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Thread: restoring a belmont bacon

  1. #1

    restoring a belmont bacon

    I'm writing for my wife who is not a member. Please bear with me, this is a long story.

    She has owned a belmont bacon banjo for 30 years, but hasn't played it much for the past 20 years. Two years back, I started playing old-time music seriously, and encouraged her to join me by renewing her banjo chops. She played the BB for about a month, then decided the sound was far too tinny, and no fun, and that if she was going to play banjo every day she needed to purchase something with better sound. Keep in mind that my wife loves the rather inexact description of a "rubbery" kind of tone she hears on so many old time recordings. Soon thereafter, she bought a new banjo from a well known builder. She loves the tone, and has played it with me for about 2 years now. Meanwhile, the BB never leaves the closet.

    Last week we played at an old-time festival where she engaged lots of other women playing old-time banjo. During one session, while everyone else was playing while standing up, she confessed to me that it was impossible for her to play standing up, and in fact she had been struggling mightily with her new banjo from the start because it weighed north of 25 pounds, which was far too heavy not only to play standing up, but to play for more than hour while sitting down.

    Back home again, I suggested that she resurrect the BB, which is quite light. She told me that she couldn't return to that tinny tone. So I did some research. I believe she has a plastic head on the BB. I have this idea that some brand of authentic goat or cowhide head would likely enrichen the tone. But which one?

    The current tone ring on the BB looks to be aluminum or maybe chrome. I have to believe that a solid brass tone ring would markedly increase the resonance of the instrument. Examining the instrument, its obvious that installing a new tone ring will take more work than changing the head. But how much more work, I don't know. And again, which one?

    I discovered that Stewmac sells brass tone rings and several different kinds of banjo heads. These parts are inexpensive, and I can buy both for about $65. I have this idea in my head that it shouldn't be too difficult for a repair person to swap out either one or both parts, with the result of a much richer sounding banjo. I wouldn't do the work myself.

    I then contacted my favorite string instrument repairman. He warned that the tone ring could be exceedingly difficult to swap out, and that all the potential machining might actually destroy the instrument. He concluded that such a repair wasn't worth it, plus, after the swap, the sound might not actually improve at all. He counseled me to sell either one or both banjos as-is, and use the money to get something new that works perfectly for my wife both weight-wise and tone-wise.

    Before we take a next step, I thought I better ask here. For one thing, I don't quite accept this analysis. Changing the head shouldn't be too difficult, and I have to believe that a new head, alone, has to change the tone significantly. But will it be for the better? I don't know.
    Anyway, if anyone has an opinion about I should proceed, I'd love to hear it.

  2. #2
    Registered User Tobin's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2016
    Bandera, TX

    Re: restoring a belmont bacon

    I would agree that swapping the head for a real skin head, or even a renaissance head or fiberskyn head, might just do the trick. There is a lot that can be done there, with experimentation on head tension and different bridges. A good all-around setup on the instrument would go a long way too. I don't think I'd mess with the tone ring, though. If it came to that, I'd do what your repair person suggested, and just sell it to get another banjo that's better suited to your wife's needs. There comes a point where you're just throwing money at something with no guarantee as to the results, and a real risk of ruining it in the process.

    If she's playing old-time music and likes the "rubbery" sound, there is a plethora of excellent open-back banjos out there that should do the job. Her current banjo being 25 pounds sounds very heavy to me. That's closer to what I would expect a resonator banjo to weigh, but it's awful heavy for an open-back. Does her current banjo have a spun-over rim or something?

  3. #3

    Re: restoring a belmont bacon

    I've never had a banjo that weighed anywhere close to 25 pounds...

  4. #4

    Re: restoring a belmont bacon

    Yesterday, she talked to a local banjo collector who repairs his own instruments. He tells us to buy a raw skin, and he'll help us prepare it and stretch it over the rim. He has a few ideas about the kind of skin to buy and the tautness of the stretching, to attain the sound she seeks. The good news is that he assures us that the correct head, properly installed, will eliminate the tinny sound. He also agrees that installing a new tone ring is far more trouble than it is worth, and might damage what we already have. So we've given up on that idea.

  5. #5

    Re: restoring a belmont bacon

    I'm embarrassed to admit that jim pankey is correct. I hadn't bothered to actually weigh the instrument but was relying on what I'd been told. I decided to actually weigh it after reading his comment. It's 11 pounds, and the case weighs another 10 pounds. As wrong as I was about the weight, nonetheless it absolutely doesn't change anything about my wife's problem of it being too heavy for her.

    As as it turns out, our collector friend happens to have 3 different heads he's never used. He's agreed to help my wife install them, each in turn, onto the BB banjo to find the best sound for her.

    She also had a productive discussion with the builder of her stunningly beautiful but overweight banjo. He said that much of weight comes from the rock maple body and neck. He could have made it out if cherry but never thought about it. She's decided it's a keeper, for now, because it sounds so good. However it remains a handicap, and She'll never be able to play it standing up. And when it's inside the case, she'll never be able to lug it very far unless we suddenly get so rich and famous she can hire her own personal roadie.


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