Going Electric: An Old-Timer’s Thoughts

Back in the 90s, Dear Old Dad and I, among other things, ran a country music theater. The Eastern Shore Opry. We made it a point not to perform much in the shows we produced. When you are working backstage and promoting, you need to focus on that rather than your ego. Play a song, wave to the crowd, and get back to work.

After one of the shows, I was cornered by Tom Gray and James Bailey. The two Country Gentlemen alumni demanded to know where I learned to play the banjo. I was told that nobody plays the old frailing anymore, and that what I was doing was special.

I got similar treatment when we were traveling to film for The Down Neck Gazette. Even in Galax, Virginia, people got weird when I started to play. Frailing was the lost technique. One old coot even walked up and said to me, “I haven’t heard real old-time banjo like that in twenty or thirty years.”

A run through the available workshops in our video archives offers a glimpse at what I can do with an acoustic banjo.

I am starting with this to point out that going electric is not about reinventing frailing banjo. I am looking to see how far I can push the technique and my skill.

The Banjo

Patrick and his electric banjo
I love playing slide with a bit of compression.

We have tried several prototypes blending various body styles and amplification systems. Nothing really worked. The problem was like what we experienced with resophonic banjos, in that nothing worked as expected.

Here is the basic formula that worked for me:

  • Bolt-on five-string banjo neck
  • Solid body with three pickups
  • Hardtail tailpiece

The neck on my electric banjo is maple, and rather heavy. I am unsure if a lighter weight neck would impact the tone.

Acoustic action is familiar, but you lose the up the neck notes. You don’t need a banjo head on your electric. Any acoustic element is just going to complicate things.

The three-pickup layout of a Stratocaster, in my experience, works best for a banjo. As much as I love a Telecaster, the middle pickup gives me the most banjo-like response. Go figure.

We used a 7-string hardtail bridge for my banjo. It works like a charm with no hassle.

Interestingly, the super cheap pickups that came with the Strat clone body we used for my banjo sound fantastic. While I do have new wiring for my banjo on the wish list, there is no rush. What I have works.

The Amp

The amplifier plays more of a role in the response of the electric than I expected.

I initially bought a Spark 40. It’s a great little amp. Tone for days. The amplifier models and effects make it an exciting little tool. On the downside, on my unit, Bluetooth cuts off at random. This isn’t a problem when I am noodling. Being forced to reboot the app on either Android or iOS made it problematic for workshops. The Spark Control and an aftermarket foot controller had similar issues. As a practice tool, it’s wonderful – but I needed something both more reliable and flexible.

Enter the Boss Katana Artist MKII. I love this amp. It’s 100 watts of stunning. This amp does everything but wash my hair. I only wish it weighed less than a 1974 Plymouth Fury III.

Once I pick up a foot controller and a pair of expression pedals, I will have enough gear to stay busy for the rest of my life. I can even add a second speaker cabinet and run it as a stereo amp.

For silent practice, my solid body banjo is loud enough to practice unplugged. If I want to rock out without scaring the neighbors, I use a Vox VGH AC30 headphone amp. It’s loud enough that even I can hear it.

Gear Wish List

There are only a few things I still need to scrounge up.

  • GA-FC foot controller
  • 2 expression pedals
  • New pickups/wiring

The question of pickups turns out to be simpler than expected. Much like banjo tone rings, most of what people say about pickups is nonsense. I’ll probably just replace all the electronics with an off-the-shelf prewired pickguard.  I like the sounds of the Lace rainbow setup, but the Fender Tex-Mex would also work. The goal is simplicity and reliability in addition to tone.

I thought about a looper. I did. It’s a cool concept, and I have had fun with them in the past, but after one or two songs it starts to get silly.

The Playing Experience

Yes. Playing a solid-body electric five-string banjo is different from playing an acoustic.

The depth and shape of the body have forced me to adjust my technique a bit. Moreover, it took me time getting used to pickup selection having more impact on tone than placement of the strike.

The only difference that threw me was the openness of the fretboard. It is as easy to fret the 18th fret as the first. It makes noodling with scale runs a joy, even with my arthritic hands.

What About Tradition?

Banjo players have been trying to go electric for the last hundred years.

Eddie Peabody and Rickenbacker:

Buck Trent:

1939 Gibson EBT 150:

1937 Vega Deluxe: