Monday, September 27, 2010

A little attention to the banjo

It's unfortunate that the rather nifty design feature of the Musicmaker's kit banjo, wherein you can replace a short section of the fretted fingerboard up by the nut (the first three frets) with a fretless insert, seems to require just enough tolerance slop that I cannot achieve a consistent action up the neck. (I'm not necessarily faulting the design; it's quite possible that other instances of the kit may be more forgiving, or that a more competent luthier than myself--probably not saying much--could feng shui things to work out just peachy...but I have been unable to do it well.) The retaining screw invariably seems to drive the end of the insert up right by the nut, causing enough angle that the frets fall away precipitously from the strings right from the get-go. An acceptable action at the first fret becomes conspicuously high even by the third, and the whole insert seems to be higher than the main fingerboard, even with a little thickness-sanding.

Here's the thing. I like my action low, and certainly play better that way. I also like to play all over the neck, so the action at the octave and above is something I pay a lot of attention to. In short, I realized that I would play the banjo a lot more if it had an acceptably consistent action, and also that if I wanted a fretless banjo, I'd just build myself a fretless banjo. (That latter is not at all a bad idea, by the way. :-)

For me, the best way to achieve this (certainly on my budget and time!) was to glue the fretted insert in place, and dispense with the fretless insert altogether. So, yesterday I spent a little time thickness-sanding the insert, to pare down the "step effect" it seems to have over the remainder of the board, spent a lot of time sighting down the neck to make sure I had it right, and glued and clamped the insert in place. I'm hopeful on this, but we'll see how we end up after things dry completely.

Next step: string up with some new strings, and take a new look at how the adjustable neck angle (another nifty feature of the design), nut and bridge heights might be tweaked to get the action I'm looking for. I suspect it will at least be as playable as it was before, and for that it was worth the risk. Better, of course, is what I'm hoping, but we'll see.

I also think I'm going to try open fifths on this set of strings. I just haven't been able to get into the NST intervals the way I was hoping, although the attention thereto has certainly helped my understanding of the NST guitar. It's just different, somehow, when the m3 interval on top is in addition to at least one four-string group in fifths.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thoughts for next instrument project

The following series of not-quite-random thoughts about the next instrument project:

  • 4 strings, maybe 5. Something appeals about being able to cover a string with each finger, as on the mandolin. A fifth string may be useful, but I'll have to ponder the pros and cons.
  • Range. With 4 strings and a basic fifths tuning, a range of C1 to A5 is possible; with a baritone scale, this might come off better a little higher, but the point is with 4 strings and a 3 octave fingerboard, one is not exactly wanting for range.
  • Three octave fretless fingerboard. (After watching this absolutely magical performance, a lot of these thoughts are geared around Manring's Hyperbass.) In theory, a 34" scale would imply a fingerboard of at least 30" in length, a 30" scale would imply 26.5", and a 28" scale, 25" (each of these figures leaves room for the finger to "make" the third octave note). This obviously has implications for things like magnetic pickup placement and the incorporation of such items as a Fernandes Sustainer, which seems to require two pickups to produce the feedback loop. It's quite possible that the Ebow is a better option here; certainly Manring makes good use of it with his light-gauge strings...
  • Hipshot Extender tuning pegs for each of the four strings. This should give access to detunings of a m2 through a M3, I think. Would choose guitar machines if possible, for their compact size, but bass machines could work as well.
  • Hipshot tailpiece with "open tuners" for each of the four strings. This is the device that people get for the "B-Bender" effect, but the design of the part seems to be such that, used as a tailpiece with a separate "open tuner" for each string, may give the quick-retuning option on each string from the bridge...with a lot less complexity and expense than a custom bridge. Will have to check with Hipshot or Stew-Mac to see if this concept is sound, but it's very intriguing and would solve several problems simultaneously, not the least of which is the problem of string spacing across four or five strings.
  • Saddle question. With a Hipshot tailpiece, the question of saddles arises. I'd certainly want adjustability for saddle height and intonation, plus string spacing and the problem of friction for the string retunings. Schaller seems to make a "rolling" saddle that might work, and there may be options that plug into the Strat/Tele bridges, but this may require some thinking. Ideally I'd end up with a true four-string instrument, with four saddles adjustable every which way, but with a fretless fingerboard the concept of a singular saddle is certainly viable--and may permit additional undersaddle transducer pickup options.
  • Nut material should be lubricous, maybe the Tusq material from Stew-Mac.
  • Pickup options will require some more thinking as well. Love the idea of placing multiple transducers in the body and neck. Along with a magnetic pickup, will want to blend this and run it through a preamp, with at least some switching options. Will ask around for opinions, since I'll probably end up making some of this stuff myself. :-)
  • Woods, and budget. Will keep eyes open for "found wood" options, secondhand quartersawn necks, etc. This will probably wind up being very much a one-off instrument, but that's okay. My plan is to find something in it that I haven't even thought about yet.