Banjo FAQ's - p.4

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Q - There has been so much talk of Tone Rings here lately. can we get your opinions on what you consider your: a) Top five Bluegrass Tone Rings with everything (price) being equal, and b) Top Five best value for the dollar?

A - Since you put the question so perfectly I will answer.

I dont push any one tonering down anybodys throat. I dont recomend any tonering to a customer. Thats impossible. The customer tells me what tonering is best by describing what he is looking for in a banjo. That being said I can build professional banjos using any of the following rings depending on what the customer is looking for.

This is not exclusive, but it keeps the list to the top five as I work. In no certian order.

  • Tennessee Twenty
  • JLS four or twelve
  • Huber
  • Sullivan
  • Hopkins

In the concern for uniformity I now build with one certain ring unless special orderd otherwise. This is important for people to come to trust my sound. What ring that is is not important as I am selling banjos, not tonerings.

Price is no concern to me.

If that is important to a buyer, Sullivan and JLS are the best bang for the dollar. In recent tests the Sullivan and Tennessee twenty formulas was virtually identical to a number of the prewar mastertone rings we have tested if this is important. This is significant because both these rings were so close and they have avoided entering into the pre war mania hype. I appreciate this. These rings were also closer in formula than at least one major name that uses the prewar hype as a promotion tool. To me its sound that matters only.

I have heard good things about the Prucha and if others have different rings to add I believe it. Each has its own characteristic sound and EACH can deliver a one hundred percent PROFESSIONAL level of sound to the banjo if set up properly on a quality banjo.

Just to plant some seeds, I want to say that I am now awaiting the first two samples of a new tonering that has big promise and the possibility to blow the lid off the tone ring world. Nobody has seen or heard of this ring before. If it proves out it will be the holy grail of prewar tone rings.

Q - What about all the "pre-war" advertising?

I am a VERY vocal person against hyping the prewar term on the unsuspecting banjo player. Many of the people who eat this up have never heard a prewar mastertone live. There is a range of characteristics that can be associated with those old banjos, BUT to call it "A Sound" is stretching it a bit. Each banjo sounds different at the same time as it sounds the same. And set up can make or ruin the best banjos.

Again, however, if you are going to build, or play a banjo in bluegrass you will be looking for sound that fits this defination if not for the prewar aspects, just that it sounds like the sound we accept as banjo. Or you won't be selling banjos or be welcome in a band. Everything in moderation though.

In spite of the fact that I don't like to promote the term "prewar" tone in my banjos, any of us that use the tonerings that are severely hyped under the pre war mastertone copy banner must own up to the fact that thats where we are aiming our sound to some degree.

This includes especially the HUBER, thats his cornerstone of existance, and the foundation of his advertising. If you promote Huber you are promoting what he stands for. Included also must be McPeake and JLS as these to are promoting themselves as exact copies.

These tone ring makers are doing a good job of raising the level of banjo craftmanship as far as the ring technology is concerned. HOWEVER none of them are going be able to do the job completely. These makers are going to great lengths to verify the formula in genuine rings, but this is only the first step.

Not one ring maker in America can MAKE the rings corretly as they were in the old days, its not legal. The smelting processs is as important or more so than just the formula to recreate the original sound.

There are some exciting advances being made in this direction. Given the old wood rims that are being made today both three ply and block, and two new rings that may be available either in banjos or aftermarket that are being made in the old way with the old formulas, the banjo world may taqke another step in the quest for THE sound, whatever that may be.

Q - Could you expand a little, how do you differentiate what wax does and what polish does, I thought they did the same thing. If I used Stelling Glyde coat do I then need to wax it?

I am not the kind to baffle with bs, so for those who want to do that I'll leave the exact terms to them but to explain so you can understand.

Wax is a substance, for example carnuba that people hear about in car waxes. It is a plant derivitive that you apply and it actually builds up a layer, thin but its there. Bees wax was used for years also on wood. You let it dry and buff it, with a cloth just like your car. Problem is everytime you wax something you are adding another layer of wax. On a instrument at sometime its going to reach the point where it feels terrible, gunky to get technical.

You then need to remove all of the old wax and start over. You can remove old wax with naptha. Nowdays not all wax is organic plant substances, there are nasty things in some products.

Polish on the other hand contains microscopic grit particals. This is whats used after you sand fresh lacquer with paper and want to start building a shine. The polish is similar to the sand paper but the rocks are much smaller. When you use chrome polish it is actually an abrasive that contains small microscopic rocks that remove the crud and polish the hard chrome coating on your bumper. THATS why they always say NEVER use polish on gold, the gunk is thicker than the gold and you can polish right thru it to the plating underneath.

Stellings glyde coat is something new. Exactly what it is has never been fully explained, and thats why I didnt use it for years. It will clean the old wax off a paintjob and years of gunk without abrasively cutting into the paint like a polish. And it shins and protects like a wax without building up on the finish (so says the promotion information). First time I used it I was sold..... it leaves the neck feeling good for playing.

There is one thing to warn about. NEVER EVER EVER use something with silicone in it. Nothing shines better than silicone BUT if you ever want to do refinsh work it MAY be impossible as the new finish won't stick. Silicone can actually enter the solid finish and contaminate down to the bare wood. Silicone is what makes Armour All work so great. If you use it even on your case you could be in for big trouble.

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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