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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Greetings: My electric Banjo-bucker

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OneWatt - Posted - 03/24/2014:  15:48:09

Greetings. Long time reader, first time poster. Having learned so much from the fine folks here (especially from Doub Pearce), I thought it was high time I shared a little something in return.

First, a special thank you to Doub  - whose videos and worksheets are greatly appreciated. Having played many other instruments (mostly jazz'ish) for 40 years, I especially enjoyed seeing how he brings so many of the essential concepts to a 5-string setting. His is a very inspiring and enjoyable presentation style - which had a lot to do with my wanting to bring the feel of my 6-string Tele and Ibanez semi-hollow to the 5 string experience. Hence my "electrification" project...

So, I just converted my (beloved) original 5-string Eagle kit (I first built in back in 1978) into a bona fide humbucker banjo.

Hard to picture? I thought I'd post some pics in case you're wondering what I'm babbling about, or if others are contemplating a similar project.

PICS ATTACHED (hopefully)

It plays just like I hoped (sustains like a Tele, with all the flexibility in tone of a humbucker).

A few project notes:

Rim, resonator and pot hardware - original (cleaned up, de-tarnished) from my 1978 Eagle banjo kit. I took the brass tone ring off the rim and cut a 3/4" thick piece of red oak in place of a banjo head. Heavy and hearty - rock solid - sustain, nice weight. Frankly, you could find any old cheap roughed out rim and hardware for a similar project. Don't even need a tone ring ... just bracket/screw your hardwood 11" diameter circle onto the rim/pot of your choice. The hardware holding onto the rim and resonator flange isn't really functional (the oak top is bolted to the maple rim anyhow). And to be clear, the resonator isn't really "resonating" anything much ... since the humbucker pickup is really doing the serious musical tone work. The resonator "feels" good in the lap, and probably helps support the tone/sustain - but most of that is for the player's benefit, not any other listener.

Neck: Rather than use my 35+ year old (uninspiring) kit neck, I splurged (about US$100) and bought a finished neck from a Taiwanese shop I found on eBay. The biggest challenge was routing/shaping the heel to match my original pot, and drilling proper tapered hold for a 5th string tuner peg. Yup, a pain in the butt - but nothing a Dremel and patience couldn't handle. I used a miniature railroad tie just behind the 5th fret as a nut (and 7th fret for capo use) and filed the slots in the unfinished nut in the neck with my vintage 1978 nut files- as needed to bring the action way down, as I tend to like it. (That's also how I've set up my Deering GDL - low action all the way up the neck.)

Tuners: Splurged for a set of Waverly tuners from StewMac. Definitely don't want to be fiddling with the pegs any more than necessary to hold a tune. 4 + 1 tuner costs a little more than $100. You can save money here, but may spend more time retuning than your patience and ears can withstand.

Electrification: Bought a single 2-magnet 6 pole "bridge" humbucker from StewMac. I centered the 5 strings between the six magnet poles, and adjusted the height as necessary to even out the gain for each string. Also bought a single rotary potentiometer for volume control (which also backs off the treble a bit before going down in volume). Routing the rectangular hole through the solid oak for the humbucker was another tension filled experience - but patience and a sober grip on the Dremel did the trick again.

Bridge: bought 5 German-made ABM single-string bridge/saddles via eBay (designed for guitar). Also a bit pricey (about $100 again) but the major selling point is that I could put them individually exactly where I wanted in order to be respectful to the banjo string spacing desired (i.e., standard Mastertone string spacing at the bridge). This was kind of tricky to select the best spots to put them - but with lots of measuring and I forged ahead. One benefit of these particular bridge elements is that each one is fully adjustable both for intonation (back/forth) and string height (up/down) - so there's a bit of forgiveness in how precisely you place them. You'll notice my 5th G-string is adjusted higher than the rest - largely to even out the up-the-neck action/intonation. They also allow you to "peg" the string ends right into the butt of each bridge piece (not needing a traditional banjo tail piece at all), but I went a different route...

Through-the-body: Since I was really after great sustain, I wanted each string to attach through-the-body like on a lot of solid body electric guitars. So I bought a pack of string ferrules (StewMac) for that purpose and drilled holes accordingly. Since most banjo strings are looped (not ball-end) I simply used a small machine screw through the loop on the other side of the oak top as a "stay" to hold each string's loop in place on the backside. You could use almost anything - a small machine screw's fine threads catch those thin banjo strings quite nicely.

Other - the electric jack is a standard guitar unit (StewMac). Nothing special here. Soldering was a snap. I soft-wired it all first to ensure I had the right connections, then went for the permanent soldering before closing up.

Other, other - I was thinking about going for two pickups, like a Tele, but it occurred to me that I don't really need THAT much control over the input signal going into my music signal chain. There are so many ways to color and hue a signal in this age, why over-complicate things? Even if played through an amp live, there are so many FX boxes and tone shaping methods available, any good clean well balanced input signal would more than suffice. Frankly, no regrets here - one pickup is a cleaner look and avoids extra cost and wiring complexity.

So there you have it. A great deal of fun and satisfaction - but most of all, I simply love playing this banjo. My wife seems to appreciate how quiet it is too :-) It's about as loud a playing an unplugged Telecaster, but with even greater sustain.

BTW, as a prelude to this project, I bought (two of those) "silent banjos" you see offered on eBay for about $150'ish. I worked on one extensively to improve the action, added a wood block as a pinky finger rest, upgraded the 5th string peg. The other I played stock. These were my learning tools to judge how I wanted to approach this banjo-bucker conversion project. Actually, these electric silent banjos aren't at all bad (and rather quiet) ... and they inspired me to take on this project. If anyone would like to pick up one (or both) of those electric banjos, either the upgraded one or the stock version, let me know since I don't really have any use for them now and expect they'll be sitting in the closet.

I hope these pics give someone out there a little inspiration to take on a project like this. Playing 5 string electric humbucker banjo is a blast - at any volume - and the headphones have done wonders for domestic tranquility.

And thanks again to Doub and the many others here on the hangout who have given me lots to learn and enjoy!




Edited by - OneWatt on 03/26/2014 09:40:43

BEEFUS - Posted - 03/24/2014:  17:56:13

That is AWESOME!!!!!!!evilevil​  Beefus APPROVES! hope you can gets loud an skronky with it!

bornold - Posted - 03/24/2014:  18:02:08


pearcemusic - Posted - 03/26/2014:  04:59:02

thanks for the mention OneWatt !!! Post some audio of this thing !!!

banjonoah - Posted - 03/26/2014:  05:49:40

Wow I want one of these! You mentioned a few prices, can you tell me about how much I would need to convert an old alvarez beater into one of these? This looks great.

OneWatt - Posted - 03/26/2014:  08:18:23


Originally posted by pearcemusic

thanks for the mention OneWatt !!! Post some audio of this thing !!!

Will do ... just have to dredge up a little mini-recorder and some time to pop off a few mp3 snippets. It's on the "to do" list for sure.

OneWatt - Posted - 03/26/2014:  09:38:40


Originally posted by banjonoah

Wow I want one of these! You mentioned a few prices, can you tell me about how much I would need to convert an old alvarez beater into one of these? This looks great.

Would be happy to help you visualize and price this little project out...

If in fact you've got a banjo ready to go, then all you REALLY need are a few parts that will surely cost less than $100.

Most of my expense came from replacing the neck, getting 5 new high-quality tuners, and going the extra mile with those individual chrome bridge pieces to replace my current tailpiece and traditional banjo bridge. But you don't really need to do any of those things to wind up in a similar place

So here are the basics, listed below. I've included some pics "under the hood" to help you visualize what I did, but there's nothing special about my approach and you could probably improve things with a bit of thought.

The minimum parts needed, again assuming you simply want to swap out your banjo head for a solid piece of hardwood, use your current tailpiece and float your traditional banjo bridge on top of the hardwood top, and electrify things with a pickup, volume knob, and cable jack...

(1) a piece of wood (I spent about $10 on a 12"x12" piece of solid oak at Home Depot, but any solid hardwood would do). Cutting a proper-sized circle out of it, sanding and finishing... that's the fun part. Just remember that, cosmetics aside, a single (non-veneer) heavy piece of hardwood will afford the best musical note sustain. But frankly, a piece of plywood would do the trick to get started. You can always swap out the piece of wood later if you want.

(2) a single pickup (I spent about $65 for a pretty nice new humbucker on Stewart MacDonald, but on eBay you could spend half this for a new one, or far less for gently used). BTW, you could use a single coil pickup, which tend to be cheaper - but they're "hotter" in tone (more sizzly rock, less mellower jazz) and are more prone to "hum" - hence my selection of a humbucker ;-)

(3) a single potentiometer (for a humbucker, I suggest a 500K ohm rating; I spent about $5 on StewMac, just to make sure the components were decent and I wasn't inviting avoidable noise/static). If you go the single-coil pickup route (instead of a humbucker) I would suggest using a 250K ohm rated potentiometer (also referred to as a "pot" for short, but not to be confused with a banjo "pot" of course). BTW, you will likely also want some kind of knob to go on the volume control pot. I had one lying around - but they cost about $5 for a fancy one, less for simple plastic (eBay, Guitar Center, StewMac). Just make sure you get one that matches the thread size of the pot's knob extension.

(4) a cable jack (I turned to StewMac for an overpriced "nice" one - about $15, since I was ordering anyhow) On eBay or Radio Shack you can get you a Switchcraft jack for $3 or less).

(5) a little wire (doorbell gauge) and some solder - dunno, I had wire & solder in the project box ;-) - maybe less than $5 at Home Depot if you don't have any on hand.

If this is all you are doing, you will be able to assemble a nice electric humbucking banjo that will likely play just as well as your current "beater" plays now, in terms of feel, action, etc. You don't need the extras I added (no ABM German individual bridge/saddle replacements for the traditional banjo bridge; no through-the-top ferrules for the strings to attach to replace your traditional tailpiece; using your current neck and tuning pegs).

Once you've got your parts, then as for assembly, here are the small issues that lie ahead...

(a) how to attach your 11" circular hardwood top to your current banjo pot? I used small flat brackets ($2 for a bag Home Depot) that I bent to size - pictures attached. Especially if you're using your existing bridge and tailpiece, give serious thought to how to place the hardwood top so the height is approximately the same as the banjo head (and tone ring) you will be removing. If you just place the hardwood top on top of the tone ring, it will probably sit about 3/4" to 1" too high. Taking off the tone ring will likely get you real close to where you want it.

After taking off the tone ring, you still might need to route out the outer edge (bottom side) of the hardwood top so the top wooden surface (equivalent to your current banjo head top surface) sits closer to the banjo pot. Alternatively, you may need to add shims or washers to raise it higher, i.e., further away from the top of your current banjo pot. In other words - think ahead about string height, which must "play nicely" with where your banjo neck wants those strings to be sitting.

(b) routing out your hardwood top to accommodate the pickup, and then drilling holes for your potentiometer and cable jack (you could drill your cable jack hole in the side of your banjo pot rim, but why disrupt your banjo rim's integrity?). and wiring up your pickup, volume pot, and cable jack. Actually it's very simple - I suggest first just twisting the wires in place without solder to confirm you've got the right wiring arrangement.

(c) final adjustments include: typical banjo set-up string action adjustments, seasoning to your taste; adjusting height of individual pickup poles (the 6 screw tops on the face of the pickup) to even-out the signal gain from each of your 5 banjo strings. Fussing with placement of your bridge for intonation, etc.

I've probably skipped a few very minor steps without realizing it, but that's most everything that matters. If you start to dig in and have questions, don't hesitate to post a follow up. Would be happy to know there are others out there interested in pursuing a project like this.

Frankly, if someone manufactured these at a decent price, I wouldn't have spent time building my own. But I couldn't find one so that's what got me started. (Hey... perhaps I should improve this further and start a new side career as an electric banjo luthier?)

Enjoy! - OneWatt




banjonoah - Posted - 03/26/2014:  09:52:31

Wow thanks for the info. I think this is gonna be my summer project. Cant wait for the sound samples!

OneWatt - Posted - 03/29/2014:  19:03:30

Ok, as promised, I've offered up two brief sound bites from this electric oak top. Please bear with me as they're not meant to be particularly musical, just samples of two possible sound shapes for about a minute each.

SUSTAIN - since I was after a nice long sustain with the solid hardtop, I wanted you to hear how long the notes last ... especially a final sweep of harmonics.

TWANGY - a plunky sound recorded pretty dry so you could hear the raw tonal quality.

The playing is nothing to be proud of ... just hooked up the mini-recorder to dash off two clips before the guilt of not responding sooner got to me.

FWIW, I'm having a lot of fun with this humbucker banjo - headphones are doing much to promote domestic tranquility.

- OneWatt



rickhayes - Posted - 03/30/2014:  10:27:12

Seriously cool.

XXXris - Posted - 03/30/2014:  18:57:45

Love it!

Les Paul is smiling down upon you.

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