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Mellower tone on bluegrass banjos - a new trend or hearing issue?

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Jan 14, 2022 - 9:26:05 PM
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5097 posts since 1/5/2005

There's been a bit of discussion on that topic lately, Fleck got mentioned as an example. To me, his banjo sounds like a stuffed open-back these days compared to the wonderful sparky sound it used to have in his younger years. Let me offer a possible explanation:

https://banjobridge.com/banjoear.htm

Edited by - Bart Veerman on 01/15/2022 08:26:17

Jan 14, 2022 - 10:53:24 PM
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4089 posts since 5/29/2011

Interesting thoughts, Bart.
There is one thing that I have noticed and have also been told by hearing professionals. People who have spent considerable time playing electric instruments are more likely to experience significant hearing loss than people who have spent a lifetime playing acoustic instruments. Electric music, especially at high volume, is not a natural sound for the ear to absorb. Acoustic instruments have a more natural sound to the ear. Acoustic instruments through a sound system can damage the ear the same way as electric instruments can but, played without amplification, don't generally cause as much hearing damage.
This is observation, not proven fact. I just happen to not be the only person who has noticed it. You covered a lot of good points about the sound being projected away from the ear and the relative distance that most people stand or sit when listening. Lots of professional banjo players still have good hearing even after playing for many years.
I hope that made sense.

Jan 14, 2022 - 11:21:42 PM
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Bill Rogers (Moderator)

USA

25533 posts since 6/25/2005

I've always gravitated toward "cut" rather than "thunk" on my clawhammer banjos, and I prefer arch tops for bluegrass. I've noticed a preference among younger clawhammer players for a softer sound. Adam Hurt has been a big influence there because the Dobson tone ring is mellower than either the tuba hone or Whyte Laddie tone rings. I think the hard-core traditional bluegrass players haven't sought out a softer sound, whether they play flatheads or arch tops. Stellings, of course, have plenty of both volume and "cut."

Jan 15, 2022 - 4:40:04 AM

3753 posts since 9/12/2016

Whether one likes to play really close to the bridge or not might make a difference in their choices. I never got that right hand position in my possibilities though I know it can be great. It has a way of controlling the harshness.
I go a mellow set up to help even out dynamics .and no it has not a thing to do with anyone else's setup .
I play a couple dozen in the melodic style and keeping the open strings and high fretted notes in the same volume range-- on a slower tune where I have to dig in more for sustain--can be the main task-
my opinion I ask no one to agree

Jan 15, 2022 - 8:24:50 AM

Bart Veerman

Canada

5097 posts since 1/5/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Culloden


You covered a lot of good points about the sound being projected away from the ear and the relative distance that most people stand or sit when listening


 

Yes, Mark, a lot of sound does project away from the banjo and a lot of that goes straight to the player's ear. Check out the Banjo-2-Ear decibel numbers:

https://banjobridge.com/volumechart.htm

The hearing system doesn't much care whether decibels feel natural or not smiley

Jan 15, 2022 - 10:00:56 AM
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4340 posts since 6/15/2005

What a valuable article, Bart, thanks so much!

Jan 15, 2022 - 10:09:36 AM
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7416 posts since 9/5/2006

the older i get the more i like the darker mahogany sound of a banjo,,fatter thicker tone i guess but not tubby,,the paint peelers that use to cut through a wall don't do it for me anymore.

Jan 15, 2022 - 10:59:11 AM

heavy5

USA

2032 posts since 11/3/2016

I like the raspy stallions that cut which can easily be temporarily neutered down to the softest easy listening plunkers if wanted .
I know very little about Stellings in my 60 some yrs of banjo involvement except I don't remember ever hearing any stallions .

Edited by - heavy5 on 01/15/2022 11:09:23

Jan 15, 2022 - 12:30:35 PM
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75339 posts since 5/9/2007

I've always worked toward a full and complete sound.Soft and mellow with Minstrel's Fancy or cranking out Shucking the Corn.
I like the completeness of performance over the entire neck when tuning the flat head to a G# plus an eighth turn on the nuts and a maple/ebony bridge that weighs 2.25 grams.I want similar duration of notes up and down the neck.

Jan 15, 2022 - 3:38:17 PM
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1879 posts since 4/10/2005

I don't think it's a hearing thing. I think there are changing tastes in timbre preferences. As noted above, muddy and thuddy has been a clawhammer trend with openbacks for the last 10/15 years-ish.

With flathead resonator banjos I don't think classic BG style players are going that way so much, more those who are doing fusiony, etc. stuff. Bela Fleck prefers and seeks that soft tone he's been using for years now. This is also true of Noam Pikelny and  some of the other postmodernists. Pikelny and Fleck have even spoken in interviews about feeling there are other tone aesthetics that should be explored.

And fair play to them, though I do find it comical hearing them expound so preciously about their Prewar flatheads---If you're going to play that softly you can save your back and get the same tone and volume out of a brass hoop or woody resonator banjo, you don't need to drag around a flathead.

Edited by - ceemonster on 01/15/2022 15:40:39

Jan 15, 2022 - 4:22:42 PM

1738 posts since 4/13/2017

I prefer cut over thunk as well. All of the banjos I build are set up as if I were setting them up for myself, unless someone specifies otherwise.

Jan 15, 2022 - 7:44:34 PM

1809 posts since 9/10/2003

Everybody is an individual, as my ole buddy used to say all the time, and we all hear sounds & tones differently. Otherwise it would be pretty dull especially in the world of music. Noam & Bela have taken the banjo to a whole new stratosphere. Yes, they both own & love prewar flatheads, just as I do and countless others. Yet all the different types of music they create and play is not suited for just one type of banjo.
I never been talented enough to play many types of music, I still can't play Bluegrass at the level I would like. But for me ? my favorite banjo tone is hearing a Killer sounding old prewar flathead being worn out by a player that can flat make it talk !  smiley

Brian

Jan 16, 2022 - 1:33:05 AM
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Players Union Member

maxmax

Sweden

1555 posts since 8/1/2005

quote:
Originally posted by ceemonster

And fair play to them, though I do find it comical hearing them expound so preciously about their Prewar flatheads---If you're going to play that softly you can save your back and get the same tone and volume out of a brass hoop or woody resonator banjo, you don't need to drag around a flathead.


My experience with tone hoop and woody banjos is that they can often be setup to cut almost like a flathead, but if you try to tone down the treble a bit for a more mellow tone, all bass disappears. They also just don't sound at all similar to a more mellowed out flathead to me. Thinner, less interesting.

I do like a mellower sound similar to Béla and Noam and I've only ever come close with very resonant and good flatheads that can take different setups well.

Just my opinion of course..

Jan 16, 2022 - 7:19:04 AM

3753 posts since 9/12/2016

with the right bridge ,my arch-top will mellow down as good as my flat head,mellowing down without losing overall volume that is the quest imo

Jan 18, 2022 - 10:58:52 PM

Bart Veerman

Canada

5097 posts since 1/5/2005

quote:
Originally posted by ceemonster


Bela Fleck prefers and seeks that soft tone he's been using for years now

    >>> my point - it's not impossible that at his age, his hearing may have guided him to that preference...

Prewar flatheads---If you're going to play that softly you can save your back and get the same tone and volume out of a brass hoop or woody resonator banjo, you don't need to drag around a flathead

    >>> bragging rights are a wonderful thing smiley


Jan 19, 2022 - 4:45:20 AM

3753 posts since 9/12/2016

this man is known to have a mellow set up-- imo some rare flatheads can be extremely loud with way too much treble ,the 12 fret area loses it's magic -throw a fiberskin on it and watch it become musical--not the case here though.

 

Jan 19, 2022 - 7:08:19 AM

heavy5

USA

2032 posts since 11/3/2016

Saw his group last year --- mellow banjo sound ? --- not by any stretch in that performance !

Jan 19, 2022 - 7:50:41 AM

3753 posts since 9/12/2016

I did not lie from my definition of mellow-by any stretch

Edited by - Tractor1 on 01/19/2022 07:52:59

Jan 19, 2022 - 10:20:40 AM

1879 posts since 4/10/2005

Very interesting and enjoyable, this thread.

Jan 19, 2022 - 10:24:54 AM
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7416 posts since 9/5/2006

ronnie has made one of the best mandolin players in the business
as for robs tone,,,its perfect for the music the traveling mccourys are playing. he is a top notch picker ,,,

Edited by - 1935tb-11 on 01/19/2022 10:25:58

Jan 19, 2022 - 11:05:22 AM

1675 posts since 1/28/2013

Progressive Players today are playing music other than Traditional Scruggs/Stanley 50's-60's Bluegrass. Kruger, Fleck, Cavanaugh, Corbett, Meir, Pikelny and others. They need less overtones, quick decay, less harsh cracking tones. The music they play is a mix of Melodic, Jazz, Blues, Classical, Rock, Irish etc. They also use more intricate picking patterns, and it does'nt sound good with the snap, crack and pop metallic sound, with heavy overtones. Plus, the High Lonesome Vocal Sound is less common today and even undesirable, as Modern Singers find the harsh banjo sound, and the heavy Modal Appalachian Fiddle style distracting, undesirable as an accompanying instrument for vocals today.

Jan 19, 2022 - 11:23:25 AM

1675 posts since 1/28/2013

quote:
Originally posted by heavy5

Saw his group last year --- mellow banjo sound ? --- not by any stretch in that performance !


His banjo does'nt sound like that when they are Touring as the Traveling McCourys.The Travelin’ McCourys "Travelin'" - YouTubeTravelin' McCourys, "Friend Of The Devil," Grey Fox 2019 - YouTube

Edited by - jan dupree on 01/19/2022 11:29:32

Jan 19, 2022 - 11:36:33 AM
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3 posts since 1/19/2022

I have noticed that many newer "modern" banjos seem to gravitate towards a more mellow tone. I personally prefer it with modern-style playing as opposed to traditional bluegrass licks with a more "twangy" sound.

I have noticed that Nechville banjos seem to sport a more mellow tone for modern banjo music. I very much appreciate this in new bluegrass music vs. a more direct and loud banjo. If anything - it helps with the "loud banjo jokes" XD

Jan 19, 2022 - 11:39:47 AM
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1675 posts since 1/28/2013

youtube.com/watch?v=hbhe8Aw_FnU This is about as Modern as it gets. And this was 7 years ago.

Jan 19, 2022 - 2:46:18 PM

1675 posts since 1/28/2013

quote:
Originally posted by Bart Veerman
quote:
Originally posted by ceemonster


Bela Fleck prefers and seeks that soft tone he's been using for years now

    >>> my point - it's not impossible that at his age, his hearing may have guided him to that preference...

Prewar flatheads---If you're going to play that softly you can save your back and get the same tone and volume out of a brass hoop or woody resonator banjo, you don't need to drag around a flathead

    >>> bragging rights are a wonderful thing smiley


 


He makes it even more heavy by adding Keith tuners on all 4 strings, and sometimes clamps a weight to the peghead.

Jan 19, 2022 - 5:08:30 PM
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3753 posts since 9/12/2016

Don Reno got as much nice tone as any one, past present or future,,as far as taking it elsewhere he or eddy adcock were in the stratosphere waiting when all these guys got there late. Fast single string about 140 bpm embarrasses me ---double that above 14th fret .Don's top of the heap stuff, was roll melody versions of many genres.Same for Eddy.with his self made position riffs
my opinion I ask no one to agree ,no one has the same taste or same set of heroes

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