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Thread: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

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    Registered User Doug Brock's Avatar
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    Default “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    I bought an open back clawhammer banjo (scooped neck) last fall to learn clawhammer. Nice mellow style that has long intrigued me. This weekend I donned my banjo picks and played some Scruggs style on that banjo for a while (so much easier than clawhammer for me!). When I next picked up my Kimble two-point, which is not a quiet mandolin, I was shocked at how much quieter the mandolin was. I hadn’t even been digging in on what is by design a relatively quiet, warm banjo. I did try digging in harder on the mandolin to see if I could get it closer to the volume level of the banjo. I could get closer with really hard picking, but I couldn’t do that with any melodic single-note runs and double-stops (FYI, medium strings, Blue Chip CT55).

    I’d be interested in some volume level tests of banjos with resonators vs what are considered to be loud mandolins.

    (BTW, I also played a fiddle to compare volume, and without digging in it was as at least loud as the banjo, and much louder than the mandolin. I haven’t played much fiddle lately, and part of the reason is because they’re so freaking loud, and right up nearly my ear!)
    Doug Brock
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  2. #2

    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    I think you're right Doug. When you face the cold hard truth, a banjo-killing mandolin is just wishful thinking. There are loud mandolins of course, when compared to other mandolins. And there are times that (depending on the directions the banjo and mandolins are facing/projecting relative to the listener) the mandolin might sound louder. But the only way a mandolin is going to kill a banjo is if the banjo has been stuffed full of socks and is already on the verge of strangulation.
    Or if they're taking the SATs...
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    I have several good banjos, none of which are especially loud as banjos go, but if I want to I can drown out any mandolin. In other words, I've never heard a mandolin that was a "banjo killer".
    Of course, music is not a competition so I never want to drown out the mandolin, but the potential is there with a banjo.
    About the only acoustic stringed instrument that the banjo can't drown out is the fiddle.

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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    The only instrument that will kill a banjo or a fiddle (possibly both at the same time) is a set of bagpipes.
    There's nothing better than first-hand experience.

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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    ...or a Mandocaster turned up to 11!

    Kirk

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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    One of the guys in my band has a Gil that has an extremely loud chop. Seriously hurts my ears if I'm facing him.

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    My National RM-1 gives banjos something to think about.
    Having something to say is highly over rated.

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    Registered User Mark Seale's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    F-hole mandolins are not particularly loud to the player, they are loud to the audience.

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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    I’ve got one of the National rm-1 resonators (the modern ones). Easily much louder than both my banjolin and my tenor banjo. I feel like I need to wear earplugs with this thing! The first time I liked one up, I thought it was plugged into an amp.

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    Registered User Doug Brock's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Seale View Post
    F-hole mandolins are not particularly loud to the player, they are loud to the audience.

    Hmmm. I have heard discussions about what the player hears vs what somebody on the other side of the instrument hears. Another reason to get some volume measurements!

    Seriously, I’ve been overthinking this. How much of the banjo’s volume (and perceived volume) comes from the steady hammering of notes? I’m hoping somebody with the right gear has already done some volume studies. I’ll have to do some more searching. If worse comes to worst, I’m going to try to use a microphone with same distance and see how much difference I see in signal amplitude between banjo and mandolin.
    Doug Brock
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    Registered User Doug Brock's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    There are decibel tests of banjos on the Internet! Yes, banjos are loud. I didn’t find any well-documented mandolin tests, but folks agree that the mandolin is a lot quieter (and that banjo players need to be considerate and moderate their volume, lol).

    https://banjobridge.com/volumechart.htm
    Doug Brock
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    I still take pride from the time the band leader told me my un-amplified upright bass was drowning out the banjo.

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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Trying to keep this simple and brief...
    The way acoustic stringed instruments work is this: The string moves and transfers energy to the rest of the instrument, especially the top. In general, the lighter the top the louder the note and the shorter the duration. Banjos are close to the extreme on that, having a top (head) made of .007" Mylar in most cases. Mandolins are toward the other end of the spectrum, in the case of F-hole, carved mandolins, having wooden tops that graduate from around 100" to around 200" thick.
    The plucked string is all of the energy available to the instrument to use for making sound and it is not very efficient with that energy.
    Fiddles on the other hand, are not usually limited to a plucked string. Since the player usually uses a bow, he/she can supply a constant source of energy to the string and thus sustain a loud note for a long time.
    This is why banjos are loud (but lack sustain) and why mandolins are not as loud (but have somewhat more sustain) and why fiddles can down us all out if we aren't plugged in.

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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    You can make a banjo "muffler" by placing a rag between the head and the dowel in the back of the instrument.
    There's nothing better than first-hand experience.

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    Registered User Doug Brock's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    SOME ROUGH TESTS: I read some good reviews on the NIOSH Sound Level Meter for iPhone (none of the iOS sound apps are calibrated, so not a replacement for a real sound level meter, but it’s free and has a good reputation) so downloaded it and played a few instruments at 3 feet. I was surprised that my mandolins tested as high as they did. Three mandolins were typically in the 77-79 dB(A) range and could go a bit over 80 when played hard. I was even more surprised that my Eastman MD315 and Morris flattop seemed to test just a little higher than my Kimble! Eastman and Morris got up to about 83-85 dB(A) while the Kimble was up to about 81-83 dB(A). The open back banjo (with metal finger picks) got up to mid 90’s pretty easily.
    Doug Brock
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    Registered User Timbofood's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Well, banjos are simply LOUD! Mandolins, not so much, as Mr. Hamlett said, and I seriously paraphrase “It’s not a level playing field, and it never will be.” Yes, F holed instruments project forward and the player does not really hear what’s “in the mains” as sound guys say. Even if you ask for it! Some sound guys don’t get the inequities of acoustic instruments, when you find one does they are friends for life! I’ve known two that actually gave me what I felt I needed, that are great talents but, they are still a rare breed. Your sound man can be YOUR banjo killer!
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    If you NEED to be heard over a banjo you could alays install an internal mic system. Or get a clip on mic.
    It is the downside to playing mandolin. Not only is it quiet. But it’s quieter to the player than the audience. I find that my mandolin is a lot louder to people standing two or more feet away due to how the instrument projects.

    Just my two cents worth anyways. Don’t know how much I can offer as I don’t have to play with banjos often and I can easily drown out most guitars that I’ve played with. I do tend to dig in a lot though.

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    Registered User Doug Brock's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    When not under global pandemic, I was playing in a regular jam with a banjo, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and electric bass and we do get loud! That has made me interested in how loud various mandolins might be. I had thought about amplifying, but I think the right answer is just to ask the others to play a little more quietly, lol.
    Doug Brock
    2018 Kimble 2 point (#259), 2019 Silverangel Econo A (#446), Eastman MD315, 2020 Morris Oval Flattop A, Eastman MDA315
    Pisgah Wonder open back banjo, cheap old German fiddle, Martin HD28, Martin D18GE, CA Guitars Bluegrass Performer

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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Quote Originally Posted by Doug Brock View Post
    When not under global pandemic, I was playing in a regular jam with a banjo, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and electric bass and we do get loud! That has made me interested in how loud various mandolins might be. I had thought about amplifying, but I think the right answer is just to ask the others to play a little more quietly, lol.
    I played in a woodwind quintet for two years. And yes, balance was something we worked on, every rehearsal, every performance.
    There's nothing better than first-hand experience.

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    Registered User Eric Platt's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Besides National, the other metal body mandolins are also loud. Now, whether the tone is to your taste is a different question.

    A late friend always used a rubber chicken as an open back banjo mute.

    While I don't often play with banjo players, mandolin is also quieter than accordion, nyckelharpa or uilleann pipes. All of which I have played with. In fact, all of those instruments were in a socially distanced jam yesterday.
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Best way to kill anything that's too loud is the same as when you're in an argument with someone screaming at you - play (or talk) softer.

    If all you do is continually increase the volume, you'll be playing too hard and too loud for anything else to matter. I've been there, done that. Now, I just quiet down more and more - typically making it very obvious that I want others to follow suit.
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    Registered User MrMoe's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    This thread has some interesting and funny parallels to one of the more popular threads on Banjo Hangout, "I had a thought about making a very VERY quiet banjo".
    I have worked on many old, Simply constructed flat mandolins. Several have been amazingly loud. I remember one in particular that came in for new strings. The Boss tuned it up and blazed away a Bill Monroe tune. All activity in the shop ceased (including power tools) and the staff gathered around in amazed silence.

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Irrespective of the science and the facts, if a banjo player (or any other musician) is dominating a jam with their volume, they are inconsiderate. Everyone can play softer if they want to.
    Having something to say is highly over rated.

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  33. #24

    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    I have myself been guilty of wanting the loudest instrument at the jam, but now I see the diminishing returns there. I find a jam where everyone is pushing the volume to 12 and you are competing with multiple fiddles and banjos just hammering away not that fun. Tone suffers and it wears out your hands. I have some nice mandolins with lots of headroom and a heavy right hand and have no problem filling a room with sound, but I will never be louder than a good loud banjo. To me that is fine. I can be heard in most jams and if I can't that is fine or I can leave if it bothers me. Although I try to play in more respectful and tasteful jams where that wouldn't be an issue. With bands/gigs I can't see where that would be an issue as we know how to have some dynamics and have sound reinforcement for the stage. The Kimble's that I have played have no issues holding up under the same circumstances. I would never want to bring an amp for just a casual picking session.

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    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Banjos, especially those with resonators, were developed back in the days before electric amplification to be as loud as humanly possible, and to project their sound forward, so they could be heard in live performances before bigger crowds. The banjolin (mandolin-banjo) was developed for similar reasons, and so were various resophonic and steel-bodied instruments, like the Dobro (R) and and National steel guitars. And also we have resophonic versions of the mandolin. There was even the Stroh violin, which featured a horn-like megaphone!

    Electric amplification eventually put an end to further instrument development along these lines.

    The banjo design of today is a legacy of that pre-electric era. It was designed to be a loud as it could possibly be. Actually, so was the violin, for that matter, some 300 years earlier! Unfortunately, the acoustic mandolin cannot be made much louder than it already is, barring external amplification.

    A "banjo-killer" (acoustic) mandolin is a pipe dream. It ain't never gonna happen, people!! It's a physical impossibility, just like perpetual motion, and for much the same reason: energy is conserved, and there is more energy -- and more efficient energy transduction from string to sound chamber -- in the case of a banjo or violin. That's just the way it is.

    The only workable solution, in the absence of electrification or microphones on stage, is for the other acoustic instruments to "give it some space" during performance. Yes, some of that space can certainly come from playing a bit more quietly, giving the mandolin some loudness space. But some of that can happen by playing outside of the high-pitched range of the mandolin, giving it some frequency space. And some of that can come from playing at different times, or emphasizing different beats, than the mandolin, giving it some temporal space. When all three of these come together, the mandolin can be heard clearly by a fairly sizable audience, even without any electricity.

    In the electric age, even with acoustic instruments, it is customary to use microphones (or transducers), so proper microphone technique becomes another major factor in balancing the mandolin against all the other instruments.

    Finally, I was bemused when I came across mbruno's suggestion that the mandolin should deliberately play more quietly whenever over-matched in a jam, on the grounds that other musicians would take the hint and back off. Yeah. Sure. Right! And maybe he accompanies his softer playing with a reproachful or downcast look, too, as he fades into the background? In my musical world, that tactic has NEVER worked, sorry. Either the folks in the jam are already sensitive to these loudness issues, and they don't play over the mandolin in the first place (or perhaps respond to a diplomatically phrased reminder), or they are not sensitive. Some oldtime fiddlers I know NEVER back off. YMMV.
    Last edited by sblock; Sep-22-2020 at 3:01pm.

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