Tag: banjo

Buying Your First Banjo (or helping someone else buy their’s)

Your First Instrument

     Boy, that’s a subject that every one of us had to struggle with.  I was fortunate that my first instrument, a Savoy (very inexpensive 5-string banjo made in Japan) was playable.  It sounded like hammered dog sh**, but I was able to play it and learn to play it well enough that my father purchased a much nicer one only a year later before I went on the road with Larry Fuller back in the early 1980’s.  The upgrade, another Japanese banjo, was a Fender Leo Deluxe.  That banjo isn’t something I would be happy with today, but when you consider that stepping up to a mid-grade banjo with a tone ring and a multi ply wood rim and a curly maple neck and resonator from a pot metal unicast pot and mystery wood for a neck and resonator gave me much more power and tone and flexibility. I went from a 1/2” bridge to a 5/8” (Standard today) and I could finally project.

     There was an advantage to learning to play on a piece of junk… you had to work hard to pull tone and to perfect your pull-offs and chokes.  I didn’t realize what a challenge that was until the upgrade… and the “upgrade” was a far cry from the next banjo, my first pre war Gibson conversion with an old Steve Ryan tone ring in it and a super nice neck.  I don’t know that I would have it any other way, but that’s just the way it worked out for me.

     The sad truth is that most entry level, get in the game banjos are pure junk that may or may not live long enough for someone to actually learn to play.  Most of the ones that I see come across my workbench need a massive setup.  The action at the nut is awful on 95% of them and nothing is optimized.  I get this all the time: “They said it was ‘set up’ when I bought it.”  and they’d be right, but let me explain something about the definition of the term “set up.”  An instrument that has been set up has, on a rudimentary level, been strung, the bridge was in the right place when it left the manufacturer and it held tune.  That is about all you get with the Korean or Taiwanese instruments in today’s market.  Think about this for a second… they must be manufactured, strung and then shipped 8,000 miles (or thereabouts) then marked up and sold from the importing warehouse to a store somewhere in the US or other banjer-lovin’ country, then marked up again and sold to you, future banjo player.  So, if you have paid, let’s say $400.00 (US) for your first banjo (and that’s about right for entry level in 2016) then you can expect that banjo to be maintenance and set up need free for exactly 0 seconds.  That’s as honest as I can be.  That doesn’t mean that the banjo can’t be optimized for better tone and playability because it usually can… but a professional set up by a person who knows how to to that… to a banjo… and is good at it, ain’t cheap.  If you take your banjo into a chain store that starts with the word “Guitar” you will be getting Pimples the Clerk who may never have seen a banjo anywhere other than a Beverly Hillbillies rerun doing what little he or she knows about a truss rod adjustment, charging you $75.00 and you will still have a cheap banjo that sounds and plays poorly.  They just don’t know… and will never know. Period!

     That being said, I think that starting off on a banjo that is affordable isn’t a bad idea, but don’t expect to re-coop your money… unless you buy second-hand, and that can be a little tricky as well.  Try either taking someone with you who knows what he or she is looking at or let the seller know that you need to let your luthier take a look at it on the condition that you can return it if anything comes up that can’t be lived with.  The luthier consultation will run you somewhere between $0.00 to $20.00 depending on your relationship with the luthier.

     Buying new usually comes with a manufactures warrantee that covers defective parts and workmanship on the instrument.  It doesn’t cover the bad setup that most of them come with.  Some of these warranties are lifetime… that’s right kids… lifetime!  Would you like to know why?… I’ll tell ya why… because 98% of the el-cheapo instruments sold will never see anything but the inside or a closet behind the winter jackets or the sports equipment after the first 30 days of ownership until they meet their next owner after Johnney or Susie realize that a musical instrument doesn’t come equipped with a bottle of instant gratification hidden inside the gig bag (gig bag is an old Cherokee work meaning “instrument killer”, but that’s a whole other blog entry)… at any rate, these instruments are out there.  They may smell like gym bags and moth balls, but they can be had at a discounted price and you can, and should, take advantage of them.  Kind of like when you bought that tread mill that you hang your delicates on to dry… and they you have saved enough to have the banjo guru near you to perform the proper setup magic on it so that your fingers will not hurt any more than is necessary and the banjo will sound as close to a banjo as is possible under the equipment circumstances.

     If, when you do buy your first banjo, you buy as much banjo as you can afford within reason, and are able to buy used, and have it set up by a BANJO person, not pimples the clerk at Guitar World in the strip mall, then you meed to absolutely fall in love with the banjo… unless you started with that step, then all the better!  You see, if you are obsessed with the instrument then nothing will stop you from learning to play it!  Not the lack of instant gratification, not the banjo, not even your sister who thinks banjos are the least desirable instrument outside of planet Kentucky!

     What are you waiting for?  Go get a banjo, have it properly setup and then play…

Richie Dotson

Oct. 29, 2016

Tone Ring Meltdown

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”.

Richie Dotson


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