1970s/2017 Strom/Wildwood Electric Plectrum Banjo

Update Oct 13: I've just swapped pickups on this to a '70s Tokai Strat pickup and have updated the photos, description, and soundclip to reflect this.

Maybe if you've been reading the blog for a while, you know about my secret desires to populate the world with electric banjos. I have a small fascination with the old Gibson and Vega electric tenor and plectrum banjos as they're rare (so you can fantasize) and also so odd. Look them up. They're addicting.

So, when an old '70s Strom plectrum banjo neck sprouted on eBay, I was on it. It took me a while to figure out what to mount it on, however, and I settled for one of the tins Bonnie (my wife) had for sale in the antique portion of our family's shop. It would be obvious to mount the neck on the long side of the tin, but I chose the short side of the oval to give it a more interesting look (and also prop it up higher in the lap). It gives the effect of borrowing the outline from some antique iteration of Persian or Indian instrument.

Work included leveling and dressing the frets, installing 4:1 geared tuners at the headstock, building a frame inside the body to support the tension and the neck, and then figuring out how to install a pickup without ruining the "down-home" aesthetics. I ended-up using a Japanese Tokai "greybottom" Strat pickup from the '70s and made a '30s-esque pickup surround for it. This is a nice, accurate, transparent-sounding pickup. I knocked all the poles flat with the top, too (thus making it more like a Mustang pickup), and added a tortoise cover to the top to continue the '30s-esque theme.

It's very fun to play as the banjo-style character comes out in the quality of the sustain and initial punch of the notes, though because it's making its noise via a magnetic pickup, it's very much an electric tone. I find it most fun to play it the same way I enjoy playing plectrum banjo -- strummed uke-style with the nails or fingerpicked around the 12th-15th fret area -- as that brings out a nice, sweet, bluesy/ragtime quality to the voice. Flatpicked it makes a great alternative to the more-common chord-chopping heard on electric tenor (and plectrum) guitars.

This has a long, 27 1/8" scale and so I have it strung for DGBE tuning with in 18w, 14, 11, 9 gauges. It could easily be retuned to various open tunings (CGCE rings like crazy) or standard plectrum tuning (CGBD). The benefit of "Chicago" tuning (DGBE) is that you can also get a nice "electric low G ukulele" tuning and voice by simply adding a capo at the 5th fret. Action is perfect at 1/16" at the 12th fret and the neck is straight.

I know that using the portion of the tin with the floral motifs on it would look prettier on the front, but it would also exclude easy access to the wiring harness and -- frankly -- I find a bunch of bling on the front of an instrument distracting from the "banjo look."

The Strom neck is really good quality. I'm pretty sure it's a two-piece walnut design with a thick rosewood headstock veneer and fretboard. The neck profile is slim, quick, and C-shaped in the style of an old Lange-made banjo from the '20s or a latter-era Gibson.

I love the sapwood inclusion on this fretboard.

Amazingly, the string gauges intonate correctly on a simple compensated line -- so after I found that line with the bridge, I "tacked it" in place with a couple dots of superglue. Bridges slide a bit more while tuning when your "head" is metal.

I'm not a huge fan of tone controls, so this has a simple 500k volume pot and a Switchcraft jack.

The back and sides, of course, look great.

Under the hood is a quickly-made maple and cherry frame. It's overbuilt and rugged. The "bar" on the left of the picture is screwed into both blocks and the sides and the "bar" on the right is wedged-in with friction. I wanted to use friction on the second bar so that it would be easy to remove in the event one wanted to tighten-up the bolts that hold the neck on. In any case, the instrument is stable with it removed, so it's a non-issue that it's not bolted-in.

You can see the very simple wiring -- which makes use of the fact that the whole body is a ground point (though I double-it-up with soldered grounds, too). Because the strings are mounted directly through the tin at the "tailpiece" area, I didn't even need to bother with grounding the strings.

The foam is to mute overtones on the "head" acoustically. Tin tops tend to rattle and warble otherwise.

Here are the two neck bolts that are original to the Strom neck.