Workshop: Testbed Banjo Bass

So, after grocery shopping this morning before the shop opened, I got that sense of vague ennui and decided to work on a customer/personal project that's been waiting around for a long time. A long time ago my buddy Rick left a Korean-made Ibanez jam-band style bass with totally basket-case wiring and falling-out active pickups and whatnot. I've been threatening to turn its neck into a banjo bass for him for some time now and since I'm gearing up to build a bigger banjo bass for myself on the same sort of pattern I thought today would be a good time to make good on that offer.

I wouldn't ordinarily show pictures of a "testing process" thing like this, but I figured it was interesting enough to share. It's built from said neck plus a scrap-mahogany "dowel," a quickly-cut rosewood bridge and tailpiece, and a Remo pre-tensioned "Renaissance" 14" frame drum that I ordered when sampling products to try for my own "next banjo bass." It's got what they call an "Acousticon" shell which simply means, apparently, super-many-layered cardboard material. Who cares, though? The stuff is weather resistant, sturdy as heck, lightweight, and it sounds great. I've got a fancier version of the same thing in an 18" size coming for my own project. The benefit of the pre-tensioned head is also that it's a lot lighter weight vs. using a tunable rim with a lot of heavy hardware.

Don't look too closely -- this is a testbed unit so I didn't spend a whole lot of time sanding everything down and making it pretty. Several things became apparent during setup: 1) it is necessary to remove the faux-woodgrain "tape" that Remo adds to their thinline-branded frame drum rims so as to avoid blindness, 2) a hardwood, more massive bridge with a wide bass = much better tone and 3) these "classical bass guitar" (nylon core!) strings from Savarez are the bee's knees!

I didn't expect a whole lot of warmth coming from a 14" rim but when you play this in person it's like plugging a Precision Bass in on a "clean" setting and hearing that "piano tone" roll on for ages... these strings are a tremendous upgrade vs. steel core strings (typical electric bass types, for instance) on a project like this. They're warmer, springier, and have a more fundamental tone to them. and... they're also less tension which overall means the banjo head doesn't get overdriven by them.

Played with the fingers you could probably hold your own with a few other folks and get heard (as long as you dig in) but with a pick this thing is quite punchy-loud.

Hacking off the weird "spur" at the top of the headstock and steel-wooling the Ibanez labels away (and then polishing back up) got this originally goofy-looking profile to look a little more tame. Just a note -- I was terrified about winding those unwound nylon ends around the posts but that's the only way to do it! ...fortunately this works just fine.

One thing I will add is that it'll probably be necessary for most folks to play something like this with a strap to get the body hanging off of you in the right position.