Paul Hawthorne's Web Site
Banjo Psych 164

banjo head, banjo psych logoAbout the Prewar Sound Hype

This is in the banjo psych section because I'm taking the opportunity here to address a common deconstructive pattern that comes out in selecting and selling banjos. My slightly edited answer to a typical customer inquiry is applicable to any new banjo purchase. While the store in question avoids throwing the term prewar sound around, you may read between the lines that I an a bit tired of almost every new banjo product being hyped as the (new) answer to produce it, and customers expecting it being their reason for purchase. Read on.

I usually don't get involved in this as I ask on my site not to be contacted for more info.......Since I was included this time, I will give you the short, not candy coated and probably unwelcome answers as I see and hear it.

You asked:

Could you explain what the "pre war sound" is .......

No. I can't.

Trying to define this has been the subject of controversy for at least the last 40 years by personal experience. It refers to a rich, emotion grabbing quality with clarity and performer added timbre that you can hear on the F&S recordings up till about 1962, Don Reno recordings till '78, and also the Bluegrass Band albums with J.D. Crowe, especially the first one in 1981. The banjo on that album is the one being replicated as the GF85. And the GF85 will not be a 67 year old banjo.

Some of these have studio enhancing / tweaking of the sound, viz. there is added echo on the Foggy Mt. Banjo album. It is part of the business. You cannot buy the sound on the record, it is affected by tweaking, the microphone, the room it was recorded in and more.

We live in an industrial society where we are taught to buy a solution with money. It is a culture thing.

You can't buy you playing/creating the so called prewar sound on a banjo with money.

You CAN buy an instrument that if you pay the much bigger price of learning to be someone who can coax the potential out of it will give you that kind of sound. You can sound better to yourself with a great instrument. You can drive a stretch curvy road faster in a Ferrari F1 race car than in a nice new SUV....if you learn how to drive the thing. The real price is in changing yourself. There are thousands of people with really great banjos that sound ragged, rough and jangly, and still think the problem is the banjo.

See the book Mastery by George Leonard, it is on this reading list.

If you want to see/ read/ discuss attempts at defining the prewar sound, sign on to and search the discussion archives. You get to filter the opinions from the plausible truths.

Fact is, talking and writing about the prewar sound is like dancing about architecture.... hearing s a very complex thing, and the info in a 3 minute song on a CD is about thee same as contained in a single volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

....and how tone of this banjo would differ from a (brand and model specified, this could be any banjo)?

Building on the above, you will have to have developed the hearing skills necessary to evaluate and play the banjos in question. They are part of being able to play with the prewar kind of sound. You have to listen to yourself, make changes, tiny corrections, with considerable patience.

Whether you have these skills or not will depend on your musical background, which I have no way of knowing. If you have 20 years of playing trombone, you will be able to hear to a much finer degree that if you have never played an instrument before, have no time in it. Then it will be much harder to hear the subtleties...all banjos (when set up) could sound similar. Only you hear what you hear. I can't answer that directly, especially in words.

Elsewhere on the site I talk about going and trying banjos, with an nominal 800 mile driving range. In the USA that puts you somewhere which has practically any cataloged instrument in question in range and in stock, ready to be tried. If you are not willing to devote this kind of passion to finding your instrument, then I suggest a reexamination of whether you have surrendered to what it will take to play the banjo is in order.

So the choice is yours. Right now you are considering the GF 85..... it is very good. It is not the only banjo that is good. You need to try it and others in person, and be willing to pay the price to learn to play. It will take the rest of your life, though in a few years you can surprise yourself.... you can create and express yourself well on the banjo if you want to. It will be you, not a replica of someone else..

See Banjo Psych 107.

I wear the white belt of the beginner (see Mastery) all the time. I have paid the learning / changing prices (so far) and it has been well worth it. I'm still passionate about this stuff after 40 years.

I hope this helps, even though it is probably not the sweet talk you expected. I wish you well.


Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH

Edited 01 Apr 2007 by WF