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Feb 13, 2020 - 11:14:20 PM

timacn

USA

523 posts since 7/30/2004

I've heard this argument relative to guitars, mandolins, banjos, guitar pickups, amplifiers, etc. The argument generally goes that somehow the quality or "sound" of the instrument or component in question has "gone downhill" over the years, that "older is better," etc. Sometimes, I imagine, this is true. I've also heard the opinion that in many cases, regardless of the item being discussed, the converse is true. Still other reviewers tend to "split the difference" and offer the opinion that there are good and bad examples of the same instrument from every era. (ie. not all prewar Gibson Mastertones or Martin guitars sound better than more recent versions of the same basic designs. Some copies from different eras sound better than those from other eras, some worse.)

Anyway...as I contemplate buying an upgraded tenor banjo, I've recently heard, from somebody whose opinion I respect, that some say older Clareen Tenor banjos are somehow "better" than more recent versions. I've also heard people say that present day Clareen banjos are among the best made and best sounding banjos being made in the world today. (I have read that they are quite popular with professional Irish tenor players who, I would assume, know very well what they are talking about.)

Anybody have any "first hand" opinions on "older versus newer" Clareen tenors? As they are quite rare in this part of the world, I've never seen or heard one in person, but they certainly look and sound great in videos that I've viewed and listened to. Thanks for your opinions and insights.

Feb 14, 2020 - 8:08:31 AM

651 posts since 2/19/2012

Just a thought, since there aren't that many Clareen banjos here in the US - you might try posting your question on The Session. There are some very old post here regarding Clareens for sale over in the UK. I think a carefully worded topic might draw some helpful responses.  I don't know The Session's policy toward brand-specific recommendations, but I'd give it a try.  You might also contact Clareen directly to ask if they might have a used one, what you've heard about new vs older, etc. since they likely have both new and older models for sale.  Good luck.  Interesting question.

Feb 14, 2020 - 8:12:34 AM

152 posts since 8/25/2009

Wood is made of alternating layers of lignin (which is relatively stiff) and resin which is relatively soft and flexible. Many, many years ago, I heard a lecture at a guitar-makers convention that claimed that it is necessary to "play in" guitars, violins, etc. in order to loosen up the resin in the wood making up the tops. He pointed out that the Stradivarius violins and cellos, etc. in the Library of Congress museum (and other museums) are taken out from time to time and played to prevent the sound from deteriorating. He also claimed that playing a guitar too much could wear out the wood, so you replace your guitar every 20 years, even if you didn't notice any problem, which recommendation was well received by the luthiers.

It seem to me that the sound producing components of a banjo are mostly the head and metal components, except for the bridge. The metal components ought to be pretty stable, and skin heads have the reputation of "lasting forever". I have seen recommendations to replace mylar heads every five years, and some bridge makers suggest the same lifespan for bridges, but that's a lot cheaper than buying a whole new instrument. At last banjo players have an advantage over guitarists!!! :-)

My opinion, for whatever it's worth: So, for banjos the only parts I would expect to either "break in" or "wear out" would be the bridges and plastic heads.

Feb 14, 2020 - 8:54:21 AM

timacn

USA

523 posts since 7/30/2004

Interesting. Never heard that about replacing guitars before. The comments about the wood make sense. I also agree with your observations about metal. I've heard of "metal fatigue" but I don't see that happening with tone rings! I've read/heard the axiom "they don't make 'em like they used to" applied to many, many things. Wonder how much of that is true and how much is selective memory, bias, etc?

Feb 14, 2020 - 9:49:55 AM

803 posts since 3/23/2006

There's no substitute for playing and listening to the instrument yourself.  A rule of thumb that I use is that, "When experts disagree, then no one really knows." Every few years someone does careful blind evaluations of Stradivari violins vs. violins from the best modern makers. You can probably guess the results.  https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/million-dollar-strads-fall-modern-violins-blind-sound-check  Notwithstanding, the prices of Strads have not fallen. Experts disagree.

Feb 14, 2020 - 1:21:02 PM

Tony O Rourke

Australia

24 posts since 2/9/2016

I'm with Howard, you need to play the instrument to decide whether it suits. I own a 2014 Clareen Elite Custom and it's a marvellous banjo. I also borrowed one of Tom's older Clareen banjos from the 1980s when travelling around Ireland in 2012. You'd be choosing from two high quality instruments from different time lines. The idea of sound improving with the passage of time may well be different with guitars because of wood maturation, but you can change the tone of a banjo quite significantly simply by changing the the type of material of the head, and then tightening or loosening it, the tone is also affected by the type and/or thickness of bridge used. In my own case I like a brighter tone so have my head relatively tight and a thin 3 legged bridge. I also think that the type/thickness of plectrum makes more of a difference on a banjo than a guitar. To sum up, there is more you can change on a banjo to alter the tone.

Feb 15, 2020 - 5:54:27 AM

DSmoke

USA

799 posts since 11/30/2015

The wood and construction of the neck is very important to the tone. I also agree that new banjos need to "open up", or get "played in". I'm not a scientist and all that stuff is over my head but I read enough that it makes sense and I will leave it at that.

You won't go wrong with a Clareen, they are built for trad. They are also very helpful. The best models obviously cost more but will have a good rim and tone ring. The Oyster I had was the best playing neck of any banjo I've had. The width at the heel was much thinner than most vintage banjos which made it slim and easier to reach fret 7.

Hey Tony, fantastic podcast on the Blarney Pilgrim! If people here don't already know the podcast check it out, and there are a few banjo players interviews.

Feb 15, 2020 - 6:49:52 AM

IanC15

UK

47 posts since 1/26/2015

I'd second the comments re Clareen. Excellent banjos both in tone and playbility with great service from Tom and Fintan. There are a couple of other Irish makers such a Emearld and Dave Boyle. I have'nt tried a PB but the ebony Emerald Paragon I have is an amazing instrument with a more complex tone than the Clareen. Which would I prefer? Difficult to say and depends on how I'm feeling on any particular day.

Feb 15, 2020 - 7:06:37 AM

Bribak

USA

452 posts since 8/18/2010

I will add another plus for Clareen. I have had both an Oyster and now a Setanta. It took me a little bit of experimenting to get their tone to where I wanted the sound to be. I came from a flathead bluegrass banjo history. So the archtop sound has been an adjustment for me. Different heads and bridges and even a different tailpiece on my Setanta. A lot of string experimenting. Tony's point about plectrum differences is also very true. I have tried tons of different picks and truly each one has its own distinct tone. I'm not entirely sure what role age has had on this banjo vs part swapping and adjustment. After owning the Setanta for about two years now, I do know that it sounds to me better now than it ever has. It is probably a combination of adjustments (parts and tweaking) and aging and playing in of the instrument itself. If you listen to the many ShaskeenReel videos on youtube where Martin Howley plays through the various models - and you like the tone - I think you'll be very pleased with the instrument once it's in your hands.

Feb 15, 2020 - 12:51:01 PM

651 posts since 2/19/2012

I just came from a workshop featuring some of the Drowsy Lads from Columbus Ohio, and John McKewen was playing his Clareen Elite. Awesome sound from the banjo and talent from the player!

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