I'm finding that my tubaphone sounds muted and flubby (mellow, no presence or string definition, not "spank" or pop, and rather harp or guitar-like) when I do not mute the head with a rag or similar object shoved between it and the dowel stick.  Muted, it sound really great and snappy with a lot of presence and string separation.  I also seem to get more volume muted than not, which is really strange.  I'm using an excellent bridge that Joel Hooks made for me along with a Remo Renaissance head that I keep very tight.  I've finished experimenting with strings... no matter what I tried, I kept going back to Labella 17's.  I'm making sure to pick "through" the strings with only my extreme finger tips, and this does help, but the tone just isn't there.  I'm starting to regret not getting a banjo with a longer scale length and larger head... maybe that's my problem, since my tub has a 10 3/4'' rim and a 26'' scale length.  Longer scale lengths tend to give better note separation and a crisper tone.  The only thing I haven't tried changing is the tailpiece.  The current tailpiece is an original no knot, and it does have a rather sharp string angle, so maybe that's part of the problem.  Anyone got advice about where to go from here?

The good news is I feel like I'm really getting the hang of the alternate fingering and right hand in general.  I recently learned Eli Green's Cakewalk and am now working through Freckles and having a blast doing it!

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You should have no problem with a Tubaphone banjo sounding muted and flubby. You say that the Renaissance is VERY tight?
I have found that when tightening a Renaissance it goes from dull to a sweet spot where the banjo sounds great and then, when tightened too much, the banjo seems flat or dull again. Maybe slacken the head and tighten slowly and evenly to find where it sounds best?

My Remo Ren. head sounds best when a press of the thumb around 2" from the hoop will deform the head quite easily. The head should not be so tight that you can't deform it... Just a thought.

In my opinion Jody is the man to ask as he has a vast experience of setting up different banjos.
Yes, I have the head about as tight as it will go before breaking. I'll loosen it and see if that corrects the problem.

I loosened the head and tried playing with varying degrees of tension, and the looser it got the worse the tone became.  It's incredibly mellow and undefined, even when I switch to the lighter of the two period bridges I have.  There must be something wrong, or maybe I am doing something wrong.  My old Gatcomb sounds snappier and more defined than my Tub, and they both have the same strings.  One thing I noticed is that the original owner placed a piece of leather between the no knot tailpiece and the rim, presumably to stop overtones.  Do you think this may be what's making it so mellow?  It's going to be a pain to remove it, so I'd rather hear from people beforehand.

Well, I had some free time so I went ahead and removed the tailpiece and ditched the leather that was stuck to the back, strung the banjo back up, and the change actually made the banjo even more mellow and muddy.  

This is very odd! I can't really make any sensible suggestions that you haven't tried.

Have you had the banjo to pieces? Is the tubaphone tone ring seated correctly? The head hasn't split around the moulded tension hoop? I had one pull partly out of the aluminium flesh hoop once. I would not suspect the tail-piece or strings, more vellum/bridge/ assembly of the instrument. Sorry that I can't point at the problem for you, so clutching at straws: Have you developed the calluses on the picking fingertips yet as they make a big difference?

..other than that, I am pleased that you are mastering alternate fingering. This along with the correct hand shape are your keys to success in Classic Style.

Keep us informed.

Yes, I think my callouses are fully formed.  I already had callouses on my fingers to some extent from playing guitar and especially balalaika, which is a real workout for the thumb and index finger.  I'm pretty baffled as well... My luthier (he's excellent and knows tubaphones and banjos in general better than most) took the banjo apart when he removed the old skin head and replaced it with the Remo.  That improved the tone a great deal, but it still doesn't sound like a banjo and is pretty unusable without a mute.  It's a shame since it is such a great player.  

A Tu-Ba-Phone should be quite loud and sharp, one rarely hears the term "mellow" associated with them.

Personally, I think it is the LaBella strings (which I've always found to be way too soft and flabby). The tailpiece does matter...but I don't think it is the problem. The Joel Hooks bridge ought to make it pop.

When I set up banjos with Ren heads, I typically set them at 90+ on my drum-dial...which is very tight. Do check for soft spots all the way around, I've pulled a few heads out of their flesh hoop over the years.

Like Ian says, if you can, check the tu-ba-phone tone ring assembly for proper seating. Same goes for the neck-to-pot juncture...it must be a good, tight fit.

Another area to look at is the nut...if the nut grooves are not cut properly, the strings can be damped.

Sorry, we were posting at the same time. You've had a luthier look at it...I'm left scratching my head.

I just brought it back to my luthier, and the tone ring and neck assembly are fine.  I've tried a bunch of different strings and I keep going back to the LaBella's.  They are loose, but I'm pretty used to it at this point, and hey, they are what Clarke Buehling uses, and I love the tone and snap he can get using them.  

The nut looks fine to me...no problem there. I'm left scratching my head as well.

 thereallyniceman said:

In my opinion Jody is the man to ask as he has a vast experience of setting up different banjos.

The-Man-To-Ask has been tacit and mute, mostly because he is very busy today and far from the computer, but also because I don't know how to give my opinion without actually giving it, and I suspect it may not be well received. 

Here goes:

 I could not get a viable musical sound out of a 26 inch scale, small pot tubaphone and thin strings like LaBella 17, unless I tuned up at least a step and probably 3 half steps. (b flat, E flat, Bflat, D, F).  The Tubaphone assembly is fantastically musical, and very good for classic banjo, but the tone ring cannot Do What It Does without sufficient energy to drive the banjo and this set of strings simply cannot do the job at 26 inches. At 28, yes, OK.  

Try tuning up the B string to D. That's the minimum gauge (.022) that I would use for the first/d string at 26 inches. How does it sound now? Same for the middle G/3rd. It's .028 inches. that's a decent gauge for the B string at 26 inches. How does it sound at B?  

However a Tu-ba-phone is meant to have warm tone and resonant mids and lows as well as clear highs. Warmth does not mean lack of clarity, it means presence of lower frequencies. Maybe you don't like the Tubaphone sound. Harp-like tone is a virtue in a banjo, in my opinion. Paramount Banjos, which are very clear, and distinct sounding, but do not lack mids, advertised Piano Volume and Harp Quality Tone. 

A No Knot tailpiece of any sort *minimizes* the string angle. The angle cannot be less than that because the strings travel the entire distance from bridge to rim without anything pushing down as it would with a Clifford Essex bridge or a Presto or even a wooden tailpiece. The further the string travels behind the bridge the smaller the angle. This can be verified by moving the bridge closer to the center or further towards the rim.

A larger pot will increase the loudness but also will increase the muddiness. A very thin vellum and a thin bridge are antidotes for that. But you will not get increased sharpness from a bigger pot.

Longer scale tends to create more sustain, not more separation or crispness.  Long strings of any gauge and tension will increase the sustain. I don't know why exactly. However the same string  (La Bella 17s for instance) at a longer scale and the same tension will sometimes have less bass resonance and will thin out tonally, and will of course *feel* tighter and those things can make for a false sense of clarity but which is actually an absence of midrange and lower frequencies.


Thanks for the info Jody.  What strings do you recommend?  I'd rather not have to tune up.

As you were posting I was stringing up with D'Addario classical guitar strings, gauges .019, .022, .029, .026W, .019.  These sound a little better and retain a lot of the feel of the LaBellas.  In the past I tried Sands mediums and heavies but found that they made the banjo sound round with pronounced overtones.  I also didn't like the feel as much since you couldn't snap them like the LaBellas.  What specific gauges are you suggesting I try, and what brand?  .022, .028. ?, ?, .022?

I think that "round" is a sonic virtue.  The Rice Crispy Effects (Snap, Crackle and Pop) are adornments atop Basic Round. Rice Crispy sounds on their own are like ornaments with no body to adorn. That said, the brand of nylon doesn't matter as much as the gauges, which I'll suggest in a moment. But first: perhaps you would like PVF strings, which tend to be brighter than nylon. Even better (maybe) is Savarez KF strings which are said to have some of the sonic properties of gut strings. Right now Strings By Mail (stringsbymail.com) is having a 15% sale on Savarez strings. It might be worth investigating. Choose lighter gauges in KF (and PVF) than you would for nylon. A set of PVF strings with the same gauges as the La Bella Wimp-o-Matics you just had on your Tuber Foam, would probably work well. Just this morning I bought some of Savarez nylon "speciality singles" for my own Eric Stefanelli Tubaphone. That banjo has a long scale, yet I'm using heavier gauges than you are, and except for the 3rd string, which I increased just a bit, these are the gauges Eric uses, and he shares an aesthetic with Clarke Buehling. 

For nylon at 26 inches I would try 23 or 24 for the outside strings, 27 or 28 for the b, 31 -34 for the G and wound 30 for the bass. But this is close to the Chris Sands gauges you rejected. You have to give whatever strings you use a chance to settle in. The pronounced overtones are a function of any brand new string. You have to give them time. At least a week. Snap Crackle and Pop are mostly a function of technique, they are not (mostly) a function of the absence of warmth and resonance. 19 (nylon) for the outside strings is ok for a banjo with a scale of 30 inches.

John Cohen said:

As you were posting I was stringing up with D'Addario classical guitar strings, gauges .019, .022, .029, .026W, .019.  These sound a little better and retain a lot of the feel of the LaBellas.  In the past I tried Sands mediums and heavies but found that they made the banjo sound round with pronounced overtones.  I also didn't like the feel as much since you couldn't snap them like the LaBellas.  What specific gauges are you suggesting I try, and what brand?  .022, .028. ?, ?, .022?

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