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Determining Playability/Craftsman based on Pics

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Mar 26, 2020 - 9:52:41 AM
98 posts since 3/19/2018

Hi everyone. I have a website - QuailCreekBanjos.com - and a YouTube channel . When I was starting out one of the things I wanted to understand better is how to assess the quality of an open-back banjo when I'm not able to get my hands on one. And because there aren't that many stores with a good selection of open-backs (generally, unless you're lucky, you have to travel to them), it seems like a valuable video to make. I'd be interested in your feedback as builders about how you assess quality simply from pictures -- e.g., string spacing, height of the fifth string, action at the nut and 12th fret, fret wear, overall geometry of the neck. Really, if you have 3-4 pics, how does one assess the playability and craftsmanship. I'll probably include it on an email distribution to my subscribers as well, if you're interested.

Mar 26, 2020 - 10:59:30 AM
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6853 posts since 8/28/2013

Craftsmanship maybe can be seen in photos if those photos are very high quality and there are enough of them to show details clearly.

Playabilty, in my opinion, can only be determined by playing. You just can't photogragh how something feels to a particular person, nor can you accept one configuration as being suitable for everybody.

Mar 26, 2020 - 11:11:41 AM
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beegee

USA

21530 posts since 7/6/2005

Looking at your site, it seems to reflect the quality of your work. As far as playability, it may be helpful to get some endorsing comments/videos from other players. Also include some high-quality closeups of details of your work.

Mar 26, 2020 - 11:20:40 AM

KCJones

USA

644 posts since 8/30/2012

It may be good to break 'playability' down into the objective physical aspects that affect such an esoteric abstract concept. So, what affects playability?

Action. Tuner quality. Fret size, height and thickness. Neck width, depth, and profile. Fingerboard material? Neck finish? All these things can be assessed from photos and measurements.

Edited by - KCJones on 03/26/2020 11:21:07

Mar 26, 2020 - 11:24:38 AM

98 posts since 3/19/2018

Thanks for the replys -- i wasn't being clear. I was looking at creating a video not focused on my instruments... i have pictures and videos aplenty... rather a video for new players who want to shop for a banjo but don't know what to look for. Agree that playability is subjective, but certainly if you look at an 1880's banjo with a poor cut nut, super high action and a twisted neck, you can be certain that playability is perhaps an issue. Again, for new players looking for a banjo and shopping for used instruments, what should they look for. Open back banjos are often bought used since there aren't great local selections in most cases. Thanks for the replys so far!

Mar 26, 2020 - 12:03:44 PM

12710 posts since 6/29/2005

I wish I knew the answer, and I have been producing communications professionally for 40+years.  I think you just need to figure out what story you want to tell, who is your target customer and think like an advertising agency.

I don't think you can adequately communicate what a banjo is actually like via pictures.  Even videos are problematic because there is so much variability with microphones, recording conditions and the skill of the player—no doubt a banjo played by a great player will be perceived as sounding better—Jens Kruger, for instance, will make a Deering Goodtime sound 3X better than if I played it, so it's never apples to apples.  I wish I could get Nick Hornbuckle to play sound files on my banjos!

In terms of craftsmanship, you want to show that the banjo is properly made and play up what the special aspects of your banjos are—obviously nothing like a rim with sloppy joints on the inside, gaps, or poorly shaped heel or peghead, big gap where the neck meets the pot, etc etc.  While craftsmanship is wonderful, it has very little to do with sound—especially when it comes to embellishments like inlays, which really do not enhance the sound and can fool people into thinking the banjo is better than it actually is.

I think one thing is to have a known benchmark to compare your sound to—I have a 1927 Granada and a 1962 Vega Pete Seeger that I use to "keep myself honest".  As I make more bluegrass banjos, I will make a Gibson flathead rb2 copy with flying eagles to use in the mix— I think seeing a video of  playing a tune on a recognizable iconic banjo next to yours is somewhat instructive because you are "grounding" the comparison and providing a known control.

As for detail pictures, they are important at showing your sense of style and attention to detail—just look at the pictures on Jason Romero's site—dark, sexy saturated color, black background, etc.. Don't use a bad photo made with a phone.  I would say that a bad photo is worse than no photo.  I often look up my own banjos on Google Images to see what they have picked up—many pictures you post on your site will likely show up there and on Pinterest, and you can see which ones are the most effective and which ones you wish you hadn't posted.

Mar 26, 2020 - 1:44:39 PM

98 posts since 3/19/2018

Great insight, thanks Ken. I think back to when i was looking to upgrade banjos I had to look at used ones. I just wanted someone to say to me, "hey man, the third string should be centered at the heel" or "look at how well the heel meets the neck" and stuff like that. Many casual don't know how banjos are made, and thus don't know when there's something wrong. Love your banjos, and you're always helpful on here Ken. Hope you and yours are staying healthy.

Mar 26, 2020 - 5:44:08 PM
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18 posts since 2/4/2017

I often browse craigslist and help students of mine find banjos to buy. Before taking the time to check one out in person, I make a lot of snap judgments based on the photos. It's easier to tell the bottom of the barrel ones from the rest than it is to tell a great one from an ok one though.

Bottom of the barrel banjos usually have:
Guitar tuners
4 small thin pieces of metal acting like a flange. Or sometimes a metal flange integrated into the rim
Thin tension hooks
Thin aluminum or lightweight wood rim (can be harder to tell from the photos)
Dark colored / cherry stained glossy wood
Screen-printed logo on the headstock

A super low bridge can be indicative of bowed neck or bad action, and is a sign of caution.

If none of those things apply, I usually consider it good enough to at least learn more, and possibly see it in person.

Mar 27, 2020 - 11:55:06 AM
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98 posts since 3/19/2018

quote:
Originally posted by banjobard

I often browse craigslist and help students of mine find banjos to buy. Before taking the time to check one out in person, I make a lot of snap judgments based on the photos. It's easier to tell the bottom of the barrel ones from the rest than it is to tell a great one from an ok one though.

Bottom of the barrel banjos usually have:
Guitar tuners
4 small thin pieces of metal acting like a flange. Or sometimes a metal flange integrated into the rim
Thin tension hooks
Thin aluminum or lightweight wood rim (can be harder to tell from the photos)
Dark colored / cherry stained glossy wood
Screen-printed logo on the headstock

A super low bridge can be indicative of bowed neck or bad action, and is a sign of caution.

If none of those things apply, I usually consider it good enough to at least learn more, and possibly see it in person.


Great advice!  Exactly what I was looking for.

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