As a professional luthier and a banjo player who has been playing since I was 9 years old, I have done a lot of things to banjos. I have replaced tone rings, wood rims, tailpieces, bridges, necks, tuning machines and the list goes on and on. The overwhelming majority of requests to modify a banjo are for reasons of tone or aesthetics. On occasion, I’ll get an unusual request or someone will ask me a question that makes me think of something that I did years ago in an attempt to improve the tone of a banjo I owned that didn’t sound so good.
When I arrived at my first duty station in January of 1986 I didn’t bring my banjo with me, so I needed to purchase one for use aboard my ship, the USS Lawrence. I soon discovered a music store in Norfolk, Virginia called Ramblin’ Conrad’s where I purchased a Saga banjo kit, assembled it in the floor of the music store, purchased a case and off I went. I used that banjo for about a year until I brought one of my better banjos aboard with me.
In about 1991, a couple of years after my enlistment with the US Navy had ended, I was conversing with a friend of mine who built banjos in Chesapeake, Virginia. He always fascinated me with all of his ideas even if some of them were a little odd in retrospect. One of our conversations got the better of my curiosity one day when I was playing my Saga kit banjo. I remember him saying that he would heat tone rings up in the oven, then quench them in cold water to make them sound better. He spoke of packing them in mud and other things that I thought equally bizarre as well.
After getting my better banjos in my hands, the old Saga sounded muddy and unresponsive. It lacked clarity, tone, volume and a ton of other things that all of my other banjos had, so I started thinking about that heating and quenching technique that my friend mentioned… then I though, what do I have to lose? I quickly dismantled the banjo …
Once I fired up the gas oven in my one bedroom apartment up the the highest setting, I slid the tone ring onto the middle rack, closed the oven door, grabbed a cold beverage and tuned on the Red Green Show (look for it on YouTube if you don’t know the show … most of you will love it!) until it was throughly heated.
After about 35 minutes I made the sink next to the stove ready with ice water and slipped on my heavy work gloves in preparation for the quick transfer into the ice water bath when I turned on the oven light and took a look inside… What in the world? What I was seeing looked like a strange optical illusion. Perhaps it was the heat of the oven or the reflection of the light onto the chrome plated tone ring? It didn’t look right … it looked… strange to say the least. It looked like aluminum foil that had been slightly crinkled then had been smoothed out by someone, never to be smooth again. But why? Then, I opened the oven door…
Before me lay what was left of the once bad, but now totally useless tone ring. What I saw through the oven door was what was left of the chrome plating – the microns thin shell that once adhered to and surrounded the metal that was the heart of the tone ring. In the bottom of the oven, in a shiny pool, was the apparently very soft metal that made up the tone ring. it must have had a mighty low melting point for a household oven with a maximum output of about 550°F to melt it. The oven didn’t get hot enough to melt the chrome plating, but the rest of it went away… a way down to the bottom of the oven!
Besides satisfying a curiosity, I learned a lesson that day as well as losing a cheap tone ring. You truly can not turn a mediocre instrument into something that sounds vintage (or substantially better, for that matter) by changing the tone ring, let alone going through what I did in my failed attempt to alter the molecular alignment by tempering it. The lesson is that you get what you pay for, period! If you would like a good banjo but can’t afford one, get the most banjo you can afford and milk it until you can afford a better one. Don’t buy the next, slightly less junky instrument as a “step up”, go for it! You will never spend money on vintage and or quality that you won’t enjoy and reap true benefits from. Benefits like playability, tone, power, volume, clarity and in the case of vintage, a monetary investment that will pay returns in time.
So, don’t fall into the “this is just as good as a “________” trap. Settle at first on an affordable, but good playing instrument in order to learn to play, but then start setting aside your money for your real axe!
This is a 100% true story and I still laugh at myself over it. I have no idea what kind of metal could melt at such a low temperature or if my oven was truly that wicked hot, but this really happened to me. I hope you have enjoyed my recollection of the “Tone Ring Meltdown”.