Kavanjo Banjo Pickup

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Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™

Kavanjo Banjo Pickups

This article describes a banjo pickup solution I tried almost two years ago, but didn't really get to test out in a demanding live situation until a few weeks ago.

Paul Race at the Dayton Porchfest 2018.The Dayton Porchfest is a local festival where people around a certain neighborhood allow musicians to set up on their front porch (or elsewhere in their yards) and play whatever they want. I've had a wonderful time at the ones I've done so far, and it's great practice for other kinds of festivals.

Last year I used a backless tone ring banjo. In most indoor settings shy of an auditorium, it is loud enough not to need much amplification, if any. But it doesn't have a pickup (yet) and wasn't quite loud enough unamplified in the outdoor setting last year.

This year, I would be in a bigger setting, so I brought my "powerhouse" - an early Deering Sierra that I bought abused and nursed back to health. Back when I bought it, the head was so far gone that I knew I would have to replace it, and I also wanted to try a Kavanjo banjo pickup. So I ordered one from Kavanjo owner John Kavanaugh directly. He was very helpful.

Magnetic Pickup Heads

The Kavanjo is one of several solutions that use magnetic pickups that pick up the vibrations from the strings, similar to an electric guitar. So you have to use strings with iron or steel cores.

As a rule, magnetic pickups are a little more limited in the higher frequencies than some other solutions. But they pick up zero handling noise, and the better ones deliver a clear, feedback-resistant signal that works great running directly into the guitar (HIz) inputs of any PA head or guitar amp. If you like being able to plug into just about anything anywhere at a moment's notice, with no preamp or batteries or other paraphernalia, a mag pickup may be the way to go.

Kavanjo's Distinction

The Kavanjo incorporates a humbucking pickup right into the head of the banjo, which brings the pickup closer to the strings than the Gold-Tone or Dean mag pickups, which sit entirely under the head.

This should give a stronger signal, with less chance of interference than behind-the-head mag-only solutions. Whether it gives a clearer or more realistic banjo signal might be debatable.

Yes, to my ears (spoiler alert), my Kavanjo equipped Sierra sounds better amplified than the magnetic pickup-equipped mid-range Deans and GoldTones I have owned. But it's a far better banjo, so I have to wonder if that has any effect on the sound. (Technically it shouldn't, but I'm trying to be as fair as possible.)

The inside of a first-gen Deering Sierra with a Kavanjo pickup attached. Click for bigger photo. The head and resonator flange of a first-gen Deering Sierra with a Kavanjo pickup attached. Click for bigger photo.

Deering Kavanjo Heads

The Kavanjo heads that Deering sells have the Deering logo and the jack pre-installed in the head, so installing the new pickup is as easy as swapping out the head.Deering sells Kavanjo heads with the Deering logo imprinted, and the jack installed right in the banjo head. This makes installing the pickup as easy as swapping out the head. It also keeps you from modifying your banjo at all, which should safeguard your warranty. It's especially helpful if you have a backless banjo, since there's no resonator flange to attach the jack to at any rate.

But there's another reason Deering sells these this way. That's because in Deering's resonator banjos, the back of the jack takes up too much room to install in the resonator flange without carving a bit into the edge of the resonator. Deering's reasoning is that too many people have destroyed their banjos because they got carried away with their dremels or whatever.

Installing Through the Resonator Flange

All that said, my second-hand Sierra is definitely not under warranty. And after some forty years of playing "out," I have a long history of people destroying my equipment by tripping over cords and what not. So I wanted the most robust installation possible. In this case, that seems to be attaching the jack to the resonator flange, as shown above. Incidentally, that's the way Deering does it in the factory. They just don't trust owners to do this themselves. And seeing some of the damage that has been done, I don't blame them.

Using masking tape to show where the jack was bumping up against the inside of the resonator.So I bought a "plain" Kavanjo head directly from Kavanjo instead. I uninstalled the old head, installed the new head and tightened it. Then I installed the jack in an opening in the resonator flange, as shown above. I lowered the banjo as far into the resonator as it could go. Then I used masking tape to mark the exact place I would need to make room for the jack.

Then I took my dremel to the inside of the resonator to provide clearance. I should be saying "Don't try this at home," but I'm a Folksinger and DIY at heart and we try everything at home. So I'll just say, "Don't try this on an instrument that is worth more than you car. Or is under warranty of any kind."

My Dremel and the hole I carved to get the back of the jack to fit inside the resonator.  Even though I was being very careful I went about 1/32Even though I was being very careful I went about 1/32" too far. I should have just got up to the last layer of lamination you can see, not into it. If the result looks a little sloppy, that's because it is. I now have a stand for my dremel, so, if I ever do this again, the results should be a little more precise.

Of course, you can't see my hack job once the resonator's back on the banjo, so nobody knows about it but me and my readers. You won't tell, will you?

I have tested this on a few amplifiers and in a few house PAs, and the results have seemed satisfactory. But I wanted a recording of the thing being played in a potentially difficult situation before I wrote this report.

Testing On a Real Audience in an Outdoor Situation

My "acoustic" amplifier gave out last year, and I was always running into the need for another input, anyway. So for this sort of gig, I had bought a cheap PA with four inputs and two piezo-equipped monitors to use as house speakers. Not great, but VERY similar in quality to the average coffeehouse or small open mic setup.

Here's a link to the first song I performed at that event. Caveat: I realized partway into the song that a "helper" had retuned my banjo's 5th string to G even though I had it "spiked" to play an A.

I had a friend record parts of the performance with my cell phone, so what you are hearing is the sound coming through the speakers of an average inexpensive PA, recorded on a Samsung J3.

To my mind the lower notes sound exactly like a banjo, and the higher notes are close enough without being ear-jangling, as piezo pickups can be.

No purely magnetic pickup picks up the highest overtones from a banjo head, but being reliable and almost feedback-proof counts for a lot when you're on stage.

Deering and Kavanjo both have a lot of positive reviews from superstars who could afford anything and prefer the Kavanjo to all other solutions. In my case, last month, I was just a guy trying to be loud enough to reach 30 or so people in the front yard of a house (the video doesn't show all the people on the sidewalk and tree lawn). And I have to say, I was very pleased with the dependability of the thing, and the sound that people were exposed to, even through a cheap system.

Listen to the video and decide for yourself. And if you like it and don't mind spending more for a pickup than you would spend on an imported wall decoration that looks like a banjo, check out the Kavanjo site:

Conclusion

For me the runner-up pickup would be the Fishman "Rare Earth" pickups. They use a magnetic pickup that sits behind the head of the banjo, but instead of picking up vibrations from the strings, they pick up vibrations from a razor-thin piece of steel glued to the head. So they are transmitting more of the actual head sound than the Kavanjo does.

They are best on banjos with two coordinating rods, though I'm told they can be made to work on banjos with just one. I haven't done a "head-to-head" test between this and the Kavanjo, but folks who have them seem to love them as well. And they're a lot easier to move from banjo to banjo.

Further down the list are:

  • The piezos, which are inexpensive, but the cheaper ones may be harsh in upper frequences and usually require a preamp

  • The condensor/piezo combinations. These mount an actual condensor microphone somewhere, usually on the rim of the banjo, and have a piezo that you can mix in as necessary. Though they tend to sound much clearer and banjo-like in low-feedback situations, playing in a loud ensemble or with a poor sound system may require you to crank back the microphone input and work mostly off the piezo anyway.

In other words, there are many approaches, and each has its fans. I know very few people who've been dissatisfied with the Kavanjo or the Fishman "Rare Earth," though. On the other hand, the first time I amplifed a banjo, it was with a $17 piezo and it did what it needed to do.

Please let me know if you have questions I haven't answered in this article.

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Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you come away with some great ideas for "sharing the joy."

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