Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo


I perform in a trio that plays music ranging primarily from 1800 to 1864 - some earlier, none later. Our instrumentation is minstrel banjo, romance guitar, and violin. We perform in a number of different locations throughout the course of a year, many of which are outdoors, and many of which involve large numbers of people.

Performing outdoors is bad enough - we perform mainly in the very flat land of Louisiana and Arkansas and Mississippi, so there is rarely the opportunity to take advantage of naturally favorable acoustics. It only gets worse when we have large numbers of people in front of us. Consequently, and at the insistence of some venues at which we perform, we must use modern amplification. 

We've tried to argue that there's always a period solution to this problem: ask the crowd to quiet down, and move closer if they want to hear. We've done that, and still have found that we need to use amplification. So we do.

We sue a PA system that has sufficient power to reach the crowds before which we perform. Rather than looking any more modern than we must, we camouflage our modern equipment the best we can. We cover our speaker cabinets with canvas covers, and pin a Bonnie Blue Flag to the fronts of them so that, when raised on their stands, it gives the appearance of a patriotic rally. We use a table which is a reproduction of a period piece to set our amp and mixers, and receivers for our wireless mics and pickups; and it will soon appear to be a period highboy in order to hide it all from view of the audience.

We use wireless mics and hide the manufacturer-provided mics in our cravats, and that's been very successful. For our wireless pickups, the pickups we could afford consist of the transmitter and receiver, and the wiring we must have to make it work. We provide our own pickups; and for all three instruments, the pickups are single Piezo transducers. They are absolutely AMAZING in terms of clarity, volume production, and fidelity of the instrument's natural, non-amplified sound. They are a thing of beauty.

Sounds great, doesn't it? We thought so, too. But we have a problem that I need help with, and hope y'all can bail us out. Here's the deal:

The single Piezo transducer pickup in the guitar is glued to the inside of the guitar, placed immediately under the bridge. It is PERFECT. No problems with it, even though sometimes a hand accidentally knocks against the body of the guitar; when that happens, it will transmit the bump or thump, but it's not very often, and it's a very, very soft sound. And when the back of the guitar rubs against the buttons of a vest, or or a watch chain, it doesn't seem to pick it up well enough to make noise through the PA system.

The violin is a little more problematic since it is NOT permanently affixed to the violin. I squeezed it in under the tailpiece, so there is NO movement that causes noise. However, the guitar cord that runs from the pickup jack to the pickup's transmitter (hidden in the violinist's pocket - we all hide our transmitters in our pockets) sometimes bangs into the side of the violin, and the pickup transmits the sound through the PA system. It's a minor problem that I believe I can cure by gluing padded cloth to the male jack that gets plugged in near the side of the violin.

The problem is the banjo. The banjo is a very handsome Bell & Son Boucher Minstrel Banjo. The sound is fantastic; we like it so well that we have two in the group, and we convinced another friend to buy one of their kits. We want all of our instruments to look period authentic, and that means we want the electronics to be inconspicuous; and we doesn't want to alter our instruments in any way. The two guitars are different - they're reproductions of an 1856 CF Martin - as the female jack is hidden in the end pin, and there are ivory-looking buttons that are inserted in the jack to hide it when not being used with electronics. 

The banjo's pickup is attached to the center shaft that runs from the neck all the way through the pot. The pickup is securely held to the center shaft, but is not glued - didn't want to mar the finish. And it's on the wall of the center shaft that is closest tot he head. The pickup seems to pick up every rustle of fabric from the vest or the coat; it causes "pops" and "crackles" and muffled noises of all sorts. We've tried muffling the sound of the watch chain and buttons by placing a cloth between those and the rim of the banjo; and covering the pickup, too. Nevertheless, it seems as if the nise still comes through.

I agree if you say the first thing we did wrong was to amplify our instruments. THat's not going to change, if we want to continue to work at many venues.

What are we missing in our attempts to correct the problem(s)? How can we kill the ambient unwanted noises? Is our fundamental primary problem that we attached the single Piezo transducer pickup to the center shaft from the neck instead of attaching it to the banjo's pot? We had glued one to the inside of the banjo's pot of another reproduction banjo - a reproduction of a Joel Sweeney - and didn't seem to have those problems with the Sweeney. However, to tell the absolute truth, it's been a year and a half since we used that one amplified, and I may not be remembering that accurately. But gluing the pickup inside the pot, or anywhere visible - and the Piezo is just large enough that it WILL be seen anywhere inside the pot - is out of the question.

So if I haven't established an impossible-to-solve problem by what we CAN'T do to it,can you guide us to the right answer?

Many thanks!

Chuck Lee
Elder Lee of Roscoe, Lee & Abadie

Views: 191

Comment by Charles Edward Lee on April 1, 2015 at 7:10pm

Thanks for your response! We do try to achieve the right look. I just got flag staff holders or stands so that our campaign torches on 6' poles will cast a ton of light - again, we're trying to give folks the experience of the 1850s and 1860s, to the level best of our experience. Thanks for your kind comments!

One of our major selling points is that we look as right as we can, and we sound as right as we can. If there are anomalies visible - and at a few of the events, there are - they can't lay those at our feet. When people are dancing, or they're listening to us play and sing, we want them to have a temporary suspension of reality that lets them step back 150 - 160 years, unimpeded by our material culture. 

That's another reason that I'm concerned about all of the popping and crackling - no one to explain THAT when you;re in 1859...lol. 

I do hope Mr Masciale will chime in. I should have thought of him to begin with. Thanmks for that!

Unfortunately, I'm not the Chuck Lee of Texas who makes incredibly fine open-back banjos; not even related to him, so far as I know, any more recently than Noah or one of his sons. I'm the Chuck Lee of Louisiana who makes some third-rate gourd banjos, now and then...lol. And first-rate limberjacks; and first-rate Appalachian dulcimers. And major league messes.

Again, thanks for your comments!

Chuck Lee


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