I've always been a bit of a tinkerer when it comes to my banjos and since my first banjo building experience last year (here), I've gotten even bolder in that department. However, when tinkering with my Buckeye, I have a hard and fast rule...no saws or drills touch the banjo - anything reversible I can do without these tools is fair game : ). Believe it or not, that still leaves me a lot of options when it comes to tweaking both tone and playability. For instance, you can really change the sound of a banjo by trying out different string gauges, bridges, tailpieces, head types, and head tension (more on that here); I've experimented with all of these things on the Buckeye. A couple weeks back I had a crazy idea: what if I added a second tone ring? Well, I've done it.......and I can't wait to show off the results!
If you've read my previous post on my Buckeye (here), you may remember that it has already gone through a couple different phases in the tone ring department; the banjo originally came with a rosewood tone ring (we'll call this "Phase 1"), which was later replaced with a rolled brass tone hoop ("Phase 2"). I've drawn cross-sections of Phase 1 and Phase 2 below:
Figure 1 - Buckeye cross-section with rosewood tone ring (a.k.a. "Phase 1" - left) and with Rolled Brass tone ring (a.k.a. "Phase 2" - right). Unfortunately all of the rosewood had to be removed to make room for the rolled brass ring.
As an aside - I typically use the phrase "tone ring" to describe a piece of metal on top of the banjo rim; if the head is resting on metal, I'd say the banjo has a tone ring; if its resting on wood, I'd normally say that it doesn't. However, gluing a piece of extremely dense wood (e.g. ebony, rosewood, or persimmon) to the top of the rim certainly is different than simply putting the head on an unadorned rim, and I've increasingly seen banjos with this configuration labelled as having "hardwood" tone rings (note: some people also call these "woodies"). Using this terminology, "Phase 1" of the buckeye had a "rosewood tone ring." Later, the whole rosewood layer was removed to make room for the "rolled brass tone ring" shown in "Phase 2."
Back to the tinkering: looking at the "Phase 2" picture on the right side of Figure 1, you can see that there is a little shelf of wood next to the rolled brass tone ring upon which I thought a second tone ring could sit without any modification to the rim; once again, no saws necessary : ). I decided that a "round brass" (rather than "rolled brass") tone ring of the right diameter would be just the ticket. As a bit of clarification: the terms "rolled brass" and "round brass" describe slightly different brass tone rings, the cross-sections of which I've shown below.
Figure 2 - Cross-sections of rolled brass and round brass tone rings. Note that these terms are those used by musical instrument parts supplier, Stewart MacDonald, from who I bought both of these tone rings. I have no idea if these terms are universally used by Banjo builders.
As you can see, a "round brass" tone ring is exactly what it sounds like (i.e. it has a round cross section). Round brass tone rings typically sit right on top of a flattened off banjo rim and are held in place with head tension (however, Jason Romero cuts a slot for round rod tone rings in the "Belle Rose" configuration of his banjos and other builders may do this as well). "Rolled brass" tone rings, which are flat on the bottom and rounded off on top, are inset into the rim by cutting a slot towards the outside edge (e.g. "Phase 2" in Figure 1). My goal was to find a rolled brass ring of just the right diameter to accomplish what's shown in Figure 3 (below):
Figure 3 - Hypothetical (okay, not anymore) cross-section of "Phase 3" for the tone ring configuration of my Buckeye, accomplished by adding a Round Brass ring, which is held in place by head tension without any modification to the rim as it existed in "Phase 2."
My goal here was to have the round brass ring stick out just a little bit above the rolled brass ring so that the head actually rests on top of it (I tried to illustrate this in Figure 3). This is the same kind of principle behind the "archtop" tone ring design the bluegrass guys use (note: I think legendary Old Time banjo builder Kyle Creed actually made a few archtops as well). Once again, finding the right diameter round brass ring was key; if the diameter was too small, the head wouldn't actually touch the new tone ring (i.e. no "archtop" effect); if the ring was too big, it may not rest on the shelf on the rim as I'd hoped. Furthermore, I realized that the added height would raise the head slightly and I didn't want to go overboard on this for fear that I wouldn't have a bridge low enough to compensate.
Also, rather than buying straight-stock brass at a hardware store and bending my own tone ring by hand (...which I would likely do a poor job of...), or buying a ring roller, I decided to get a pre-bent purpose-built tone ring from a supplier. As mentioned above, I ended up buying a round brass tone ring from Stewart-Macdonald (www.stewmac.com); the diameter of the brass rod is listed as 0.275", which was perfect for my needs. The tone-ring came as an un-broken loop with a 12" diameter, and I used a hacksaw to take out just enough material for it to tightly fit inside the original rolled brass ring. To be sure, this ended up as a really tight fit: I don't think theres a bit of air between the rolled brass and round brass tone rings. The folks on banjo hangout (www.banjohangout.com) say that there is no need to seal the ends of the tone ring back together before installing, which is a good thing because I had no way to do this; once I got the ring sitting in there, I put the head back on and got back to pickin'!
I took some pics of the final product, which I've included below:
Pic 1 - closeup of the front of my Buckeye, with the rolled brass tone ring (installed by Greg) and the round brass tone ring (installed by me) labelled; you should be able to make them both out beneath the translucent Renaissance head.
Pic 2 - A picture of the underside of the banjo in which you can just make out
the rolled brass tone ring protruding out from its "shelf."
Pic 3 - Another "underside of the banjo" pic where you can clearly see
the unjoined ends of the newly-added rolled brass tone ring.
Well, you've seen the results of the tone ring addition, but how does it sound? In short, by reducing the vibrating area of the head and adding a bit more mass to the pot, I've sacrificed a little bit of "prettiness" of the banjo played solo, for a bit more "cut" when the banjo is played with other instruments. Though the low end of the Buckeye used to fill the room when played alone or with a fiddle, these "round" notes were kind of lost amongst fiddles and guitars; with the addition of the round brass tone ring, I can definitely hear the 4th string in the local jam (tried it out last week) and actually feel those notes rumbling my chest to boot! Overall a bit less delicate and a bit more aggressive.
I've got the head dialed in to 88 on my drum dial and I thought it would be fun to compare the current sound with the "88 drum dial" sound file of me playing "Spotted Pony" from my head tension post (again, here); note that the Buckeye was in the "Phase 2" configuration of tone rings when I recorded the first file.
Example 1 - Me playing "Spotted Pony" on the Buckeye in "Phase 2" of tone ring configurations.
Example 2 - Me playing "Spotted Pony" on the Buckeye in "Phase 3" of tone ring configurations.
I'll admit that this is not likely a fair comparison because I recorded the two files in different rooms and I have no idea what the settings on my Mic were the first time. However, we can pretend like any sound differences apparent between the two files are due to the tone rings : )
As an ending to this post, I'd like to say two things:
1) I owe a debt to the brave souls who added round brass tone rings to their Deering Goodtimes and posted their methods on banjo hangout; without those examples I never would have gotten the idea for this project, nor would I have been brave enough to go through with it!
2) For the record, I am very, very, very, happy with Greg Galbreath's work (for those who don't know, Greg is the mastermind behind Buckeye Banjos). Adding the tone ring is in no way critical of how he built the banjo to begin with - its just a bit of reversible-tinkering I did in my spare time. I've loved every "phase" of the banjo so far for different reasons - recently I wanted a bit more "cut"...but its entirely possible that I'll remove the "round brass" tone ring in the future to go back to where Greg last left off. If you'd like a custom banjo like mine, I would not hesitate to recommend getting a Buckeye!
Thanks for reading!
About this blog
I have lots of ideas about banjo playing and music in general - this blog allows me to get them all out of my head and see what you think.