This page was connected to the Banjowizard site for a long time, until the maker of the Carolina Acoustic rims ran into production problems that overwhelmed him. Recently, he called me, after a hiatus of about 3 years, and we spoke for quite a while. It looks like he is getting things back together. So I am re-posting this review.
The maker of these rims sells on eBay with the name needajob2. These were excellent rims. I'm glad to see him back.
Impressions of the Carolina Acoustic Rim
J.D.Crowe Tone Ring Tested with the Carolina Acoustic Rim
The first weekend of May, 2002, I attended a bluegrass jam at the residence of Tony Pass, in Louann, Arkansas. At that jam, I had a banjo equipped with a Carolina Acoustic rim. This banjo had the neck and resonator from an RB-100, a modern Gibson USA resonator flange, a Price tailpiece and a J.D. Crowe tone ring. It was one of several bluegrass banjos I had brought with me.
During the jam, I brought out this banjo and began to play along with the rest of the group. The music stopped, and everyone looked at the instrument. It had plenty of volume and punch, but it also had that dry, hollow sound one associates with a pre-war banjo. This is what had attracted all the attention. I left the banjo in the hands of the various players there so they could get an idea of how it felt and sounded. This was an excellent combination.
Huber Tone Ring Tested with the Carolina Acoustic Rim
I received a Huber triple gold-plated ring which I have installed in the banjo with the Carolina Acoustic rim. After just playing with it a bit, preliminary impressions are excellent. The bottom end is similar to that of the J.D. Crowe ring, and the upper end seems to be a little brighter. The power and bite are definiteley present.
McPeake Tone Ring Tested with the Carolina Acoustic Rim
I have had a McPeake tone ring, which is the one that comes in the Showcase banjo pot assembly, installed in the RB-100 for about 3 days now. The results are impressive. The hollow, dry sound that one associates with the pre-war banjo is still there, just as it is with the other two tone rings I have tried. It has excellent separation of notes, as do the other two tone rings. The punch, power and bite are definitely there. It's hard to be precise in this comparison because I don't have any way to do an A-B test with different tone rings on the same rim. But I feel that the whole range of the banjo is full, but it doesn't have the ringiness that some banjos have. It reminds me very much of the sounds I was hearing from the Showcase banjos, which is a distinctive sound that is hard to forget.
JLS Model 12 Tone Ring Tested with the Carolina Acoustic Rim
For several years now, there has been an ad in the classified section of Banjo Newsletter and Bluegrass Unlimited that says:
GIBSON BANJO owners-Want that pre-war sound? You
can buy an original tone ring for $2000 - $5000, or you can buy
one of mine for $160. Every tone ring is money-back guaranteed.
You may have wondered about those ads. They refer to the JLS tone rings. Jim Stull, the owner of JLS Banjos, makes two basic styles of tone ring. One is called the Model 4. This tone ring is patterned after one that was in a pre-war Gibson Model 4 banjo. The other is the Model 12, which is patterned after a tone ring that was in a pre-war Gibson Model 12 banjo. Both of these are excellent tone rings -- possibly the best dollar value in an aftermarket tone ring. I have tested these tone rings extensively. In fact, I have a Model 12 tone ring in one of my tenor banjos.
The alloy used in these tone rings is based on a pre-war formulation. It was only natural that I try one on the Carolina Acoustic rim. I installed a Model 12 tone ring and was not disappointed at all. In fact, I was quite pleased. The sound ranks right up there with the Huber, the Crowe and the McPeake on these old wood rims.
JLS Model 4 Tone Ring Tested with the Carolina Acoustic Rim
I put a JLS Model 4 Tone ring in the banjo with the Carolina Acoustic rim. This tone ring has a little brighter sound than the Model 12 tone ring, but still has that interesting deep sound similar to a pre-war Mastertone. This is consistent with my expectations.
Gibson USA Tone Ring Tested with the Carolina Acoustic Rim
After I tried the McPeake tone ring with the Carolina Acoustic rim, I felt compelled to try a Gibson USA tone ring on it. My reasoning was this -- if the differences between the tone rings I had already tested seemed to be less on this rim (see summary), then the CA rim should produce a similar sound with the Standard Gibson USA tone ring. It does to a certain extent. On the Carolina Acoustic rim, the Gibson USA tone ring has some of the hollow, dry sound when the banjo is picked near the end of the fingerboard. The power and bite are still there. There is good note separation. It is a fairly bright sound, though, but more refined than the sound it has on a modern three-ply rim. Basically, this rim mellows out the sound of the Gibson USA tone ring, which can be somewhat wild at times.
When using the Carolina Acoustic rim, all three tone rings I have tested so far had the hollow, dry sound, especially when picking near the end of the fingerboard. Although the manufacturers of these tone rings will probably take issue with this statement, there seemed to me to be less difference between the sounds of these tone rings on the Carolina Acoustic rim than I hear when I install them on normal, modern three-ply maple rims. I am not certain of the reason(s) for this. However, it seems that we have a spectrum of sounds available. The Crowe ring had a slightly less brilliant sound than the Huber; the Huber had a slightly less brilliant sound than the McPeake. All have a type of sound that is definitely in keeping with the parameters of a pre-war sound. None of them exhibited excessive ringiness. All had plenty of punch and power. As expected, the McPeake ring sounded very much as I remember it sounding in the Showcase banjos, which also have McPeake tone rings in them.
Surprisingly, the Gibson USA tone ring had a very likeable sound, too. While it wasn't as close to a pre-war sound as the other tone rings, the Carolina Acoustic rim took away some of the inherent "wildness" that often appears in banjos with that particular tone ring in it.
It may be premature for me to draw any conclusions at this point. However, all the indicators point to this -- many of us have been searching for the way to get that special sound that we call "the pre-war" sound. There are several modern tone rings that duplicate various pre-war tone ring formulas that Gibson used, as well as the internal and external physical characteristics of the pre-war tone rings. The only thing we couldn't duplicate is the wood, unless we cannibalized a pre-war banjo. These modern tone rings sound great on conversion instruments.
Now we have a source of very old maple and birch, both of which are suitable for making banjo rims. The banjo rim is one of the keys to the sound of any particular instrument, but the old wood that the pre-war instruments were made of is no longer available. Or should I say that it hasn't been available until recently. These rims consistently produce a sound quite similar to the pre-war banjos with any decent, modern tone ring made to one of the pre-war formulas. There are definite differences in the sound of each tone ring, but they are not quite as great as one might expect.
As an added incentive to purchasing one of these rims, think about this. The prices of pre-war Gibson banjos is steadily increasing. As a matter of fact, even the lower end models, such as the TB-Jr., the TB-0 and the TB-00 are being used as conversion rims. The cost of these old banjos is soon going to be prohibitive.The submerged wood may actually be older wood than was used in the better pre-war banjos. The prices of these submerged wood rims are considerably lower than cost of the rims from the older banjos. This is an opportunity for you to purchase a rim that may give you a better sound than some of these genuine pre-war rims at a lower price than you would pay for a pre-war banjo. And you don't have to ruin an old instrument in the name of sounding just like Earl, J.D., Sonny or Ralph.
So, if you have any of the following tone rings mounted on a 3-ply modern maple rim, and you want a sound that is much closer to the pre-war sound, I would strongly recommend that you try an old wood rim. The rings I have tested on the old wood rim are the Crowe, the McPeake, the Huber, the JLS model 12, the JLS model 4 and the Gibson USA. I plan to test others in the very near future.
I also feel that I might point out a statement that was made in an interview in a recent issue of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. There was an interview with Bill Stokes, who was the first person to see the potential of submerged wood in banjo rims. His statement was that this kind of wood might make for a banjo that has a better pre-war sound. I found that a bit difficult to believe. Now, my opinion has changed. These old wood rims are consitently excellent.
Your mileage may vary.
As always, further reports to follow.
Go back to the Old Wood Page
Go back to Banjo Setup.
Go back to My Music
©2006 Bill Palmer. All rights reserved. For permission to republish contact Bill Palmer. The opinions expressed on this page are strictly Bill Palmer's. Mastertone, Stelling and the other brand and model names are the property of the manufacturers and other people who own them.
This page does not constitute an endorsement of any product, just an analysis.