I wanted to call attention to some work I've been doing with Tom Nechville to discover specific steps you can take with parts and setup in order to bring out the more traditional bluegrass sound qualities that Nechville’s Heli-Mount Banjos are capable of. Tom is announcing this setup as Bluetone, available as a standalone model, a setup for standard Nechville models, or as an upgrade kit for current Nechville owners.
I’ve created a video comparing the same banjo before and after conversion to the Bluetone setup which Tom has posted on YouTube. You can see it here. If you want to jump past all my introductory blather and get straight to the sound comparisons, click here. We’d love to hear what you think about the difference between the two setups.
What is it that gives the Bluetone the different tone? It has a very good bluegrass tone, just curious what the Bluetone changes were to the Classic Nechville model.
Debbiej - The change that had the largest effect was swapping in a no-hole tone ring in place of the standard 20-hole. Both were Nechville rings, weights were roughly the same. We also experimented with heads and bridges and optimized both, and there were some tricks to the setup. The cumulative effect was to give the banjo more bass in the low end and a more midrange-focused sound in the mid- and high-neck positions. This setup was the result of trying lots of combinations.
Nechvilles have two advantages here - they are very easy to disassemble and reassemble, and they are not as dependent on wood to metal contact and other fit variables as a standard Mastertone design. The tone ring sits on top of ball bearings on a metal shim, and doesn't touch the wood rim at all. On a Mastertone, the tightness of fit of the ring to the rim can make a huge difference in the sound. Head tension is also extremely difficult to duplicate exactly on a Mastertone since it depends on the tightness of 24 independent brackets. On a Nechville, those setup variables simply doesn't exist, so it's easy to change a part or two and keep everything else almost exactly the same. Even preserving the original strings was no problem - we just clamped a guitar capo just behind the neck heel, popped off the tailpiece, and set the neck, strings and tailpiece aside till the pot was ready. The whole parts swap and setup took well under an hour, using only the T wrenches and Allen keys shipped with the banjo. No parts were altered, so all the changes are completely reversible.
In the YouTube video, I made the swap on a Classic that belonged to one of my students. I did a full setup on the banjo as originally shipped, with the exception of swapping in the 2.3 gram bridge from the Bluetone kit in place of the 2.9 gram Enterprise that was shipped with the banjo. The "before" segments were done with that setup. The "after" segments were done after swapping in the Bluetone head and ring and setting the banjo up a second time. The audio recording setup was exactly the same for both recordings, using the built-in mics on a Zoom Handy H4 stereo recorder, with no EQ or audio post-processing.
When playing the two banjos in the video, I noticed that the Classic used for the comparison segments had a warm sound very characteristic of mahogany banjos, while my personal hearts and flowers banjo that you hear at the beginning and end of the video had the crisper sound you'd expect from maple. I haven't had a chance to try two different necks on the same banjo, but the two banjos in the video are structurally the same except for the neck wood so I really think that is the main factor in the tonal difference.
Sorry to dump so much setup geekery here - it was originally in the video, which ended up way too long, so I cut it from there. You can choose to read it or not here, but if you've gotten this far I guess you've made your choice.
I hear a clear difference in the before and after videos. In fact, it's kind of startling.
Full disclosure, I've never cared for the sound of Nechville banjos. Sound is too contained to the body of the banjo, too "runny" with too much internal sustain that quietens rather than makes louder/clearer. No "pop" or "spang!".
Every note played in the A/B comparisons show this banjo moving significantly toward a "Gibson" sound. Much more clarity and volume/decay of each note. The "before" banjo has sounds of "clatter" on the strike of each string. The "after" banjo has lost the clatter. The open 4th string makes a clear "BONG!" and the higest notes go "Ping!" rather than "pip".
I applaud both the effort and the comparison videos! Well done! I like many elements of Nechville's new designs, both structurally and decoratively. I look forward to the chance to try a Bluetone in person.
Again, great job.
Thanks for the comments, Dick. It's hard to describe sounds in words, but I agree with your analysis and your vocabulary. I didn't get to see you at Banjo Camp North and it's going to be a while before we're at the same festival again, but if I know where we're both going to be I'll bring mine along.
I'll be getting a mahogany Bluetone in the next week or so. One of my students ordered it and I'll do final setup and deliver it. It will be interesting to see if it has the same sound characteristics as the Classic in the video. I'll let you know, and possibly put up another recording.
I've actually had a couple of Nechville Phantoms which were both very nice. I've had a couple of their light weight tone rings for the banjos too to switch out when I wanted to lighten the banjo. I really love the ability to take the banjo's apart so easily. I sold them to get a more classic style sounding banjo however I do miss the Nechville. I just haven't been playing my banjo's enough lately to feel like it's worth it for me to buy another banjo at this time, although I do look.
Just wondering how much your bluetone banjo weighs?
Mine is just a touch over 11 pounds.
Thanks Rich for getting this discussion started. I have professed through my career that Nechville banjos have the ability to sound however you would like them to sound. However, it wasn’t until Rich Stillman actually came into my shop and lent me his ear when we were able to define the sound he was looking for and specify ways to reproduce it reliably. I would venture to say that we have arrived at what many traditional players strive for in their own banjos, that “pre-war sound”. I realize that there is still a spectrum of sound variability within that category, but the Blue tone setup represents the first time a pro player familiar with the Pre-war sound has seriously undertaken an effort to define specific things you can do to get this sound. Very good discussion started here.
I appreciate the good words, Tom. I didn't want to use the p-word to describe the banjo, but I have owned several prewar Mastertones and still have a 1929 flathead 6. The Nechville Bluetone is the closest I've gotten to that sound, including a Rich-era Granada and several other very decent banjos from Gibson and several well-regarded small builders. That's why I wanted to sit down with Tom and see if we could figure out how to get that tone reliably using Nechville parts and construction methods. I think the video shows how close we got.
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