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Feb 12, 2020 - 10:41:41 PM
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Eric A


452 posts since 10/15/2019

This is just sort of a mash-up of things I've read, seen, or heard lately. It just sort of came together for me. Not sure how it's all going to pop out.

Somebody was saying there is magic in those old rims that can't be duplicated. 80 years of age and drying and sound waves or whatever makes the wood rim do things that can't be duplicated.

Then somebody points out the fact that when Earl was really burning it up, 1950 give or take, his banjo was only like 20 years old. In banjo years, that is like yesterday.

Full stop. That pretty much puts an end to that sort of nonsense.

Maybe the trick was to have Don Reno let that Granada cook in the trunk of his car the whole time he was in the service.

Does anybody even bother to look at the microphones from back then? So your faithful high dollar reproduction of everything to do with Earl's banjo still doesn't sound right? Well, play it through a 1940's microphone in a primitive recording "studio", press it onto vinyl, and then play it back through the cheapest Chinese turntable that you can buy on Amazon. Then get back to me.

Feb 12, 2020 - 10:50:57 PM
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40 posts since 5/31/2009

It could be worse. Prople could be paying $35 million for an old fiddle, and saying how magical the sound is......

Feb 12, 2020 - 10:51:26 PM

10658 posts since 10/27/2006

You forgot the strings. Ya want the old sound, ya need the old gauges—a lot heavier than what people are using nowadays.

These are the closest to the old mediums. Ignore the D tuning nonsense—the Mdium gauge strings of the day were heavier.

Pearce 1950D Hartford Strings

Feb 13, 2020 - 12:15:50 AM
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2598 posts since 2/20/2016

"Are old rims magic?"
Maybe, maybe not.

The old slow-growth maple that Gibson used in the old days that came from Michigan's upper peninsula has mostly been used up. The younger maple that is common today has mostly grown in warmer conditions, unless it comes from upper Canada. Maple that has grown under modern conditions will tend to have less density and stiffness than the old stuff did. Will that make a difference in a banjo rim??

I don't know. I'm not good enough on the banjo to tell.  It does make a difference in a spruce guitar or violin top, though.

OK, how much of an effect does each of the following have on a banjo's tone:  Wood, tone ring, type of glue, mounting hardware, and fitting of the parts?  Whoever figures that out and has the best work ethic will make the best banjos.

On guitars and violins, wood, glue, thicknesses, and fit all have a significant effect.


Don't underestimate the old tube mics and ribbon mics. Many of them were of very high quality. They stopped making them for decades because they were costly to manufacture, and rather delicate. Condenser mics replaced them because they are cheaper to make and more durable.

Good tube mics are once again available. You should go into a better quality studio and try one-- you might be surprised at how good they can be.

Edited by - rcc56 on 02/13/2020 00:31:46

Feb 13, 2020 - 5:32:13 AM
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4458 posts since 11/20/2004

Let your own ears make your decision. If you hear it, it is real, if not, there is nothing to it. Either way, do it in person, not on a recording.

Feb 13, 2020 - 6:02:03 AM
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6912 posts since 8/28/2013

You want magic in your rims?

Remove the resonator and say "abracadabra" into the banjo pot, then replace the resonator.

Feb 13, 2020 - 6:25:41 AM
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71361 posts since 5/9/2007

Old wood sounds better than new wood was the rule.
Now,with torrefaction,new wood behaves like old.

Feb 13, 2020 - 6:36:50 AM

1332 posts since 4/13/2009
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Reno stored the banjo under his bed, not in the car trunk.

Feb 13, 2020 - 6:51:53 AM

3820 posts since 5/12/2010

The same sort of thought leads players of Old Time music to think getting a cheap old banjo like the old timers ordered from Sears & Roebuck will help them sound like the music recorded back in the 30s-40s, of course they then need to stuff the pot full of rags or foam rubber and loosen the head on their old Hamony.

I have come to understand that what folks believe to be true becomes true for them.

What I believe to be true is that the wood of a banjo rim, whether old growth or new, whether played for years or not, has very, very little, if anything at all, to do with the sound of the banjo.

A banjo rim is just a frame to hold the head which is the actual "sound board", the size of the rim determines the air chamber below the head and that is what the rim does for how the banjo sounds, doesn't matter what kind of wood as long as it is stiff enough for the job.

Feb 13, 2020 - 8:54:13 AM



1072 posts since 12/4/2012

This is just anecdotal. I haven't played a lot of banjos but my old Gibson OPF rimmed banjo doesn't sound like my Nechville, nor a RK 75 or a Goldtone BG150 that I played.

Now those other three banjos sounded good and sounded more similar to each other than my Kel Kroydon. But that's just my personal experience.

As Bob pointed out, the wood in Earl's rim was already old before it was a banjo.

Feb 13, 2020 - 9:49:51 AM

131 posts since 4/3/2009

Originally posted by rcc56

Don't underestimate the old tube mics and ribbon mics. Many of them were of very high quality. They stopped making them for decades because they were costly to manufacture, and rather delicate. Condenser mics replaced them because they are cheaper to make and more durable.

Somewhat off topic to the original post, but to be clear, tube microphones are in fact condenser microphones.  Condenser, or capacitor, microphones amplify the varying capacitance of spaced diaphragms or plates in a sound field to create a microphone level audio output (dynamic mics, of which ribbon mics are a specific design subset, amplify varying magnetic fields).  All condenser mics were tube mics in the beginning, because tubes were the only high impedance amplifying devices available at the time.  Technology advances led to field effect transistor (FET) amplifiers, and "electret" condenser microphones with pre-charged backplates so high voltage bias was no longer required.  Yes, FETs are cheaper and more durable than tubes, and they can be powered with normal phantom power and not require external high voltage power supplies.  And there are some mighty fine sounding FET and FET/electret mics, as well as some less than wonderful tube mics.

Feb 13, 2020 - 10:20:59 AM
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71361 posts since 5/9/2007

The 3 ply rim/flathead tonering sound used to be a rare Gibson thing and highly sought after.
Most of the banjos made these days are of that basic design and tone.

Feb 13, 2020 - 2:05:23 PM
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12735 posts since 6/29/2005

I will go so far as to say that there is definitely some "magical thinking" involved with the qualities attributed to some banjo components,  but that goes with violins and guitars as well.   Banjos, I think are worse, because we have alloys of metal as well as wood age and species to create mythologies around. 

Quoting John Calkin— "Many luthiers and musicians alike spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars collecting information and recordings and they have come to have a stake in the sanctity of its rightness. They need the vast body of instrument mythology to be correct, and strongly oppose the possibility that it may be bogus."

Calkin goes on to say that the quality of the design and construction is more important than the wood.  Actually, what I think can be "magic" is a really well made banjo of any style where the builder understood what they were doing and had the skill and wherewithal to execute their ideas.  Surely Gibson knew what they were doing, so did Vega and other companies.  There are builders today who can make banjos as good as the old ones.

Feb 14, 2020 - 6:14:12 AM

71361 posts since 5/9/2007

Trust your ears...not mythology.

Feb 14, 2020 - 8:24:18 AM
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6912 posts since 8/28/2013

People sometimes fail to realize that all of these old rims were made in a factory setting by flawed people on machinery that could go out of adjustment from time to to time, and were also subject to profit margins that dicatated just how much deviation from specs was acceptable and how many banjos were to be made that week. In other words, despite even old wood, sometimes even from the same tree, each and every rim may have differed in the amount of "magic" it contained. Maybe the worker had a headache; maybe the glue hadn't been from the same batch and had been mixed slightly differently; maybe the quality control guy was thinking about his last date; maybe the weather was foul. Or maybe one particular day, all conditions were perfect, all the lathes, cauls, planers, etc. were in top working order, and the rims were all perfectly formed with no lamination gaps and rock solid glue joints.

Magic? Bah! The only magic I can see is that so many decent rims were finished in the first place, and that enough were so well fitted to the rest of the parts, and someone came along that played a new style that worked so well on these banjos, that the mythology began in the first place.

Edited by - G Edward Porgie on 02/14/2020 08:26:43

Feb 14, 2020 - 8:50:08 AM
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107 posts since 8/9/2019

There is no shortage of slow growing cold climate rock maple at the moment

Feb 14, 2020 - 9:23:38 AM

71361 posts since 5/9/2007

How can anyone rate the craftsmen that built Gibson or any other banjo?
They're not accomplishing some complicated procedure only possible by flawless,gifted people.
Once you've glued together 200 rims I suppose you'd get pretty good at doing that.
If Gibson said use that piece of wood and fill in the imperfections that's what the worker did.They did as they were told or found a different job,imo.
I don't get the use of the word "flawed" as it pertains to the worker.

Feb 14, 2020 - 10:02:55 AM
Players Union Member



14988 posts since 3/27/2004

Anyone can go back and search the archives for the many topics that have photos of "old pre-war rims" that have been revealed to have gaps in the glue joints between the laminations.  There's also direct commentary from a few of the older folks who knew first-hand what was "behind the curtain".

The evidence of some sound quality present in any particular manufacturer's rims may be just as likely a result of imperfection as opposed to the often parroted idea that those rims were somehow of much higher quality and made from wood that had some particular quality that is no longer available.

Rolling three ply rims that will still be "intact" in 50 or 100 years is just as problematic today as it was then.  When you force a piece of wood into a form that it doesn't naturally want to be in it will spend the rest of its days trying to go back to what it wants to be.  This isn't any particular mystery.

Edited by - rudy on 02/14/2020 10:05:44

Feb 14, 2020 - 10:20:23 AM

7572 posts since 1/7/2005
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I've seen and played plenty of vintage banjos and guitars that exhibited indifferent workmanship and poor sound. On the other hand, I think that many of the current boutique makers have displayed an impressively high percentage of consistently superior instruments.

I've yet to see a bad guitar by Santa Cruz, Bourgeois, Collings, etc. that didn't play easily and have good sound. Same goes with the fine banjos built in small shops by makers who have learned from the triumphs and mistakes of the past.

Collectors have pushed the price of fine old instruments--banjos, guitars, violins, etc. past the ability of most players to afford. I would guess that the majority of the professional musicians play top quality, modern instruments--and are quite happy with them.

Great instruments are not the result of magic or voodoo. They're the result of knowledge about what works and what doesn't, as well as carefully chosen materials and fine workmanship. A lot of luthiers are building instruments out of very old, reclaimed lumber and heat treated wood. And while they can certainly sound great, not everyone agrees that they always sound better than those built with normally harvested and seasoned wood. Especially the banjo--which contains more metal than it does wood.


Feb 14, 2020 - 11:32:33 AM
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3820 posts since 5/12/2010

I would much rather have a well built banjo built on a well made laminated rim of recent manufacture, than one built with a rim older than I am.

I have used Cooperman rims in the past, and now use laminated rims from Balsam Banjo Works. With either of these I know the laminations are joined tightly with modern glue, and I expect they will stay together longer than I will.

I have seen plenty of old rims with gaps, and delamination issues. I think the glue used in the old days, probably hide glue, is tasty to microbes.

Whatever the cause, after a certain point the glue turns to dust. I have seen this on banjo rims, and even more on antique furniture I have repaired or restored.

The "magic" to me is that any of them hold together for 100 years.

Feb 14, 2020 - 12:28:58 PM

6912 posts since 8/28/2013

"I don't get the use of the word "flawed" as it pertains to the worker."

People are flawed, and workers are, without a doubt, people (at least in the days before robots--which incidentally, are created, serviced, and operated by people--so thjere are flaws there, too). Even the best of us have bad days, suffer from colds, get frustrated when something doesn't go as planned, and sometimes detest the person next to us for his political beliefs. Workers are not immune to any human foible, although the best of them make some monumental efforts at times to keep their own difficulties out of their jobs. Even when a worker has 20 years experience laminating rims, he can still get distracted and glue something unevenly if a fly suddenly lands on his nose. And after those 20 years, maybe his vision is no longer what it used to be and he doesn't notice a small defect in a piece of wood.

Feb 14, 2020 - 1:39:34 PM

71361 posts since 5/9/2007

I love the power and tone from my 1929 tb-2 rim and resonator,but if the conversion had been done poorly it wouldn't win any prizes.The finished product needs to be good wood fitted right.
I was lucky enough and smart enough to let Jimmy Cox handle the whole project as much as I wanted to do it myself.

It doesn't take a lot of brilliance to get wood into the right shape for working good.A good lathe man is very important.In the depression days people were very careful not to lose their job and back in those days people understood wood very well.

If people got a bad banjo they could complain to Gibson and get it straightened out, I believe.

Edited by - steve davis on 02/14/2020 13:44:09

Feb 14, 2020 - 1:59:42 PM
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12367 posts since 8/30/2006

for some of the recordings with Bill Monroe, Earl tuned up a whole step to A without a capo. I think it contributed to that pre-war sound right there in 1945. The mikes and the wooden room were also factors.

By striking a string on a drum, we create miniature lightning and therefore not so miniature thunder everytime we pick a string. It's explosive, or percussive if you like. The result is way greater than the input, that's why we dig it.

The miniature thunder has an effect on hardware and can loosen tight things.

It would follow logically that miniature thunder would help cause a repeatable path in the wooden rims and help vintage them, even though there might be gaps and de-lams. The signal is there, it's consistent with which Hz are being produced. It can be measured by instruments.

Now HOW the signal travels in the wood and how it is produced is the subject of great consideration.

So which wood makes which tone that is resident with that set of hardware and set up is then worthy of care by the player and care by the builder.

The snarketeers will say otherwise, that the rim makes no difference, then let them make papier mache and let us know how it goes.

Feb 14, 2020 - 1:59:44 PM
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12735 posts since 6/29/2005

Here's a picture of the growth rings in one inch of red maple that I use for banjo making - 32 years in one inch.  Grown at around 2000 feet in northern PA. Never been subjected to a kiln.

If this was a "typical" sized red maple tree, 16" diameter, it would be 256 years old.  Most red maple trees around here get much bigger than that—20" would be 320 years old— they get to be 3 feet diameter.  They don't all grow this slowly—every tree is different.

So what I am getting at is that if you look at a cross section of the trunk, and you've seen this in National Parks, showing rings on the stump related to events in history—this is the science of "dendrochronology"—somewhere on this tree, boards cut from that part are the same as the ones used for pre-war rims—90 years back is nothing to a 300 year old tree.  When you saw the log, you could determine the dates of any given section.

Are the boards cut from that 1930 section of the tree somehow magical?

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 02/14/2020 14:05:34

Feb 14, 2020 - 2:08:22 PM
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71361 posts since 5/9/2007

Wood was stored and cared for,for many years before it was put into an instrument.

It's important that the maple cells become tiny air chambers.

Edited by - steve davis on 02/14/2020 14:12:20

Feb 14, 2020 - 2:14:01 PM
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12735 posts since 6/29/2005

Originally posted by steve davis

Wood was stored and cared for,for many years before it was put into an instrument.

My feeling is that whoever Gibson contracted with, cut the lumber, dried it to the spec, and sent it out—2 years max.  Gibson advertised in some of their catalogs that the wood was "air dried"(as it should have been).

As a contrast, the maple I have here has been drying outdoors in a shed for at least 30 years.

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