I've been playing my Van Eps recording banjo for a couple of months now.  I really like the large dimensions (12'' rim, 28 1/4'' scale length), and I don't think I'll be returning to the smaller banjos.  It has a normal skin head on it (no sound hole) and since the resonator dish was about to fall off and needed to be resoldered to the tone ring, and completely removed it to try the banjo with the tone ring on its own without the resonator dish, the way Van Eps originally made his banjos and continued to make banjos after the 1920s Lyon and Healy models.  Today, I removed the tone ring out of curiosity, turning the banjo into what essentially is an oversized SS Stewart Special Thoroughbred.  Without the tone ring, the banjo has a deeper sound, likely because the vibrating diameter of the head was increased from 10'' to the full 12''.  It is also much more responsive.  The volume is about the same, and it has more overtones and sustain, although neither is overpowering.  Overall I think I prefer it this way, since the banjo with the tone ring sounds comparatively muted and is only a little bit brighter.  This has got me thinking what the advantage of the Van Eps-style tone ring actually is.  Were his early and late tone rings hollow?  The Lyon and Healy tone rings are rectangular and solid, so I can't see how they add anything to the banjo other than muting it. 

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Hmmm...interesting. The Morrsion banjo I am currently restoring has a hollow tone ring and I was hoping it would brighten it and definately NOT mute it in any way. I am unfamiliar with the Van Eps style ring, any way you could post a photo so I could see and further my knowledge please?

Dow

 A tone ring normally increases volume, increases overtones, and increases sustain. Sustain, by the way, is not usually helpful for playing classic banjo. And for several other banjo styles a short sustain is also a primary characteristic. I have not examined a Van Eps tone ring however so I can't speak directly to your question. My impression is that the dish and tube (not really a tone ring ….a SSS Special Thoroughbred didn't have a real tone ring either) are intended to work as a unit.

As you probably know, the dish was intended to throw the sound forward in the direction of a microphone or perhaps its predecessor, the recording horn ("mega" phone).  Short sustain and trebly clarity were what Van Eps was looking for to compensate for the shortcomings of early recording technique and fidelity.

The tone rings were definitely functional and standalone without the bowl.  All of the pre-WWI Van Eps recordings were made with banjos that had the solid rectangular tone ring minus the bowl and sound hole, and Van Eps moved on form the bowl idea entirely after the Lyon and Healy banjos of the 20s.  While the tone ring does reduce the sustain, it also reduces the responsiveness of the banjo.  I can't hear any increase in volume with or without the tone ring.  I realize that the Thoroughbred and other SS Stewart banjos do not have tone rings, hence my comparison of them to the Van Eps minus the tone ring.  The earlier spunover Van Eps banjos were heavily influenced by the Special Thoroughbred, but with a Morrison-style tone ring.  Unlike the Morrison tone rings, the Van Eps tone rings are rectangular and solid brass or aluminum.

I've been discussing my experience with this tone ring with David Ball, who collects Van Eps banjos.  He's got banjos from every era, including some very early banjos personally owned by Van Eps that feature the tone ring without the bowl.  He thinks that the tone rings without the bowl might have been made from a different material, and that the other tone rings could be heavier to act as a "sound dam" and help direct the sound into the bowl to be directed outwards.  This would explain why I haven't had luck with my tone ring.  

If it looks like this (see photo below) then this is not what I'd normally call a tone ring. It's a ring and it affects the tone. But it's not the usual sort of thing at all. It seems to be more like a mute than like a tone ring.



John Cohen said:

The tone rings were definitely functional and standalone without the bowl.  All of the pre-WWI Van Eps recordings were made with banjos that had the solid rectangular tone ring minus the bowl and sound hole, and Van Eps moved on form the bowl idea entirely after the Lyon and Healy banjos of the 20s.  While the tone ring does reduce the sustain, it also reduces the responsiveness of the banjo.  I can't hear any increase in volume with or without the tone ring.  I realize that the Thoroughbred and other SS Stewart banjos do not have tone rings, hence my comparison of them to the Van Eps minus the tone ring.  The earlier spunover Van Eps banjos were heavily influenced by the Special Thoroughbred.

That's what I meant about ring and bowl acting together.

John Cohen said:

I've been discussing my experience with this tone ring with David Ball, who collects Van Eps banjos.  He's got banjos from every era, including some very early banjos personally owned by Van Eps that feature the tone ring without the bowl.  He thinks that the tone rings without the bowl might have been made from a different material, and that the other tone rings could be heavier to act as a "sound dam" and help direct the sound into the bowl to be directed outwards.  This would explain why I haven't had luck with my tone ring.  

Yes, it looks like the one in the picture, although mine is half aluminum, half steel (or plated brass).  This is what Van Eps referred to as the "tone ring".  On the non-bowl banjos it doesn't have the mute-like effect that mine is producing, so there must be some kind of difference in mine's construction.

I can see how that thing could act as a mute, although you say on the non-bowl models it does not effect the tone in that manner. Did Van Eps' earlier models have a Morrison style tone ring on top of the pot that the head sat on?

No, his earliest banjos featured the tone ring shown above, but made of plated brass.  Before he began making banjos, Van Eps played Morrisons as well as SS Stewarts, so he was familiar with the Morrision tone ring.  If I recall, there is a Morrison tone ring that sits against the head on supports.  It was a round, hollow tube.

Quote from Larry Sandberg book - 'Van Eps solution was to use a 12 inch rim a good inch larger than a standard rim. This feature alone would increase bass response, but at the expense of clarity. Therefore, he added an arched tone ring, cast on struts which mounted inside the rim.' - A compromise.

Hope this is helpful.

The 'tone ring' was probably another fad at the time, you could buy one of these from Grover and fit it on your own banjo, and some English makers such as Windsor fitted them - in Windsor's case it was his 'The Sultan' model which I remember as having one. My impression having played several of the Van Eps banjos is that they brightened up the sound. perhaps because the vellum area was reduced. Looking at this page of the B.M.G. reminds me that I once owned a Clifford Essex 'Concert Grand' banjolin which was fitted with the adjustable resonator featured above.

Another accessory, which I must admit having never come across, other than in the pages of the B.M.G. was the 'vibrating coils', some poor zither banjo must still exist with these springs in its innards.

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