Richie Dotson

11000 Long Branch Drive

Chesterfield, Virginia 23932

 

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Richie Dotson

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Richmond, Virginia

Williamsburg, Virginia

Midlothian, Virginia

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Banjo Lessons

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Richie Dotson

Acoustic Box

Richmond, Virginia

 
Pre War Gibson Banjo Testing ... Listening to what the Wood has to Say
 
I wanted to use one instrument (or some of it) as a control in order to isolate the influence that the wood rim and resonator alone contribute to the tone and response of a banjo. That is exactly what I was able to achieve in the experiment that follows.
 
I know that my Gibson style 3 banjo sounds good … it sounds older than it really is, if that makes sense to you. Most people who play it (including professionals you would recognize) ask if it is pre-war, but it isn’t. I am fortunate to have wound up with a wood rim that sounds good and a resonator that also sounds good that is coupled with a good neck and a Huber tone ring. The combination is great if you like that fat, classic, Gibson sound.
 
The wood rim is a stock Cooperman and it is more responsive than most of those I have played in the past. The resonator is one with a poplar core. The neck is a “V” shaped, mahogany style 3, leaves and bows inlays and a Brazilian fingerboard that fits well. The tone ring is a standard, Steve Huber tone ring, fitted a little looser than a slip fit. The banjo is outfitted with a 5/8” Huber bridge and a Taiwan Remo head, a Presto tailpiece and D'Addario J69 Light strings. The head was tuned to between a G and a G# and the action between the top of the 12th fret and the bottom of the strings is set to 3/16”.
 
3 tunes were recorded using this banjo. This banjo was then dismantled and the wood rim and resonator were switched out with those from a 1929 Gibson style 4, Serial (order) number 9027-38. This banjo’s wood rim originally had a 40-hole archtop tone ring, but it has been turned down to accommodate a flathead tone ring and the outside was turned and finished to accommodate a one-piece flange (a horrible sin to some, I know, but this is exactly the way it arrived). The fit of the tone ring on the pre war rim was identical to that of the Cooperman. The resonator on this 1929 banjo is mahogany. The banjo was allowed to settle in for 2 weeks, the setup was checked to make sure that everything was as identical as possible, and the same three tunes were recorded again.
 
The recorder is a Boss BR1600CD and the microphone is an Audio-Technica Pro 37 (phantom powered) mounted in an Avantone shock mount. The microphone was 9 inches away from the banjo and pointed at the spot where the neck and the pot meet. I found this to be the spot that picked up the best while maintaining as much balance as possible while eliminating pick noise.
 
The three tunes that I played were: John Henry in standard C tuning (gCGBD), Fire Ball Mail, in G tuning and the key of G, and Banks of the Ohio in the key of A (G tuning, capo at 2). This provided a nice range without having to record a lot more tunes. 
 
These recordings were done completely solo and with no special effects added whatsoever. They are as dry and unaltered as a desert. What you are hearing is me playing these banjos, in the same room, with the same equipment, in the same chair in the same location, using the same picks, with the settings exactly the same for all of the recordings. The beats per minute are exactly the same for both versions of the comparable tunes but vary for each pair of tunes. The head, bridge, neck, tailpiece, freshness and brand of strings and everything else is the same with the exception of the wood rim and resonator. Any variances are due to the banjos and any mistakes that I happened to make while playing.
 
I found the two versions of the same banjo were distinctly different from each other. I can tell you that changing the tone ring would likely not have yielded such a dramatic responsive and timbre difference. This is the most difficult part of the process … and the reason for the recording, because it is impossible to describe, with any degree of accuracy, things tonal. Knowing that things are subjective, I would still like to say that I usually reserve the term “better” for things that I personally think work better for me. Well, to me the pre war parts sound better. It isn’t just about a difference in volume. Even if the volume between the two were identical or if the pre-war parts were diminished in volume (they were not) I would still like the sound better. It has a more concentrated depth.
 
There was a slight increase in volume with the pre war wood rim and resonator. There was also the classic, ever so slight, complex set of overtones that are indicative of pre war Gibsons. Additionally, there was an open sounding, ever so slightly hollow boom present with the pre war parts. Some people would call that a dryer sound that is usually associated with J.D. Crowe.
 
I highly recommend that listen to these files through a good set of speakers or on a headset of good quality in order to better appreciate them.  If you are looking for a “breakdown” or “melodic” playing, you should turn elsewhere. My intention is to allow you to hear what the banjo sounds like. It isn’t about how well I can or can’t play or how fast the playing is or isn’t. I know that some of you are going to be tempted to tell me (and others) that you don’t like that head, those strings, that tailpiece …. please … that isn’t what this is about. It’s about the differences in the tone and response of the wood, not my personal setup and hardware choices.

Click Here to experience these audio files

The pre war wood rim will soon be fitted by Steve Huber with a brand new Huber H-30 tone ring and my style 3 will return to its former state of being. I’ll be building a mahogany neck with hearts and flowers inlay for the pre war it and I hope to debut it during Cabin Fever Super Pickin’ Party in Hampton, Virginia March 4-7, 1010. It should be killer!  

Richie Dotson 12/29/2009