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Tommy Makem Style "Sharp Plunky" Tone Setup

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May 30, 2020 - 8:20:36 AM

LzChase

Sweden

97 posts since 10/30/2019

I and a friend of mine are trying to find a setup to mimic Tommy Makem's characteristic tone as heard in this video.
youtube.com/watch?v=Im2ihKqvZwQ

However, Neither of us, be it me with my Deering Vega Pete Seeger, or him with his Original 1960's PS-5, with an Oettinger Tailpiece just like in the video, can get the plunky tone heard in basically all Tommy Makem recordings. We could use some help.

Our Setups:

-Modern Vega PS-5, Bobby Clancy Style setup-
Deering Vega Pete Seeger 2001
Golden Gate Kershner Tailpiece
Rickard Cyclone Tuners
Bone Nut
Stelling Compensated Bridge
Top Frosted Remo Head
Railroad Spikes

-Friend's Orignal PS-5-
1964 Vega Pete Seeger
Oettinger Tailpiece
Unknown tuners, not original. Possibly StewMac
Bone Nut
Regular Bridge
Vega Calf Skin Head Reproduction
Original Vega sliding wire capo

Edited by - LzChase on 05/30/2020 08:21:01

May 30, 2020 - 9:39:39 AM
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ChunoTheDog

Canada

197 posts since 8/9/2019

Don't waste your time. Tone is in the right hand and in the mixing/mastering of the songs. You'll be chasing your tail.

May 30, 2020 - 11:07:31 AM
Players Union Member

Eric A

USA

652 posts since 10/15/2019

I would tighten the head and try a lighter/thinner bridge.

May 30, 2020 - 11:16 AM

13018 posts since 6/29/2005

I love Tommy Makem!  I don't know what the new PS5s are like, but listening to him, it sounds to me like the characteristic Vega Pete Seeger sound you would hear from all the folksingers of the day—sadly, very few of them are still with us.  His banjo is an early 28 hook one.

I would chalk it up to Tommy's right hand and he probably had good calluses and fingernails.

One long shot possibility is that I notice how low the tension hoop sits below the surface of the head in that video.  The original Vega PS5s (at least the two I have) had 10 15/16" pots, and the 11" Vegalon high crown heads that often came with them would pull way down like Tommy's.  There is currently no head on the market that is the same as the Vegalon—closest is the 5-star, but they don't come in high crown.

Having said that, All those old Vegas sound good, but I think it's Tommy's playing that makes his sound the way it does.

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 05/30/2020 11:17:28

May 30, 2020 - 11:25:06 AM
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1629 posts since 2/12/2009

he also has a pickup taped to the head of his banjo so, you are likely hearing what is coming from the desk !

May 30, 2020 - 1:23:36 PM

13018 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by spoonfed

he also has a pickup taped to the head of his banjo so, you are likely hearing what is coming from the desk !


If he has a pickup, all bets are off.

My recollection of those PS5 sounds are all natural acoustic.

May 30, 2020 - 1:30:36 PM

1629 posts since 2/12/2009

Ken, you can clearly see it taped near the bridge, I have watched him walk on stage and plug in quite a few times on youtube.

May 30, 2020 - 2:38:43 PM

Emiel

Austria

9478 posts since 1/22/2003

I can see the taped pickup, too. But to achieve this kind of sound without pickup, I feel that you need a Vega-type Tubaphone banjo with a rather thinly top-frosted Remo head (not the newest generation; and tight, but not very tight), a Presto tailpiece would be fine, a Huber bridge, strings not too heavy.

May 30, 2020 - 2:49:34 PM

13018 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by spoonfed

Ken, you can clearly see it taped near the bridge, I have watched him walk on stage and plug in quite a few times on youtube.


Not disputing that!

May 30, 2020 - 2:59:24 PM
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13018 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Emiel

I can see the taped pickup, too. But to achieve this kind of sound without pickup, I feel that you need a Vega-type Tubaphone banjo with a rather thinly top-frosted Remo head (not the newest generation; and tight, but not very tight), a Presto tailpiece would be fine, a Huber bridge, strings not too heavy.

Too bad about the pickup—another one bites the dust.
Anyway, You are quite right that to get that sound honestly, you need the Tubaphone and the head you are describing is exactly what the Vegalon was—very lightly frosted Weather King.
Most of them in that era had presto tailpieces, and I think they used heavier strings than we use today, sometimes a wound third string.  Don't know what strings Tommy Makem had, but if he was using a pickup, it's hardly germane.

 

May 30, 2020 - 5:34:13 PM

easy

USA

227 posts since 1/23/2009

Heya Lawrence, I'd have to (respectfully) disagree with Antoine: one of my favorite things about the banjo is that it is a tinkerer's dream come true. There are innumerable factors that you can play around with to alter the sound of your banjo; some of these cost money (often quite a bit), some are free (i.e. altering your technique). I, too, spent my first few years experimenting on how to make the most out of a modestly-priced banjo (correct me if you've been playing for years), and I would say that I've found the most effective upgrades/alterations to be switching to solid brass shoes and bolts (assuming yours, like most, are pot-metal [zinc alloy]), and installing a Tusq nut and a bone 5th-string pip. A brass tension hoop helped a lot as well. For the brass components, I went through Rickard (a Canadian company), getting the ball-style shoes, and I was mighty impressed with the improvement in tone and volume. The Tusq nut is best purchased off Amazon (go for Tusq XL, which is permanently lubricated with PTFE), but, unless they've expanded their line, you'll have to buy a nut blank and cut/file it yourself. Don't forget to measure your nut-slot first, so as to buy the appropriate width. A set of nut files will only cost 10-20 bucks (go for diamond coated, if you can), and you'll have picked up a new skill by the time you're done. Enjoy

May 30, 2020 - 8:24:58 PM

32 posts since 8/31/2015

What gauge strings are you using? That can make a big difference. My ears hear light gauge strings in that video.

Edited by - TreyDBanjoKS on 05/30/2020 20:25:31

May 31, 2020 - 12:51:20 AM

LzChase

Sweden

97 posts since 10/30/2019

quote:
Originally posted by Ken LeVan

I love Tommy Makem!  I don't know what the new PS5s are like, but listening to him, it sounds to me like the characteristic Vega Pete Seeger sound you would hear from all the folksingers of the day—sadly, very few of them are still with us.  His banjo is an early 28 hook one.

I would chalk it up to Tommy's right hand and he probably had good calluses and fingernails.

One long shot possibility is that I notice how low the tension hoop sits below the surface of the head in that video.  The original Vega PS5s (at least the two I have) had 10 15/16" pots, and the 11" Vegalon high crown heads that often came with them would pull way down like Tommy's.  There is currently no head on the market that is the same as the Vegalon—closest is the 5-star, but they don't come in high crown.

Having said that, All those old Vegas sound good, but I think it's Tommy's playing that makes his sound the way it does.


Well there is no doubt his playstyle is unique, a variation of up-picking I've never seen anyone else use. And I love that collection of pictures.

May 31, 2020 - 12:52:38 AM

LzChase

Sweden

97 posts since 10/30/2019

quote:
Originally posted by TreyDBanjoKS

What gauge strings are you using? That can make a big difference. My ears hear light gauge strings in that video.


I'm using Medium-Light strings, heaviest being 23w. my friend is using extra light.

May 31, 2020 - 12:54:08 AM

LzChase

Sweden

97 posts since 10/30/2019

To all of you, here is an old upload where I sort of tried to play like Tommy banjohangout.org/song/42596

May 31, 2020 - 6:32:51 AM

easy

USA

227 posts since 1/23/2009

Also, check out this thread I posted a couple years back, which I titled "The Quest for 'Plunk'": banjohangout.org/archive/343928
One of the suggestions that kept coming up was nylgut strings. I've tried them, as well as monofilament fishing leader (re: banjohangout.org/archive/343191 for gauges), and found the mono to be equal in tone/volume/performance to the Nylgut (which ain't cheap, for what it is). My main complaints with the mono fishing leader, which is about $2.50-$4 per spool (which would likely be a lifetime supply), was the lack of responsiveness (a bit floppy) and slightly less volume than I'd like. However, fluorocarbon leader (which I never got around to trying) is known to be stiffer, and may (or may not) perform better in these respects.

Jun 1, 2020 - 12:16:19 PM

225 posts since 6/15/2006

Nice to hear that sound again. As I remember it many of the singers that played long necked banjos in the old folk days had a sound somewhat like that. I could name some. Like others I think that this sound has something to do with a fairly tight head and a good not too light pot. I have a banjo that sounds a quite a bit like that. Its a long necked east german banjo, 11" and a half" with a little arch top and an inner Bacon like resonator. The skin is a remo frosted and quite tight, like they used to (some may say a little too tight?). I would not call the sound "plunky" but rather "crisp", but it may also have something to do with the fact that they are uppicking. I think, that downpicking may create a little more plunk.
I always have felt it difficult to play Pete Seeger style and make it fluently with precission and drive. Downpicking comes much more natural for the hand in my case. But I do admire the sound, and the people who can make it work like Tommy Makem and others. Steen

Jun 1, 2020 - 1:11:12 PM

LzChase

Sweden

97 posts since 10/30/2019

quote:
Originally posted by steen

Nice to hear that sound again. As I remember it many of the singers that played long necked banjos in the old folk days had a sound somewhat like that. I could name some. Like others I think that this sound has something to do with a fairly tight head and a good not too light pot. I have a banjo that sounds a quite a bit like that. Its a long necked east german banjo, 11" and a half" with a little arch top and an inner Bacon like resonator. The skin is a remo frosted and quite tight, like they used to (some may say a little too tight?). I would not call the sound "plunky" but rather "crisp", but it may also have something to do with the fact that they are uppicking. I think, that downpicking may create a little more plunk.
I always have felt it difficult to play Pete Seeger style and make it fluently with precission and drive. Downpicking comes much more natural for the hand in my case. But I do admire the sound, and the people who can make it work like Tommy Makem and others. Steen


That's interesting, because for me it's been the opposite I actually started with typical Clawhammer, but eventually moved to Seeger Style because I find it easier to pick the right strings.

Jun 1, 2020 - 1:27:38 PM

543 posts since 8/14/2018

quote:
Originally posted by easy

However, fluorocarbon leader (which I never got around to trying) is known to be stiffer, and may (or may not) perform better in these respects.


I've got PVF carbon lute strings on my Stewart, and they are definitely higher tension than plain nylon or Nylguts, but also brighter and louder. I'd say about halfway between plain nylon and steel in terms of 'plunky' sound.

Jun 2, 2020 - 1:14:12 PM

225 posts since 6/15/2006

To Laurence. Yes its funny, because the "bum - ditty" pattern, we have in both systems are fairly alike. One difference I have thought about may be this: Playing claw, we start with a down-movement in hand (and arm), and then we lift the hand for the next down movement. In Seeger style we already lift the hand, when we pick the first note having a little more time before the down movement (brush). After that: In claw, we let the thumb-stroke "help" lift the hand up in position to start over. In Seeger style the hand is not lifted here, because the hand is already down and ready to start picking up. So while in claw the arm during a bum - ditty session goes downupdownup, it will in Seeger style only go up - down. It may be the the reason that I find it difficult to play Seeger Style fluently (especially when slow).
I started with Seegers style as many others, and still still practise now and then, but I donĀ“t think I will ever be close to good, so I will only do it at home and otherwise stick to claw, and other things with a thump or a plecter. Steen
P.S. In this description I have not mentioned the extra use of the thumb in clawhammer, because it is not relevant here.

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