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Jun 16, 2021 - 7:39:32 AM
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276 posts since 6/15/2006

This question is inspirered by the thread "Flat Head Ring or Arc Top".
I like a banjo to be loud and at the same time pleasant to the ear (not joking).
My opinion is (so far) that before World War 2, they made many lousy banjos and many great banjos as they do to day.
If for a moment we do not consider collectors value and the "feel and soul" of an old instrument with lots of mileage and stories to tell and so on, I think I would prerfer a good new banjo for a bad one from before the war.
But did they have a secret then, that is no longer in use or what? And what is exactly the prewar sound. Two of my banjos (open backs) happen to be pre-wars (never thought about this fact before), and I have not been able to detect anything special about them, so what is the pre war sound? Steen

Edited by - steen on 06/16/2021 07:45:01

Jun 16, 2021 - 7:58:37 AM
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Alex Z

USA

4374 posts since 12/7/2006
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Open backs don't get the privilege of being "pre-war" or "post-war."   That term is reserved only for Gibson banjos with tone rings and resonators that are used to play bluegrass music.  smiley  

If it was made by Gibson before 1942, has a tone ring and resonator, and is similar in decoration to a banjo that a first and second generation bluegrass picker used, it has the opportunity to be called "pre-war." 

Once it is labeled "pre-war," what it sounds like no longer has a single meaning -- it can mean whatever adjective or description an owner wants to give it, such as "growl," and "you'll know it when you hear it."  smiley

Also, once it is labeled pre-war, the term is contagious, like COVID.  You can take any part of a "pre-war" Gibson and put it in another banjo, and that other banjo acquires the "pre-war" sound -- or a least the privilege of being called a "pre-war conversion." smiley

Others may have an opinion.

Edited by - Alex Z on 06/16/2021 07:59:01

Jun 16, 2021 - 8:00:26 AM

3837 posts since 5/29/2011

The pre-war sound is an elusive dream that people keep searching for to fuel their BAS. I have heard several dozen pre-war banjos and they didn't all sound alike. Which tone ring it has doesn't always make a difference, nor does the type of wood it was made from. Setup is a huge factor in the sound. And two different pickers can get entirely different sounds from the same banjo.
There was no secret to banjo production before WW2. They made clunkers in the old days, too.

Edited by - Culloden on 06/16/2021 08:09:04

Jun 16, 2021 - 8:13:01 AM
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28 posts since 5/8/2021

I've said it before, but I'll say it again even though it's sort of rude:

When people don't know how to talk about music or are more clueless than they should be, they resort to saying things like "it'll peel paint off the walls" or "it really growls."

I play a newer banjo made by a small, no longer operating company so I don't deal with any of this nonsense.

Again, sorry for the rudeness.

Jun 16, 2021 - 8:15:59 AM

3512 posts since 9/12/2016

They can sound really good .It is usually an braggart owner that sounds less desirable.
Volume , response to force, emphasis in different areas of the treble to bass range are things I like adjusted a certain way pre war or not. A good banjo would need less tweaking on some or all of these I suppose

Jun 16, 2021 - 8:33:46 AM
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11859 posts since 6/2/2008

quote:
Originally posted by struggle_bus

When people don't know how to talk about music or are more clueless than they should be, they resort to saying things like "it'll peel paint off the walls" or "it really growls."


None of my banjos are pre-war, so we had to pay someone a fair amount of money to peel paint (popcorn finish) off our ceilings.

Jun 16, 2021 - 8:58:31 AM
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2828 posts since 12/4/2009

Hello,

No rose colored glasses permitted here?

Pre-war is what everyone else that are professionals have and we don’t. Pre-war has Gibson as its name and nothing post war.

Earl had one. Don Reno had one. Sonny Osborne had one. JD Crowe has one. Now, they are museum pieces or in some collector’s personal museum. Bela Fleck states his fondness of RB-75 pre-war banjos.

Pre-war is FON based and limited to Gibson numbers. Gibson and numbers is a mystery as to when the started and number schemes. Discoveries of missing FONs still happen. Only “experts” (and not you nor I) have the opportunity to designate pre-war.

The good news is that banjos have been around a long time. They predate Gibson and pre-war. Any banjo has the opportunity to be the one which tickles our ears. Our audience will agree with our selection.

Jun 16, 2021 - 8:58:59 AM

YellowSkyBlueSun

Virgin Islands (U.S.)

204 posts since 5/11/2021

I've heard that old growth wood had tighter grain and was more dense due to the longer winters of the past. Some claim that the tighter/denser grain in old instruments provides better tone than modern timber. I don't know if either of these things are true, but it's what I've heard.

Edited by - YellowSkyBlueSun on 06/16/2021 08:59:26

Jun 16, 2021 - 9:14:23 AM
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beegee

USA

22431 posts since 7/6/2005

To paraphrase...."If you have to ask...."

Jun 16, 2021 - 9:15:41 AM
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166 posts since 3/2/2013

Most people and even good banjo players can't tell a prewar banjo from a modern one when given a blind test. This has been proven here on the hangout for starters. I'm not saying theres no such thing but next time you talk to a pre war picker who swears he can hear the differance, find a good player and grab a few other well set up "good" banjos and do a blind test and don't even have the prewar played and see what the prewar "afficianado" says. You'll see what i mean. MOST people can't hear it which basically relegates it to a non issue IMHO.

Jun 16, 2021 - 10:00:12 AM

8713 posts since 8/28/2013

I've never put much stock in blind tests. There are things about a musical instrument that are beyond its sound. Two banjo may sound alike, but they will react differently to a player's attack, or feel different in his hands. The listener may not notice, but the player will.

Probably the pre-war thing is a matter of reputation. So many of them have been chosen by players that people admire, that they seem like the best option. Even though there may be other banjos that are their equal, people have gotten used to the idea that a pre-war Gibson is the "one," and thus are pre-disposed to think the newer one can't be as good.

I do wish that people could come up with some better terms. "Growl" puts me in mind of an unfriendly German Shepard or a cornered Grizzly, and "It'll peel paint," to me, just says loud, harsh and really, really obnoxious. Paint stripper peels paint, and I sure don't want any of that poured into my ears!

Jun 16, 2021 - 10:17:56 AM
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13698 posts since 6/29/2005
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quote:
Originally posted by Alex Z

Open backs don't get the privilege of being "pre-war" or "post-war."   That term is reserved only for Gibson banjos with tone rings and resonators that are used to play bluegrass music.  smiley  

If it was made by Gibson before 1942, has a tone ring and resonator, and is similar in decoration to a banjo that a first and second generation bluegrass picker used, it has the opportunity to be called "pre-war." 

Once it is labeled "pre-war," what it sounds like no longer has a single meaning -- it can mean whatever adjective or description an owner wants to give it, such as "growl," and "you'll know it when you hear it."  smiley

Also, once it is labeled pre-war, the term is contagious, like COVID.  You can take any part of a "pre-war" Gibson and put it in another banjo, and that other banjo acquires the "pre-war" sound -- or a least the privilege of being called a "pre-war conversion." smiley

Others may have an opinion.


Right on!!

I like the part about calling a banjo "pre-war" if it still has a couple of parts from a banjo that was made before 1942—that absolutely happens and It used to upset me, but now I'm used to it and understand that's what they do, like cutting down the rim on an old archtop pot, putting on a modern flathead tone ring and saying it's "pre-war" ???

One thing I never thought about is that the term really refers to Gibsons, but you're right—a 1927 Vega Tubaphone would be called "Vintage", not pre-war—don't know why.

The original question, concerning the sound is nebulous—Ralph Stanley vs Earl Scruggs sounds as an example, and I'll quote John Boulding who referred to such things as "falling into the tarpit of subjectivity".

Jun 16, 2021 - 10:24:34 AM
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14077 posts since 10/30/2008

You just as well might attempt to describe the superior sound of a "Greg Rich Era" Gibson reissue!

Jun 16, 2021 - 11:36:24 AM

ChunoTheDog

Canada

913 posts since 8/9/2019

quote:
Originally posted by beegee

To paraphrase...."If you have to ask...."


bingo

Jun 16, 2021 - 11:41:32 AM
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beegee

USA

22431 posts since 7/6/2005

It's gotta have that "pre-war odor."

Edited by - beegee on 06/16/2021 11:41:49

Jun 16, 2021 - 11:48:36 AM
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ChunoTheDog

Canada

913 posts since 8/9/2019

quote:
Originally posted by The Old Timer

You just as well might attempt to describe the superior sound of a "Greg Rich Era" Gibson reissue!


About as easy as nailing jello to a tree 

Jun 16, 2021 - 11:53:57 AM

3512 posts since 9/12/2016

Probably a more up to date question is ,what does the first generation bluegrass ,flat head sound like.
Fire cracker in a wash tub (from flint hill flash )along with a few low rpm gas engine back fires.

Jun 16, 2021 - 12:18:46 PM
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2117 posts since 4/18/2006

I think "pre-war sound" is a deceptive term for it in a way. I like to think of it as a package of sound and feel. It is not necessarily the sound of the prewar banjos (Gibson, Vega's, etc) as much as it is the feel of them. I have yet to play a modern banjo that FEELS as good and easy to play as any of the best well made prewar instruments. While some of the prewar banjos sound incredible, it's equally about the feedback the instrument gives to the player. The reason why so many professionals love the prewar flathead Gibson Mastertones is not necessarily because they sound a billion times better out front, but because the really good ones, when set up well, respond easier and to a lighter touch while every single note on the fingerboard feels and sounds even with each other. They can also sound a lot clearer sounding while still having immense complexity behind each note. My flathead PB-3 literally feels like there is an amplifier inside of the banjo, and I have yet to play any new banjo that does that. I am so much more free to explore tones and musical ideas on it simply because it gives me zero resistance.

Edited by - banjo1930 on 06/16/2021 12:19:23

Jun 16, 2021 - 12:55:15 PM

57681 posts since 12/14/2005

Once again, people are asking for what FEELS (to them) to be the ONE proper sound.

Why not get a pre-war banjo, mount it on a test rig, have a weight on a pendulum drag a plectrum across the strings, and have an oscilloscope chart of what that sound graphs out as?

Anybody else can set their banjo on the same rig, get a chart, see how close it matches.

Otherwise, we're spending a lot of time and effort on subjective opinions.

If I were selling a banjo, rather than claim it had a certain sound, I would post a video and say "HERE'S what it SOUNDS like, here's what it LOOKS like."

Jun 16, 2021 - 2:06:51 PM
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13698 posts since 6/29/2005
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quote:
Originally posted by mike gregory

Once again, people are asking for what FEELS (to them) to be the ONE proper sound.

Why not get a pre-war banjo, mount it on a test rig, have a weight on a pendulum drag a plectrum across the strings, and have an oscilloscope chart of what that sound graphs out as?

Anybody else can set their banjo on the same rig, get a chart, see how close it matches.

Otherwise, we're spending a lot of time and effort on subjective opinions.

If I were selling a banjo, rather than claim it had a certain sound, I would post a video and say "HERE'S what it SOUNDS like, here's what it LOOKS like."


You're absolutely right, Mike—it's all the tarpit of subjectivity.

When David Politzer was at my studio testing bridges, he pointed out that a great player can make any banjo sound better, which is why Deering hires Jens Kruger and Tony Trishka to play their banjos instead of me (ha ha).

His point was that if you are going to perform some experiment to determine the potential of any given banjo, you have to take the player out of the equation—well done blind tests like the Leonardo guitar study even blindfolded the players as well as putting the listeners on the other side of a screen, but that's not enough if you want to be totally objective. 

As I remember (maybe incorrectly), David's idea was to subject the whole banjo to some laboratory apparatus and determine what frequencies it was physically capable of producing within the range of expectation of banjo music—some banjos would be able to produce more or different frequencies than others.

The real point is that no matter what you did, there would never be any consensus as to which one sounded "best", and who's opinion is more important anyway—a player, or a member of the audience who knows nothing about banjos but loves the music?

Talking about it is a lot of fun, though, and what makes the banjo such a fascinating instrument—I'll quote David who said "I never met a banjo I didn't like".

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 06/16/2021 14:10:33

Jun 16, 2021 - 2:13:20 PM

166 posts since 3/2/2013

George, I agree with you that blind tests don't say it all but you do underline my point when you say it's something that can be felt or heard by the picker maybe more so than the listener. The picker of prewars represents such a small percentage of bluegrass listeners and banjo players that it basically relagates the prewar "sound" to a non issue. Most people hear prewars through recordings right? I still say there is such a low, low percentage of even prewar owners that given a blind test could tell which was which. Theres been numerous offers put out there to help prove this and the proof actually is that no prewar owner will actually step up to the plate because he or she may have to view his investment as just having "regular banjo sound". If you believe w/o a doubt you have something special and you can hear it a blind test shouldn't be a problem for that type of person. My opinion of course.

Edited by - brententz on 06/16/2021 14:17:17

Jun 16, 2021 - 2:24:27 PM

166 posts since 3/2/2013

I should add I would love to have a prewar but more because of what they mean to bluegrass and time period from whence they came and not because I couldn't have a modern banjo that sounds "prewar" because nowadays you absolutely can.

Jun 16, 2021 - 2:29:27 PM

3512 posts since 9/12/2016

I don't like a banjo that plays too easy .None of my three lesser models resists me or holds back my creativity except the baritone is to hard to get the notes down tight in the higher registers,
I am not much at maintaining a light touch thru out ,that might change my perspective someday if I get my right hand more dynamically condensed

Jun 16, 2021 - 2:31:13 PM

22 posts since 3/29/2021

quote:
Originally posted by G Edward Porgie

Probably the pre-war thing is a matter of reputation. So many of them have been chosen by players that people admire, that they seem like the best option. Even though there may be other banjos that are their equal, people have gotten used to the idea that a pre-war Gibson is the "one," and thus are pre-disposed to think the newer one can't be as good.
 

The best way that I've heard it explained for me is that a Mastertone (or a Loar or a Bone) has not come the closest to some Platonic ideal of banjo (or mandolin or guitar) tone; rather, it has become for many the very ideal itself to which others aspire and of which they use inevitably fall short being something other than that very thing. How can an instrument be Loarier than a Loar, Bonier than a Bone, or Tonier than a Mastertone?

Jun 16, 2021 - 3:03:55 PM
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8713 posts since 8/28/2013

I've heard that a pre-war Mastertone is the "Holy Grail" of blugrass banjos. Now all we need to do is to locate the original Holy Grail to decide if the two have a similar sound and feel.

If the real "Grail" is like the one in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" it probably sounds like a chunk of cheap earthenware, and is cold to the touch, so personally, I'd avoid that comparison.

Jun 16, 2021 - 3:16:19 PM
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2516 posts since 10/17/2013

As far as I’m concerned, the “Holy Grail” is NOT Earl’s Granada - Earl’s banjo is not factory original, nor 100 percent prewar. 

Jim Mills says that Snuffy Jenkins’ RB-4 is just about as “Holy Grail” as you can get. 

Then there is the Scotland Granada.

Yet another “Holy Grail” might be this one.

 No, it’s not a flathead, it’s an archtop!

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lloXLrmDJDk

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