Upgrading my Electric Banjo

One of the easiest playing and most expressive five-string banjo I have ever picked up. I love this beast!

As I have said, the pickups and wiring currently on my electric banjo are what came with the imported Stratocaster clone we used for the body.

The electronics work, but they do have issues. That means some replacements and upgrades.

Swapping parts on a Strat is not technically complicated. Navigating the nonsense surrounding pickups and wiring, on the other hand, is difficult on a level equal to performing a self-appendectomy on a roller coaster.

Lazy music students talk too much. They daydream and scheme instead of practicing. Because of this, performers and gear often attain a pointless cult following. Brand names can run up the prices on upgrades without actually improving the functionality of the instrument.

So, I set a challenge for myself to find a way to replace and improve the heart of my electric banjo for less than $200.

Hey, I know my electric rig looks expensive. The truth is, between the banjo and the amp, I have invested less than the price of a mid-range student banjo. If I was looking for parts on something bespoke, I would set close to the same budget. You’ll understand why shortly.

For pickups, I’m looking at the Bootstrap ’54 Vintage Sparkle Set with a Tone Man wiring harness. Factor in the cost of having the work done, and I’ll be under the budget I set—with the nice touch of hand wound pickups. I may add a baseplate to the bridge pickup, just because I have played old guitars with that feature in the past and liked the results.

So, if you are interested in electric banjos, it is possible to assemble great gear without breaking the bank. The pickups and wiring I chose for my instrument may not be what you are looking for. There are plenty of other options out there.

Fancy wiring, adding acoustic elements, more pickups, tremolos, trick tuners, and most of the other stuff you can bolt onto a guitar will not make you or your instrument perform any better.

I have some different upgrades in mind for the acoustic electric. I also have that EMG acoustic pickup on my desk. Lots of stuff coming. All banjos will be electrified!


Interesting Times

Over the last few days, the odd weather patterns managed to send the already bad neuropathy, arthritis, and migraines into unexplored territories of misery.

That in and of itself isn’t exactly news. What made things interesting was an additional series of technical malfunctions. My iPad died, and a few hours later I took a bad fall while carrying my phone. The screen shattered, sending slivers of glass into my palm that took hours to dig out.

I guess I could rewrite that Blondie lyric:

Once I had a phone and it was a gas
Fell on my face and had a hand of glass

It was a cheap phone, so a replacement is on the way. I have a camera in the office I can use for videos. So, it’s not a big deal—but the additional frustration atop my daily load made things less than fun. Not shelling for another iPad.

In other news, work is moving along on Zen in the Five-String Banjo. I will be uploading one last public preview before moving the project to Patreon.

I do not have any publishing plans in place for this new book. The current cost of printing and shipping closes the independent publishing route we used for my earlier work. So, right now, the plan is no plan at all. Write the thing and see what comes of it.

I thrashed out the original draft in the same insane timeframe as The How and the Tao of Old-Time Banjo. Back in 2004, we simply added in the tab to the thrashed-out manuscript and tried to repair my grammar. This time around, I decided to slow down and work over the pages.

As stated before, feedback would be appreciated.

For the folks worried about my hands, fret not. The switch to the solid-body electric banjo as my main instrument has been a joy. The electric is the easiest playing banjo I have ever picked up.

The main challenge in the switch has been adjusting to the sustain of the electric. Playing acoustic, I used percussion and strums to fill out the sound. On the electric, that approach mainly creates noise.

With the electric, I am learning to make even heavier use of rests. There are effects built into my amp that make for some lovely ambient sounds under the melody. It’s different from playing the acoustic, but simultaneously similar enough to feel like home.

If I was having an instrument like this built from scratch, I would keep the three-pickup layout. That middle pickup is sweet. I would add acoustic saddles to the bridge, to mix in a touch of thumb-thump when appropriate. The Strat shape more or less works, but I’d move the controls from the lower left to the upper right. That would allow working the knobs and switches while playing.

I was watching a video about Brian May’s Red Special guitar. It made me smile because Dear Old Dad and I have been experimenting with the concept on an electric banjo for over fifteen years. Pop and I are not exactly the brain trust that is the May family, but we didn’t do so bad. Leave it to fathers and sons to come up with a different approach. Once I get some new pickups, my electric banjo will be a beast.

Gearwise, if anybody has some volume/expression pedals to trade, please let me know. The only other gear I need to scrounge up are foot controllers for my Katana amp.

Additionally, now that I am getting used to the Boss amp, there really is no need to keep the Spark 40. I have that, a Riff, and a pair of foot controllers to trade.

Well, I have to set up my spare camera to film workshops during the week. It’s awful moving gear and plugging in cables with these hands, but I’ll make the most of it. I’m trying to figure out how to balance out my voice with the electric while recording. It isn’t simple with my hearing, but we’ll figure it out.

Essential Movies for Musicians: The Disciple (2020)

The Disciple (2020) follows the training of a young Indian classical vocalist. That is literally all I can say about the film without ruining it.

Most critics see this film as a study of failure and mediocrity. Because of the unusual ending, it can seem as though the protagonist is giving up on music.

I love this movie, but it’s an art film. It is long and slow, but that is fitting because this is about the life of an artist. We see him fail, we see him practice, feel jealousy, frustration, and other aspects of his life as he pursues his muse.

There is one scene with a music critic that I had to rewind and watch several times, simply because Americans don’t cut through the nonsense this clearly. It is an eye-opening and life-altering conversation, and I have been on both sides of that table more than a few times.

I will not spell out a conclusion for you, but I will say one thing: I walked offstage in 1997 and have not performed willingly many times since. Did I give up on music?