Jan 26, 2020 - 6:16:33 PM

12520 posts since 10/30/2008

If you're making it for yourself, do what you please. If you expect to sell it, keep it close to Gibson.

Personally I think a VEGA pie wedge resonator would be kinda cool. At least as far as the veneer. The Gibson resonator CONSTRUCTION dimensions are a pretty specific thing, so you may want to study up on them. They're "mostly" poplar wood inside. And maple, plus a pretty veneer. Radius of curvature of the back is important too.

Have fun.

Jan 26, 2020 - 6:29:12 PM

2761 posts since 2/18/2009

Thank you all very much for your advice. I do intend to sell this banjo if I can, so I will stick pretty close to Gibson ideas structurally. I think that Roger Siminoff's book shows the standard dimensions and curve for a resonator, and I will build mine to that shape, but instead of being layers of veneer I am thinking of making the back from wedges of solid wood like Vega did, since I am not set up to work with veneer on that scale. My other option would be to buy a pre-made resonator and put a decorative veneer on the outside to match the neck and pot, but I'd rather do all of the wood work myself if practical. I am guessing that if the size and shape are the same the construction method of the resonator should not affect the sound appreciably, but I may be entirely wrong about that. I really appreciate all of the advice.
Zach

Jan 26, 2020 - 7:00:34 PM

7518 posts since 1/7/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Zachary Hoyt

Thank you all very much for your advice. I do intend to sell this banjo if I can, so I will stick pretty close to Gibson ideas structurally. I think that Roger Siminoff's book shows the standard dimensions and curve for a resonator, and I will build mine to that shape, but instead of being layers of veneer I am thinking of making the back from wedges of solid wood like Vega did, since I am not set up to work with veneer on that scale. My other option would be to buy a pre-made resonator and put a decorative veneer on the outside to match the neck and pot, but I'd rather do all of the wood work myself if practical. I am guessing that if the size and shape are the same the construction method of the resonator should not affect the sound appreciably, but I may be entirely wrong about that. I really appreciate all of the advice.
Zach

Actually, the resonator alters the tonality of the banjo quite a bit. And it is one of the factors that helps create the bluegrass sound. While the same banjo played open backed can still sound great--if the rest of the banjo does it's job, the resonator adds another level of overtones and character that are characteristic of the bluegrass banjo tone. In some cases, you can 'feel' the difference as much as you hear it. A resonator banjo has a quicker response than an open back. And it often has more 'snap'. This is easy enough to experience. Stick a dinner plate, or a hard board behind an open back banjo and see how it changes the sound when played with fingerpicks. It almost always makes a difference. And in many cases, it makes a big difference. On the other hand, I find a resonator is not the best idea for frailing or clawhammer style. In that style of play, a resonator can make the banjo tone sound thin and tinny, with too much overtone. Of course, there are always exceptions, but generally speaking, neither design does it's best when played outside it's normal application. Like flatpicking a classical guitar. Or strumming a bluegrass banjo. Time, and trial and error has sorted that out long ago. 
DD

Jan 26, 2020 - 7:26:06 PM

2761 posts since 2/18/2009

quote:
Originally posted by Dan Drabek
quote:
Originally posted by Zachary Hoyt

Thank you all very much for your advice. I do intend to sell this banjo if I can, so I will stick pretty close to Gibson ideas structurally. I think that Roger Siminoff's book shows the standard dimensions and curve for a resonator, and I will build mine to that shape, but instead of being layers of veneer I am thinking of making the back from wedges of solid wood like Vega did, since I am not set up to work with veneer on that scale. My other option would be to buy a pre-made resonator and put a decorative veneer on the outside to match the neck and pot, but I'd rather do all of the wood work myself if practical. I am guessing that if the size and shape are the same the construction method of the resonator should not affect the sound appreciably, but I may be entirely wrong about that. I really appreciate all of the advice.
Zach

Actually, the resonator alters the tonality of the banjo quite a bit. And it is one of the factors that helps create the bluegrass sound. While the same banjo played open backed can still sound great--if the rest of the banjo does it's job, the resonator adds another level of overtones and character that are characteristic of the bluegrass banjo tone. In some cases, you can 'feel' the difference as much as you hear it. A resonator banjo has a quicker response than an open back. And it often has more 'snap'. This is easy enough to experience. Stick a dinner plate, or a hard board behind an open back banjo and see how it changes the sound when played with fingerpicks. It almost always makes a difference. And in many cases, it makes a big difference. On the other hand, I find a resonator is not the best idea for frailing or clawhammer style. In that style of play, a resonator can make the banjo tone sound thin and tinny, with too much overtone. Of course, there are always exceptions, but generally speaking, neither design does it's best when played outside it's normal application. Like flatpicking a classical guitar. Or strumming a bluegrass banjo. Time, and trial and error has sorted that out long ago. 
DD

 


I'm sorry, I failed to write what I meant clearly.  I am very sure that a resonator makes a big difference to the sound of a banjo.  What I had meant to say was that I think it is probable that two resonators that are of the same size and shape should sound the same as each other, even if one is made from several layers of veneer and the other one from several wedge shaped pieces of board.  Much in the same way that a well made 3 ply rim is not audibly distinguishable from a well made block rim, if they are the same size and shape.  I hope that makes more sense.

Zach

Jan 26, 2020 - 7:35:12 PM
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7518 posts since 1/7/2005

It makes good sense, and I agree.
The depth of the resonator, as far as I have seen, can make a difference. Less so, the shape.

DD

Jan 27, 2020 - 3:39:44 AM

Emiel

Austria

9312 posts since 1/22/2003

You will probably know this already, but let me add it just in caseā€¦

When people talk about a walnut or mahogany Mastertone, they mean the wood that is used for the neck. The rim ist almost always maple, and the resonator will be only walnut- or mahogany-veneered. A maple banjo will have a maple neck, maple rim and maple veneer on the resonator.

Jan 27, 2020 - 4:55:40 AM

Gerrit

Netherlands

177 posts since 2/27/2013

The aperture between the rim and the resonator influences the sound (Helmholtz resonance), considerably. The traditional Gibson method for attaching the resonator to the rim doesn't make it easy to change that aperture. You could improve improve on that.

Jan 27, 2020 - 5:08:11 AM

4430 posts since 11/20/2004

In my opinion, the inner wood lining has an influence on the sound as well. Poplar has been a common wood for the inner layer.

Jan 27, 2020 - 5:43:29 AM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

12191 posts since 8/30/2006

I suggest planning for content

The form is right there already

The recording king rez has sloped sides. Deering still uses vertical and a shallower depth

resonator gap is crucial and adjustability is hard to get

Those are things you could find wiggle room with

Then I suggest you go and jam with this instrument in company with the “other” bluegrass rigs and see what yours says in comparison

I have 50+ players on the road and in the alleys who use what I build to blister and strip, we all want what works

Power should not be your quest in my opinion , but quality of tone.

And Poplar? It is great for rims and necks, it has green stripes, is lightweight and strong, much lighter than Maple

You will do it right, you always do

Edited by - Helix on 01/27/2020 05:48:14

Jan 27, 2020 - 3:11:48 PM

2761 posts since 2/18/2009

Thank you all, that gives me more things to think about. I hadn't realized that the rims are all maple, but I can veneer a rim and since only a tiny bit of it is visible it should be a lot easier than veneering an open back rim. I don't know about lining the resonator with poplar, but I'll look into it. I've never veneered the inside of a compound curve, and I don't have any poplar around. Adjusting the aperture sounds interesting too, but I'll probably stick to a standard resonator mounting method for my first one. I can't remember if my book shows sloping or vertical inner sides, I'll just do what it shows for now, if it's within my abilities. Thanks for all of the advice.
Zach

Jan 27, 2020 - 3:25:42 PM

12590 posts since 6/29/2005

My own opinion is that the choice of wood and components takes a back seat to the marketing aspects of it.  You would have to figure out where what you were making would fit into the already packed and overcrowded Mastertone copy bluegrass banjo market.  It seems that another builder gets into this every month or so, and they are all -well- copies of Gibson Mastertones, so it's hard to parse the differences.

Because of the ready availability of components in that classic Gibson design, The price continuum goes from less than $400, all the way up into the stratosphere and they all look the same.  The most successful people at that make their own components or have them made for them AND are able to make a case as to why theirs is better than all the other ones.

You are a hand-maker, so you must realize that anyone who knows how to make a neck and rim can get into that very competitive market, but you are at a disadvantage having to eat the profit margin lost by having bought all the expensive parts from someone else.

I have mused about this from time to time, but I don't copy other designs, so that's a blocking issue for me.  If, however I decided to make "Masterclones", I could make very good ones blindfolded and wearing boxing gloves, but I don't know what I would be able to "bring to the party", really.

Jan 27, 2020 - 3:52:39 PM
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rcc56

USA

2472 posts since 2/20/2016

Zach, I've been watching this thread with great curiosity just to see what choices you make.

You've always made your own block rims, prefer alternative fingerboard woods, and like wood bindings. You favor a Tru-oil finish. And sometimes you make some of your own metal parts. These are the typical characteristics of a Hoyt banjo, and a Hoyt banjo is truly more handmade by the maker than most other small shop banjos.

But we know that many resonator banjoists are traditionalists, and they are used to 3 ply steam bent rims, rosewood or ebony fingerboards inlaid with Gibson-esque patterns, nitrocellulose lacquer finishes, and poplar core resonators with an outer lamination.

To make a banjo with traditional characteristics, you would have to either a] purchase your rims and resonators, and possibly pre-inlaid fingerboards, and build a spray booth; or b] spend a great amount of money on new tooling and go through a long learning process.

If you chose a], the banjos would be assembled by Hoyt, instead of being hand made by Hoyt.
If you chose b], the cost might overwhelm your business.

Since you're only building one to start, you might as well go for c], which is to make your rim and resonator in your own style, and use appointments that are attractive and sensible to you. See what the results are, both tonally and cosmetically. If possible, let a few pros play it, and see if they like it well enough to possibly contribute a kind word in public.

I don't think you're going to build a dog. I am curious to hear what the results will be when you combine a Mastertone flange and tone ring with a block rim and a solid wood resonator.

Even if it turns out to be a cannon, some of the hard core traditionalists won't be impressed. They'll continue to buy Huber, Hopkins, recent Gibsons, and re-worked old Gibsons. But that's okay. You'll probably be a lot happier if you continue to follow your own path.

If prototype #1 turns out really well, and you can sell it, then you can build another and see if it will sell. If so, you can make a couple more, with whatever improvements seem fit. If they don't sell, you can hang them on the wall and concentrate on your open-backs.  You seem to be doing pretty well with them--   I see you're well on the way to banjo #150, and people keep buying them.

Remember that most people who try their hand at instrument making never get past #10. I call you a successful builder.

Edited by - rcc56 on 01/27/2020 16:01:27

Jan 27, 2020 - 7:31:22 PM
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2761 posts since 2/18/2009

Thank you both for your advice.

Ken LeVan, rather than having a marketing plan for a resonator banjo I am just going to try making one, and I will have to see what it comes out like. My business plan so far has been to make a thing, and then see if someone likes it enough to buy it. If someone does then I make another one, with some changes that I think may be improvements.

Rcc56, that's very kind of you. I have been either very lucky or very blessed depending on one's worldview, to have gotten to make as many banjos as I have so far. I think that your plan C makes a lot of sense. I quite often use ebony fretboards, especially on walnut banjos, and I will on this one so as not to get too far out on the fringe, as it were. I've not played many banjos other than the ones I build, since I don't get around much, but I'll hope that once I get this one done someone may come by who can really play it and can give me feedback as to how different it sounds from a more conventional one.
Zach

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