Creek Don't Rise

Banjo Pickup Discussion
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Author:  paulrace [ Tue Sep 08, 2015 2:22 pm ]
Post subject:  Banjo Pickup Discussion

This section will be for updates about banjo pickups.

Several years ago, I needed one, so I researched, then bought an inexpensive piezoelectric pickup that served my purpose.

An article about the research I did and the pickup I chose is here: ... pickup.htm

Back then the main technologies were:

Magnetic coil pickup under the head (like Dean and Gold-tone's electric-acoustic banjos use) or attached to the head (like some Deerings) - gives the least handling noise and feedback but doesn't sound as much like a "real" banjo.

Piezoelectric that attaches right to the head. Generally a more realistic sound, but requires a preamp, and picks up more handling noise. Also, piezoelectric crystals vary even within the same batch, and you might get one that sounds like a duck quacking. The cheapest option, if you're not counting the preamp.

Fishman "rare earth" pickups which are somewhat in between. They use magnetic pickup technology, but the pickup sits under a sliver of metal attached to the head, so they're picking up head vibrations, not just string vibrations. They sound more realistic than straight mag pickups, with less handling noise than piezoelectrics.

Since then, a few other technologies have been more widely promoted, including tiny condenser microphones that attach to the banjo. These typically give the most realistic sound at all, but they are also the most prone to feedback. We show an example of this on the following page: ... tm#pickups

The rest of this thread will be dedicated to reader questions and interaction on this topic.

Author:  paulrace [ Tue Sep 08, 2015 2:25 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Banjo Pickup Discussion

Here's the reader question that prompted me to add this thread to the forum:

I would like to play with electric sound and effects on my clawhammer banjo. For that I need a magnetic pick-up that captures only the movement of the strings, and barely anything of the actual sound. There are a few solutions for this problem on the guitar, but most banjo pick-ups are designed to capture sound, which is exactly what I don't need.
Are you aware of any 5-string magnetic pick-ups that deliver only the vibration of the strings? I figured, if anyone did, it would be you.

----------Our Response ----------------------------

I would think that the Gold Tone pickup would be your best bet. ... ZD572SPKPB

It's a magnetic coil pickup that you attach to the coordinating rod(s) and can slide north and south depending on where you want to pick up the string vibrations. Most folks put them as close to the neck of the banjo as they can. For clawhammer, I would expect that would be your preference.

A mag coil pickup does NOT pick up sound from the head - just the vibrations from the strings. As a result they don't sound as "acoustic" as most banjo players want. But that may be exactly what you're looking for.

One came on my Dean Backwoods 6 "electric-acoustic" 6-string banjo, so I'm sure the same thing is available on their 5-strings, as well as on several Gold Tone models. Since Gold Tone started making their mag pickups available separately, they have sold a ton of them, and I've heard few complaints EXCEPT that they're not as "acoustic-sounding" as pickups like the Fishman or most piezos. Then again, they don't require a preamp, aren't as prone to feedback, and don't transmit as much "handling noise."

The only thing that would get you closer to a pure electric sound would be if you could figure out how to get a mag pickup JUST under the strings instead of separated from them by 1/2". Maybe something that eliminates the head altogether (like one of those wooden-faced banjo kits) so you can mount a mag pickup right to the face of the instrument.

If you go THAT way, a "single-coil" pickup like the old Fender electric guitars might give you a more distinctly electric tone than a humbucker.

Hope this helps, please let me know how things work out. - Paul

Author:  paulrace [ Tue Sep 15, 2015 10:39 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Banjo Pickup Discussion

Just installed an old pickup that is, technologically, halfway between the Fishman Rare Earth pickup and the Gold-Tone magnetic pickup.

I'm still not entirely sure what I think of the sound, but it's given me some ideas of experimentation with my mag-pickup-equipped banjo. Stay tuned. :-) ... pickup.htm

Author:  paulrace [ Tue Sep 29, 2015 8:33 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Banjo Pickup Discussion

A reader writes:

This article about the Dean Backwoods 6 was very good. I own one and, I'm getting ready to do the exact installation that you did. Very helpful.

---------Our Reply---------------------------------------------

Thanks for getting in touch.

Just don't do what I did to my banjo and put the hole next to the thumbscrew that holds the resonator on. So I can't use the pickup unless I take the screw out. :-)

I actually started researching 6-string banjo when I was working on a play, and some of the musicians I was considering were not 5-string players. But I didn't buy one until I wound up having to play a faux-dixieland part for a faux-dixieland era play (The Boy Friend). Turns out that the Broadway debut used a 6-string banjo, not a 4-string, anyway.

Since I don't tend to play Jazz banjo, the first thing I tried after the play was over was seeing how it would work with various kinds of traditional music. I'm on my fourth 6-string now, so I guess it worked. :-)

Best of luck - Paul

Author:  paulrace [ Tue Sep 29, 2015 8:39 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Banjo Pickup Discussion

The reader replied:

Thanks for the reply, I'm going to move the 1/4" jack 1 space from where you put yours. I noticed that where you located the piezo element was about 1" behind and, in the middle of the bridge. Did that work pretty good for you? I will be running my setup through a LR Baggs para DI into a Fishman acoustic amp. I should have no problem finding a workable tone solution.


I experimented with the pickup in several different places and wound up with it where most people recommended. For my experiment, I used two-sided Scotch tape, which is a lot weaker than the adhesive on the pickup. Once I decided where I wanted it, I used the pickup's adhesive. That said, the adhesive failed after a couple of years and I just glued the thing on.

With your setup, you'll have no trouble getting a good sound. It won't entirely satisfy you, but let's face it if it sounds more like a banjo than not, that is good enough for the acoustics in 99% of the places you're going to play. And if you go into a recording studio with it, they'll use a condenser microphone on the thing anyway.

Ceramic crystals vary between one and the next. Theoretically, if you buy a $120 one you'll get a better sound. But there is likely to be as much difference between two of the $120 ones as there will be between the $120 and the $20 one.

The mag pickups, like the "electric/acoustic" Backwoods 6 and several Goldtones have, do NOT sound more like a banjo than not. Most of them sound more like the single-coil Kent guitar I had in the 1970s and used for Beach Boy songs in cover bands. The advantages they have is that they don't need a preamp, they're not as prone to feedback, and they pick up almost no handling noise. So if you're playing in a roadhouse or someplace where the acoustics are terrible, the crowd is noisy, and you need to channel insane volume through a 50s-era PA system, they will be more useful than a piezo. :-)

I've been trying to find a two-input battery-powered preamp that I could fasten to my mag-pickup-equipped banjos and mix between a piezo and the mag pickup so I'd be ready for anything. But the only ones they make are made to fasten on the strap, which is not as robust a solution as I need - I change instruments all night long, and I could see myself pulling the little cables to bits the third time I switched.

Sorry, more than you wanted to know.

Please let me know how it works out for you. - Paul

Author:  paulrace [ Thu Mar 10, 2016 12:31 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Banjo Pickup Discussion

Yesterday, I played my Classic Goodtime Special Backless in church. I played an Irish-style arpeggio throughout on the Rend Collective's "Build Your Kingdom." The song sounded great in rehearsal, using an omni condenser mike right up near the head of the banjo, but when it actually came time to play it in the service, the mic was turned off. So nobody further than six feet away could hear it.

So I'm back to studying banjo pickups again. One thing that bothers me is how few offer a solution that doesn't include drilling a hole somewhere, or trying some flimsy thing like velcro or a flimsy little wire running right out of the piezo pickup to your amp (like THAT's not a recipe for disaster.). Then I came across a music store selling some PBJA jacks on eBay for $35@. He had three in stock, and I ordered them all.

So I can attach the piezo of my choice on my backless banjo without drilling any holes. I can also mount my Kavanjo banjo head on my soon-to-be-refurbished Deering Sierra without having to worry about routing a dip in the resonator to accept the back of the "flange-mount" jack. More later.

Author:  paulrace [ Thu Mar 10, 2016 12:32 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Banjo Pickup Discussion

I updated my article on Banjo Pickups to include more information about the Kavanjo head and the PBJA bracket-mount jacks. I'm sure I'll have to update it again after I've gotten some of the new things installed and "road-tested," but it's a start. ... pickup.htm

Author:  paulrace [ Thu Mar 10, 2016 12:34 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Banjo Pickup Discussion

More Banjo Pickup stuff. Mag pickups as a rule don't capture an authentic banjo sound. I'm betting real money that the Kavanjo is an exception. But Piezo pickups have low output and uneven frequency response. There are about a thousand guitar piezo-and-preamp-and-eq combinations that require cutting a big rectangle in the side of your guitar, but A: they don't fit on my banjos and B: I wouldn't slice and dice my better banjos this way if they did. So now I'm investigating something called an end-pin preamp. Several of the old trustworthy companies sell these for ~100, several fly-by-night Chinese companies sell these for ~15. They have a tiny preamp built into the back of the jack, so the preamp part is REAL easy to install just by drilling a hole where the end-pin goes, like you would for pickups you installed. The 9v battery installation is by velcro, though, which is less than optimum. The "better" guitar versions have little volume knobs or volume-and-tone knobs that you install with stickum just inside the tone hole so other folks can't see them, but you can feel them with your fingers and turn them up or down. Those will buy me nothing on a banjo, so I'm ordering the kind without the knobs. I think I can install these on my banjos that I don't want to drill holes in by mounting them in the Schatten PBJA jack mounts I've already ordered and received. And the battery mount won't be as big a problem on banjo as it is on guitar, since I don't feel bad about mounting an actual metal battery clip to the inside wall of my banjo pot. The piezo won't work on my banjo, though, so I'll have to order a piezo that will separately. Plus every amp or pa I'm likely to use with these things has volume & eq. So I just ordered three of the cheap Chines end-pin-preamps. I actually only need two, and I can get by with one for now, but they're shipping from China, so I figured I'd go ahead and order extra in case one is DOA (or two). The ones I ordered are here: ... 8b8c1a2bf4
I also ordered a little pack of battery clips here: ... 9c2bc3af80
On of the common complaints about endpin preamp pickup sets is that the piezo that comes with it isn't very good. In my case, it's useless, because it's made to go into a guitar bridge. Since the preamp seems to take a 1/8" plug, I'm thinking of these ordering Barcus Berry pickups to complete the set: ... 394af00f77 But before I do, I'll have to find something else to order, since Amazon raised its threshold for free shipping to $50. And the other things I ordered "don't count" because they're coming from non-Amazon warehouses. Obviously a new article or blog will probably be coming out of this soon. If all goes well, cost per banjo will be ~$35 per Schatten clamp, ~13 per Chinese endpin preamp, $1 per battery clip, and ~20 per Barcus Berry pickup, or $69. We'll see.

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