Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

That ____ Banjo Sound

I’m at the point where I’m daydreaming of a new banjo. I even have a budget in mind. Naturally, there are several banjos from which to choose, and even variations within a particular model. Sooner or later it’s going to come down to which one “sounds best.” Which brings up the question, “What does a banjo sound like?”

I spent decades recording sound, so when I hear someone talk of the "classic pre-war Gibson sound, I ask myself, “Which sound?”
Was it the sound heard over a Philco AM radio with a three-inch speaker? Or was it the sound in the high school gym when the tour bus came to town? Was it the sound of the 78 rpm record, or the later 33 1/3 pressing? Was it the sound recorded with a carbon ribbon microphone or an early Shure?
I dunno, but so many people seem to be smitten by “that sound” and have to have more of it. Steve Martin tells how he was smitten by "that sound"when he heard the Kingston Trio. For me it was the first time I heard a record of F&S with “Cripple Creek” back in 1967.
Earl worked his magic on this child, too.

Just what does a banjo sound like?

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I describe “that” sound as a hollow sound that’s heavy in mid-range and klunky (in a good way). I didn’t really know what it was till I got my hands on some (stupid expensive) pre-war banjos. I was like, “Oh, that’s it. Now I see what folks are trying to copy.”

But I have to be honest–that’s only one sound that a banjo makes, and it’s completely your prerogative if that is the sound you want to go for. I think it’s wonderful but I don’t think it’s necessarily preeminent and definitely not exclusive or authoritative. I can desire whatever tone I want to desire, and the fun part is chasing after it.

For instance, the Stelling banjos don’t have that pre-war Gibson sound. But man, they sound SO GOOD. It’s a different sound and a distinguished/notable sound that deserves its own class. The same is true for Deering.

All this to say that if you wanna go after that pre-war Gibson sound, do it! I have a couple I think have some elements of it and I’m very tempted to buy an antique. But I smile and smile when I play a fine Stelling.

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Here are a few good examples of the “cream of the crop” prewar sound:

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Thank you for your insight. It helps push back some of the fog.
Describing sound is hard. I have told my wife a certain piece of music sounds “brown.” To me it resembles the color, fragrance and emotional impact of autumn leaves in late October. I know, how can anything “sound brown?” but it does.

So that brings me back to my original quandary: Which sound do I want to live with for 20 years? (yes, I’m an optimist.) The more I delve into the question, the more I’m beginning to think “that pre-war Gibson sound” is not quite the rabbit I’m chasing.
Besides, calfskin heads are getting harder to come by these days! Sure, I could use groundhog, but the wait time for delivery can be annoying.

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Thanks! Those two videos do a great job of demonstrating the “hollow” sound Ben mentioned. And I found it easier to judge the tone listening to them tune the banjer rather than play it.

Now a different question: Is a “post-war Gibson,” say one made in the 1990’s or early 2000’s a “great” banjo, or is it simply one among many? (Stelling, Deering, Ome)

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Man those sound so good. The sustain they have is incredible.

I have to say, the closest thing to that sound I’ve heard without actually being a prewar is a Twanger with the right set of strings. My Twanger booms with a set of lights on it. Mediums or higher seem to choke it out.

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Haha, through phone and computer mic/speakers!

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My main banjo is a 2003 Gibson Earl Scruggs Standard, and from what I can tell, yes, it is a “great” banjo. Probably the closest replica of what a new Gibson would sound like would be a Huber; I’ve played a Huber Lancaster before (RB-3 replica) and I did prefer my Gibson over it, which was probably caused mostly by the Lancaaster being mahogany and the Gibson being maple. I love the sound of maple banjos, but you may prefer a mahogany or walnut banjo depending on the sound you like. Things like Stellings are kind of in a class of their own, as they aren’t trying to achieve exactly prewar tone and specs. You also might want to check out Prucha banjos; they do make “masterclones”, but they also make very unique banjos as well.

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