March 04, 2007

#151: More on the Elban, and Playing Electric Banjo

Ryan of the band Quercus Montana writes:

After doing countless research, your site comes up whenever i do my elban search. I am in a bluegrass/rock band and i play banjo. I have tried everything (tons of pickups including stelling and fishman, all the acoustic amps, mics, tape, pickup combinations, feedback eliminators, and a goldtone electric banjo). So I pretty much decided to stay with the fender acoustasonic amps, but as far as the banjo itself im lost. The goldtone sounds horrible. Im debating between the deering crossfire, the nechville tone module (try to retrofit it into a banjo), and the prucha elban. I cant find too much information about the elban, just some pictures and a paragraph on what it is. Since you have one, i was wondering if you could write up a recommendation or a review for me.

Ryan,

Glad to help.

My Elban sounds like a "real banjo", which it is. (full 11" head, some cavity created by the resonator, though not fully as big a cavity as on a regular resonator banjo). Not the greatest banjo I've ever played, but a convincing sound if not up to my Granada. Through my Centaur amp, it sounds like the banjo itself sounds, unamplified. Quite remarkable that way. I only use one of the pickups, the one by the bridge, which I've never seen, as the resonator is held on by many many bolts, and it looks scary to try to take apart.

The 1st and 5th strings sound really good and "banjo-y". When I hit them right, when plugged in, people often say, "that sounds good!" Second and 3rd pretty good too. The only "fake" sounding string is the 4th, which I can only describe as sounding fake the way plugged in "acoustic" guitars tend to sound fake, as though you're hearing the sound from your ear on the instrument, instead of through the air.

The Elban looks nice, is well made, but two problems: The neck is so thin, it has needed tension-rod adjustment a number of times. Back and forth, sometimes bowed too much, sometimes too flat. Also, the tuning pegs that came on it weren't too great, and one failed completely and needed replacing. Probably current models use better ones, but that's worth asking about. The company has done fine by me, sending different tuning pegs, acting concerned with my satisfaction (well, I am an endorser, but that's still worth mentioning).

Is the elban more feedback resistant than a fishman pickup in an acoustic banjo?

Don't know. It's not all that feedback resistant, but that would require deadening the head, which is exactly not what I want to do. I want "real banjo" sound! When you deaden the head, there it goes.

As an alternative, I try to watch my positioning next to whatever monitor I'm using, and be ready to reach fast for the volume control if it starts to "feed", maybe randomly between songs. Or just keep one hand on the strings, deadening them.

My band is not too enthused about in ear monitors, and i want something that i can can turn up a little bit to get a louder feel. The goldtone definitely gets loud, but it sounds too bad for me.

Good for you for caring about QUALITY. I really dislike people sacrificing good sound for convenience.

I play my heart out and it sounds mellow due to the lack of crunch. I don't wanna keep rambling on so I'll rap this up. 3000 is a bunch of money i dont have, but am willing to put it on my card if the prucha would solve my problems.

From what I've tried, it's the best. I remember hearing Railroad Earth last summer, and Andy Goessling who plays banjo seemed to be getting good sound. I asked Andy what he was using and he answered:

"I'm using an L.R.Baggs bridge pickup, just a small wire transducer glued in the bridge. Most guys won't drill or sacrifice a bridge but I think this cuts down the feedback problem.

Now the most important link in the chain: your preamp. I'm using an Avalon U5 mono instrument and D.I. preamp (class A), a studio grade preamp costing about $500. It's going to take your signal to the soundboard in the truest, cleanest form. The reason a class A preamp is so important is the new p.a. systems showing up at festivals now. The new line array systems are so good and true sounding there is no place for bad amateur grade equipment to hide anymore! If you have a badly eq'd banjo through a cheap direct box everyone will hear it."

I'm scared the crossfire wont have the punch I need.

Totally not a real banjo. Looks sort of like one, sounds like an elec. guitar. You need a real cavity behind the head, it would seem.

May as well throw this in:

I find when playing/listening to plugged in banjo, it can sound good when it's being played in context, better than it might sound when you're trying it out, listening to individual strings and such.

This is a bit mysterious, but I think there are two factors at work:

  1. When your technique and touch are smooth and clear and strong, it tends to help the music sound good regardless of the tonal voice of the instrument itself. The greatness of Scruggs style, the staccato attack, the quick decay of the notes, and smoothness of a banjo roll are pretty appealing, and note, none of those depends on the tonal voice to satisfy. So be aware, the tonal voice is not the only thing you're offering, "sound quality" wise.
     
  2. In a band, a lot of sound gets masked. Especially a kick drum and loud bass just tend to swallow the lower part of the banjo tone whole. So it's really only important to get the mids and highs the way you like them. That's what people will hear, unless you play unaccompanied. Note I'm not saying to emphasize the mids and highs, just make sure they sound the way you like them. With the bass and kick going, if that part of your banjo sound is good, you'll do fine.

I'm hoping you might find these last points especially useful in sorting things out.

Interesting music, Ryan. Good singing and good banjo picking!

Pete Wernick

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