Ed Britt is a banjo collector and banjo historian. He has done extensive research about banjo companies and innovators in banjo production. He has studied the work of David Day extensively. I interviewd Ed at his office in June of 2002.
MH: Currently it seems like banjo players are interested in going back to older styles of playing and older tone systems.
EB: Here, try this. This is a Dobson banjo. There's no tone ring and that's the kind of tone that a lot of old time players right now are looking for. You'll find it difficult at first due to the high action and nylon strings.
See now you found the sweet spot. I can hear the difference already.
MH: Yup, nylon is different. They stretch instead of snapping right back.
EB: I don't play minstrel style, but I found myself-on this banjo-playing in more like the minstrel style. The setup and tone caused me to change my attack and I'd go "whoa!" It's really quite amazing. It's one of the nicest sounding old banjos from the 1850s. There's no "ping" to it. It's all "blong." Again, part of that is my setup. The way I tension the head allows for some amount of range. And, by the way, almost every banjo I own I put a rag behind the head to kill overtones. Some people say the banjo's not made right if you need a rag back there. That might be true of bluegrass banjos but even some of them sound better with it. People feel "You just don't do that." But if you have to sit there and fart around with tensioning the head for three days, and putting a little piece of cloth will under there do exactly the same thing in an hour, why would you bother? Not only that, but you move it around a little bit you can get more tones out of it, so what's your point? I'd run across people who are appalled. It's a philosophical difference. Hey, it's killing overtones that tend to be there naturally in certain banjos.
MH: Speaking of minstrel style, I've often wondered how minstrel players were able to project to a large audience without the power of a modern banjo.
EB: Have you ever been driving along and up comes a young guy in a car with the sound system blasting? All you hear is the bass, right? Well minstrel banjos were tuned a couple steps lower than modern banjos, so what would be a G tuning on a modern banjo would be a lot lower, sometimes as low as D. So these lower tones projected better. Plus D is a great key to sing in.
But, you hear the appropriateness of the aesthetic of that sound (referring to the Dobson I'm playing)? You immediately play different things on it, right?
MH: Sure do.
EB: It's amazing how the instrument's tone, sustain, etc. affect your playing. I went to a trade show with (founder of Ome Banjo Company) Chuck Ogsbury. We set up a couple tenor banjos so they'd have high amounts of sustain, something tenor player usually don't want. You'd see tenor players come up and start playing really fast. Pretty soon they'd slow down and start playing something really lyrical, and we'd laugh because they all did it! I see the same thing with bluegrass banjos. You'll find that Bela Fleck, and Allison Brown, are looking for that extra sustain so they can play more fluidly and melodiously.
Historically banjo design was often moved forward by needs of players. One great example is the Buckleys. They brought parodies of high opera to their minstrel show. They were some of the best musicians in the minstrel world and they played Ashborns
apparently. I have one, but it's down at George Wunderlich's. They're just unbelievably modern banjos. James Ashborn was making guitars that rivaled Martin's in the 1850s. His banjos had some unique features. He used flat tab brackets instead of hooks.
Going with a bracket band eliminated the need for protruding bracket shoes - and protected the player's clothing from snags. He patented a tuning peg with a large bearing surface and small string post for more accurate tuning.
This was is a professional instrument. Superbly made. By using a bracket band, the inside of the rim is clear of hardware. [Click here for an article and illustrations of the Ashborn banjo.]
You can see that on this banjo and a lot of banjos of the period, the bridge sits near the center of the rim. It was later when they started using frets that the bridge moved back. Some Ashborn banjos had frets, and you can tell that it's not a retrofit because it appears to be the same fret material used on the Ashborn guitars.
MH: So why did the Buckleys need frets?
EB: Well, the Buckleys performed parodies of high opera. Not only would they be in black face, but also they'd be in drag. I mean, it was totally over the top. And they were excellent musicians. To do opera they needed more chords and they needed to play up the neck, which called or frets. These were virtuoso players who also played classic guitar, were familiar with frets.
And now you could start doing all this stuff, you know, going up the neck. And what happens? No ring to it. So they figured let's tighten up the head a little bit, and you know something... if you raise the pitch we can get more ring in the upper register.
So they start raising the tension of everything and suddenly there's a need for heavier rims with more mass. Then they realize the mass adds sustain, tighter head adds sustain, a higher bridge from harder material adds sustain. Then to accommodate the high bridges they're tipping the neck back.
If you look at Stradivarius violins, there are only two in existence that are set up in the original Baroque style. Most have had their necks replaced and tipped back at a much steeper angle, use a much higher bridge for more tension to sing out. Same thing was happening with the banjo.
This trend culmination is the Jazz banjos of the 1920s which were just at the point at which they started having amplification. But you were sitting in huge theatres for 5000 people that were designed beautifully by architects who knew acoustics so you could hear in the back row. That doesn't mean you're not going to use the most powerful instrument you can. Guitars got bigger and bigger. Same kind of thing. You try to put out more power. So you use more neck angle and you start cramping down with heavier tailpiece to put more pressure on the bridge. And so what happens is that the banjo becomes this extremely shrill instrument. And the reason is to get that shrillness all the way to the back row.
The trend now among old time players has been stripping away all this stuff. There's even a backlash currently against Boston banjos.
So players started moving the bridge back because when you do that, there's a much better chance it's going to remain within your tolerance for your action. It's not going to sink in quite as far. Does the banjo sound better with the bridge in the middle? Yeah, absolutely but dealing with the reality of skin heads, it's going to sink in. We've already added 28 brackets and it's still sinking in. We've already thickened up the rim and it's still sinking in. If you look at these Gatcombs which are late 1880s and 1890s they're way back here even closer to the rim that a modern banjo. And I think there was a pendulum swing and people didn't like the "pinky, pinky" tone. Let's heavy up the rim and put more tension on the head so we can move it back to here. The addition of the "electric" and all these tone systems was to increase sustain. The first tone system was... are you ready?... the Dobson "Silver Bell" which is what I refer to as the "bed pan" tone ring because it's a piece of spun metal it sits on top of a spun rim pot and looks like a donut. And you know damn well this is an influence on Fred Bacon somewhere down the line. Basically the idea was it was the bell of a trumpet, OK, just attached to the rim of a banjo. A trumpet bell rings, a bell rings, you have that sustain, so if you have this sheet metal hanging out in space it should sit there and buzz and vibrate and carry that sustain. And it does to a certain extent. But it's really the mass of the later tone rings that's adding to the sustain.
MH: So what's the current trend for old time banjo?
EB: The favorite old time banjo for the old time players is a thin 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick rim, no tone ring, at most a brass ring around the top, preferably just a straight beveled top. You go to a 12" rim and a slightly shortened scale. No Knot style tailpiece, low tension, bridge moved basically within an inch of center. If you take an 11" head all of a sudden you turn it into a 12" head you haven't changed your scale length, you've created more base area and the bridge is moved forward. They're also going towards deeper banjos and the rims are getting deeper as well. They're getting this tone I refer to as "blong." Even Chuck (Ogsbury) is making his Silver Spun tonering in a 12" version. Mainly because it allows the bridge to come more towards center and give more volume to the bass. Bluegrass players know the high end will be there. They want to know what the bass is like. You'll find the tone ring is not as necessary in the lower range. The tone ring tends to add things in the upper register, more so than in the lower register. When you start adding brass rods and such, it does most of what a tone ring does until you start getting up past the 7th or 8th fret.
When people look inside my Ome with a Silver Spun tone ring they so "Oh, a Mastertone." When the Silver Bell came out, it basically blew everyone else out of the water. The Mastertone was still using old technology when the Silver Bell came out. They immediately in 1923 they ripped off the Paramount company for the design. You look at the design of the 1923 Mastertone it was ripped straight off the Paramount which was the main banjo of that time. It was the first banjo with a full resonator. It had the fiddle shaped peghead. Gibson just friggin' copied them. The neat thing was the Silver Bell came out around the same time and it became sort of the preeminent banjo and it did serious damage to the Paramount as well. Of course it had the famous silver bell style flange. Shortly thereafter by the late 20s Gibson started to experiment with how to make a flat top tone ring. Their original tonering was a ball bearing tone ring which had a tube kind of like a Tubaphone. When the Silver Bell became a real success, Gibson looked for a way of reproducing the appearance of that so they came up with a cast version of it.
MH: I guess you're not afraid of controversy!
EB: Oh, no one will believe any of this. As I said, I'm highly opinionated
MH: But I can see exactly what you're talking about.
EB: Well some people see it immediately other people will think "no, no. Absolutely wrong".
Ebony topped bridge did not come out until 1924 and it was for tenor banjos using metal string because everyone else used gut or silk strings. And the minstrel banjos used soft wood bridges. And George Wunderlich whose minstrel banjos sound superb uses a pine bridge. And again it's peeling stuff back and what is the aesthetic of the tone you're trying to get. And the older technology will cause you grief. Put yourself in the position of a Civil War soldier. You have to deal with the fact you're living in a tent. You don't have central heating. If you want that tone you're going to have to suffer for your art. Otherwise you go for modern conveniences.