Tone Evaluation System

An Evaluation System for Banjo Tone

I have been testing every rim I produced since the Summer of 2007. I evaluated each rim with the thought "how much do I like playing this rim, and why?" I thought it would be cool to be able to describe my findings in a simple visual way.

I have striven for a system that is simple, but not overy simple. I am open to changing or expanding this system and your input is welcome. Ultimately I hope to be able to spot trends and make recommendations for tonewood combinations that will yield predictable results.

This system was designed while I was evaluating mostly wood tonerings for clawhammer banjos I have not attempted a system that will cover bluegrass instruments.

The Challenge

The first challenge in evaluationg banjo tone is to decide what aspects of tone:

  1. Are important to the player
  2. Can be described in a way that can be understood by most players
  3. Can be presented in a visual analogy for easy comparison

I chose names for the categories in part because they are short words. Some other terms might have been more descriptive, but for convenience I wanted one-word terminology. Please read the definitions.

Evaluation Categories - The Big Five

NOTE: In this system, one star is not a bad rating. Consider one star to be "good" or an minimum acceptable standard for a quality instrument. There is no point in an evaluation system that covers rims of an unacceptable quality.

A "resonant" rim is not necessarily plunky. It may be warm and resonant depending on the sustain and decay characteristics.

Think of "Power" as the maximum volume the rim can yeild and still present a decent tone. Rims can be pushed only to a certain extent by more attack. At some point adding attack does not increase volume and produces a decline in tone. Another way to think of Power is "How much volume can I get out of this rim before the tone suffers?"

Most rims will sound balanced up to the seventh fret. What happens up the neck? The sign of a balanced rim is that you don't have to change your attack significantly in the middle of a song when you go up the neck. A rim with excellent balance makes the players job easier. When I have a well balanced instrument in my hands, there is less struggle and distraction. I sound like I've been practicing a lot. Ever have that experience?

Not to be confused with overall timbre. Some rims lose brightness when you go up the neck. Whatever the rim's basic timbre, you don't want it to lose brightness when you go up the neck. You want it to maintain or increase. This is closely related to balance, but I put it in a separate category because some not-so-well balanced rims sound great up the neck. Others do not. When a banjo goes dead up the neck it is a characteristic I really dislike.

 In this system sustain and decay are evaluated together. To my way of hearing, they are really separate. Decay is like the shape of the dying note and sustain is the duration of the dying note. Basically what I'm after is that the notes have presence for an appropriate lenght of time, but do not overwhelm the distinctness of the melody as it is played. The lowest rating for sustain is still in the acceptable range ("plunky") whereas the higher range represents the maximum sustain acceptable for an instrument played clawhammer style.