Hot Rodding Your  Banjo

Sooner or later, most banjo players become tinkerers. I suspect that this is because changes can be made to this modular instrument that allow for fairly easy component upgrades. At some point, instead of buying a new banjo, it will occur to you that the neck, the resontar, flange, hoop, pretty much everything but the rim and ring really don't much change as you go up in instrument price, except for wood selection, appearance, cosmetics. In other words, the neck from a 700 dollar banjo plays just about as well as the neck from a 4,000 dollar banjo. "What if I just get a new tone ring?" It's true, you can vastly improve the sound of your banjo by just swapping out this basic component, but some caveats and pitfalls exist:

1) George Washington's hatchet:
After you've replaced the ring, then the rim, and oh, yes, the flange, too, and let's not forget the tuners, and... Well, you see where this is going. It's a different handle and a different head, but it is George Washington's original hatchet!

2) Fit, fit, fit:
Even though the Gibson Mastertone is the standard model for almost all of the bluegrass banjos made in the last 50 years, the standards are not what they might be. Because you have so many disparate components in a banjo, and these components can come from all over the planet, literally, the chances of your getting a box of components, lashing them all together, and getting a good fit are almost nill. For example, the fit of the rim to the ring is absolutely critical. We're talking about thousandths of an inch here. If the rim is too big, it can be turned down on a lathe to fit the ring. If too small, well, time to get another rim. When a banjo is made new, the luthier takes the tone ring and flange for that banjo and turns the rim to fit both, one on each end of the rim. This rim, ring, flange combination all provides for a complex cut on the neck heel that is both radiused and angled to fit that one particular assembly. Even the resonator is cut to fit that particular pot and neck assembly. You can do some shimming, but by and large, you'll wind up cutting a new rim for a new ring, which can then lead to neck fit issues. This is not for the weekend woodworker.

3) Resale value:
You know when kids by 3 thousand dollar used cars and put 12,000 dollars worth of engine, wheels, interior, etc. into it only to come up with something that's worth about 3 thousand dollars? Same here. You will rarely even get the cost of your upgrade components back in resale or trade. However, this can present a real bargain to a would be buyer. If you can find an upgrade banjo, and you play it, and like it, it might be a real value. You must always play an upgrade banjo before purchasing, though, and ask yourself  "If this was such a successful upgrade, why is it for sale?" Same thing applies to for-sale used tone rings. Why is it for sale? (see below)

4) No way of knowing if it's an upgrade or not:
Frankly, I've had some wildly varying results doing this. I had a Gibson RB-800 that I bought during the "dark days" of Gibson banjo making; the mid to late 1970s. When I got this banjo the finish on the neck was so soft you could scrape it off the heel with your fingernail, like peanut butter. Pearl routinely popped out of the neck onto the floor. It sounded like someone had filled the resonator with creosote and fur. I rarely even played the thing until about 1990 when I bought a high end tone ring for it. The difference was, let's say, less than spectacular, and I'd given almost 400 dollars for the ring. It wasn't until I replaced the rim as well (another 400) that it began to come to life. It wound up being a pretty good banjo - not great, but very good - but by then I'd taken a banjo I bought new for 1,200 and added about 900 to it. For this same investment, I probably could have purchased a new banjo, saved myself the trouble and risk, and known what the end result was going to be.

With all of these caveats well in mind, a lot of patience, some good tools, this process can still be a lot of fun and potentially very rewarding. The tone ring in my archtop was dead in the Gibson it came out of. (Which is why it was available.) On my own rim, in my own banjo, it rings like a heavenly bell.

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