The banjos and gear I use

minstrel marchorowitz little wonder

This is my main, workhorse banjo.  I take this with me for every gig and to our local jam… I’ve been in love with it for years and never get tired of it.  The pot is an old 11 13/16” pot from a Vega Little Wonder banjo guitar (I have the guitar neck hanging on the wall) with a newer neck made by the awesome local-to-me maker Bob White here in Southeastern Ohio.  It’s a super loud banjo and it really pops.  It likes to be stuffed a bit under the dowel near the heel, and to have a bit of something to absorb overtones near the tailpiece. No scoop, so the action is a little higher than some might like for their left hand.  Fine for me though.

 

Head: Remo Renaissance

Tuners: The awesome new Rickard Hi-ratio 10:1s

Tailpiece: classic No-Knot

Bridge: 5/8” Moon heavyweight

Usual strings: Medium gauge GHS PF160 (11-13-16-26-10)

This beauty is an OT-MH Marc Horowitz signature banjo.  A joint project between Nechville and Gold Tone, it was dreamed up by my friend Marc Horowitz.  It has a graphite neck on a 12" Nechville Atlas all-wood pot (block construction, like an 1960s Ashborne) with Nechville's Flex-Tone adjustable/removable neck system, familiarly called the “flux capacitor.” My favorite banjo for a knee-to-knee with a fiddler, and the one I reach for most often at home.  It was louder with the head it came with, but with the super pure sound from the carbon fiber neck, I thought dirtying it up a bit with the hairy goatskin head would balance it nicely, and it does… plus, between tunes, I can pet it!

 

Head: I got my friend Steve to put on a hairy goatskin head.  I love it!

Tuners: Gotoh nickel planetary geared tuners

Tailpiece: Nechville straight-pulling tailpiece

Bridge: Sampson compensated birch and ebony

Usual strings: Elixir mediums

I won this Bell and Son minstrel banjo in a contest on Banjo Hangout, and fell in love with it the minute I played it.  Like the 1848 Stichter banjo of which it is a reproduction, it is fretless, with a black-painted fingerboard and pot.  Shockingly lightweight, but with amazing deep tone in the 4th string.  It always takes me a few minutes of playing it before I’m adjusted to the longer scale length. Rather than using a minstrel tuning, I generally keep it in a tuned-down double C-type tuning to play in G, and vice versa.

 

Head: natural calfskin

Tuners: friction violin-style

Tailpiece: wood

Bridge: lightweight wood

Usual strings: Aquila synthetic gut minstrel mediums

mic placement (2)

I’m very, very happy with the Danish Pro Audio microphone I use for gigs.  It’s a DPA d:screet 4061 Mini Omnidirectional Microphone with microdot connector. I just use the sort of bandage tape that has no adhesive and only sticks to itself (the way Velcro does) and attach it to the dowel near the heel but facing the tailpiece, as shown. The first time I played a contradance with this mic, it changed my playing… I immediately began playing notes I hadn’t bothered to play previously as they just got lost in the mix.  Not with this mic.  Every note is clear as a bell.  

capo (1)

I like the little d’Addario Planet Wave clamp-on tuners.  I put mine so the body of it is on the underside of the peghead.  When tuning, I don’t have to lean over the top of the banjo to see the tuner, and it’s very discreet (in the picture of my banjo above, I didn’t bother to remove it and you can see it at the top right of the peghead.  This pic shows what my view of the tuner is.  There’s a button to push to reverse the readout so that it’s right side up when the tuner is “upside down” like this. Accurate but not TOO sensitive, which is sometimes a problem with tuners for banjos.

tuner (1)

Similarly, the d’Addario banjo capo gets my vote. It’s so easy to remove and put on, and I generally keep it clamped fairly loosely just above the nut when I’m not using it.  I used a Kyser for years, and always liked them, but I kept one clamped on the top of the peghead when not using it, and eventually my peghead became scratched up a bit from this, although I don’t understand why. The only time I go back to the Kyser now is if I’m capoing at the 5th fret or above (which I occasionally have to do) as the d’Addario is not quite wide enough for that.

nails (1)

Finally, the part of my “gear” that probably has more effect on the sound I get from a banjo than anything else: my fingernails. My own fingernails are absolute crap, and maybe 30 years ago I was so fed up with trying to deal with them that I timidly went into a nail salon and put myself at their mercy.  I’m so glad I did!  Here’s the deal, if you decide you have had enough of worrying about broken nails and having enough nail to be able to play the banjo.  I go to a Korean-run nail shop in my local mall.  These places are everywhere, and the process is not expensive.  I get 3 fingernails taken care of there (index, middle and ring fingers.) You may just use one or two of those fingers… I’m just weird and use them all.  Anyway, here’s what I do:

Go to the shop. Tell them you want tips and acrylic, with gel over them.

1)They’ll rough up the surface of your nail with a Dremel-type tool.  Don’t worry; if you decide fake nails aren’t for you, you can buff that out.

2)They take glance at the nails you want to do, open up their box of fake nail tips, and eyeball the right size for you.  They put a drop of glue on your own nail, and press the tip on.  Dries pretty much instantly. The nail is ridiculously long. They then cut it to the length you prefer.

3)They then will dip a brush into a solvent and dip it into an acrylic powder.  It immediately become a sort of gooey thick liquid.  They brush it on with amazing skill, covering both your own nail and the tip they glued on.

4)You’ll then sit with your nails up close to a light bulb or sometimes in a fan until the acrylic hardens (a minute or two.)

5)They then begin filing and shaping the nail.  When they’re done they may have you go and wash and dry your hands.  You’ll often move to a different station for the gel process.

 

6)They’ll ask (the first time) what color polish you want.  I just say no polish. Then they brush on a very sticky clear sort of polish (the gel) and indicate an LED infrared light machine you are to stick your fingers into for a minute or two.  This cures the gel and leaves it rock-hard.

7)When the timer goes off (sometimes they’ll have you leave your hand in the light through another cycle) they’ll wipe your nails with alcohol on a cotton swab.  And you’re good to go!

The whole process, excluding any wait time, takes about 15 minutes.  I get 3 nails done, at a cost of $12 plus tip (I generally give $16 total) and they last me, with touchups (see below) about 2 months.  And I have a day job that’s pretty hard on my nails.  

What happens, though, is that your own nails keep growing and this creates a gap near your cuticle.  Between nail salon visits, I deal with this by filing the nail then brushing on gel (which I bought from Amazon years ago… I’m still on the same bottle!) to fill the gap.  I then cure the gel using a $20 LED infrared gel nail light machine, also from Amazon, followed by the obligatory alcohol wipe afterward. I can do this process, including filing down my nails when they’ve gotten too long) in about 8 minutes.

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