Thursday, March 25, 2021

A Visit to the Banjo Museum

During spring break 2021, I dragged my poor, wife along to the National Banjo  Museum in Oklahoma City. It was a fun day for me and I'm glad my sweetie came along with me. I'll post some pictures here. Note that there WAS a six-string banjitar in the collection, so I reckon that makes it "officially" a banjo. Enjoy the pics.

Baptists and Banjos

Have you ever run into one of those hardcore Baptists who can only see the world their way? There's nothing you can say or do to get them to recognize that someone else could, at least theoretically, have reason to believe differently. They just can't see it. Never mind that the Catholics were there about a thousand years before them. There just can't be any other way than theirs.

That is what I would compare most five-string banjo players when it comes to the banjitar. Never mind that there were banjos around, some with four strings and some with six strings long before Bluegrass music became a thing in the 1940s. You can't get them to even consider answering a question if it might lead someone into banjitar "apostasy."

I recently joined a banjo forum on the MeWe social network. I asked a question about fingerpick gauges that work best, just to solicit some advice. Now, fingerpicks are not new to me, but I have used them on guitar for forty-odd years. In that instance, I'm playing on bronze-wound strings of a much heavier gauge than would any banjo player. I made the mistake of mentioning that I was using a banjitar. At that point, I might have been asking a Baptist about praying the Rosary.

Only one person gave me an opinion on his favorite pick gauge. The rest were like these responses:

"You will probably not get a good sound on a six-string banjo. It's an intrinsically flawed design."

 "A lot of so-called music bands play 6-stringers. Sounds like crap to me in my humble opinion."

"The real problem is that a banjo 6 does not resonate on the two low strings like a guitar does. So it will never have the strong points of either instrument."

See what I mean. It  Just like "Praying to Mary won't get you into heaven, brother." 

As a fledging banjitarist, I just don't get it. They don't see our instrument as a "real banjo." They don't see playing other styles of banjo as even being "real music." They see people who play banjos with four or six strings as not being real musicians who play in "so called music bands." That mindset astonishes me and, as I have researched information about banjitars, I find that it is ubiquitous.

In the end, that's why I created this site. There needs to be a home in this world for musicians who play banjos who aren't narrow-minded morons. If that includes you, welcome home brothers and sisters!

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Shopping for a banjitar? What are the differences?

The banjitar is growing in popularity. During the pandemic, a lot of people decided to learn a stringed instrument and, perhaps, some guitar players began to explore some other options. There are a lot of videos on YouTube of various product demonstrations, but few people actually talk about the differences between the various models. I'm fortunate to have three banjitars in my collection. Each one of them is constructed somewhat differently and those differences influence the sound quite a bit. In this video, I present an open-back banjitar, and two closed back models. One of the closed-back models had a cast aluminum pot/rim while the other has a traditional wooden rim with no tone ring. I also demonstrate how different tunings and string configurations can give you some cool, creative options. Before you buy a banjitar, you should watch this video to see what appeals to you most.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Banjitars, Strings, and Tunings

Most banjitars come from the factory strung with standard light-gauge acoustic guitar strings. That's really not the best choice for sound. Of course, sound and tone is a subjective things, but overall, most banjitars sound kind of "plonky" with light-gauge guitar strings. If you look at the gauges of regular banjo strings, they are usually made out of nickel-steel alloy and they are fairly light. Only a couple of strings are wound, depending on the gauge you buy. The lowest string on a five-string banjo is the low D, which is tuned the same as the guitar's fourth string. That means that a guitar has two more strings and goes just two notes shy of an octaves below a banjo. That extra, low octave is what turns off a lot of people when it comes to the banjitar. 

To make the banjitar sound, well, more banjo-like, it's a pretty common thing to play around with string gauges. Players can get pretty creative, which is a good thing. Playing the banjitar means you're not locked into a certain set of rules or expectations. I'm not saying the ideas I'll present here are recommended or even best practices. I'm just throwing them out there to give you some ideas you can try. If you're happy with the way your stock banjitar sounds, then you can just ignore these suggestions.

I have three banjitars and I keep them all strung up and tuned somewhat differently. My "standard" tuning banjo is tuned just like a guitar and I use regular Ernie Ball electric guitar strings on it. This one has a wooden rim and a resonator and it has a very mellow tone. The lighter the strings, the more the banjo head can vibrate. It's almost the opposite of a guitar where heavier strings drive the top harder to produce more volume and tone. The head of a banjo vibrates better with lighter strings. I use the .009-.042 gauge on this one. I've never tried going lighter, but I might give it a try in the future, just to see how it sounds. So far, the regular .009 gauge works fine. I typically capo this instrument between the 2nd to 4th fret, just because that's the sound I like. Using the capo moderates the low frequencies of that last octave below the five-string banjo's range. 

My open back banjo has a distinctly different sound that the ones with closed backs. It is more open sounding and it's not as loud as the others. On this one I tried several combinations. I started with extra-light acoustic guitar strings, which greatly improved the sound from the lights. Then, seeing the difference the lighter gauge strings made, I went even lighter. Now I use Ernie Ball .009-.042 gauge also, but I tune this one to open A tuning (E A E A C# E). This is closer to a traditional five-string's chords, but it has low-sounding strings on the top. I have played guitar in open G tuning, which is like a five-string banjo's tuning, except for the lowest-tuned strings. The fifth string is a G, but it is a low G, tuned two octaves down from that annoying half-string on the top of a banjo's courses. Additionally, the sixth string is a low D, tuned a whole step below a guitar's low E string. You'd think open G would be a no-brainer on the banjitar, but those two low strings are a deal-breaker. If you thought the low E and A strings sounded bad, tuning them each down a whole step is even worse. The string tension on those two strings and the low frequency combine for an unpleasant sound. However, if you use light gauge electric strings and tune the whole thing up a whole step, it just works somehow. 

My most "banjo-sounding" banjitar is a closed-back resonator model with a cast aluminum rim and flange. This one is strung up with D'Addario Nashville Tuning strings. If you are unfamiliar with Nashville tuning, it's a trick studio players use to help acoustic guitar parts cut through in a dense mix. Originally, it came about by taking the high octave strings on a twelve-string guitar set and putting them on a six-string guitar. That puts the top four strings up an octave from their customary pitch, leaving the first and second strings tuned to their usual pitch. This creates a jangle that rings through, without having to do a lot of EQ to get the acoustic guitar to sit right in the mix.

I originally tried a setup I saw in a video by Banjo Bill, which I have in a blog post earlier on this site. Banjo Bill changed out just the top three strings with the low E string two octaves higher. I modified the gauges to use a .010, .017, .013, .017, .013, .010 set. I liked the sound OK and the whole thing was unwound strings, which made for a pretty uniform banjo jangle. I found though, over time, that the string tension just felt kind of unbalanced and I started to experiment with different gauges. I saw another video by a guy who puts a .010 on the sixth, to give him a high drone like you'd have on a five-string banjo while all the rest of the strings were tuned like a guitar. He had "railroad spikes" installed, which act like a fifth-string capo on a banjo. Then he can capo that one string to whatever note he wants so he can have a high drone note in several keys. Interesting idea. I tried that, but I think it would only be useful if you do the spikes also.

Finally, I decided to try the D'Addario Nashville sets and I really liked the sound. With them, the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth strings are all an octave above normal. This gives you a high G on the third string, which is the same as that high octave on a 12-string. I have played twelve-strings a lot over the past forty years and that high G string pops pretty easily on a guitar with a 25 1/2 inch scale length. Stretching it to pitch on a banjo with a 26 1/2 scale length seemed pretty dicey. It would tune to that pitch, but the banjitar felt pretty tight all the way across the strings. What I decided to do was tune down a whole step (D G D F A D) and put  capo on the 2nd fret to play in standard tuning. This was actually quite comfortable. The string tension feels very much like a five-string banjo and, when fingerpicking, you get some delightful tones. The long scale length makes first-position chords kind of a long stretch with small hands, so I like the feel with the capo. If I want to play without the capo, it still sounds good all the way across the whole range of the instrument. This is the instrument I use when I want to do some complicated-sounding Bela Fleck-like stuff.

The banjitar seems to invite innovation and creativity as players think "outside the box" to find the sounds they are hearing inside their heads. If you have a special tuning, string set, or other invention that you use with your banjitar, please feel free to share!