Some of the most closely followed topics in the banjo world are discussions about the metals and alloys used in banjo construction.
The most common materials used in high end banjos tend to vary very little, though you do read from time to time about experiments with pot assemblies being made from aluminum or steel parts rather than the usual bronze, zinc or pot metal. Many student model banjos use one piece cast pots of aluminum or steel, but their use in professional grade instruments is rare.
We did an interview recently with British banjo builder Syd Payne, who manufactures all the metal parts for his Titan Banjos from titanium. This was the first I had heard of someone using titanium, a very costly commodity, and one that is not easily machined.
Payne is an engineer as well as a banjo enthusiast,with more than 50 years experience working with special materials. He was involved in the early research and development for using titanium in chemical plant equipment, and has his own metal fabrication shop.
The Titan banjos are made with a tone ring, flange, tension hoop, arm rest and tailpiece fashioned of titanium in his shop. Syd contracts with a local luthier to build necks and resonators, and the banjos are assembled using a removable one-piece flange that allows for either resonator or open back playing.
We asked Syd what had led him to consider titanium for banjo construction.
I chose it because it is technically superior to all metals presently used for banjos. Titanium is an element and unlike alloys it will guarantee to reproduce the true "tone.” Alloy castings vary from cast to cast and will therefore vary in tone. The unique combination of Titanium’s physical and mechanical properties also made it a natural choice for this banjo e.g.: –
- Less than half the weight of brass/bronze.
- Best ultrasonic values.
- Velocity of sound in Titanium is three times faster than brass or bronze.
- Corrosion resistant.
- No surface treatment required.
- The effect of thermal expansion is markedly lower.
He said that developments costs were quite high, and it took him nearly four years of research before he completed the first banjo in 2004. He now offers three models (Titan, Saturn and Jupiter) which sell for ¬£4,700 – roughly $6695 by today’s (2/17) conversion rate.
I asked Syd whether he encounters much resistance from players to the notion of using a different sort of metal for banjo parts.
Resistance to change is always experienced, and in this case the cost does not help. However, when you handle, play, feel the balance of the banjo, and hear the powerful, accurate tone with great separation, a player’s outlook of this unique instrument quickly changes. Without exception so far, every professional (and amateur) musician who has played the Titan has been extremely impressed by its sound and performance.
Titan banjos are in very limited production, made to order for individual purchasers.
Syd is also reworking his titanium tone ring and hopes to offer more details soon on his web site. I asked whether he had plans to offer this ring for aftermarket installation on other banjos.
Titanium tone rings are exclusive to the Titan Banjo. I don’t think it would be fair to the owners who have invested in this unique instrument to have the Titan banjo compromised in any way.
You can find more details and photos on the Titan banjos web site.