Lots of banjo players don't know how tight their plastic drum should be.
Those who like their banjo plunky, like in the old days, with the groundhog skin for a drum, will want their plastic loose; those who like the punchy, brittle sound, of ringing bluegrass want theirs tight.
Compared to what? If it's too loose it sounds flat; if tightened too much it will break...
Enter DrumDial, a tool used by drum players who want their many plastic heads reliably tuned. DrumDial gives you that base.
Our Pete Seeger Vega drumhead had not been retuned or tested for forty years. Yes time flies... I thought it might be sounding plunky...
So what to do? We searched the web and discovered that banjo players, with the same problem, were using the DrumDial with success on their banjo drums.
How to proceed? Our method...
Map out the top of the banjo with the location of each of the drumhead tension brackets.
Then get out the DrumDial, which is very heavy, and has a spring loaded pin which protrudes from the bottom. When the pin meets resistance, as you lower it gently onto a surface, the spring rotates the dial, telling you what tension it is encountering. Sagginess a low reading, tight, a high one.
You've got to zero the instrument first by lowering it on to a clean glass surface, then adjust the bezel so the dial is centred on the zero at the top. Then tighten the bezel screw.
Now fit the metal spacer around the DrumDial, merely a collar that keeps the DrumDial the same distance from the rim for all your readings.
Slowly, opposite every bracket, in turn, lower the DrumDial on to the head. Then note the reading and mark it down. Do this opposite every bracket.
After the first go round you should have a ring of numbers telling you which parts of the plastic are less tense than others. The outside row of numbers above.
Our readings varied from 88 to 90.
Web research showed that banjos were being tensioned between 89 to 92, the drum readings ranging from the plunky to the brittle, and hard as nails banjo notes, that stir the heart of the bluegrass picker.
Our banjo drum was not uniform in tension and had lower readings than anyone else reported.
So we decided to tension to 92, the high end of the range for a bright sound.
With the aid of the nut wrench, we slightly tensioned the lowest numbered brackets first, trying to bring all the readings to the same base for starters. This gave us the next ring of numbers which we noted as rising on our map.
We found that the lower numbered brackets had looser nuts to begin with, so it was often just a case of snugging up, gently by, usually, an eighth of a rotation. In this way, targetting the lower numbers, and then gradually raising them all, we ended up going four times around the circle noting each change until we were at 92 for everything.
Left the DrumDial in position, showing the spacer opposite the bracket to measure drum tension the same distance from the rim. The readout says 92.
When all parts of the drum read 92 we checked the bridge, and measured to make sure that it had not migrated. The distance from the nut to the 12th fret should be exactly the same as from the 12th fret to the bridge. If it is not, move the ends of the bridge so that all strings conform.
The results, going from 89 to 92? Wow! This banjo is loud. You'll need a dampening cloth in the back or the neighbours will complain...
The biggest improvement is the bright sparkling notes on the high strings that were less bright before retensioning. They ring and sing like never before - that fabulous sound that makes the banjo like no other instrument.
The plunky sound, especially on the fourth string has been very slightly diminished.
So the very noticeable gains are on the high four strings, with a marginal loss to the base string.
We're going to try this for awhile, having been using the plunky sound for years.
We may decide on an intermediate setting of say 91, sacrificing the highs marginally, to recapture some lower end plunk.
With the DrumDial this is easy, once you've done it. And deadly accurate and repeatable.
Getting a DrumDial is better than paying the professionals to do the job. And now you can do it any time you want, for years to come, all for the same price.
Cautionary - Always bring the DrumDial on and off the banjo head vertically. Don't slide it at all or the pin will scratch the drum surface.
Bridge Positioning - If your bridge is not perfectly positioned the best banjo will sound poorly, by giving off bad overtones. The distance between the nut and the 12th fret should exactly equal the distance from the 12th fret to the top of the bridge at each end.
An even more accurate way is to use a tuner on the 1st and 4th strings.
Remove the capo and clamp a tuner to the peghead.
Adjust the open1st string (on long-necked folk banjo) to B with the tuner.
Then stop it at the 12th fret. The tuner should remain steady for both the low and the high B.
If the 12th fretted B reads too high, the distance between bridge and 12th fret is too short. Push the bridge further away. Check and repeat till both Bs ring exactly the same.
Repeat this for the low 4th open B string to correctly position the other end of the bridge, being careful not to dislodge the high end of the bridge.
Being unhappy with the quality of web help available, we decided to post this because we wished it had been there for us...
Your Martin D-28 will always sound the same as it came from the factory.
But proper tension on a banjo drum makes a huge difference in whether you're getting the best out of even the most expensive banjo. The DrumDial is now an indispensable part of our Pete Seeger Vega 5 string. Though you leave this at home, and if you want, check it in summer, and in winter, once or twice a year. There is no need to cart the DrumDial around. That's what's great about plastic drums...
And our old groundhog skin?
We'll boil it up and make soup out of it. Oughtta be a powerful brew, after all these years...
The Vega name represents the “best of the best” among open-back banjos, with the Pete Seeger 5-string long necked model among them. The Vega name was inlaid in large capital letters on the peg head.
In the 1960s everybody who was anybody, played a Vega banjo.
Vega was owned by the Nelson family for almost 100 years, before being sold the the CF Martin Company in 1970.
The Vega Pete Seeger model 5-string banjo came into being during the early 1950s because of requests Vega received from players who wanted an extended neck banjo just like Pete Seeger was playing.
Pete had a homemade long neck that he originated in 1942 to extend the range of the banjo for singing certain tunes. He explains the development in his Incompleat Folksinger, p. 42.
“Well, it was like this. It was payola. About four or five years ago the Vega banjo company of Boston called me to say they'd received several requests to make banjos with especially long necks (an idea I got in 1942 when trying to play "Viva La Quince Brigada" in the C minor position [i.e. first position, C tuning], which was a bit too high to sing).
“Vega asked, "Could we officially call it 'the Pete Seeger Model'?"
"It would be an honor," says I.
"Would you like us to pay a royalty on each one sold?"
"No, I'd rather not get involved. (After all, how many such requests could there be, at $295. a piece?)
“However, in 1959 Vega called again. "We thought you'd be interested to know that we've sold over three hundred of the Pete Seeger models."
"Holy mackerel. I did some rapid arithmetic and began to wonder if I shouldn't have asked for a royalty.
"By the way, which model of out banjos do you yourself play?" asked Vega.
"Oh, I have an old Tubaphone with a homemade neck."
"Good heavens, that will never do. Could we present you with a Pete Seeger model?"
"I'd be delighted."
“Thus so easily is the human race corrupted. The banjo arrived last week, and is a beaut, quite the nicest I ever had.” ("Incompleat Folksinger, pg.442.)
Above Pete is using the Vega Pete Seeger model presented to him by the Vega company. It's large name is prominent as is their star on the peg head. After 1970 when he asked that his name be removed Pete reverted to his no-name banjo with a plain face peg head.
Pete, one of the truly great human beings on the planet, donated his Vega to "Sing Out" Magazine for a fund raiser.
Vega began producing the long-neck model in 1955 or 1956, as unofficial custom instruments, before they secured Pete’s approval to use his name.
The earliest mention of the Pete Seeger banjo is on a company price list dated Mar. 1, 1958 as “Pete Seeger Model, 5 string, extra long neck, 3 extra frets, no resonator, on special order...295.00." The Vega Pete Seeger banjo entered production in 1958. (In 1970 Pete asked that his name be removed from further production runs. So Vega Pete Seegers were produced for only 12 years.)
Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio wrote that he was one of the first to buy the Pete Seeger model 5-string banjo from Vega late in 1958 or early 1959. It can be seen on the Kingston Trio’s lp cover “Tijuana Jail” which was issued in April 1959.
The early Pete Seegers had a traditional calfskin head.
But these were awful to keep taut with the change in humidity, resulting in a dull plunking sound. So one had to keep tightening the head. It was hard to maintain the tonality of the banjo.
Left a Vega Pete Seeger from 1963, when many were still sporting calfskin heads. They're easy to spot because they always showed the jaggedy worm trails across the skin. The slightly rough surface also picked up dirt easily, and couldn't be cleaned. Calfskin heads did not develop "windows" like on plastic heads like ours, when the surface coating was worn off with nails or finger picks. Wear on a calfskin produced a hole, though that must have been rare.
This banjo also shows the way carrying straps were attached, resulting in a long neck whose only support was the player holding it.
By 1962 plastic heads – that did not change in tension with the weather – were standard for banjo players.
The original tuners were the “straight-through” type with oval plastic knobs.
By 1963 these were being replaced by high end Grover Rotomatic “guitar-style” angled metal tuners above, which offered a 12:1 gear ratio.
The fifth string had a separate tuner half way along the neck.
The earliest 5th string peg was a “friction” non-geared type of tuner, which was a nightmare to get to exact tension as you always ended up tightening too much or backing off too much. My Harmony had one; it was a nightmare. I hated to change capo positions.
Geared 5th string pegs, like those for the other strings, and shown here, were available, which were wonderful to tune the 5th string quickly to exact pitch. I couldn't believe the heavenly difference of a geared tuner on the Vega.
The fifth string runs through a plastic covered guide pin.
When players use a capo it only works on the four long strings.
The fifth string needed a separate capo, of which many varieties existed, none as efficient, quick, and easy to use as the one we installed on our banjo: the Vega Pittman 5th string sliding capo.
This means when you capo up on the long strings you don't need to re tune the 5th string. You just slide the spring loaded wire capo up the same number of frets and off you go...
The capos for the upper four strings, have changed over the past fifty years.
Our original capo from the sixties - and the one used by the Kingston Trio (you can see it on Dave Guard's banjo) - is the plastic bar type with an elastic band. As the elastic weakened and no longer held the bar tight to the strings you just moved to the next tension hole.
In the seventies the plastic barrel on a swinging gate clamp type capo came into use. It was a beastly heavy contraption and put more weight were you didn't want it - on the neck.
Both these early capos, had hard plastic barrels that, while holding down the strings behind the fret actually pulled them so detuning them slightly, so one always had to retune after a capo move.
In the nineties the clamp became lightweight and used a rubber, instead of a plastic material, for dampening. This acted like a finger, pressing down the string, but with the softness of flesh that greatly reduced the stretching and detuning of the string. Retuning is less needed after a capo move.
The best musical invention of all time has got to be the electronic tuner. Heavy units became available in the 1980s. You couldn't carry them around. They wouldn't fit into a banjo case and were extremely expensive.
Today no musician is without one of the cheap, small clip on portable tuners. You clamp it on the head between the tuning pegs and it picks up the vibrations through the neck sending the needle bar across the scale. You tune the peg till the needle holds at the centre arrow where it also give you a readout of what the note is you are setting to.
The swivel and tilt adjustments of this tuner are invaluable, as is the extremely bright display.
In the old days being slightly out of tune was something that came with the banjo. We used a tuning fork which was cumbersome. We tuned by ear mostly so the banjo tuning drifted - across the board and between strings. Some days the banjo just did not sound good. So we would play something else - like the record player...
It is nothing short of fabulous to have a banjo - or guitar - kept in symphonically accurate tuning for every song. It is like hearing an entirely new instrument...
The standard finish was described as “shaded mahogany.” A “natural blond maple finish” was also available.
The early Pete Seegers had a wooden dowel underneath, to secure the neck to the rim. In 1962 this was changed to two metal coordinator rods.
The early Vega banjos, including ours, used a 7-ply maple tone ring. In 1960 the Pete Seegers were using 5-ply maple. In 1967 the tone ring was made with 10-ply maple.
The armrest gives the Vega Pete Seeger a unique look. Many have been replaced and lost.
YEAR STARTING SERIAL NUMBER
1965 125641 - "Our" banjo #125889. We get married.
1970 129120 - C.F. Martin takeover in May, 1970
1970 129683 - Pete requests his name be removed
New Series, M1 1972
March 1, 1958, where the Pete Seeger model (special order only) is listed at $295.
By January 1962, the price was $340.
In 1963, the price was $360. (a hard shell, plush lined case was another $60.)
In 1967, the price was $385.
And in 1968, the Vega Pete Seeger model was listed at $456.
In March of 1970, The Vega Company was purchased by the Martin Guitar Company of Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
Martin produced various banjo models under the Vega name, including a Vega Pete Seeger model.
According to Mike Longworth at Martin, the company produced 101 of these instruments, whose name was later changed to the Vega Tu-Ba-Phone XL. (According to Longworth, the name switch occurred at Pete Seeger's request, who "felt the instrument should stand on its own merits.")
Vega Banjo Sales (1950-1970)
(all banjo types, not just Pete Seegers)
1950 – 75
1954 – 77
1955 – 146
1956 – 215 - The Weavers at Carnegie Hall with Pete Seeger’s “Darlin Corey” banjo intro
1957 – 154
1958 – 135
1959 – 305 – Probably due to publicity surrounding introduction of Pete Seeger model
1960 – 538 – The Kingston Trio – the most popular recording group in America at the time - featured the Pete Seeger Vega model on their album covers, starting with “At Large” which they issued in June 1959.
1961 – 1439 – “Folk Era” in full swing
1965 – 1081
1966 – 960
1967 – 883
1968 – 555
1969 – 563
1970 – 366 – sold to CF Martin
A special thanks to "The Vega Pete Seeger Banjo" by Pete Curry, for Vega manufacturing information.
The true story of a typical 1960s folkie and banjo nut... the crazy times, the music, and the babes...
Many people can remember the first time, and the memory leaves them breathless, and their hearts palpitating, recalling the utter thrill, even decades later.
It happened to me when I was 17, in 1958, quite by accident, in my parent's house. In the passing years many times I have revisited the memory.
I can still picture the room, the furniture in it, and the weather, sunny and nice, outside.
An emotional wash douses my body when I do so; it left such a strong and lasting impression. Besides the first time is always the most thrilling for most people. Certainly it was for me.
Left, the author at 17, only a couple of months before it happened...
Of course, as you've probably already guessed, I'm talking about hearing the opening banjo notes to Tom Dooley by Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio.
I had just come in from school. My mother was working at knitting socks in the small room beside the kitchen. The radio was on, loud in the kitchen, so she could hear it in the next room.
Suddenly Tom Dooley blared on, with Bob Shane's banjo picking intro. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I stood frozen to the floor completely still and mesmerized by the sound punching out from the radio. I had often played Rachmaninoff and Van Cliburn. Wonderful stuff I never tired of.
But the Kingston Trio, and the sound of the banjo, just blew me away.
As they did a generation of high school and college students. Tom Dooley was to be the Trio's biggest and most popular hit. And no wonder. The banjo did it...
Below their first album, released in June 1958, which contained Tom Dooley, Hard Ain' t it Hard, and Three Jolly Coachmen, all great banjo numbers. Dave Guard's playing the Vega Pete Seeger.
I had to have a banjo just like Dave had, to make the same sound to soothe the yearnings of my soul.
I learned he used a Vega banjo, which was prohibitively expensive, especially for a grade 11 student. I promised myself. Someday.
When I started university in 1962 the folk craze was still booming. In 1961 Vega sold 1439 banjos (not all Pete Seegers), which would be their high water mark in banjo production. Folk groups were everywhere. They all had Vega 5-string Pete Seeger banjos.
As a poor university student I would have to make do with my Harmony ukulele. I closed my eyes, sang, and dreamed it was a Vega 5-string Pete Seeger.
It wouldn't be for six more years, till two years after graduating, that I could finally afford to buy one.
In the meantime, after struggling for three summers to earn enough money to pay for tuition, room and board, I scrounged enough to set aside a modest amount by 1964, to buy an "el cheapo" long neck folk banjo, a Harmony below, that sounded OK.
And, as was the fashion among us folkies, I slung it on my back, climbed on the streetcar to go to folk festivals, where mostly I watched the pros playing Vegas.
I became convinced my poor imitation of Cripple Creek was the Harmony banjo's fault. But I still banged on it regularly.
In the meantime one had to hit the books in the plush surroundings we were in, which reflected all the interests that a folkie had in April, 1963, when the picture was taken - and years away from owning a Vega.
I shared a room with another student, a Jamaican, Noel Sanguinetti, who played bongos, had a fabulous voice, worthy of his heroes, The Mighty Sparrow and Paul Robson.
We used to sit and sing Kingston Trio and Travellers numbers together.
Other poor students from other rooms - there were sixteen living in this old house on Spadina - used to come down and join in as we belted them out to my ukulele accompaniment.
Our favourites were: Marching to Pretoria, Reuben James, Greenland Whale Fishery, Three Jolly Coachmen, MTA, Cotton Fields.
We were so enthusiastic, the group would be invited to play for senior and kid groups in the neighbourhood. Not bad for 8 guys, a ukulele and bongo drums.
Below, the Harmony Ukulele easy to get at, like the bottle of Chianti it sat beside. In between studying and singing Noel and I played darts on the board in the back.
It is with deep and profound sadness I recently learned that Noel Sanguinetti died in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1977, at the age of 39.
A great voice, a great heart, too soon taken from the host of good people that inhabit the planet...
47 years later, I can still hear him singing Jamaica Farewell, and Sloop John B... a memory I will always treasure...
Some of the singing voices, and multi-cultural mix at the University of Toronto's Campus Co-op's Owen House at 582 Spadina Avenue, in 1962 - 63.
That's Noel and the author front left. And in back left, Ron Kishi, Ira Gluskin, and Norm Blair.
Nice clean cut boys, the whole lot.
Can you believe it? These are the guys who started Rochdale College on Bloor Street, which dissolved into the infamous drug and derelict haven in the decades to follow.
The Harmony company was a big boon to poor musicians in Canada and around the world, because it produced usable musical instruments for people with little money but a yearning to play music.
My first three instruments, from a time when money was scarce, were all Harmonys: ukulele, banjo, guitar.
The banjo had a calfskin head which often, depending on the weather, was little more than a dish rag.
And no matter how I practiced it just never sounded like the banjo sounds I heard on the lps where the Vega players were performing.
The Harmony had very cheap plastic tuners, a cheap geared tuning mechanism on the back, and a poor finish that scuffed easily and blistered.
The banjo came to grief one day.
Everybody clipped the ends of their neck strap to different ends of the heavy drum, leaving no support for the long neck, which always wanted to dive for the floor.
So the long neck was a beastly dangerous contraption. Every time you turned around you would hit somebody. Or it would suddenly droop.
The Harmony was worse than others because its neck, not the drum - which was made of some lightweight aluminum type material - was the heavy part.
It's neck had a tendency to head for the floor whenever I wasn't holding it up.
One day it did, breaking off the top foot length of the head. Since the fret board was intact I just screwed the peg head and its six inch piece of neck back on.
The banjo played fine again. Well for a Harmony.
Then I got momentarily distracted by other things... I got married... the last year in school.
The Harmony went with us to Africa from 1966 to 1968, right after graduation, when we were high school teachers in the wilds of northern Uganda.
I taught lots of students Pete Seeger songs and French-Canadian folk songs. The compound used to ring with their joyful voices; the windows were always open. They loved it and so did the Harmony.
Below the Harmony "cardboard" case: no plush lining. The banjo flopped about inside, not only sideways, but up and down.
The Harmony had been with me when I married my wife. She was a good choice. I knew it right away when, on coming back, she said I should really get a Vega.
Living in Toronto she had actually seen the Kingston Trio live. I, who had lived in the sticks, was too far away to do so. We both saw Pete Seeger though, after whom the banjo is named. A wonderful evening spent in the company of a great human being and as fine a folk musician as there is on the planet.
As a high school teacher she would help pay for it. Her salary was $6500; a Vega cost $450, a whopping amount out of a paycheck.
I got the Vega in 1969, from a player who was not in love with it as much as I was. I'm not sure if I got any sleep the night I brought it home. I think I just sat up just holding it. Totally overcome. I never thought it could happen in this life...
A few months later I gave my well-travelled Harmony to Bruce Russell, an Australian friend with whom I used to sing Aussie folk songs, like Tie Me Kangaroo Down, the Pub With No Beer, and Click Go the Shears. His wife Vivian would then lead with a boisterous Rattlin Bog. A couple who embodied the joy of folk singing of the sixties crowd. They took the Harmony when they returned down under.
Folk Singing Performance Debut - Bruce decided we were good enough to perform in public so we prepared to sing at Fiddler's Green the main folk club in Toronto in the late 1960s, run by Tam Kearney and his Friends. We got on the stage and I looked out at the audience and froze. Bruce was singing "Tie me kangaroo down sport," accompanying it with his digeridoo wobble board. I could hear my Harmony playing but it was involuntary, as my eyes were fixed on our wives, sitting near the front, and totally doubled over in laughter. A laughing wife is not a great aid in performing... My harmonica was doing involuntary vibrato. Amazing. The Pub and Click went fine too, I guess. We got a rousing cheer at the end but, though I've been in lots of sing song sessions over the past 40 years I've never done performance solo singing of any kind since.
Today Bruce is famous in Australia, but as a crime writer, not a singer... Go buy his books...
I've never played the Vega in public, or in sing songs, till 2009; it's a private thing totally. For me the Vega brings back the thrill of singing with people in the 1960s and creating the unique sound of voice and five-string banjo that mesmerized a generation. Whenever I need a shot of the good old days, I grab the Vega.
Still, after all these years, a thrill without parallel.
But still, not as phenomenal as the first time, I heard Tom Dooley.
|Sad postscript: It was not till forty years later, thanks to the informational boom that is YouTube, that I learned that Bob Shane did not play a Vega Pete Seeger 5-string banjo on Tom Dooley. Nope. He played a plectrum 4-string banjo and brushed it with a flat pick. It was a Vega. And the Trio did use Vega Pete Seegers on other songs. I'm glad I was under a false impression. Had this been more widely known the plectrum banjo - which was extremely popular in the late 19th and early 20th century - would have experienced the buzz in popularity the 5-string got.
The Deering Company which makes modern "Vegas" now makes a Bob Shane plectrum signature banjo right in honour of his playing of the instrument in Tom Dooley.
Left is Bob Shane in a rare picture - from the cover of their String Along album - of him holding the Tom Dooley Vega plectrum banjo.
In the back Dave Guard with his Vega Pete Seeger model.
The essential elements of the Vega 5-string banjo are: the plastic covered drum, to which are attached arm rest, and the tailpiece to anchor the five strings; the long neck, so named because it has three more frets (25 in all) at the top, than most 5 string banjos usually have (all Bluegrass banjos); topped off with the peg head which holds the tuners for tightening the strings. The most unique feature, is, of course, the short fifth string with an adjustable tuner, half way along the neck.
The short fifth string provides a high pitched ring that gives the unique sound to a five string banjo, separating it form all others. The fifth string is, in effect, a ringing drone string, which is constantly struck by the thumb and can be heard ringing in the background as the other fingers pick the melody or strum the strings.
Below the album that did it. Featured prominently is the Vega Pete Seeger model 5-string banjo with its logo and star on the peg head.
Oh, and all the babes...
Sorry, there were none.
I married the first one that would have me, and never looked back... or sideways... Vega Pete Seeger men owe it to Pete to be honourable.
Below from the left, Dave Guard whose 1958 Vega Pete Seeger is shown, and centre, Bob Shane who played the plectrum banjo on Tom Dooley. On their famous At Large album released in June 1959, and which featured another rousing banjo number, MTA.
The picture of healthy exuberance that the Kingston Trio emoted was seemingly unquenchable. Could it ever end? From the left John Stewart, Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane.
Dave Guard left the Kingston Trio in 1961 and was replaced by John Stewart, the tall guy, in the pictures. He actually boosted the power of the Trio, being supremely talented performer and song writer.
Oh, yes, and he played a Vega Pete Seeger too, as you can see.
Dave Guard died in March 1991, at 51, of lymphatic cancer.
John Stewart died in January 2008, at 69, of a stroke. Among other famous songs, he penned, was "Daydream Believer" a colossal hit for the Monkees.
Nick Reynolds, the "Runt of the Litter," who sang the memorable high harmony on Tom Dooley, died in October 2008, at 75 of respiratory disease.
Bob Shane, who played the banjo on Tom Dooley, and was one of the principal founders of the Trio, is the only one of the four original members still alive, in Phoenix, Arizona. He stopped performing in 2004, due to health restrictions.
Left, Bob, John, and Nick, in January 1967, at the end, when the Kingston Trio called it quits, after a spectacularly successful ten year run.
They made a phenomenally joyful sound together, that gladdened the hearts of millions.
I know God could hardly wait to call them up to sing for Him... And get an autograph...