The Tony Pass Timeless
Timbre Rim Road Test or, Why Does My Banjo Sound
That Way? An Unscientific Test
The specific purpose of this article is to evaluate one of the banjo rims being made by Tony Pass and compare it to the more common drum shells utilized by most makers. There has been a lot of discussion about Tonys rims, especially in their use by the makers of resonator (i.e.: bluegrass) banjos, on the Internet. This test of a Pass rim on an open back banjo designed for clawhammer playing will hopefully add to the information available on these rims and their application. Within the discussion of Tonys rims, I also will touch upon some other aspects of banjo set-up.
I believe that most audiences and to some degree banjo players hear with their eyes (in other words, determining how good a musician is by the appearance, performance and visual cues given by the entertainer and by other audience members). Bluegrass musicians aspire toward a pre-war Gibson Mastertone model because Earl Scruggs and his disciples all played them. Old-time frailing/clawhammer players prefer open-back, dowel-sticked banjos because that is what their heroes used. Beginners in particular cant hear the difference between various banjo designs, and, even if they can, cant quantify these distinctions in choosing an instrument. It takes many, many years of ear training, studying what makes a banjo sound a certain way and how the different variables affect the banjos sound to define for oneself what makes a good sounding banjo.
I chose my first good banjo by similar means. At the time, I was playing bass in the Delaware Water Gap String Band and our banjoist, Henry Hank Sapoznik, used an instrument made around 1920 by the Bacon Banjo Company. This model utilized the Bacon dished tone ring (a piece of brass bent over the top of the rim and extending for an inch or two into the inside opening of the rim) and internal resonatora partial back on the banjo that mostly encloses the area delineated by the tone ring. When another instrument made by Bacon became available, I bought it because of Hank.
My education into the effects of banjo construction and set-up on the sound of an instrument began in the late 1980s. At that time, banjo maker Bart Reiter of Lansing, Michigan approached me, to play his then newly introduced Bacon-style internal resonator model. After performing an integral role in the repair department of music retail giant Elderly Instruments, Bart began making various models patterned after those made around the turn-of-the-century by the Vega Company. Barts request forced me to analyze my original Bacon Grand Concert model banjo (yes, the same one Id bought a decade earlier), and why it sounded the way it did.
Now, let me comment that I like a banjo with a lot of volume and sustain, with a full, rich tone. I also utilize a somewhat high string height (approximately an eighth of an inch at the twelfth fret) in order to play over the base of the neck rather than the head. I am in the minority when it comes to open-back banjo sound, preferring neither the bright, trebly fast decay nor the tubby sound most common today. Because I travel a lot and like clarity along with fullness, I have always used plastic heads on my metal-strung instruments (Remo Weather Kings to be exact). I have never liked fiberskin heads except in special circumstances, as I believe they overly deaden a banjo. So, when Bart approached me, I entered the experiment with strong opinions somewhat out of the mainstream.
Since that time, Ive only acquired a few other banjos. Besides various minstrel and resonator instruments, Ive been fortunate to have Kevin Enoch, who only makes some thirty-five odd instruments a year, supply me with a fretless neck. And, most recently, Ive spearheaded collaboration between Tony Pass and Mike Ramsey.
Tony is an Arkansonian, a retired machinist
who plays the banjo. We met at the International Bluegrass Music
Association conference in Louisville in October of 2002. Tony
had begun experimenting with rim construction, using the less-popular
method of gluing blocks of wood together and then turning this
square of wood on a lathe to construct the finished rim. Additionally,
Pass used old wood recovered from the bottom of the Great Lakes
for his purposes. At the IBMA, Tony had some banjos made with
his rims, and, although they werent set up for my playing
style, I was intrigued by their unusual sound. Graciously, Tony
offered me a rim if I could find someone to make the neck.
After many telephone conversations hypothesizing about the effect a Pass rim might have on the sound of a banjo, Mike agreed to build a neck for one of Tonys rims. However, rather than make just one banjo, he decided to build three test banjos. They would be identical with the exception of the 11 x 3 pot assembly. One would use a Tony Pass Lost Timbre rim made from maple, and two would have bent laminated wood rimsone of regular maple and another from recovered timber similar to that used by Tony in his rims.
All the banjos came from Ramsey with maple necks cut from the same board. The scale length is 26 and 1/2. All had Bacon FF-style tone rings sold by Stewart MacDonald and 5 Star Brand plastic frosted heads, with Mikes standard set-up: low action, three foot maple bridges topped with ebony ranging from 5/8 to 3/4 in height and no-knot tailpieces. All were tuned in standard G tuning (gDGBD 5th to 1st).
I received the three banjos at the end of March, and quickly began fooling with them. I labeled them with numbers and refrained from looking at the rims too closely so that I would not let my prejustices affect my judgement of them. However, this study was less than scientific and certainly was ruled by my likes and dislikes.
Right out of the box, the one with the regular rim was stringy sounding and the laminated recovered wood had a bump of warmth in the higher strings. The Pass rim was the loudest, with more sustain and midrange than either of the other two banjos.
I tried a variety of bridges of different construction and heights on the instruments, but ultimately favored the original ones. A 5/8ths compensated maple/ebony bridge gave the regular and the laminated recovered wood rims a bit more body, probably because the heavier bridge served to deaden the higher frequencies, and took some of the volume away from the Pass rim. I tried two different 5/8ths Stockwell Moon bridges (curved maple with graphite tops), with the heavy one improving sustain and warmth on the two bent rims and the medium bridge sounding similar to the straight bridge. The Tony Pass banjo was louder and more powerful with the medium Moon bridge.
Next, I loosened and tightened each banjo head. Loosening the head around an eighth to a quarter turn from Ramseys tight helped the sustain and tone of the laminated recovered wood rim, but, as expected, reduced its volume. The regular rim loosened about 1/4 to 3/8 also lost volume and gained sustain. The Pass banjo mostly just got quieter as the head was loosened. All in all, just loosening the head an eighth turn or two helped the tone and sustain of all the banjos without drastically affecting their volume.
Because of the neck angle, I found it uncomfortable to play the banjos, and would notice the strings rattling (i.e.: hitting the frets) when attaching the strings. Therefore, all the necks were shimmed slightly forward (a thin veneer of wood placed under the bottom side of the heel to tilt the neck slightly forward) to increase playability. The resulting shallower neck angle gave all the banjos more sustain and tone. This surprised me, as I had (mistakenly) assumed that the original neck angle would put more downward pressure on the bridge and therefore result in more sustain and tone, not the other way around. Mike and I both liked the tonal change brought about by this new neck angle.
Finally, the heads and tailpieces on all three banjos were removed and replaced with high crown Remo Renaissance heads and Kershner adjustable tailpieces. Because of the differences between these and the original plastic heads, the two laminated rim banjos required 1/16 taller bridges. Again, Mike and I agreed that this improved the tone and sustain on the instruments, especially those with the laminated rims. Interestingly, the regular bent maple and lost wood bent maple-rimmed instruments now sounded more similar to each other. In a final very unempirical listening test, we first determined the best head and tailpiece tension for each instrument (again, setting for best tone and sustain). The Renaissance heads sounded best when fairly tight. In our last comparison of the three banjos, the normal bent maple rim sounded a bit pinched. More of the sound stayed in the instrument. The bent lost wood rim was more present and had the most overtones and was our favorite. The Pass rimed banjo lost some of its sound, and was now our second favorite. I ended up asking Mike to make me another banjo with the 11 Tony Pass lost wood maple rim, adjustable Kershner tailpiece and a Remo Weather King plastic head.
As an afterthought, Mike threw an identical neck on a Tony Pass 12 birch lost wood rim. Even without a tone ring of any kind, this banjo sounded great to both of us. An adjustable tailpiece killed the volume and tone, so we went with a no-knot. And, although the banjo sounded fine with a Renaissance head, it screamed (as Mike put it) with a Remo Weather King. So, Im also getting one of these made as well. So, thats the story of the Tony Pass trial. Obviously, this rim is not for everyone. However, at least with the Bacon tone ring, the 11 Pass maple rim does sound different from a normal bent rim or from a bent lost wood rim. Using a Renaissance head, adjustable tailpiece and shallow neck angle lessens that difference. Thanks to Tony Pass for supplying rims and advice, and to Mike Ramsey for the banjo photographs, construction and opinions.
Addendum from Oct. 2006 issue of Banjo Newsletter:
Also, the photos in last months article by Bob Carlin on Tony Passs rims werent taken by Mike Ramsey, but by Dan Levenson and Donald Zepp. Bob Carlin also wanted to add this clarification: It has come to my attention that several folks have been confused by my comments about Tony Passs rims in comparison with bent wood rims. Under no circumstances was it my intention to criticize Tonys rims. As I state in the article, for all comparison tests but one, the Pass rim came in first. It was only with the Renaissance head and setup adjusted for each banjo that Tonys came in second. If I didnt like the Tony Pass rims, why else would I have ordered two banjos with them? Since I received the prototypes, they are the only banjos that I play and I look forward to getting my finished banjos.