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Nov 12, 2021 - 10:35:06 PM
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7365 posts since 9/29/2004

Just today, I was wondering if Patrick Costello was still vertical and sucking' wind.
When Patrick was a member here, we didn't get along very well, but I never held old arguments against him, so I have no grudges and don't want to hear we lost him. We have already lost too many banjo players, and I was aware of Patrick's always shaky health.

Coincidentally, there was a topic on him today, so I tracked down his latest internet presence through it and was relieved to learn he's still alive. Browsing his new website I saw he's now on a quest for a solid body electric banjo.
His thought is: Fender didn't become Fender by imitating Martin.pla Fender struck out with a totally different guitar that had it's own merits in a completely different type of guitar that sounded totally different.
So why not do the same with the banjo?

Ain't nothing wrong with that idea, but I've played just about every attempt at an electrified banjo made since the dawn of the instrument's conception. There's nothing new in it; the first ones were attempted in the late 1930s.
I have no bones to pick with any of them, as I used an amplified banjo (my own distinction) for over 20 years as my main performance instrument. Like most, it is an acoustic banjo that has a pickup mounted on it so the sound can be amplified with a pickup instead of a microphone.
I preferred it because it allowed me to move around on a stage and I was chained to a mic. Motion enhances live performance. A pickup is also useful in recording as a way to enhance the banjo's tone with special effects that are independent from microphones.

The first electric banjo I ever played was an Eddie Peabody Banjoline made by Rickenbacker. The instrument was essentially one of their standard bodies with 2 4-string pickups with a plectrum neck on it.
Unplugged, it sounded like a semi-solid electric guitar tuned differently. Plugged in it sounded like an electric guitar that was tuned differently and connected to an amplifier.

That's how all the others sounded. Gibson, Harmony, Paramount and Bacon all swapped the skin head for an acoustic guitar top, with a pickup, and they sounded like electric hollow body guitars. Most of the amplified banjos equipped with magnetic pickups sounded like electric guitars too.

So what makes a banjo sound like a banjo? Every acoustic banjo from the cheapest to the most expensive sounds exactly what everyone expects the sound to be; a distinctive ringing sound, notes with short duration that have a faint metallic overtone with most of them. A $50 banjo produces it just as a $50,000 banjo does.

What are the tone generators?
The strings, the head, the bridge. Everything else is to hook those 3 things up and hold them together, with adjustability.
The head has to be as thin as a skin head, so it has to be a membrane. Mebranes vibrate in different ways than everything else. It's also the primary thing that produces volume.
The strings' vibration excite the membrane by transference through the bridge, and that's what makes the banjo sound like every banjo.

I think Deering was the first to figure this out. All he had to do was mill out a cavity in a solid electric guitar body leaving some free space like some holes so the head could pump up and down, and come up with a way to hold the head to the body reliably.

The sound that comes out is banjo-like, but it's not the same sound as an acoustic banjo. It can't be because it's a different instrument. Tinker with it long enough, and the sound is very banjo-like.
Slap a pickup on an acoustic and plug it into an amp, and you get a banjo-like sound too. Slightly different from the Deering, but not the sound of the banjo when played acoustically.

Mess around with tone controls and everything, and the sound still doesn't sound acoustic, but it sounds enough like a banjo listeners can identify the tone as coming from a banjo.

That's all there ever was. So I thought Patrick was sort of beating a dead horse that was already rode and had gone as far as it would ever go.

But then, I remembered the new Acoustisonic Fender guitars. Fender took the Telecaster body, milled it out until the middle was essentially hollow, put a spruce top with an acoustic bridge on it and a piezo pickup in the bridge with a magnetic pickup mounted in the body.

And then they stuck a very sophisticated little digital modeling device filled with computer chips that had a bunch of digitally modeled sounds from different acoustic guitars inside the body. What they got was a Telecaster that sounded like a Tele, or several Martin-like sounds, several Gibson-like sounds, and some others.
None of them sounded acoustic, but they all sounded almost acoustic. Close enough for a listener to identify the sound as a large acoustic guitar, or a small one, etc.

So now, there's a 3rd way of imitation. Take yer pick, the 3rd is gonna cost a lot more than the others.

Anyone with enough money could do the same digital thing to a banjo. Or a mandolin, a fiddle, anything with strings.
The fact remains: anything that requires electricity and an amplifier to produce a sound as loud as an acoustic banjo will never sound truly acoustic. There's too much messing with the sound. Everything changes it.
The two are two different breeds of cat that won't ever be alike.

Then I remembered one of my favorite renditions of Blackberry Blossom. Marty Cutler recorded it using a Fender Stratocaster with a spike stuck next to the 5th fret, strung it up with 5 banjo strings, adjusted the guitar, and played a good banjo tune that sounded totally different but extremely beautiful.
he played it slowly, allowing the guitar to do it' thing, which gave it an airy, wistful, romantic tone that turned a fiddle dance tune into a love song.
For maybe $5 tops, and a couple of hours of messing around rigging the guitar.

What we all do, from the first to the last, is make music the way we like to make it.
Our way is different than a guitar player's way, and that's a good thing.
Our music is good enough it can be re-envisioned and played in many different ways that can make many different sounds.
Folks who play other instruments do the same thing. They try playing songs in different ways using modified instruments of their choice too.

I came away thinking that Marty devised something far more useful than trying another imitation of an already well-used old idea.
I think it's better to accept the banjo-like electric sound as it is and use is to make something new out of it than it is to try to find an exact imitation of something that already exists. What exists is plenty good just as it is.

There's nothing at all 'wrong' with any of it. It's all equally good. Go ahead and use what you have any way you want to use it. If you come up with something fresh that's just as good as playing something familiar.
p.s. After Covid locked me up with just my dog for 24-hour company, I've been mostly writing for the past 2 1/2 years. I haven't contributed to BHO much, mostly because I've been playing 4 dead men's guitars that ended up in my closet. I bought some, to help with funeral costs, and others were bequeathed.

But I'm still lurking here, and I'm fine and dandy, but I'm growing old. I'll eventually return to playing my banjos eventually, but right now, it seems melancholy guitar music in tribute to the fallen seems to suit me better.

Here's to brighter days ahead; they're coming soon. And I still cherish all you folks here.

Nov 12, 2021 - 10:50:29 PM
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11943 posts since 10/27/2006

Hey, mike,

Glad to see you check in. I've been going a little stir crazy as an online choir director for a few churches — beats binge-watching Law and Order. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you…

Re the electric banjo. I've played many over the years but once I heard Tim Weed play one with the EMG pickup at Healdsburg a few years back, I didn't care if a better one could be built. That was good enough for me.

Tim Weed and EMG

Nov 13, 2021 - 12:43:12 AM



441 posts since 12/30/2005

I've owned and played Deering Crossfire and Nechville Meteor electric banjos for many years. I first bought the Deering because the volume of my Stelling acoustic banjo was a problem for my family and neighbours (and just about anybody living in a two mile radius!) I loved the Stelling , but couldn't bear to ruin its tone by using a mute or stuffing it with a towel. The Deering was a lifesaver. Acoustically it was just a whisper but still sounded quite banjo-like, However, I never liked the way it looked and felt. When I saw an ad selling a Nechville Meteor I thought I'd try it. I found it a massive improvement on the Deering in terms of sound, playability and appearance. I now play it almost exclusively, and my Osborne Chief is reserved for special occasions,
It's worth saying that I (like most people in the UK) live in high density housing and not everyone shares my love of the banjo. My neighbours don't want to hear my playing, much less repeatative practice.
It's true that an electric banjo can never sound like an acoustic unless you employ some complex (and expensive) electronics. However, I'd say just accept that they are different beasts and enjoy both for the applications to which they are best suited.

Edited by - HSmith on 11/13/2021 00:44:55

Nov 13, 2021 - 5:23:49 AM

3762 posts since 9/12/2016

Yes there are quiet a few versions now a days. Don't forget the original trooper Buck Trent. I have to plug up with my picking buddies or feed back stops me short. I want them to turn theirs down ,with out me asking them to do so
The big thing is getting comparable dynamics. In other words It needs to gain the same amount of spls(volume} from the emphasis of melody notes. Too much gain and it gets too loud too quick.
I do have Marty's record btw.
A while back Mike Gregory built a rustic banjo with a bridge sitting on a piece of a 2 liter plastic bottle flattened out. It had the twang.
String noise can be a beast especially on my baritone ,last night I switched it back to an interior mike.
Nowdays you see the tonedexter which uses sampling technology. It records the acoustic voice and is fast enough to throw out the real tone and insert the recorded tone in it's place. The same technology used in keyboards . Once all under the topic midi but now the domain of computers in general. You can get a midi pick-up and sound module the halfway sound like about any instrument ever invented.I'll try to run down that vid where Alan Munde plays one with a piano preset tone,

Nov 13, 2021 - 5:44:24 AM

3762 posts since 9/12/2016

here it is--It sounds more like a guitar preset --sorry about that .Like I said it could  sound like about any instrument since it relies on recordings for it's voices

Edited by - Tractor1 on 11/13/2021 05:48:39

Nov 13, 2021 - 5:56:21 AM

536 posts since 5/29/2015

Banjos are amplified to:
1) make the banjo sound louder but still sound like a banjo
2) provide a path for Satan to possess the banjo much more easily than a purely acoustic instrument
3) provide a novel sound that requires a new method and genree of music to develop for the design to become popular. (Electric guitars are not played like acoustic guitars)

For #3 above It is best to ask, what can I do new with this instrument that does not sound quite like a banjo? rather than does this instrument do well what I already do (#1)? I see this with banjo mandolins. Bluegrass mandolinists pick them up, play a few Bill Monroe chops, curl their lip and put the instrument down, instead of starting to experiment.

Nov 13, 2021 - 6:03:53 AM

3762 posts since 9/12/2016

then we have which overdriven tube amp turns the beast into a chick magnet

Nov 13, 2021 - 6:19:58 AM

75344 posts since 5/9/2007

I've been satisfied with my Jones pickup since the 80s.
Nobody has ever complained that it doesn't sound like a banjo.I do probably unconciously alter some things in my playing whether I'm plugged in or not.
The music on my homepage was recorded by simply plugging in my pickup directly to the computer with no pre-amp.
I call it a good banjo sound that doesn't draw complaints of its tone.

I have spiked an electric guitar for 5th string and and found it changing my approach.I didn't try it for very long.

Nov 13, 2021 - 8:21:14 AM
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584 posts since 7/30/2004

Great to hear that Mike Stanger is still "vertical and sucking wind" as well. Years ago, Mike (and his friend Ed Britt, RIP) spent a huge amount of time replying to my questions about Ode Long Neck banjos. His information is always complete, well reasoned, and EXTREMELY well written. As I think I once told the man, he should write a book about banjos. (probably more than one book and probably about more than just banjos) It's people like Mike Stanger who make Banjo Hangout just an enjoyable, informative, and worthwhile experience.

Nov 13, 2021 - 8:24:23 AM

75344 posts since 5/9/2007

The BHO has a lot of good people on it.

Nov 13, 2021 - 1:29:06 PM
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1868 posts since 2/28/2003

Speaking of electric banjos, here's the electric banjo I built for myself over the past year during my COVID lockdown. I've christened it the Mystery Science Banjo 3000, or MSB3K for short. It's a Nechville Turbo module with a 6" Remo SilentStroke head, mounted to a Recording King Dirty 30's rim and resonator. The custom headless neck features a 7"-12" compound radius ebony fingerboard with abalone inlays, and is attached to the rim with a Nechville Flux Capacitor mounting system. The tailpiece/peghead is made from DragonPlate carbon fiber/birch plywood laminate and uses Gotoh 14:1 guitar tuners. 

Many thanks to the Masked Picker for taking it out for a test drive at the Tranjo booth.

Mystery Science Banjo 3000 at IBMA 2021

Sam Farris

Edited by - sdfarris on 11/13/2021 13:31:02

Nov 13, 2021 - 4:13:03 PM

12596 posts since 6/2/2008

Originally posted by stanger

So now, there's a 3rd way of imitation. Take yer pick, the 3rd is gonna cost a lot more than the others.

Anyone with enough money could do the same digital thing to a banjo. Or a mandolin, a fiddle, anything with strings.

A type of modeling device is already available to everybody. It's the Tonedexter Preamp. Described as a self-learning modeling pedal.

In short: You play your acoustic instrument through both a microphone and pickup into the Tonedexter for it it to learn the difference between live/mic sound and the pickup. After it's trained itself -- and you're happy with the results -- you then play through your pickup with the Tonedeter engaged -- and the sound that goes to your PA or recording device sounds nearly the same as the sound going through a mic.

Here's a demo of Tonedexter training.

And here's a demo of a guy playing an RK-35 through a Tonedexter, with the Tonedexter bypassed and engaged so you can hear the difference between his Schatten pickup with and without Tonedexter.

Nov 13, 2021 - 8:05:35 PM

3762 posts since 9/12/2016

as I mentioned above--the tonedexter is one and the same as sampling ,but not as abundant with pre set tones ,if I understand correctly.. Keyboard Synths ushered it in.

Nov 13, 2021 - 9:58:54 PM

930 posts since 10/4/2018

No matter how great Alan Munde makes it sound, I would never buy one of those. I wouldn't mind borrowing one for a day just to play with though.

Nov 14, 2021 - 2:58:45 AM



7365 posts since 9/29/2004

Originally posted by timacn

Great to hear that Mike Stanger is still "vertical and sucking wind" as well. Years ago, Mike (and his friend Ed Britt, RIP) spent a huge amount of time replying to my questions about Ode Long Neck banjos. His information is always complete, well reasoned, and EXTREMELY well written. As I think I once told the man, he should write a book about banjos. (probably more than one book and probably about more than just banjos) It's people like Mike Stanger who make Banjo Hangout just an enjoyable, informative, and worthwhile experience.

whoo... That's humbling.

Thanks for the kind comments, Tim.

Nov 14, 2021 - 4:00:02 AM

3762 posts since 9/12/2016

Mike S -I learned a few licks on the keyboard to access the same tones so I don't need one either. (empty pockets here )They would be really slushy and useless for a barnburner--but once one piddled around with one --------having ultimate sustain would be a new challenge .

Nov 14, 2021 - 9:24 AM

Alex Z


4597 posts since 12/7/2006

Perspective of the usefulness of these devices may depend on the music you want to play.

We might distinguish among (a) amplifiy -- making the acoustic banjo sound louder;  (b) electrify -- playing the banjo through a guitar-type pick-up;   and (c) synthesize -- playing the banjo but modifying the tones via computer-type technology.

For example, if you want to play bluegrass but louder as in (a), and you use (b) to do that, nothing will be completely satisfactory other than a good mic and an excellent, clean sound system.

If you want to use the banjo to play Celtic harp back up on one song, then chicken-pickin' Telecaster on the next, then (c) is the way to go.   (b) with add on tone processing can get part of the way there, maybe enough for decent performances.

Nov 15, 2021 - 9:26:12 AM

15368 posts since 12/2/2005

Mike, it's always such a pleasure when you show up and offer your insights. Please don't be a stranger!

Nov 17, 2021 - 7:15:39 PM

4 posts since 11/10/2021

I bought a $99.00 Glarry banjo off the internet (Hey, where did everybody go?...;-) I splurged another $65.00 on a case. I then bought the cheapest pickup in stock at the local music store, which turned out to be a John Pearce mini hockey puck thing.

I started with the pickup on the front of the head to see if it worked. It did. I decided to mount it inside the banjo. When I pulled the pickup off the head, the double sided tape that came with the pickup tore and took a bit of the finish off the plastic head. Fixed that with whiteout.

Mounted the pickup on the head inside with double sided Scotch Tape. That worked for a few days and then the pickup fell off inside the banjo. So I put a layer of Phil Swift Flex Seal on the pickup and more double sided tape. I don't think it will ever come off now. And its waterproof.

I drilled a hole in the side of the resonator and put in a volume control. I had a cable with a 1/4" jack which I connected to a hook. The volume control worked but I found it really distracting. So I've replaced the volume control with a push on/off kill button. I got a proper 1/4" long-mount jack and put that in the resonator also. Works perfectly. And no frikken batteries!

I do a lot of studio work and play out occasionally. My main instrument is bass but I play guitar and keys and have been working in "the biz" since the 70's. I took up the banjo this year. I've already gigged on it and used it on commercial recordings. Besides Larry the Space Banjo (I Sharpied out the G), I have a Rickard and just re-headed a 1930s Tenor banjo.

My goal with Larry the Space Banjo was exactly that. I wanted something amplified which was not a guitar or a keyboard.

The tape on the pickup makes a world of difference. Without the Flex Seal the pickup was screechy and full of feedback and low-end noise. Phil Swift fixed that. The tape is thick so it's killed a huge amount of high end. But now I have a totally controllable amplified sound. Zero problems with feedback. I use a Line 6 Helix and I've been messing around with an MXR 10 band EQ so I can try different EQ curves on the fly. What I don't go for is distortion. Besides some EQ I'm using an LA2A modeler and various modulation and delay patches. I'm especially fond of multi-repeat backwards delays.

I love hot bluegrass licks and for that kind of thing I respect I'm at the bottom of the ladder. I do have some classical guitar chops and my bass chops, and I've spent the summer practicing rolls with a metronome. So I'm not here to say Larry the Space Banjo will please any banjo purist. I am here to say Larry is a highly functional and practical musical instrument. I play this thing successfully with two different very loud rock bands. And I've been working on some solo stuff which I think might be kinda different.

I have no idea what the pot is made out of on Larry. It's not metal and I'm not sure if its actual wood. But the tuners are fine and the neck is solid. I know if I put an electro-magnetic on it would have sounded like a weirdly tuned electric guitar. The piezo is positioned about a half inch below the bottom of the bridge (I did a lot of experimenting). I really can not complain about the amplified sound. What I can say is amplified, it sounds a lot like if its not amplified. That's great until I remember it is a hundred dollar banjo... So yes, it's very twangy and just does not have the depth of the Rickard. But considering that the only thing the average civilian knows about the banjo is "play that song from Deliverance", Larry sounds just fine.

I love technology and I love acoustic instruments. Larry the Space Banjo is that apex. And it was less than a hundred bucks new!


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