Jim, what's really strange is that into the 1960s, Harmony still used calfskin heads. By that time, Vega and Gibson had switched to plastic heads.
I started out on an old Harmony, and that calfskin head was quite a challenge.
I concur with all of Joe's observations, especially toward the end. My first two banjos were Silvertone longnecks - sold by Sears, where my father was a VP - but manufactured by Harmony. The calfskin heads sounded really crisp most of the time, and for my money no plastic head ever sounded quite the same. But even a modest rise in humidity loosened the tension, and at times the instrument was all but unplayable. I always wondered how the professionals dealt with that before plastic heads became the norm.
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