Banjo FAQ's - p.2

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Q. - Don't you need stress in wood like tension in a string to help tone?

There is only one case where this has found a place; in the construction of steel string acoustic guitars. You have a 0.1" thick spruce top under about 130 pounds of string tension. The braces are arched to give the top about a 15 foot radius curve. This keeps the top from imploding under the string tension. It has been noted that many guitars seem a bit "livelier" this way. This is the only case where this has had a positive effect on acoustic response. It is beneficial to that 0.1" piece of wood. And remember the braces (VERY important to the acoustic performance of the instrument) have the radius cut into them, they are NEVER bent. Even on the cheapest Asian guitars. And the bridge has the top radius sanded into its bottom to match the top curve, not bent to match.

It is a fairly "given" point that wood is MUCH more able to perform its acoustic functions when its structure is at rest. You can test this with signal generators and a good ocilloscope. You could theoretically tailor the sound, because the stress in bent wood would effect long waves differently than short waves. But if the wood is relaxed, you can get the maximum response from all frequencies and tailor the sound in much more controllable ways. (Like scalloping the braces on a guitar).

Case in point. Instruments like mandolins and violins always have their arching carved. Years ago some Japanese brands actually steam bent the spruce tops and achieved most of the arching this way. They could use thinner wood and save money. This is not done any more. Even the cheap instruments with solid wood tops are carved. Their response suffered greatly, when compared to fully carved instruments.

As far as banjo rims are concerned, the norm since pre war days has been the steam bent process, because that has been the state of the art for the past half century. Bob Piekiel is one person who is making one ply rims in an attempt to minimize stress and illregularities, especially uneven glue joints. What he is doing is following certain processes and "leads" that are showing promising results. Bob is not a seat of the pants garage kind of guy. He is attempting to use state of the art technology to get measurable and effective results. He is also the only person I know of employing laser holography in banjo pot research! And he wisely chooses to do this quietly, to avoid the obvious.

Someone asked about one piece solid "slab" rims the other day. This is one of those things that sounds great on paper but reality won't let it happen. A solid slab of a tree is extremely unstable!! Even if you could properly dry one without cracking, when machined to shape, it would begin moving from day one. I doubt it could go one year and still be flat and round.

Q. - What about other woods for building banjos besides the big three?

First I think its great to be considering the use of the "non three" choices for banjo building. There are numerous great choices available.

Cherry wood is currently being used by Stelling. It has a hardness and specific gravity "number" that falls within the good range for acoustic use. And the stiffness is well within the range for neck use. Same goes for birch. This is another wood Stelling used very successfully I feel, back in the earliest days of the company. I have a good friend who bought Stelling #16 from Geoff in 1974. It sounds great and is still in great shape.

One wood that hasn't been mentioned much is rosewood. This makes a real "barn burner" of a banjo! Gibson made Bella Voce and Florentine models out of brazilian rosewood in the late 20's and early 30's. This means a SOLID rosewood neck and veneer resonator! Currently you can order a solid rosewood banjo from the folks at OME. (Deering will do it on special order too. The Gabriella is in their catalog, nominally in Brazilian. Ed.)

I have heard of at least one banjo with rosewood neck, resonator, and wood rim! I think a solid rosewood block style rim would have big possibilities. And before the debate starts, FORGET Brazilian rosewood!!! The wood today is garbage. The Brazilian rosewood of legend (as used on Martins) was old growth wood (from ancient forests). That stuff is LONG gone. The only Brazilian remaining is NOT old growth. It has measurable characteristics not similar to the wood of legend. The common Indian rosewood available today is superior to the crud left being sold as Brazilian. It looks better and sounds as good or better.

Someone mentioned a walnut wood rim. While I have never seen this used for wood rims, I would NOT expect it to deliver a sound that bluegrass musicians would find acceptable. Anybody seen one of these for a resonated banjo?

Q. - What is involved in fitting a ring to a rim (or vice versa)?

Again, the correct way is the one that works for you.

The traditional method is to do this on a big (12"+) metal lathe. That is how rims must be made in the first place, and that is the only machine that is suitable for wood rim making. However, if you are talking about fitting tone rings to an existing wood rim that's a different question.

The lathe works wonderfully, of course. I have access to an industrial pin router and with 23 years expierence with this machine I can get a tone ring fit second to none. This is NOT a home wood working machine!

If you need to fit a new ring to a rim that is just slightly big, the best way is to use a single edged razor blade and shave the rim until the ring slips on. You can get amazing control doing this!

The practice of cutting a ring to fit a rim is and has been done by one person only, Steve Huber. The only case where this is acceptable is where you have a prewar rim that should NOT be modified to accept a new ring.

In any other case this NOT the way to do it.

One list member said that he used a router table usiong 2 ball bearings screwed to it. This should give you perfect results with a careful set up. his comment about "putting back the wood" is not really so. It is very common practice to refit wood rims when necessary. FQMS does this all the time. You simply glue in a strip of hard maple onto the rim where the ring fits, and recut it to the size wanted.

Q. - Assuming one is going to spend "what they can afford" to buy the best quality banjo they can, what are the specific things to look for (irrespective of price or label) which will qualify the banjo as acceptable?

First and foremost and regardless of the price of the banjo, from a Banjovie to a Florentine reissue, the neck MUST be playable. If not you don't even get "out of the gate".

The neck must be straight. If it's twisted or wavy it is useless. This concern overides EVERY other point 1000 times over!! A prewar Granada with a twisted neck is a door stop or an expensive boat anchor!

The other important things to look for are:

  • The bottom line instruments may or may not have an adjustable rod in the neck. If you have a choice ALWAYS go for a neck with adjustment.
  • Cheaper instruments may have "clubby" feeling necks. The higher the price the more thin and comfortable the neck shape will be.
  • Cheap instruments may have stained "mystery wood" for fretboards. This is a sign of the lowest level of Asian instruments. Watch for this. However staining in itself is no problem. Gibson and Martin routinely stain fretboards, but they are quality wood to begin with.
  • Bottom line entry level instruments will likely not have resonators. For this grade, this may be ok.
  • Upper level beginner instruments on up should have resonators if they are intended for bluegrass.
  • Top quality banjos must have resonators with tapered interior side walls for the best projection.
  • Beginner instruments and lower level intermediate banjos will likely not have a tone ring. This is the single biggest reason for the jump in price in the beginner instruments. If you can afford it, this is very desireable, as even a cheap "mystery metal" tone ring will far outperform a non ring banjo.
  • High quality bluegrass banjos are required to have solid bell quality brass or bronze tone rings, and one piece metal flanges for resonator mounting. Beginner instruments will either have no flange or a multi piece flange to cut the cost of production.
  • Wood rims on entry level instruments will likely be multiply veneers. High quality banjos will have either 3 ply solid wood rims or rims made from solid blocks of wood glued up to form the rim. Either of these will produce a totally professional quality instrument.

I think this touches on most of the top points from my point of reference. While I am a builder and repairman of stringed instruments, this is by no means the bible!! I would welcome input from others on the list.

Q. - Please explain the concept of tone. What makes up good tone in relation to the banjo?

First you must understand that no one but you can determine what good tone really is for you, just like what color(s) you like.

That being said, what I can try and relate are the qualities that many people look for in a good banjo played with good technique.

A good banjo tone is a combination of a number of things and the best tone is that where the various points are really a balance with no one point over powering the others.

Some of those points are:

  • Crisp clear notes at all positions of the neck.
  • Notes that seem to pop out of the banjo with a quick decay, fully developed and just a little sustain.
  • A rich bass response. What takes away from good tone are overly bassy and dark sounds especially when the tone becomes muddy. The other excess is a banjo that is too trebly, brash with little or no depth and bass.

New banjo players seem to concentrate on banjos that are loud. Volume and tone are two different things. Cheap banjos are often very loud but lack tonal character.

Better banjos exhibit their own personality like the people playing them and havre distinct voices. The best banjos have a variety of voices depending on how they are played coupled with power and dynamics. Dynamics are the ability to control the tone and volume by altering your playing technique.

Q. - What about fingerboard care, treatments?

If I may offer this, first and foremost don't EVER use linseed oil on your instrument-please. This substance is the curse of instrument repairmen everywhere. It does build up and can turn "gunky" easily, especially on a nice hot day at a festival when you are enjoying the whole scene, the oil in the pores can actually leach out of the wood and feel like a light coating of rancid honey on your neck. Without some sort of solvent you won't get it off. You want an oil that conditions the wood not covers it or builds a coating. There is no factory that would advise using this stuff.

Secondly you SHOULD use something on the fingerboard because the wood does need conditioning, but only about 2 times a year is fine. Finger and skin oils are NOT suitable for this purpose! In fact one reason to condition the wood is to protect it from the acids in everyones skin.- That's (part of - ed) why your strings go bad!

If you have ever had to do a refret on an old vintage instrument that has just been "discovered" under grandpa's bed after 20 years you would understand why this is SO important. When these woods-rosewood and especially ebony dry out, they become extremely brittle, making removing the old frets a job that will add remarkable stress to an otherwise enjoyable job. Old dry ebony no longer acts like wood- its more like trying to remove frets from an antique Ming vase without chipping it!!

Also, if you do use some sort of solvent, alcohol, gasoline to clean the old linseed off, do follow with a light application of something else, because the solvents dry the wood also.

As far as what is good- there is no one answer. The things like Fingerease etc. are good. Lemon oil is good. Any LIGHT oil should be good. I learned a trick from the master repairman at McCabes years ago who was Japanese. He swore by sesame oil. and thats what I've used for 20+ years. Its big advantage is that it WON'T leach out of the wood on hot days, and it smells great! As with all these oils, apply a little, let it sit for a minute or so and wipe off the rest.

(The easiest small volume source for sesame oil that I know of is the packet included in the package of Nissin Chicken Sesame Top Ramen at the supermarket. US$0.30 or less...- ed.)

Good luck!

Q. - What about one ply, three ply, multi ply and block pots?

A solid wood rim of one piece is not stable enough to withstand both the stress of the pot and time. The only exception may prove to be Bob Piekiels ammonia bent rims, but time will tell. A regular piece of wood big enough to become a wood rim will begin distorting almost immediately when lathed. You can expect cracks to appear in short order.

The rule also bears out why multiply rims are not the best. Too much glue. This makes a wood rim that has a high percent of glue instead of wood. Glue is not the best resonant material! And if good wood is used, its too strong to be resonant.

So if one piece rims are unstable, and multiply rims are too strong or glue bearing, the middle should offer the best compromise. Three plys are as someone said the Gibson choice so...

The Wildwood and Stellings are NOT one piece rims. This design is called a "block pot design" The rim is made by first making 3 Doughnut shapped rings. These rings are made by gluing up pie shapped pieces to form the rings. Then the rings are glued one on top of the other to form the rim blank.

The makes a wonderful wood rim!! The thicker blocks of wood lend a different character to the banjo I feel. All towards the high professional side of the spectrum. Wildwood and the early Stellings are real cannons!

The traditional 3 ply wood rim has limitations in that the wood must be able to be bent. (Piekiel's ammonia bending gets around this and makes the wood more forgiving. -ed) This limits the variety of woods suitable. However the block pot design has no such limitations. And you can explore the tonal characteristics of any wood available.

Q. - I have a prewar Gibson Style 75 and there are gaps in the rim glue joints. What do I do?

First let's set the groundwork. This banjo, a prewar 75 converted from archtop to flathead AND converted from something to 5 string is a VERY collectable instrument! This banjo even with all its conversions is the hottest item in the vintage banjo market right now! Both Curtis McPeake and Steve Huber have identical banjos (style 3s)) and they are selling for top dollar. This to me is significant. The whole world wants one of these. Both Ronnie McCoury and Jim Mills play similar converted 3's.

So,it deserves careful and acurate RESTORATION, with the goal to keep as much of the original parts as possible. The main feature of this banjo is the wood rim. It will not play sound or be valued as a prewar with a replacement rim.

The rim seperations as you describe are destroying a huge amount of the tone and power of this banjo. It can be properly repaired and play EXCELLENTLY.

You DON'T want to insert any shims in the wood rim gaps!!!! This may be ok on an unturned rim, but now the rim is turned round and the parts are fitted to it. The seperations are making the rim out of round! So they must be closed tight to restore the roundness to the rim and restore the solidness to the rim for sound.

It is unlikely that Titebond can be worked into the furthest reaches of the cracks, its too thick. For this reason I routinely use a superglue to do this repair with perfect sucess. You can clamp the seperations closed in place, then work small amounts of superglue into the crack until the crack no longer takes any glue.

When dry (use an accelerator spray speed kicker on the superglue for added strength) the rim is forever repaired and conducts sound waves wonderfully.

Q. - I just spent a whole lot of money for a Tennesse 20 tone ring and rim, and it sounds too ringy. The base response is blah. What can I do?

Sorry to hear you are having difficulty with the new rim and ring. First, most important, DON'T dispair! The Tennessee 20 has the well deserved reputation of having the best bass response of any ring available! I have used more of them than any other ring.

However, the Tenn. 20 also has the well deserved reputation of being the most critical to set up of any tone ring. I can vouch for this! I'll offer what I have found to be foolproof for getting that DEEP prewar sound.

  • 1 - DON'T use a new Remo head! The 5 Star or Snuffy or Showcase will get you where you want to go.
  • 2 - The head must be tight on the Tenn 20. to be deep. This is opposite the Huber and JLS where you loosen it to be flabby. This WON'T work on the Tenn. 20!!!!. If you are using the 5 Star this is even more important. Tuned up you should be able to press your thumb no more than about 1 mm (a fat 1/16 of an inch - ed) into the head where the bridge sits.
  • 3 - Most important!!! The coordinator rods must be at "0" tension!!!! If you distort the rim at all....pfffft goes the bass response. And the ring should not need pressure to put on the rim. A comfortable slip fit is best.
  • 4 - Use a bridge of about 2.0 to 2.2 grams. This just means not a thin bridge
  • 5 - Tailpiece at about parallel setting.

I only had problems with the 2nd one I ever used. To avoid distorting the rim with the rods to get the string height I wanted, I had to relocate the neck mounting screws, so that with the rods at 0 the action was correct. The bass response came back immediately. Since that time I build all my banjos with 0 tension on the rods.

The Tenn 20 is a very deep and powerful ring, you just have to play by its rules when doing the set up.

Email to Scott at scott@sugiguitars.com
Surface mail to Scott Zimmerman, Stringed Instrument Technologies Ltd., 2-5-37 Shonicho, Matsumoto, Nagano, 390-0828 Japan, tel and fax 81-263-28-5080,

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