Pulling Tone Vs. Spending more on a Banjo for Tone

There are lots of different banjos out there and all of their manufacturers throughout the years have slightly different ideas as to what makes a good banjo.  Two truths stand out as far as I am concerned. 1, all bluegrass resonator banjos are basically a copy of a Gibson banjo and 2, through an audio processing device (i.e. microphone and amplifier) with even a modest amount of compression and equalization, almost any banjo can be made to sound balanced and nice … in the hands of a good player.

Gibson banjos made from between 1929 and 1943 are my favorite banjos.  I have worked on them, played them, and had the rare privilege of owning them and have maintaining some of the rarest of them for people for years now.  I am very proud of that.  These banjos, whether converted from tenor, plectrum or whether they are an original 5-string (RB) are uniquely powerful, especially in the higher register.  They are balanced and don’t lose power as you play in keys like Bb and B.

That being said, it does take someone with a certain level of skill to bring out the best in these banjos, but that is absolutely true of any banjo.  The fact is that I have heard top notch players pick up a banjo that I know to be an inferior instrument and make it sound like a great banjo should … or as close at it will ever sound.  In other words, I have heard a professional level player pick up a banjo that should have sounded … well … like crap, and made it sound awesome.  On the other side of that coin I have heard people who were in the beginning stages of developing their playing technique pick up a $150,000.00 Pre War Gibson RB-3 flathead, all original cannon of a banjo and make it sound like a $250.00 imported piece of soon to be trash.

If I could convey what I consider the most important influence on the tone, balance and volume of any banjo, whatever level you are able to achieve where an instrument is concerned, it wouldn’t be a brand, a tone ring, a particular make, year or model … it would be your right hand.  Those who have honed the skill of pulling tone and playing with a solid powerful tone and with practiced precision can make even a mediocre banjo sound far more expensive.

They say you can’t buy happiness, but the truth is that you can’t by tone and clarity by spending more on your banjo.  Don’t get me wrong … I think you should get the best banjo that you can afford because it will make you want to play more and it will be something that you want to pick up as often as you can.  You should also have it set up professionally for optimum tone and playability.  For everything else, you must earn that by spending the time necessary to develop the skill of pulling tone.  Then, when your ear gains a more sophisticated sensitivity for finer tone you will hear the difference in the banjos that cost a whole lot more.

I will warn you, though… once you are able to hear it you won’t be satisfied until you have obtained it.

Richie Dotson

December 28, 2015

5 Comments

  1. I have to agree with you 100% Richie. I have been playing banjo for about 8 years and i have a Deering Sierra and it has been played by a few really great pickers and it sounds great and crisp. I cannot and maybe ever will get the sound and tone out of it that i have heard come out of it by other pickers. My long time friend Clyde Bailey put a new tone ring in it and it has a killer sound with Clyde picking it but it just won’t come out for me. so , i have to agree, it is the picker, not the banjo.

  2. Harry Sparks owned a music store in the 1970’s that sold acoustic instruments including vintage banjos and guitars. A customer came in the look at banjo and tried out several banjos. He wanted a banjo that sounded like JDCrowes banjo. After each banjo he would say that does’t sound like Crowes banjo. Harry went back to his shop got a banjo and said try this one.
    The customer said after playing the last banjo. No I want a banjo that sounds like J D’s.
    Harry said that is JD’s banjo. JD had left it in the shop to be adjusted.

    1. That is priceless! Thank you for sharing that story and I can soooo relate. I work on tons of high-end instruments and I know what they are capable of. As Joe Drumright used to say: “It ain’t the car… it’s the driver”.

  3. Over the fifty-plus years I knew Bill Keith, I heard him play many other folks’ banjos; he ALWAYS sounded like Bill Keith. The right hand tells the truth. If you are employing good technique, and you’ve chosen the right picks for your particular touch, the tone will come. When I teach, I spend at least half of the first six or so lessons with anyone teaching tone production.

  4. You are so right Richie! It is all in the right hand. Once you hear it you spend a lifetime reproducing that tone and finding that sweet spot in every banjo you pick up. You know, as a teacher, this is the hardest thing to explain and even harder to teach. Like the old saying goes, “It’s not the bow it’s the archer”.

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