I'm running into an issue wherein I'd like to switch my key mid song as quickly as possible, but the 5th string is impossible to get if I'm playing too low on the fretboard, making it difficult to keep up the banjo-ness and stay in key. I'm wondering if anyone has any suggestions as to what kind of 5th string capo would allow the fastest mid-song switching.
I was thinking railroad spikes would be most effective but I have never used them so I haven't any real idea.
For switching keys one may want to rethink their tuning. Perhaps the 5th string can be tuned to a note that will work for multiple keys, some note that might be common, say the I in one key and V in another? Or try a six string banjo, the additional string can give you options that allow you to move through keys with the proper tuning strategy. Just some out of the box thinking.
I've got two banjos - one with spikes, which makes "capoing" the 5th string fast, but it usually pulls the 5th string way out of tune so I have to re-tune, and it also interferes when I'm trying to fret the 5th string when I'm playing up the neck melodic stuff.
I wanted to avoid the use of spikes on my other banjo, so I use a Strum Hollow 5th string capo. It works pretty well, though usually requires some retuning as well (not as bad as the spikes on my other banjo.) I use it when gigging so I've gotten used to getting it on and off pretty quickly (it takes a little practice to be quick about it.)
To change keys in the middle of the song a Shubb sliding capo would probably be the most effective. The old Pittman I had on my RB100 worked better than the sliding capo that Saga sells now but a Saga would work in a pinch. It may depend on which keys you are transposing from and to. I used to play in a group that sang The Baptism of Jesse Taylor in A, then transposed to B. I use spikes on my banjos and I had about ten seconds to move the capo and respike the fifth string. Of course I also had the rest of the band playing while I was doing that. If you have to make a key change on the fly then spikes would not be the best option.
That pesky short fifth string causes trouble with key changes, that's for sure!
I don't have a good suggestion to your question, but for the sake of conversation I'll echo those that have said that you may be better off trying to figure out a way to either move up the neck so you can fret the fifth string, or try to avoid it completely for those parts when it would clash with what you are playing. Personally I would feel stressed trying to change tunings in the middle of a song, but that's just me of course. With spikes there is going to be a bit of fine-tuning to be made.
Back in the day when people started playing more jazz stuff that moved keys, many simply removed the fifth string and eventually the four string banjo took over. A lot of modern five string players that do jazz stuff seem to navigate more towards single string, which makes sense to me. Some traditional bluegrass players might not think that sounds "banjoey", but most everyone else likely still think it sounds like a banjo. A lot of work for sure, but fun stuff and I bet it would be very satisfying to be comfortable being able to play anything without a capo!
I tried and hated the Shubb 5th string tuner. It severely limited use and movement of my thumb. I switched to HO track spikes to retune my 5th string. When playing I sometime have to use my thumb to "fret" the 5th string. I have never had a problem using the HO spikes. They never caused discomfort or restricted movement.
BTW, you have to drill holes in your banjo neck when installing some 5th string tuners. These holes can possibly cause problems when you sell an instrument.
I love my Shubb sliding capo, it's the fastest, especially midsong. I'll never go back to spikes. That said, I never had a problem spiking the 5th fast enough to keep up. With enough practice, you'll get very fast even if you have to retune the 5th every time you spike. But changing keys midsong... you'd probably be better off not capoing your 5th string and learn to work with what you have.
Spikes every time! I have three banjoes, each has spikes at frets 7, 8, 9, 10 & 12.
Handy hint: when you spike the 5th string, it will pull slightly sharp, and a little re-tuning is required. Likewise, when you release the string from under the spike it will be slightly flat, unless you change to a different spike. Be prepared for re-tuning ever-so-slightly when you spike or un-spike.
I have a Saga sliding capo in stock. Properly installed, it is the quickest you can buy nowadays. Faster than a Shubb and the only one I can recommend for changing keys mid song. $15 plus $7 priority postage in the US.
It’s not as good as the Vega-Pittman that it copies—the spring is not as strong. Come to think of it, I have a Vega-Pittman that works beautifully: $1,100 shipped in the continental US — comes with an ODE-Muse long neck banjo at no extra charge.
My Vega PS-5 has a custom length Shubb so I know all three. Custom lengths are no extra charge but don't be in a hurry. Any dealer can place the order including me or you can call Shubb directly to place the order.
Spikes can be made to work well but they must be installed in the right location—and centered between the frets is Not it. Install just behind the fret and high enough so that you can slip the string under the head. When it’s close like that, you can’t pull it sharp. The 5th string should be on the fret and not raised high on the pip for best results.