Sound quality from a well made versus bargain basement banjo is easily recognisable even if somewhat subjective. Of course excellent players can make a mediocre instrument sound good, however that is NOT what I mean by sound quality. Just think of a comparative simple strum in ‘open G’ as the test.
An old time banjo can be thought of as an assembly of parts or components including;
The neck consisting of:
1 Peghead; Consists of tuners, nut (bone?).
2 Body. Hardwood?
3 Heel. Heel. Same as body.
The pot assembly consisting of;
1 Banjo rim usually wood?
2 Co-ordinator rod or wooden dowel.
3 Tone ring. Tone ring gives banjo added volume and dimension.
4 Banjo head. Head is typically made of mylar.
5 Banjo bridge usually wood?
6 Tension hoop. Normally brass?
7 Hooks and nuts.
In making an old time banjo from scratch, which item (material) is a ‘must have’ to ensure the best possible chance of a ‘good sounding’ instrument. For example a good sounding guitar is NORMALLY accepted as having a ‘quality solid wood’ top. I am aware that construction techniques and intuitive building knowledge are absolutely essential parts of the equation, however I’m curious about the materials choice builders make that are not aesthetically driven, and how that has evolved.
An example; If I was designing a racing bike, an alloy or composite frame would be essential fo a competitive product.
A quality rim made from a fine tone wood and a partly floating brass/bronze tone ring...no 1, All other parts matter in smaller increments of achieving a fine overall tone.
Edited by - nakigreengrass on 10/24/2020 01:05:47
nakigreengrass I completely concur. OZ and THE SHIRE have wonderful tone woods available.
The bridge/head/tone ring/rim continuum is the motor. The neck is the wheels and tyres.
Here are some Arizona trees that have "character."
The classic American open back banjos from back in the day, to me 1890 and later when the "modern" form was more of less finalized, have rims of hard maple (sugar maple), and necks of maple or mahogany. Some sort of brass/bronze bearing surface supports the head. (Side note: there are fierce opinions on whether a skin head is a "must" for true old time sound, or if some sort of plastic head can be as good.) The brass/bronze bearing surface can be "minimalist", perhaps just a circular rod/hoop perched atop the wood rim. The brass/bronze bearing surface gets increasinly more massive, with hollow tubes, solid tubes, skirts on the outside, and perhaps arches or trusses on the inside to avoid getting too massive. Generally, the heavier the amount of brass/bronze supporting the head, the louder and "brighter" the sound gets.
Adding additional masses of brass/bronze in the other parts of the rim construction further increase weight and volume/brightness IMHO.
The type of wood in the neck: maple, walnut, cherry, mahogany, oak or whatever, makes a RELATIVELY small or fine difference in tone.
Then, there a million other smaller points of construction and especially set up, that cumulatively influence the sound a lot.
Thanks for the replies.
The pot is the key obviously.
Traditionally (early twentieth century) banjos would have been made from locally available timber supplies. Because the end product looked good and sounded 'right', no doubt builders followed to ensure their product was marketable and saleable. No point in going out a 'limb' (thinking DeLorean here) so to speak. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Makes one wonder if some 'technically' interesting timber species have been overlooked because of tradition?
For the record, I love the 'traditional' look.
I'm sure banjo makers had all of the same woods available to them as did cabinetmakers and other instrument makers. Ebony is probably the most commonly found "exotic" wood used in banjos. It was used for fingerboards on almost all quality banjos and was occasionally used for necks. Mahogany was an imported wood that was commonly used for necks. Brazilian Rosewood veneer was often used as the outer layer on shells. I have two 1890's Fairbanks Electrics that have imported wood for their necks. One is Cuban Mahogany the other is Brazilian Rosewood. I'm sure the list goes on.
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