Advice: Amplification

Moving from your bedroom, or your friend's living room, and into band situation comes with a requirement for amplification. Generally Banjos don’t come with pickups or built in speakers, so you’ll be faced with the challenge of choosing the best solution for your taste and situation.

The type of music your band plays is a factor, and you might not want to go down the route of expensive pickups and amplifiers, as they do change the sound instrument, and you might be after something more natural. An option here would be to use a small number of microphones and a PA system, which I have seen done to perfection by The Coal Porters. These guys all stand around a single microphone, moving closer or further away to change each instruments volume for solos and sound balance. If you want to do this you’ll need a omni-directional microphone, which can pick up sound with equal sensitivity from all directions. I would personally only recommend this technique for bands without drums, typically Bluegrass. If your interested in seeing how this is done, then have a look at this The Water Tower Boy’s video recording of Uncle Pen, I love these guys, and if high energy Bluegrass is your thing, then you should check them out.

Using a single microphone

You could try using a single microphone in front of your instrument, which can work well in small line-ups, but can get problematic when drums or other loud instruments get involved. Often the issue is simply hearing yourself, especially if you don’t have monitor speakers, and at high volumes you can have feedback issues, which can be very frustrating. Another issue is that you can’t move, and if you do, you disappear from the sound. There are clip on microphones that get around this, but these tend to be expensive, and can easily be knocked out of place, unless you’re seated or particularly good at standing still!

Using a pick-up

Another option is to fit a pick-up to your banjo, which is actually very simple to do. I use a Schatten BJ-02 banjo pickup. Fitting it was very simple, all I had to do was stick the sensor inside my banjo head, directly under the bridge. The jack input simply clamps to the side of your banjo, and then you’re ready to rock, pick, strum or whatever. This pick-up wasn't cheap, and there are other options, which I know very little about. However I will say that I am very impressed with my choice, and it has not let me down yet... If you decide to use a pick-up you will notice that the sound and feel if the instrument will be quite different from the acoustic sound of your banjo, however this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Choosing the right amp

Once you have a pickup fitted you can plug directly into a PA and play, however this might not give you the best tone, and also might not offer you any direct monitoring of your sound. To get round this you’re gonna need amp.

When I started playing in bands I tried plugging my banjo directly into my Fender guitar amp, and it fed back like crazy, I have had similar issues with other guitar amps and quickly learnt that I needed to purchase an acoustic instrument amp. I started out with a 35 watt Laney acoustic amp, which was too quiet for my band, and in my opinion, didn’t sound great at medium to load volume. So I did some research and tried out a few other options. If you search the web for “the best acoustic amp”, you’ll certainly come across the AER acoustic amp, which I have tried, and they do sound very, very, very good, but they also cost around £800, and that’s a lot of money for an amp in my opinion. This lead me to the Fishman Loudbox. I managed to pick mine up second hand for under £300, and it really does the job, especially at volume. There are many other amp options available today, including the Tanglewood T6, which is currently getting great reviews. What I will say is that choosing an amp has just as much to do with personal taste as the instrument you’re plugging it into, and what’s cool for me might sound like cheese wire to you. So go try some out, and at the very least search for the amp you like the look of on YouTube, where you can nearly always find some dude doing a demonstration/review.

Another major plus with most acoustic amps is that they tend to come with two channels. One for instrument inputs (jack lead) and one for a microphone, and I often use mine as a mini PA at smaller gigs, pugging both vocals and banjo into the same amp. All this grouped with having good sound monitoring, built in reverbs and feedback reduction make acoustic amp a good choice.

Cables, leads and tuners

Finally you can buy special cables for plugging acoustic instruments into amps, which are optimised for acoustic frequencies and can give you better clarity of sound than standard electric guitar leads. These are good, but remember that if you use a tuner pedal or instrument effects, you'll need to ensure all the patch leads you use are acoustic leads, as otherwise any audio benefits will be lost.

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About Me

I have been playing guitar for over 20 years, at first playing in indie bands, followed by a long stint playing rockabilly on the streets of Oxford, a short excursion into dance music, followed by looking at early blues styles. Now after a few years of listening to Dylan, Guthrie, and early Americana I find myself in possession of a banjo, and I'm addicted! Currently I play Banjo and Guitar in an Oxford based group called Swindlestock, you can hear our music our myspace page.

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