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Roundpeak Sound from a Mastertone?

by Bob Flesher

Yes, it is true. With some small modifications a Mastertone makes a very good banjo for playing the "Round Peak" sound. Believe it or not! Sometime back I remember a gentleman asking on Banjo-L if he could get that deep mellow sound for clawhammer out of his Mastertone as he didn't want to spend money on a clawhammer banjo. Well, that set my mind to thinking and with just a few small modifications I came up with the solution.

So, I wrote him back and told him:
"I have some thoughts on turning your Mastertone into a real good clawhammer banjo with a deep, rich Round Peak sound. It can be done easily and cheaply, saving the cost of buying a real clawhammer banjo. I have done this several times on Mastertones so I know it works. (I said this to give him confidence.)

"First, take off the Resonator and flange and the Mastertone tone ring. Install a 1/4 Brass rod for the tone ring. Lay the brass rod on top of 21 1/4" wood blocks glued to the top of the rim. This will leave 20 holes under the rod like the Mastertone Tone ring had. Next, drill 24 holes through the wood rim to match the spacing of the tension hoop and install 24 shoes. Install a real calfskin head for thickness. (Some times goatskin heads are thicker.) If this is too much trouble, use your plastic head and put a piece of duct tape on the bottom and top of the head where the bridge sits. Reassemble the pot and install a "No Knot" tailpiece instead of your Presto. You can probably pay for all these parts with the sale of the Presto. Also remove the armrest. You won't need it and it makes it look too "bluegrassey". Other clawhammer pickers might laugh.

"Now take the neck and remove the last five frets and file in a frailing notch into the fingerboard. It should be approx. 1/4 inch below the surface of the fingerboard. This means the Mastertone block has to be removed. It can be installed in the 16th fret space. Take off the D- tuners, won't need them. If you want to get the best clawhammer sound, cut a thick wood block to fit between the neck and the rim. This will extend the neck and allow you to place the bridge one inch closer to the center of the head. Now reassemble the neck onto the rim and take the coordinator rods and warp the rim to raise the action so the strings will clear the 16th fret by about 3/8 inch, using a half inch bridge. You won't have to worry about string rattle again. After all, real clawhammer pickers don't play up there anyway they cannot read tab with double numbers on the lines. Now, stuff a rolled up sock between the coordinator rod and the head, string her up and give it a try.

"If you just have to have that resonator on your banjo, then glue dark colored sponges to the inside of it to absorb the sound. To mount the resonator on to the rim since there is no flange and you don't want to make your banjo ugly with the bare resonator hardware sticking out. Drill 4 holes through the back of the resonator using 1/2 inch blocks for spacers between the rim and the resonator and use four 1/4 inch wood screws to fasten the resonator to the rim. It is best to use flat head wood screws so the heads will be flush with the surface of the resonator. I also suggest you use nickel plated or stainless steel 1/4 inch wood screws so they match the rest of the nickel plated parts. This way your resonator looks more natural and not like it has been added on. You want this conversion to look like it has been professionally done and not like a "schlock" job. Most bluegrass pickers won't even notice. You can get the screws at the hardware store. Just a thought, instead of inlaying the Mastertone block back in the 16th fret space, get Bill Sullivan to make a block that says "Masterhammer" because your banjo will be totally unique and it should have a unique name."

For all those bluegrass banjo pickers who long to be clawhammer pickers and don't want to part with your Mastertone and you don't want to spend money on a good clawhammer banjo, this is a good compromise. Have you ever seen a redneck driving one of those Cadillacs that he has converted into a pickup truck with a truck bed installed on the back. That is kind of what you are doing here. If this conversion is done with care it should look like a true clawhammer banjo and undoubtedly will add to the value of your pre-war Mastertone.

There used to be a fine banjo craftsman who did this kind of skilled work twenty years ago or so, who would show up every year at Union Grove and Galax with a trunk load of banjos fixed just as I described above. I remember he showed up at Union Grove with a real Gibson "Bella Voce" flathead banjo with a crude 5-string neck which had the original peghead glued in a crude manner onto the crude neck. It was a flathead because he had cut out the inside ring of the original archtop with a cutting torch and had left it all rough edges inside. His last name was Black and he became known as "Butcher Black". Anybody remember him? This was back in the days of white toothpaste but I'll never forget his craftsmanship.

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