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Thread: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

  1. #26
    Registered User stevo58's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Quote Originally Posted by sblock View Post
    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!
    Not just that - the resonators were developed in a time when the tenor banjo was the hottest version, not the five string. These banjos were played in horn bands. They had to be loud as all get-out.

    I play tenor in a hot jazz band with NINE horns. That’s some serious volume when they all wind it up. They actually complained they couldn’t hear me, even though I was beating the daylights out of my poor Prucha flathead tenor. I eventually realized I needed a maple-neck instrument (rather than mahogany) to shift the dominant frequencies to a range that was less cluttered. Once I did that they were happy. It was a real eye-opener. This relates to the frequency space.

    So you are all competing with an instrument whose only purpose in life is to be louder than a brass band. You will lose every time if it becomes a competition.

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  3. #27
    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Perceived loudness is not the same thing as measured volume in decibels. Human ears are funny and give us at least little chance to be heard.
    The Fletcher-Munson curves of eual loudness show that at some frequencies the sound has to have higher pressure levels (decibels) to be perceived at the same lavel as on another frequency. Of course tasteless heavy banjo picking can drown mandolin at any frequency but with sensible backing picking of banjo at lower frequencies while mandolin plays solos (assuming the mandolin is not a poor one) the notes can be heard even with banjo still playing some licks.
    Adrian

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  5. #28
    coprolite mandroid's Avatar
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    Question Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    EZ solution: Just don't hire a banjo player ..

    Oh wait You're the banjo player..


    How about a contact pickup on the head, an amp & in ear monitors ?




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  6. #29
    Registered User mbruno's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    The only real solution is to tell them to quiet down. Playing louder than another instrument is just a cold war with notes. You'll all get progressively louder which will lead to playing harder which will lead to playing less accurately and likely faster as well screwing the tempo. Using amps I suppose could work - but you'll run into the same problems, just that much louder and likely with some bonus feedback. At some point, musicality has to kick in and the band needs to play for the song not for themselves.

    If it's a band situation, record yourselves with a single microphone and listen back. It should be fairly obvious from that. If they still don't listen. If they keep being loud, either put up with it or kick em out.

    If it's a jam situation, if they don't listen after you ask, either put up with it or walk away / kick them out.
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    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mandobar View Post
    You can make a banjo "muffler" by placing a rag between the head and the dowel in the back of the instrument.
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  9. #31
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    In my experience with bluegrass (about 50 years), a well made banjo, a well made fiddle and a well-made Dobro are probably the loudest acoustic bluegrass instruments...

    That said, with great power comes great responsibility. Once players of loud instruments have enough experience to play in jams, they should have have a #1 goal of learning to dynamically control the volume of their instruments well enough that instruments which aren't as loud can be heard without their players having to hammer them.

    The softer instruments include double bass, guitar and mandolin. Mandolin has an advantage of a high voice, and if played in the upper registers where no one else is playing, can cut through better, but its actual volume is still comparatively pretty low.

    I have heard some crazy loud mandolin players, but typically in doing that they sacrifice the sound of their touch and a good amount of tone to get that loud; it's better from an audience standpoint for a mandolin player to play at moderate volumes and primarily concentrate on their touch and tone.

    I'm most known for my banjo playing in bluegrass, and with that, my touch, dynamic volume control and tone. Most people refer to my banjo playing as tasteful. If I join a jam and there are more than two banjos, I'll put mine away and play mandolin; my philosophy is that more than 2 banjos is almost always annoying and impossible to follow. In contrast to that, you can have a lot of mandolins in a jam before they become annoying.

    I also play double bass. Due to its volume, a banjo can cover for a missing double bass in a jam if people know how to follow its rhythm and tempo.
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  10. #32
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Quote Originally Posted by stevo58 View Post
    Not just that - the resonators were developed in a time when the tenor banjo was the hottest version, not the five string. These banjos were played in horn bands. They had to be loud as all get-out.

    I play tenor in a hot jazz band with NINE horns. That’s some serious volume when they all wind it up. They actually complained they couldn’t hear me, even though I was beating the daylights out of my poor Prucha flathead tenor. I eventually realized I needed a maple-neck instrument (rather than mahogany) to shift the dominant frequencies to a range that was less cluttered. Once I did that they were happy. It was a real eye-opener. This relates to the frequency space.

    So you are all competing with an instrument whose only purpose in life is to be louder than a brass band. You will lose every time if it becomes a competition.

    Steven
    Some of the neo-trad bands are using two tenor banjos, or a tenor plus resonator guitar. Think Tuba Skinny. A mandolin would be lost.

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  12. #33
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Well, I'll stack my (seldom played these days) '30's National Triolian up against most banjos, but its harsh bark kinda takes away from what I like about the sound of mandolin-family instruments. The quest for volume can result in under-emphasizing the sweetness, the "wood" qualities, and the subtlety of (unamplified) mandolin playing.
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  14. #34
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    This Thread Is starting to go towards band politics which is often a fun killer. It would be cool to see some data on the potential energy of Mandolin strings versus Banjo strings. There is a lot to read here on Mandolin Café. I have also tried to read Marin Mersenne, Isaac Newton, and others. It is way over my head. At a glance it appears that the potential of a Mandolin should be somewhat grater than that of a Banjo. I think I am seeing a consensus that to turn this potential into loud Mandolin sounds the Mandolin must cease to be a Mandolin?

  15. #35
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Well, think of it this way: when we build a drum, we put a thin membrane (the "head") over a shell, and set it vibrating by beating it with sticks. Why don't we instead use a thin piece of wood? Apart from the differing sound qualities, I think we'd agree that the all-wood drum wouldn't produce as much volume as the conventional drum.

    Banjo's just a drum with its head set vibrating by strummed strings, rather than drumsticks. Beat on the head of your banjo, then the top of your mandolin, with some sort of non-damaging beater, and tell me which produces higher volume.

    How to mix/mingle instruments of different loudness in a group -- whole 'nother issue. Composers, arrangers and conductors figure out how to have orchestras with trumpets, oboes and percussion mingled with violins, flutes and harps. Bill Monroe sussed out how to play alongside Earl Scruggs. Solutions combine technique, technology, and mutual understanding and consideration.

    An inconsiderate musician with a Gibson Mastertone is 99% likely to drown out equally inconsiderate bandmates with an F-5 and a D-28. So what? Solution: find considerate bandmates.
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  17. #36

    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    I went to a house concert to see a trio of a fiddler, a mandolinist (who was the featured performer) and a cellist. Only the mandolin was amplified. She played either in front of a mic or an electric mandocaster.

    I recently bought an octave banjolin. That thing is freaking LOUD. It's great. I've been playing it a lot the last few weeks. I played my regular mandolin yesterday. That thing is so quiet and small. It's disappointing, really. It's also harder to play a tiny little mandolin than a big ass octave banjolin, and I'm a small woman.

    So if you want a loud mandolin, get a banjolin. It's awesome to play something people can actually hear and that keeps them from complaining that you're too quiet yadda yadda. Nobody will ever say that to me again.

  18. #37
    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    sbhikes -- Wow, I'm very curious about your post! What kind of "octave banjolin" did you recently get (there are many variants)? Is it a converted tenor banjo? Does it have single or double courses? And especially, what is the scale length?

    I was intrigued that you report that it is easier to play than a regular mandolin, especially with the small hands that you have. Most folks report that the stretches required on an octave mandolin are significant, and that it pays to have large hands for that reason.

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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    I don't know anywhere as much about instruments as 99% of MC-forumites, but I have a flute and a viola and if I ever really feel like playing a lot in the evening, I start with the flute, move to the viola, and end with the mandolin so I'm less likely to bother any sleeping neighbors as they are more likely to be sleeping. i.e. I concur, the mandolin is very quiet compared to many other instruments.

    (I have a couple of elementary school quality recorders in F (sopranino and alto) and an irish whistle in C & D - if the neighbors are drunk and partying, or doing anything with a leaf blower, that's my opportunity for those guys).

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  21. #39
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Yes the euphemism 'banjo killer' is plain wishful thinking. Maybe we can turn it around and say that banjos are 'mandolin' killers. I don't like the term anyway suggests that something dies in the process - more like mutes the sound of other instruments say for instance in a band setting. Bluegrass bands do a fine job in balancing the volume difference by allowing each person to come forward and play their part - no need for banjo killers or any other form of 'killing'. Anyhow aren't we supposed to get along in a band or a jam session setting? It makes for a more pleasant experience for everyone where harmony and respect come to the fore. Everyone goes home afterwards having contributed to good day or night out.
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    An Interesting coincidence I just finished a funny project turning a StarSun banjo into a four string octave mandolin. I don't know if I am a sucker for a trash find or just a sucker. My wife found this in the trash. Originally it had an Asian scale. It had been converted to fretless. I gave it an adjustable truss rod and conventional (to westerners) fret board and strung it with octave mandolin strings. My first impression was "back to the trash". I have tried it a few more times and it may be growing on me. It was fun to kill a banjo and make it into a mandolin. My idea was to have a mandolin that could live in the garden shed.

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  23. #41

    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Quote Originally Posted by sblock View Post
    sbhikes -- Wow, I'm very curious about your post! What kind of "octave banjolin" did you recently get (there are many variants)? Is it a converted tenor banjo? Does it have single or double courses? And especially, what is the scale length?

    I was intrigued that you report that it is easier to play than a regular mandolin, especially with the small hands that you have. Most folks report that the stretches required on an octave mandolin are significant, and that it pays to have large hands for that reason.
    I bought a used Gold Tone Octajo. It is essentially an octave banjolin or if you prefer, a double-course tenor banjo.

    I find it easier to play because I do not have to press down so hard to get a clean, clear note. The strings are much looser. The stretch is a problem, and the scale length is pretty long. My arm gets tired holding it up so high, so what I have done is tuned it to EBF#C# and put a capo on the third fret to play normal. With the capo it feels a lot like a mandola and feels like an easier stretch because my hand isn't all cramped up from trying to press down so hard as I do with a mandolin. I know everybody says a light touch is all that's needed on a mandolin, maybe your action too high yadda yadda, but my action is low and it still requires quite a firm touch to get a truly clean note when playing a melody.

    It's a little bit buzzy tuned to EBF#C# so I'm looking into whether I can change the strings to be the right weight for EBF#C. I was going to post a question about that in the CBOM forum.

  24. #42
    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Quote Originally Posted by sbhikes View Post
    I bought a used Gold Tone Octajo. It is essentially an octave banjolin or if you prefer, a double-course tenor banjo.

    I find it easier to play because I do not have to press down so hard to get a clean, clear note. The strings are much looser. The stretch is a problem, and the scale length is pretty long. My arm gets tired holding it up so high, so what I have done is tuned it to EBF#C# and put a capo on the third fret to play normal. With the capo it feels a lot like a mandola and feels like an easier stretch because my hand isn't all cramped up from trying to press down so hard as I do with a mandolin. I know everybody says a light touch is all that's needed on a mandolin, maybe your action too high yadda yadda, but my action is low and it still requires quite a firm touch to get a truly clean note when playing a melody.

    It's a little bit buzzy tuned to EBF#C# so I'm looking into whether I can change the strings to be the right weight for EBF#C. I was going to post a question about that in the CBOM forum.
    Interesting. Well, the Gold Tone Octajo has a scale length of 22-7/8", according to Gold Tone's own website. That's a bit on the long side, considering that octave mandolins tend to run from 19" to 24", with 20" being typical for a shorter-scale octave mando. Small wonder you can't handle the stretches in root position!

    As you have already learned to your dismay, tuning all the strings down, but then capoing them all back up, to compensate, brings with it a slew of problems. The lower string tension will cause buzzing, requiring you to either raise the action significantly, or to play with an extremely light touch at all times -- or both. Also, the current string gauges were all chosen with octave GDAE tuning in mind, to produce the correct tension for those notes, and get the best response from the string. Banjos are already low-tension instruments. Tuning a banjo down an three additional half steps to EBF#C# reduces the string tension to the point where the strings will start to sound "wonky." At too low a tension, most strings will fail to hold a tuning very well, and they will also suffer from intonation problems as you go progressively higher up the neck. They will also sound funny (plunky), and lose much of their brightness and sustain.

    It is sometimes possible to compensate for these well-known issues by switching to a set of heavier strings, which will allow you to raise the string tension to achieve the same notes. Of course, this tactic can only take you so far! If that were all there was to it (it's not!), a person could convert any regular mandolin with a 14" scale length into an octave mandolin, simply by changing to a set of super-heavy gauge strings. Unfortunately, it's not that simple and there are practical limits. Thicker strings suffer from end-effects that make tuning compensation (at the bridge) much harder. They also don't fret well, and manifest other intonation issues. They are harder to pick due to their stiffness, and take a heavier hand. And, as I already mentioned, they sound "wonky."

    All this, of course, is why mandolins have scale lengths of 13-14", mandolas come in around 16-18", octave mandolins at 19-24", and so on. It's why cellos have longer necks than violas, and violas have longer neck than violins. These size characteristics wind up being requirements of the instrument design, due to the fact that strings must be maintained at certain tensions and certain gauges in order to sound decent.

    It's also a reason why you don't find many 5-string acoustic mandolins (CGDAE) that sound good. Ditto for 5-string fiddles. It can be pulled off with electric instruments more easily, where tone production comes from other aspects of the design. Many 5-string acoustic mandolins feature a longer-than-usual scale length, or even a fanned-fret design, to try to cope with this issue.

    One advantage of playing an octave mando-banjo is that the tone requirements are not as important as they are with a wooden instrument of comparable dimensions, so you might get away with funkier sounds that come with using heavier gauges. These might sound just terrible with an acoustic wood instrument. Even so, you can expect to encounter all the tuning issues I outlined above.

    I'm afraid you have gone down a rabbit hole of rediscovery that luthiers already know all about. Getting the Octajo has, no doubt, made it much easier for you to fret (lower string tension; longer strings!), and it has also greatly increased the volume that you can achieve while playing with others. But you paid a huge price! You are finding that mandolin-type stretches are too large for your small hands (certain mando things are not even possible on an octave mandolin). You are finding that tuning down 3 half-steps, then capoing back up to compensate, brings with it a host of new issues, including fret buzzing, tuning instability, and worse intonation. And even with doing that, the fret spacing is probably still too large for certain things. Also, I'm afraid, switching to a heavier set of strings, to better support the lowered tuning has the potential to bring with it its own set of intonation and tone problems.

    Of course, you are free to experiment and see what this gets you! You may discover that switching to heavier strings will help, at least a bit. But the stretch problems are not going to disappear with your small hands. I am so sorry to sound like such a Debbie Downer, but alas, there is no such thing as a free lunch, here.

    If you don't care so much about the tone, and just want to increase your playing volume, then your best bet might be to get a banjolin (a mando-banjo) with a 13-14" scale length, or a resonator mandolin (National RM1, Recording King, Triolian, Dobro, or the like). That, or learn to play with a heavier touch. But there are limits.
    Last edited by sblock; Oct-03-2020 at 5:19pm.

  25. #43

    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Actually it's really only the G string that is a little bit wonky tuned this way. I can also tune it to F and use the 2nd fret with a capo. Or heck, I should try tuning just the G string up to F so that I'm playing in ADAE. It was a fellow session mate who plays tenor banjo who suggested trying tuning to E.

    It's not a huge horrible stretch to play without the capo. It just requires more thinking since I have to sometimes use one fret per finger instead of two. Hitting high B can be a problem but sometimes you can leave it out or fake some other way around it. It's great to have an instrument that people can hear. They're always complaining I'm too quiet. I'm waiting for them to start telling me how to mute it.

  26. #44
    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: “Banjo killer”? Wishful thinking?

    Quote Originally Posted by sbhikes View Post
    Actually it's really only the G string that is a little bit wonky tuned this way. I can also tune it to F and use the 2nd fret with a capo. Or heck, I should try tuning just the G string up to F so that I'm playing in ADAE. It was a fellow session mate who plays tenor banjo who suggested trying tuning to E.

    It's not a huge horrible stretch to play without the capo. It just requires more thinking since I have to sometimes use one fret per finger instead of two. Hitting high B can be a problem but sometimes you can leave it out or fake some other way around it. It's great to have an instrument that people can hear. They're always complaining I'm too quiet. I'm waiting for them to start telling me how to mute it.
    Writing for myself, I can't imagine playing fiddle tunes in common keys like G, C, D, A without being able to hit the high B note on the E-string -- and at full tempo! Different strokes, I guess.

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