To talk about Old Time banjos, it’s good to understand that - like automobiles – there are many different types of banjos. And while you can drive a pickup truck fast around twists and turns or take a sports car down a dirt road, people tend to purchase the type of automobile that will best fit their driving wants and needs. The same can be said for banjos.
You can play Old Time music on a Bluegrass banjo (or Bluegrass music on an Old Time banjo) however, Old Time banjos are almost always 5-string with an open back (no resonator). When playing Old Time music on a banjo many folks tend to frail or clawhammer (how the banjo is played), and many Old Timey players will tell you they prefer to hear a warmer and somewhat “plunkier” sound from their banjo.
Old Time open back banjos can come either with or without a tone ring. A tone ring is a round piece (or pieces) of (usually) metal (usually brass) that is found between the body/rim and the head and really defines a banjo’s personality as it relates to its tone, volume, and voice. Banjos with tone rings tend to have more volume and more sustain than those without and we always recommend our customers try banjos both ways to really understand the difference and see what they like.
There are different types of tone rings and the three most common styles for Old Time open back banjos were all originally developed over 100 years ago. Today, different manufacturers will make their own version of each type of tone ring, but all include the same basic design features. The three most common style tone rings for Old Timey banjos are:
the Whyte Laydie style
the Tubaphone style
the Bacon style
Each of these tone rings is shaped differently and each produces its own, unique sound.
The Whyte Laydie tone ring was first conceived of in the late 1800s by the A.C. Fairbanks Company. It was originally found on Fairbanks’ “Electric” model banjo (it wasn’t actually an electrified banjo, “electric” was just a popular buzz-word at that time) and later a slightly modified version of that same tone ring was used on their “Whyte Laydie” model banjo. A Whyte Laydie style tone ring is actually three separate pieces of metal that all fit together. But what distinguishes the Whyte Laydie from other tone rings is its scalloped ring, usually made of brass. For many Old Time banjo players, this is the “go to” tone ring style of choice.
In 1903 the Vega Company purchased A.C. Fairbanks and around 1909 the Tubaphone model banjo was introduced. The Tubaphone included a newly designed tone ring that is actually a hollow, square tube with holes drilled through the side. Many consider this design to be the SUV of tone rings, in that it is an all-purpose tone ring that is favored by Old Time, tenor, and plectrum players alike and tends to have a brighter tone and more sustain than a Whyte Laydie. It can even be used for bluegrass playing when the banjo is set-up for that.
The Bacon-style tone ring looks a bit like a doughnut and usually includes a separate metal hoop, which fits underneath the “doughnut”. Some folks think of this type of tone ring as warm, rich, and with sustain somewhere between the Whyte Laydie and the Tubaphone.
A common question folks ask is which tone ring is right for them. Our answer is that what is "right" lies in the ears of the beholder. And while the tone ring (or lack of a tone ring) plays a starring role in a banjo’s overall “sound”, there are other factors at play such as body construction, head diameter, wood choices, string action, head type, tailpiece, neck mounting, fingerboard, set-up, etc. that also contribute to that sound.
We currently have many new and used open back banjo models in stock for folks to try. (That does not include the bluegrass, tenor, plectrum, 6-string, banjo-mando, banjitar, and mini/travelers we also have).
We invite you to stop in, call, or email if you would like to learn more or to try out the wide variety of Old Time open backs we have here.