Banjo Friday 16
Updated: Jul 17, 2021
The banjo is unique among modern acoustic string instruments in that it is designed to be taken apart. It is a tinkerer's dream, and this has led to a great deal of experimentation. In particular, there has been a lot of work done on different styles of tone rings. The tone ring is the metal ring that rests immediately below the banjo head atop the wooden rim.
The earliest banjos, however, were quite simple and didn't have tone rings. On these early homemade banjos, a skin head was stretched directly over a wooden rim or a hollow gourd and tacked down as tightly as possible. Here is Adam Hurt playing a fretless gourd banjo along with Cameron DeWhitt who accompanies him with an Ome Jubilee (see note below):
However, by the late nineteenth century, the growing popularity of the banjo in America led to commercial production and standardization. Tacked on heads were replaced by tension hoops held down by adjustable brackets. This allowed the head to be adjusted to the proper tension when changes in temperature and humidity demanded. It also made it easier to replace the head when needed. However, the rim was still a circle of wood. Some banjos are still made this way, for those who love the old time string band sound. I used to have a Vega Old-Tyme Wonder, which sounded lovely when played with a fiddle or a guitar, but which didn't have the volume to be heard over other instruments in a larger band. This was a problem that the tinkerers tried to overcome.
In an effort to amplify the banjo's volume, manufacturers started placing metal rings on top of the wooden rim. These were called "tone rings." Brass became the favoured metal. There are still some beautiful banjos made today with a simple rolled brass tone ring. Abigail Washburn, mentioned in an earlier post, plays an Ome Jubilee model (as does Cameron DeWhitt above). The addition of a brass tone ring not only increased the brightness and volume of the sound, it also had the added benefit of creating a perfectly flat hard surface over which to stretch the skin head.
Banjo makers weren't happy to rest on their laurels however. They began playing with the simple brass ring configuration, tweaking it in an attempt to approach that perfect banjo sound. The Fairbanks/Vega company placed the simple brass ring on top of a scalloped ring and held the whole thing together with a spun metal sleeve. Fairbanks called this their "Electric" model. It was also known as the Whyte Laydie tone ring.
Vega also tried placing the solid brass ring on a hollow square and called it their Tu-ba-phone model. I play one of these Vega Tu-ba-phones, and I think it sounds brilliant--a lovely crisp, clear sound. Pete Seeger also favoured the Tu-ba-phone.
Perhaps the most complicated of these brass ring designs though was the Gibson ball-bearing tone ring, which consisted of a hollow brass ring resting on a series of ball bearings which in turn rested on springs that were recessed into holes drilled in the top of the wooden rim. I've only ever played one of these banjos and it was in pretty poor shape so it was hard to judge how successful this design was from a single example. The model was short-lived and many of these old banjos have been converted to flat-head tone rings (more about this in a minute) by their current owners, so they are hard to come by these days. Here is a rare Gibson RB-4 Trapdoor banjo with the ball bearing configuration:
The first patented tone ring, however, was probably that of Henry Clay Dobson in 1881, which he used on his Silver Bell banjo. The Dobson tone ring was a broad convex ring that extended into the interior of the pot under the skin, a bit like a speaker cone. This tone ring is enjoying a renaissance today and is favoured by players like Adam Hurt and Brad Kolodner.
Here's Frank Evans playing a Rickard Maple Ridge banjo, which employs a Dobson-style tone ring:
When banjos became popular in jazz bands, manufacturers started looking for other ways to boost the volume of the banjo. One solution was to use a larger rim to get a deeper bass response, but to increase the treble by adding a raised ring with a smaller circumference than the rim. This created a smaller area where the head could vibrate, boosting the treble, while maintaining a larger air chamber to keep the lower range response. This style of tone ring became known as the arch-top and enjoyed great popularity. Some players still swear by them. Ralph Stanley, a great bluegrass player, played a Gibson arch-top.
(Contemporary arch-top and flathead tone rings from the StewMac parts catalogue)
Finally, we come to the tone ring that most people are familiar with, even if they don't realize it. This is the flat-head tone ring that has become synonymous with the bluegrass sound and was found on many of the pre-war Gibson banjos that are so valued today, and which was copied by nearly everyone else. It is probably the most popular design on the market today. This tone ring is actually a hollow brass right-angle triangle. It is mounted on the rim so that the flat face is facing out and the sloping face is facing inward and down. On many of these tone rings a series of holes is drilled around this sloping edge to reduce the weight and to improve the sound. If you want to hear how a flat-head tone ring sounds, you can't do better than to listen to Earl Scruggs.
There were other experiments too. Not all were successful. In the 1960s and 70s, a lot of low-end banjos were made with cast aluminium. The best known of these were the ones manufactured by the Framus Company of West Germany. In the fifties and sixties, the Harmony Company produced banjos with Bakelite rims. Bakelite cracked easily, so not many of these survive in playable condition.
I've probably overlooked a lot of banjo variations, but that's the joy of playing the banjo. There is always something new to discover and try. There is no "best" banjo. It is really a matter of personal preference. I like Vega banjos, because I love the shape and feel of the Vega neck. They are comfortable for me to play. We live in a golden era of banjo production. There are some very good makers out there, and a lot of old banjo designs are being recreated and rediscovered.
Innovation is not dead however. Some of the most exciting new designs come from the Nechville company. The founder, Tom Nechville, has been called the "mad scientist" of banjo design. They have made some really interesting changes, including a head tension system that can be adjusted by turning a single screw instead of having to individually adjust the twenty to twenty-four individual bracket hooks found on standard banjo designs.
One of the things I am most looking forward to at the end of Covid is the freedom to visit a music store and try out the latest banjo to come into the shop. I've heard that Vega has just issued a new open back model with a Dobson-style tone ring. I can hardly wait to give it a test drive.