Let's Talk Tone

Let's Talk Tone

Hearing, like all our senses, is subjective. It's a personal thing.

How you experience a sound and interpret it informs your decision on whether something is good or bad. We build instruments that we think sound great. We want to share them with people. However not everyone will agree on what sounds great.

So we provide options. Different woods, different tone rings, different scale lengths even different strings. To create a great sounding banjo is to balance a number of different factors to produce a sound or tone that someone will love.

The important thing to remember about any stringed instrument is that it works as a coupled system. Which is to say that any one particular part of the instrument and how it is fitted to the others is bringing something to the table, so all parts need to be considered.

Obviously some parts make more of a tonal contribution than others, but it is important to remember that simply changing one part of a banjo will not necessarily change it's characteristics beyond recognition. All other things being the same, one of the most important parts of a banjo for defining its sonic character is it's Tone Ring.

As it's name implies the Tone Ring is what you might call the 'engine room' of the banjo. 

Mounted on top of the pot (in this case a Whyte Laydie Tone Ring on an Old Time Edwardian pot) the skin is stretched over the Tone Ring by means of the Tension hoop and Tension hooks, like a drum. The Vibration of the skin over the Tone Ring when a string is plucked is what generates the sound from a banjo, and so the harmonic content of that sound is affected by the way the skin is allowed to vibrate, and by what vibrations are enhanced or absorbed by the Tone Ring (and of course the other parts of the banjo).

So as the Tone Ring is the largest and most directly connected piece of the banjo to the skin it can have the greatest impact on the sound or tone of the banjo. (taking in to consideration other elements of the banjos construction) 

Looking at the Tone Ring in isolation, these are the Tone Rings we most commonly supply on our banjos and how they can affect the tone of a banjo.

Round Brass Rod

Many of the earliest banjos recognisable as we know them now, didn't have a Tone Ring. The skin was simply stretched over the wooden pot. In an effort to get more volume a simple brass hoop was placed on top of the pot and then the skin stretched over that instead. Adding a little more volume and a warm sound with more note definition than a wooden pot alone. Still quite a pleasing 'woody' sound. A very traditional sound for Old Time music and playing in the claw-hammer style. Although combined with the right tailpiece, scale length and a resonator can produce a great sounding bluegrass banjo too.

Whyte Laydie

A more complicated arrangement of a Brass hoop on a scalloped ring captured within a sleeve and mounted to the top of the banjo by means of a rebate. This Tone Ring is coupled more securely to the pot of the banjo. It's tight connection of the pot and increased mass combine to produce a very clear defined tone. More metallic than the simple brass hoop, sometimes described as bell like still with some warmth imparted by the brass. Articulate note seperation and definition. Again another very good Old Time Tone Ring.


The Tubaphone Tonering is similar in design to the Whyte Laydie in that it's elements are captured within a sleeve which is the bearing surface for the skin. In this case captured within the sleeve is a brass hoop in full contact for its circumference with a hollow box section ring. The hollow ring is drilled through to allow air to pass in and out of the hollow chamber. The Tubaphone is very loud with lots of ringing overtones. A very full sounding Tone Ring with lots of vibrant harmonic content. It really delivers ringing highs and powerful low bass notes but still retains great definition and clarity. Again often used for Old Time style music. Frequently found on Long neck banjos where it really contributes to the lower register.

Bacon FF Style

A much simpler design, the Bacon Tone Ring is much like the brass hoop. Also made of brass, it sits in a rebate on the pot, making it more securely coupled than the brass hoop. It also has a greater mass. It has a lot of the warm sound of a brass hoop, louder but still with some of the woody character. A rich Old Time sound.


Arguably not a Tone Ring at all. Although in this case (an Expeditionary pot glued up to a baseboard ready to turn) you can see the mahogany pot is capped with much harder maple which will become the bearing surface for the skin. Combining woods in this way to provide different tonal characteristics can have surprising results. As a rule, a softer 'plunkier' and very 'woody' sound. Often very hard dense exotic woods such as ebony or rosewood are used and can produce very clear articulate ringing tones. A very traditional sound, with the added advantage of often being much lighter in weight.


One word. Powerful. The Flathead is a large piece of cast bell bronze machined and drilled in to a bearing edge profile, that sits flat on the top of a thick pot. Secured in a rebate and forming a hollow chamber over the top of the pot the Flathead has a huge amount of mass and when fitted properly is very tightly coupled with the pot. Producing bell like, crystal clear, punchy tones. Very loud and powerful. Crisp and articulate note definition. I would say the defining Bluegrass sound. Really heavy. I'm not kidding.

To conclude:

The Tone Ring is but one element of a banjo's design and it's use is taken in to consideration with other elements of the design, but hopefully the information above has given you a clearer idea of what Tone Ring you might choose for your Shackleton.

Contact us for more information.


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