That Elusive “Pre war” Sound

What is it? How can I achieve it?
Do I really want it, anyway?

If you are a traditionalist, chances are you are looking for a particular type of banjo with a particular type of sound. This is the elusive pre-war sound -- that sound that comes from the Gibson banjos that were manufactured during the decade and a half or so immediately before World War II.

To the real banjo enthusiast, this normally means a Gibson flathead Mastertone™, normally with a one-piece, die-cast resonator flange -- preferrably a Granada. (Although most of us would settle for an RB-4, an RB-3 or an RB-75, if it were available!) Why is this so?

The answer most often is that most of us want to sound the way Earl Scruggs sounded during those early years with the Bluegrass Boys and later, with the Foggy Mountain Boys. Some of us want the sound that Earl had on the Foggy Mountain Banjo album. Earl's banjo, for most of these recordings, was a Granada with exactly these characteristcs. However, I will discuss all of these things at length on this page.

Defining the pre-war sound.

So, what is that pre-war sound, anyway? It has been described several different ways, by comparing it to the sound that several different players get from their banjos. The most common definition is the “Earl Scruggs” sound. However, this really isn't an adequate definition. Earl's Granada has sounded several different ways at different times. According to the most popular stories, Earl swapped Don Reno another banjo for the Granada that has been Earl's main instrument for the last several decades. The stretcher band, the resonator flange, armrest, tailpiece and neck have all been replaced at least once. There have been at least six necks on this instrument. The only constant factors have been the rim and the tone ring ... and Earl. But all during this time, there were certain characteristics of the sound that Earl got.

They were:
a very percussive, powerful "bite," when needed,
a dry, almost hollow sound when the right hand played near the end of the fingerboard,
a lack of undesirable “ringy notes,” often mistakenly called “overtones.”
an even response all over the range of the instrument.
a certain richness of tone in general.
And this sound is the one most traditional bluegrass banjo players want to achieve.

There are variations on this sound. J.D. Crowe has his own version. So does Sonny Osborne. The same is true for many other players, but each of them has his own particular sound that fits somewhere within these parameters.

What makes a pre-war banjo sound like this?

That's a good question. Some people think it is the tone ring. Others think it is the wood. Still others think it is the other hardware, the glue, the fit of the parts, and to be sure, each of these probably plays a part to some degree or another.

There are several tone rings on the market that are made to one pre-war Gibson formula or another. There are also now available different banjo rims that are made from old growth wood that has been submerged for about a century and a half. They definitely make a difference. Steve Huber has a line of banjos that are made to exacting pre-war specifications, and they have a sound that is very, very close to that elusive pre-war sound. The Showcase/Timeless Timber banjos come very, very close. The banjos with the Carolina Acoustic rims also come very, very close. So it probably is attainable. But there are two other questions that bear asking.

1. How much of the sound of Earl's banjo is the banjo, and how much of it is Earl?

That's a good one! First off -- I have played a couple of banjos that Earl has played at various times, one of them being "THE banjo" -- it was a looong time ago. I certainly didn't sound like Earl on it, yet Earl sounded like Earl when he played mine. It didn't sound exactly like his Granada, but it sounded more like him than I did on his banjo!

It is a definite fact that one of the most important components to the sound of the banjo is the nut that holds the picks.

2. Do I really want a banjo with the pre-war sound?

That is the key question. You may not like it. You may want something with more sustain, a brighter sound, or several other characteristics that are found in modern banjos. For example, if you like the sound that Earl's banjo has on Foggy Mountain Banjo -- you want a banjo with a bit more sustain than Earl's Granada actually had on that album. That album had reverb on it!!! Not only that, the banjo he used for Ground Speed was an RB-4. On top of that, there are good indications that Earl used a plastic head on his banjo(s) for the first time on this album. This changes the sound. There is a distinct possibility that you may not actually WANT the pre-war sound!

Fortunately, you have choices.

There are wonderful tone rings, rims, heads, bridges, tailpieces -- everything you can think of -- that will give you a contemporary enhanced banjo sound. For example, the Stelling banjos have a wonderful sound, but they are not pre-war Gibsons. The Kulesh 10-hole tone ring gives a sound that is very distinctive, but is not pre-war. The Tony Pass rims have a really rich, powerful contemporary sound. You may prefer this, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. The wonderful thing about it is that you can find a banjo that has a sound that you like!!!

Joe Zalik posted this to one of the banjo lists:

“Does it really seem worthwhile to take something as subjective as banjo tone (rings) and try to scientifically quantify and measure it beyond certain fundamentals as some of you are suggesting? Replicating pre-war tone ring alloys is a noble endeavor and I am glad to see it happening as it gives us a solid foundation to build upon, however, there are so many other variables involved with banjo tone such as setup and individual playing styles that even if a banjo (such as Earl’s Granada) could be intricately replicated with the same wood, alloy, weight, fit, finish, etc., it may not sound like his banjo in someone else’s hands. Heck, I’ll go out on a limb and say that if someone else were to play his original Granada it would most likely sound different. Accordingly, if Earl played another banjo it would most likely have his trademark sound. That is because a lot of what we HEAR when listening to “the sound” is due to style and technique, not necessarily the instrument. This is all hypothetical of course, but I think a reasonable assumption. As with art, beauty is in the eye (ear) of the beholder. The best we can do is read the claims and advertisements, take them at face value, do some research, listen to those who have tried the product (Banjo-L is an excellent forum for this), make your choice, lay your money down and experiment. I have found that most suppliers will take back tone rings or entire pot assemblies within a reasonable time if you are not satisfied. If you buy from a private individual and are not satisfied, there is always Ebay!... Folks, it really boils down to educated trial and error and experimentation to find the sound YOU are looking for that fits YOUR picking style.”

Joe has given me permission to publish this. I couldn't have said it better, myself.

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©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.