While their tone is complex and sweet, their volume could use a tweak…
Triple-X banjos are well known for their complex tone, some referring to it as sublime: Lange design and engineering at its finest. Triple-X banjos are also known for their relatively quiet tone: Lange design and engineering not fully fulfilled. The reasons for this contrasting paradigm are found in detail on the Design page, but a comparatively thick pot and tone ‘leakage’ between the rim and pot are the likely reasons. That said there may be an improvement in tone between Early and Late Version Triple-Xs; a gap that was evident between the resonator and pot was eliminated with the updated Late Version.
Today’s banjo owners have a wealth of banjo parts choices with which to improve and adjust the tone and volume of their instruments. On this page I discuss some things that may be done to tweak and ‘improve’ the Triple-X tone and volume.
A Baseline Triple-X Sound
To start, I have what I call a late version Triple-X Style A tenor banjo (Types and Styles). I am essentially the second owner, with the children of the original owner, a woman from Missouri, selling it to me on the promise that it will have a good home. Her children never heard her play it but the story goes she was very creative and played it in the 1930s. Purchasing it brand new in the early 1930s would have been entirely feasible. This is a Late Version Triple-X. Henry Stadlmair was marketing Triple-X in late 1926, and likely after that period with old stock. Music stores, such as the one where this Triple-X was purchased may have had stock of these for a few years.
More to the point: it is in original condition, with original friction tuners and calf-skin (or goatskin) head. When I purchased it I believed that I would have to replace the head and friction tuners. However, having almost no experience with banjo maintenance and set-up (thanks to Mike Keys for getting me started), I got it up-and-running with only a new 1/2 inch Gold tone tenor bridge, mismatched material 40-30-20-16 strings, and the minor tightening of the head. Re the latter, it was almost drum-tight when it arrived in the mail. I loosened it then carefully re-tightened. I now know why so many laud the tone of the Lange Triple-X banjo as being complex and sublime; the tone is simultaneously bright-bassy-harmonic-ringing — very pleasing I must say!
By the way, I am a Traditional music player, so it is tuned to GDAE. The string gauges appear to work well, although I’ve tried no others, and the friction tuners are actually working. I’ve already received from Bob Smakula the widely recommended Small Shaft Banjo Planet Banjo Tuners by ABM, Berlin — thanks, Bob! However, I do not yet feel the absolute need to install them. There is a small bit of reaming to do to get them to fit, plus, as mentioned, the friction tuners seem to be working OK. By the way, do not hesitate to contact Bob Smakula about anything banjo-related — he’ll likely know what you need and goes the extra mile to assist you — highly recommended!
In its current condition I believe that this Triple-X banjo will provide a nice baseline from which to understand and tweak the sound — if it sounds good with a skin head I suspect the tone/volume may even be improved with a modern head. Very shortly I will be posting videos/sound clips in order to capture the baseline sound, with and without the resonator.
We have very few examples of Triple-X banjo clips online. The only video/soundclip I know of is of Jill McAuley performing an exceptionally good version of Paddy from Portlaw on her Triple-X Style A, Intermediate Version tenor; it sounds great, but her exceptional playing certainly helps! Jill’s Triple-X set-up includes a Rennaissance head, custom bridge, and new ABM tuners. It will be interesting to compare this with that of the sound from my original skin head Triple-X.
More content on the way… ; )