Banjo guitar, Banjitar, Guitjo, etc.

September 30, 2010 1:10 PM

Anyone have any experience with banjo-guitar hybrids? Any recommendations on which companies to order one from? I probably can't justify spending more than $400 or $500 on one, but it would be awesome if you know of a banjitar that does well with tuning the strings down real low and has pretty solid intonation. Also, would it work to just put normal, nylon guitar strings on the instrument?

Bonus question: anybody here put an amp pickup on their banjo before? Or played their banjo with a bow of some sort with tons of distortion and some cathedral reverb on?
posted by Corduroy (16 comments total)

Oh, right now it seems I am leaning towards the Gold Tone Cripple Creek Banjitar (which is listed at $599, but a Gold Tone dealer near my house said he can get it to me for about $450).
posted by Corduroy at 1:11 PM on September 30, 2010

Bonus question: anybody here put an amp pickup on their banjo before?

A friend of mine has a banjo with a pickup in it, but the pickup's completely useless. Weak, feedback-prone, and just shitty. We pretty much always just miked it for shows, the pickup only led to sorrow.
posted by COBRA! at 2:14 PM on September 30, 2010

The old six-string Framus banjos from 1960s West Germany are awesome. They are sometimes vastly overpriced, but they made some simpler models that will hit your price range.

Since a banjo head is basically a giant microphone, using a pickup in a loud venue is unpleasant. The Schatten Banjo Pickup is the bee's knees. Otherwise, a small mic in the pot.

Banjo, bow, cathedral reverb? Why, you're secretly Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel! Julian amps his banjos by taping a cheap piezo to the head and sticking something (cloth?) over it to kill the overtones.
posted by scruss at 5:15 PM on September 30, 2010

I'm no stringed instrument guru, but one thing I can say with certainty is don't swap out steel strings for nylon. It really doesn't work. I tried it on one of my kid's smaller scale guitars (to see if it worked before doing the same to my Washburn flattop) and it was really bad. After a very long time of winding up the strings...they were really stretched out thin, I actually got it to stay in tune for about 30 seconds. After that it was just a mess and I ended up stringing it with silk-wound strings.
posted by snsranch at 7:51 PM on September 30, 2010

hey, corduroy, I'm sure cortex will be in soon, but he had a pickup in a banjo and it worked out great. you can also go the julian koster route.

One thing I'm pretty sure of, though, is that nylon strings don't work with a regular pickup. There's not enough metal to conduct electricity. Although, I could be totally wrong about this.
posted by sleepy pete at 10:08 PM on September 30, 2010

I do indeed have a pickup in my banjo! I can't remember exactly what it is, but it's a couple of contact mics things on the underside of the membrane near the bridge running to a 1/4" plug mounted on the outside.

It functioned quite well at shows and in practices, even at reasonably loud volumes, but! Only once I put something on the signal chain to contain the feedback on it a bit. I don't remember what I ultimately did to make that work really consistently, but it was some relatively mild bit of modeling on my PODxt that managed to prevent the induction of feedback effectively in live through-an-amp settings.

If you're not trying to compete with the rest of a rock band and so playing at a lower volume, you will likely have fewer issues with this, but it is definitely something that may require a bit of care. I imagine there's probably a nice one-pedal solution that would do the job for cheaper than a POD, but I don't know my stompboxes for nothin' so I can't really make any suggestions there.

Why, you're secretly Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel!

Corduroy is a fan, yes.
posted by cortex at 7:21 AM on October 1, 2010

Why, you're secretly Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel!

I love Julian Koster! Have you heard his Music Tapes stuff? If this electric banjitar bow amp fantasy ever becomes a reality, I will certainly admit to blatantly ripping the idea off of him.

but one thing I can say with certainty is don't swap out steel strings for nylon.

This is very worrying. Really, what I am looking for is a classical guitar/banjo hybrid, and the nylon strings are pretty central to what I want to do with it. Does anyone else know anything about this? Or a good resource for me to contact about this? The person at the store didn't seem to blink too much at the idea, although I suppose he wouldn't mind it if I bought the thing before realizing nylon strings don't work. What about really think gauge nylon strings?

I do like the idea of just strapping a little mic, but I've never really messed with electric instruments before, so I'm sure there would be a steep learning curve. What causes feedback? What are overtones?
posted by Corduroy at 10:35 AM on October 1, 2010

I don't theres anything wrong at all with giving nylons a try. The problem isn't that they will hurt the instrument, just that they will be difficult to tune and keep tuned. So, yea, thicker gauge strings might work.

I've thought before about cutting up an old (pawnshop!) classical and installing a hub cap on it. It's not too hard to imagine doing the same or similar thing with a drum head.
posted by snsranch at 11:03 AM on October 1, 2010

I forgot about this, but I once borrowed some woman's banjo on short notice when it turned out that we had no power cord for the electric piano I was actually supposed to be backing my friend up on at a gig, and her method for micing it was to velcro an SM57 to the rod that runs through the rear of the resonator. Which worked pretty well itself, actually; the setting was relatively quiet as I recall so we weren't pushing it on feedback in the first place, but as a low-tech solution it was surprisingly workable.

What causes feedback? What are overtones?

Heh, big questions. Short version is that feedback occurs when some part of the amplified signal (through an amp, through the PA) causes the instrument generating that signal to resonate stronger at a specific frequency or set of frequencies, in a way that cascades in a (feedback!) loop to the point where that one tone gets quickly louder.

Which sucks for two reasons: in the very short term it degrades the overall quality of sound as if you had fucked aggressively with the EQ on something by turning up one frequency way high; and in the slightly less short term it leads to horrible squealing noises that make people wince. That latter bit is the really recognizable thing everybody knows about, but the former bit can make an instrument sound sort of boggy and can make it a wrestling match to play it even in situations where you can contain the feedback from going into squeaksville.

Overtones are just the higher harmonic frequencies that basically every instrument produces. Aside from whatever fundamental tone (or tones, in a polyphonic instrument) it's generating, you also get related overtones—an octave above the fundamental, and then a fifth above that, and then a fourth above that, and a third above that, and on up the natural harmonic scale. Different instruments have different sonic qualities—roughly what "timbre" refers to—in large part because the proportion of different overtones each produces (as a result of its shape and materials and method of delivering energy to the resonating bodies of the instrument) vary significantly.

So, in abstract, overtones are good and fascinating stuff: they're (in part) what makes a banjo sound like a banjo and a trumpet sound like a trumpet. But in the context of amplification, high-pitched overtones are what generally end up getting amplified overzealously in a feedback loop. Some part of your banjo or whatever resonates at a specific high frequency (possible the body, possible one or more of the strings at one of their harmonic points, etc) and that ramps up into a nasty squeal when the amplifier starts making that frequency get louder, which then goes into the amplifier again, which makes the frequency louder yet, and so on.

So: one of the things you can do to control feedback is to do some basic EQ on your amplified signal specifically to depress your frequency response at those levels. Something like a simple parametric EQ where you can create a notch filter (a sharp but very localized cut in response around a specific frequency) to address the main trouble spot in the instrument's resonance can work very well, though there's the risk of making the instrument sound a wee bit muddy if you aren't real careful because you're cutting out a bit of the nice sparkly high end. So it can take some fiddling.

Thinking back, I think this is exactly what I did with the banjo and my POD when I was playing with sleepy pete: found the frequency that would send the banjo off into squealville and created a little EQ module in the effects chain for my banjo stuff that would notch that way down. And bam: well-behaved banjo.

The other basic universal thing to do to combat feedback in general, though: be careful about the physical relationship in space between your amp/PA/monitor and your instrument/mic. You can significantly mitigate a lot of feedback problems by just getting your audio source out of the direct cone of output of your speakers—less signal blasting the instrument or mic, less energy creating feedback.

It's not a perfect solution, but it can help a ton. The big downside is this can mean that your head also has to get more out of the path of this stuff, which means not being able to hear yourself as well. If you're performing in a context where being able to hear yourself coming out of the stage monitors or out of your amp is important, that can make it harder to perform since you're playing deaf relatively speaking. This is less of a problem with traditional rock instruments than it is with acoustic stuff since acoustic instruments are far more resonant than e.g. a solidbody electric guitar, but on the other hand you're often at much lower volume levels with acoustic stuff so you aren't necessarily gonna get buried in the mix.

Anyway, huge topic. That's my limited practical understanding of it.
posted by cortex at 11:16 AM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

> don't swap out steel strings for nylon
Apart from perhaps needing to open up the nut (don't try this at home) and making sure there are no burrs in the tailpiece or tuners, you should be okay. The go-to nylon strings are Nylgut®, but they stretch and stretch and stretch until they stabilize. I had them on an old Harmony, and am having an 1880s parlour banjo setup to use them. Alternatively, buy a cheap set of classical strings and get an extra first, brush up on your bowline skillz, and away you go. (For extra dementedness, use the low strings, and tune down an octave. Sounds great, like those crazy guys from Nechville show.)

Unless you're going to go flat out nuts and go the Buck Trent/Kavanjo pickup way, all banjo pickups pick up the vibration of the head, not the strings. So you can amplify nylon if you wish.

I wonder if Corduroy will explode if I mention that Julian has played a house concert at my house, and <link type="self" degree="blatant">decorated my banjo</link>?
posted by scruss at 6:12 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks, scruss! I don't thing I've ever been so happy about being proven to be so wrong, both for myself and Corduroy. The very long periods of stretching the nylons just wasn't working for me. I'll try those nylguts and try to have a little more patience. Great stuff.
posted by snsranch at 8:30 PM on October 1, 2010

interesting. thanks for stopping by and showing off that banjo, scruss.
posted by sleepy pete at 11:40 PM on October 1, 2010

The help I receive here when I ask my n00b questions is always overwhelming. Thank you!

Me and a friend went on an adventure to seemingly every Portland instrument store before we found a real live banjitar, and I was fairly disappointed. I think it's probably a good idea to go back to the original plan and borrow a friends banjo and put nylon strings on it. You know, the ol' $8 route instead of the $500 one.

In the mean time, my obsession has switched to the cello banjo, a somewhere-over-the-(double)-rainbow $1200.

Like sleepy pete said, thanks for sharing the Nylgut info and the Julian decorated banjo. Pretty jealous. Also, love the house recording of him you sent me. I hope the Music Tapes come out with something again someday.
posted by Corduroy at 10:25 PM on October 3, 2010

go with the friend's banjo, make a mint, then create a jello banjo... that plays like a cello.
posted by sleepy pete at 12:24 AM on October 4, 2010

I'd stay the hell away from the Gold Tone cello banjo; with its stubby neck and huge head, it has no tone whatsoever. Using low-tuned nylon guitar strings on a regular banjo will sound much better.

Did you miss the two Music Tapes albums that came out in 2008? Then there's the maybe-released-someday Second Imaginary Symphony, which is easily found if you wish hard enough.
posted by scruss at 2:21 PM on October 4, 2010

Then there's the maybe-released-someday Second Imaginary Symphony, which is easily found if you wish hard enough.

Hahah, I must have wished hard enough because I have that one. A friend gave it to me, I didn't realize it's never actually been released. Crazy. I haven't really listened much to his caroling album, just seems a little monotonous. Does it have pretty moments? This thread has me on a renewed Music Tapes kick, and I've been playing Aliens from 1st Imaginary Symphony over and over.
posted by Corduroy at 1:27 AM on October 5, 2010

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