While my solid-body electric five-string banjo has been a revelation, the fact is, banjo players can’t help themselves. Even I am not completely immune from the upgrade bug.
Parts are steadily coming in to improve some of the issues I have with the electric. Additional gear is on order to transform an already remarkable instrument into something better.
I thought it would be fun to elaborate on the upgrades, and then answer some frequently asked questions.
I have a new alder hardtail Stratocaster style body on the way from AEGuitars. The body currently on the instrument was cut for a tremolo, and we had to block out the trem cut to use a hardtail bridge. This new body will be set up for this style bridge from the start.
A new 7-string bridge is here from Gotoh. We take off two saddles, and it works like a charm. This new bridge is milled brass, and much heavier. It won’t do much anybody would notice to the tone, but it will make the instrument more stable. Stability is good.
To brighten up the tone, new single-coil pickups from Bootstrap are on the way. I though boutique pickups would be out of my price range, but these are affordable. A steel baseplate from Philadelphia Luthier Supply will be added to the bridge pickup to liven things up.
New wiring from Tone Man keeps the simple and standard 5-way switch, with just a tweak to the circuit for better control of tone and a few other tweaks.
It’s a lot of parts, but I stayed reasonably within budget. The only twist, so far, was the body. I had not anticipated replacing that. It’s a little more difficult to find a hardtail Strat body, but they are out there.
The neck on my banjo is a blemished neck from our days running Somerset County Banjos. It was carved out of a single block of maple with a carbon fiber support rod and rosewood fretboard.
I also added a footswich, foot controller, expression pedal and volume pedal to my Boss Katna Artist MKII setup. It’s a little overwhelming presently, simply because there are so many tonal options. I love playing with the wah and my slide. It’s funky on country stuff, and insane with blues songs…
Frequently Asked Electric Banjo Questions
Why go electric?
My initial drive to explore the electric banjo was mainly curiosity. That has not changed. I want to see how far I can take my skills.
What about tradition?
The only Tradition I ever cared about was a go-do dancer. She helped me sell a truckload of Tandy rope lights to a bunch of guys having a midlife crisis. It’s a long story. My boss kept asking me if she worked there. I told him she was working.
Dear God, I miss the 80s.
Before you get mad at me for poking fun at what some might say is a sensitive topic, satire is one of my family traditions. My ancestors were vaudevillians. My father is a Philadelphia Mummer, and so am I. Laughing at the world is in my blood.
I will mind my traditions, and you will mind yours. The language of music is larger than a single culture or place on a map. We can find harmony and still be free to express ourselves. The banjo can change and remain the same. The important thing is not what I do, but your work.
What is it like to play an electric banjo?
It’s a lot like playing an acoustic banjo, but people enjoy it.
Joking aside, the two main difference are ease of fretting and responsiveness. The fretboard is the same, the strings feel the same – but every little sloppy moment that gets lost in the roar of an acoustic banjo gets its moment to stand out over everything else. In other words, an electric banjo takes some skill to control.
Up the neck, electric banjos are a revelation. The entire fretboard is within easy reach. Fretting is effortless. Tapping and bending are glorious.
Should I buy/build my own electric banjo?
If you have to ask…
What are you going to do with that thing?
Currently, I am learning the ins and outs of Focusrite and Presonus – an audio interface and a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). I am working with the acoustic banjo until the electric is upgraded.
Once I have the electric banjo modded, I plan to go have some fun.
What about acoustic-electrics?
I looked into it, at some expense. In theory, it should work. In practice, it just sounds like an amplified banjo without the advantages of the electric. Your mileage may vary.
Are you giving up on the acoustic? On Teaching?
I learned to play the guitar using my teeth to hear the instrument. I don’t give up on anything.
Change is natural. Focus changes from time to time. Joints twist and hearts harden. Young musicians grow old and fade away – but our craft goes on forever. Even when my hands are too useless to hold and instrument, I’ll keep on singing.
For the moment, I have to focus on a few projects for personal reasons. I’m always around in the video archive.