I have a 1917 tenor which I would like to keep authentic and use a real skin head. I have only a little experience with them but have heard they don't like temperature changes. Therefore, if I go busking outside with one will I just ruin them or is it okay? Thanks!
You won’t ruin it, but you will have a near impossible time keeping the instrument in tune or the head to the proper tension.
Temperature and humidity greatly affects skin heads, it it’s humid, the heads slackens and you have issues with the action and tone. If it’s really cold and dry, the head can tighten up so much it pops. If you go from warm to cold, or vis-à-vis, the instrument becomes near impossible to tune
Humidity affects a skin head more the temperature.
If you have it set up nicely indoors, and you busk on a rainy, foggy, or humidly hot summer day, the head will go slack, your action will lower, your tone will lower, your banjo will go out of tune. That doesn't "hurt" anything, but it's not pleasing to you the player!
So you tighten up your head in humid conditions and it plays fine. Then the weather changes, most commonly to DRY winter conditions. Your head tightens itself more, perhaps to the point that it breaks!
The more sudden the change, the more noticeable the effects.
This is why plastic heads were a near-immediate marketing success.
Edited by - The Old Timer on 11/30/2021 11:14:22
I love the sound of a hide head. I hate how fickle they can be. I cannot speak with a lot of experience in terms of busking outside but I have performed outside with banjos that have had hide heads and my experience is that a quality head well mounted can be quite stable. I performed in the late summer with a 1923 Gibson trap door with the original rogers head and it was fine. However, I'm with the others on the change in action/tuning issues that you will encounter if busking outdoors in all kinds of weather. Performing is hard enough without worrying about tuning and action. I'd like to give a Deering Skintone head a try...so far nothing compares to real hide IMHO! It's just fickle, that's all.
Busked for 4 hours on Sunday with a skin head. It was absolutely fine. Tuned as much as usual.
Just adding to my answer above...not against skin heads. Completely the opposite. I have a skin head on all my banjos made prior to 1954. Love the tone they produce and I feel nothing beats them in bringing out the full tone and range of an instrument.
I did notice that the original poster was in the UK, so I imagined busking in a colder, damp climate that would make using a skin head outside a bit more of a challenge.
The first plastic (mylar) drum head was introduced by Remo Belli and his business partners in 1957. It very quickly and practically universally replaced skin drum heads, and they were branded "Weather King" for reasons anyone who has ever played the drum in a marching band or parade understands.
Banjo heads soon followed and were also branded "Weather King" (now called "Remo") after the inventor, and the reason why they called them "Weather King" when they were first introduced is the same.
Having said that, the sound of a banjo with a damp skin head outdoors is definitely "authentic" to the pre-1957 period.
Edited by - Ken LeVan on 11/30/2021 13:43:00
No one had mentioned this, and I have questions myself regarding it. I have sometimes put a coat of Tru-Oil varnish on both sides of a skin head and it seems to help tame the wild mood swings of the beast. Any other comments on that?
Looks like thats a nope for me then haha! My banjo has three different sizes of hook nuts which is a real pain when adjusting!
See the Ebony tennis shoes under the bridge?
That's a busker's trade.
One has to remember to loosen the head later as the weather dries.
The other picture shows Fred Starner's Vega with different sized nuts, so?
Edited by - Helix on 12/02/2021 15:06:07
Here's a banjo mandolin with a decorated head that a student at Cornell gave me many years ago—the back of the head is signed, and we traced the original owner to the Hill School (maybe you are familiar with "Catcher in the Rye"). We offered to donate it to the school, but they didn't have a way to preserve and display it. Quite a bit of history.
Even though I can't play it, I'd never, ever convert this to a 5-string, or change the head (or give it to anyone who would).
Edited by - Ken LeVan on 12/03/2021 12:13:12
I frequently play outside in the UK in the fetes and festivals season - May to October. Never had a problem with a good quality calf head.
My avatar photo is from when we were hired to entertain some volunteers restoring a historic graveyard in November.
Edited by - AndrewD on 12/03/2021 14:16:46
'The Snowy Path' 1 hr