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Thread: Mandolin Banjo?

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    Default Mandolin Banjo?

    So tell me about mandolin banjos, guys (modern 8 string metal strung ones, not old junk shop wall hangers or 4 string banjolins) e.g.:

    * Are they much louder and/or more cutting than a decent bluegrass mandolin?

    * Is it easy to switch between mandolin and mandobanjo, or do they feel really different?

    * What's the sound like - ping, clang, chunk, or...?

    * Tuning reliability etc?

    I've never seen a decent one in the flesh, and in normal times I play regularly in an ad hoc 7-12 piece acoustic unamplified band in a horribly noisy pub, mostly for French/Breton style dances. Bringing in an amp would result in competitive amping (ugh), so it's down to loud acoustics.

    Thanks, Max

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    Registered User Frankdolin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    I have a really nice one, the one in my avitar, it's been under my bed for 50 years. Some guys like them.

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    I’ve heard them described as “the instrument of the devil”!

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ray(T) View Post
    I’ve heard them described as “the instrument of the devil”!
    I thought that was the accordion

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    As you may have surmised from the tone of even these few responses, they are often considered the "red-headed step-child" of the mandolin family - begrudgingly half-welcomed into the fold, generally regarded with sneers, scowls, and snarkiness. They tend to be loud, brash, and, as I usually describe them, "utterly devoid of subtlety." I'm talking about the ones you will most often see, with a plastic head the size of a regular banjo's. I remain convinced there is no way to make them soft, however lightly you pick it or trill it.

    I bought one from my best friend's little sister - no idea why she had it - when I was in my first jug band. It was a Vega, full size plastic head. Our fearless leader thought it would be just the thing for some of the more up-tempo, ragtime-y numbers, and he was right. He called it "the happy sound." It was, indeed, and there's a term you can use as a riposte to rude retorts. It rarely needed a microphone. It tended to stay in the case when not in play. Indeed, the case was one of the best things about it - form-fitting, with purple velvet lining.

    Some years into its tenure, I found a very different one, with a much smaller head, made of skin. Don't recall if it had a brand name. This was much kinder to the ears - much quieter with a sound that was even sweet, I daresay. I forget whether I traded for it straight up. I don't think I had both and switched between them. (This was ~30 years ago.) At some point the head broke, and the neck was showing a bit of warping. I took her to the shop, and my luthier avowed it wouldn't be worth the fixing. I left it with him, as a sort of "whenever" job. The band and I parted ways soon thereafter, so my incentive to see it through diminished considerably. It's been there ever since - or not; haven't asked.

    I would say they have limited use, being, as I mentioned, not subtle, nor very versatile. Perhaps you can get more out of it than I did. Life is full of possibilities.

    As to your questions:

    * Are they much louder and/or more cutting than a decent bluegrass mandolin?

    Yes. But along with volume, there are tone and timbre to consider. The sound will cut through the din, but then, it will sound the way it does. It may add to the din.

    * Is it easy to switch between mandolin and mandobanjo, or do they feel really different?

    Easy to switch. They sound different, but feel the same. Remember, it's a hybrid instrument - banjo body with a mandolin neck. It's a means of producing a banjo sound for mandolinists who don't want to learn to play a banjo. Similar to a "guitjo," for guitarists with a similar desire.

    In your sessions, I suggest using this for quicker numbers, two-steps and such, in which you would be playing mostly rhythm. The effect is more like how tenor banjos were used in jazz and ragtime bands than how five-string banjos are used in bluegrass bands. In fact, chord melodies worked well with it.

    Usually called "banjolin," by the way.

    * What's the sound like - ping, clang, chunk, or...?

    More of a clang. Or a wham/bang/pow. It's a banjo head; sounds like a banjo - with twice the number of strings per note.

    * Tuning reliability etc?

    Mine tuned just fine.

    As usual, you'll get what you pay for. Don't be unwilling to spend a couple hundred bucks in order to get a decently operating instrument. It should sound good - well, acceptable - and stay in tune. You want it to enhance your playing, not detract from it. As much as possible.
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Yes they can be brash and loud, but most people put mandolin strings on them. Waaayy to heavy. It is a banjo first and a mandolin second. I use two sets of tenor banjo strings with the heaviest string a 28. Mine is a nice plunky banjo sound, fairly loud, warm and not brash at all. I used to play it for acoustic dances, but rarely play it anymore. Like anything a little playing time will get you used to the differences of most instruments. Mine is an old Vega, not new.
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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Good point about the strings. Do NOT use bronze wound strings! The G and D strings will sound like a sawed-off shotgun! (As opposed to a normal shotgun.)

    Though it IS still a mandolin, partly. You'll need a set that tunes correctly. Perhaps lighter strings will help keep it from being too loud.
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Thanks Guys:

    Journeybear, thanks for the detail, that gives me a good idea of the animal. I think Washburn and one or two of the affordable instrument companies made them in recent years. I found one banjo maker in UK (Grafton Banjos) that makes more or less custom ones for the equivalent of about $500 up. By the way, as far as I can see, in UK, 'banjolin' is usually used for a four string very short scale banjo - seems like there were a lot of those made in the 1920s and 30s here, mostly inexpensive instruments. If I find a regular ff mandolin's not loud enough to get heard, this might be the answer - although an Irish tuned (mandolin but one octave down) short scale tenor banjo might do it.

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Journeybear summed it up well. I have a " Vega Little Wonder banjo mandolin" (as Vega called it) from the 1920's. I describe it as having all the volume of a banjo with none of the sweetness of a mandolin. In my usage, it's a genre-specific instrument, great for old (20's, early 30's) blues, jug band, ragtime, and C19th popular music ("Shortenin' Bread", Stephen Foster songs, and such). I rarely use it for other music, though I'm sure there's some genius who could duet artistically with Yo Yo Ma on cello and banjolin.

    Switching from mandolin to banjolin is just like switching from one mandolin to another physically -- there'll be minor differences. The tone takes getting used to though, and your mistakes are, literally, amplified. I find the Little Wonder fun, and people enjoyed when I played a few tunes on it during a longer show. I like it very much, but if you take a banjo mandolin or mandolin banjo or banjolin (why not manjo?), as you prefer, to a bluegrass jam, make sure there's a clear path between you and the door. You may need it.

    To hear one played well, check this out:

    https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/t...mps-amp-Rags-1
    Last edited by Ranald; Jan-19-2021 at 11:19am. Reason: punctuation
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Oops, accidentally posted the same message twice.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Quote Originally Posted by maxr View Post
    in UK, 'banjolin' is usually used for a four string very short scale banjo - seems like there were a lot of those made in the 1920s and 30s here
    I did not know that. I saw your mention in the OP, but didn't quite "get it." Seems to me the advantage of double strings is in trilling, which always sounds thin on a single-stringed instrument. To my ears, anyway.

    And why not "manjo?" I don't rightly know. It would correspond with "guitjo." The only professional musician I know who plays one of them, the guy in Old Crow, calls it that. I guess it's decided by which element of the hybrid is considered dominant. These instruments are played like one instrument, but sound like another. Perhaps terminology is determined by common usage. In these cases (where the instrument should reside - ba dum bump!) usage isn't very common, so has not been determined definitively.
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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Oh my goodness. Banjolins. I have played a few.


    * Are they much louder and/or more cutting than a decent bluegrass mandolin?

    Yes. Very much so. With great power comes great responsibility. You would no longer be a mandolin, you would be a banjo. For better or worse.

    * Is it easy to switch between mandolin and mandobanjo, or do they feel really different?

    In my experience not any more different really than one mandolin to another. The biggest difference is the weight. The things are heavy.

    * What's the sound like - ping, clang, chunk, or...?

    Depends on the make, model, condition, and strings. I have played a few that sounded really great.

    * Tuning reliability etc?

    Depends on the condition. Nothing about banjoism itself that gets in the way of reliable tuning.


    I have played several and owned a few, and the main reason I don't play it much is that it really is a banjo, tuned and sized to be familiar to a mandolinner. But you really will be sitting with the banjos on the bus.

    My thinking was, if I want to play a banjo, I'll get a tenor banjo. It doesn't even try to be anything else. And I did, and I love it.

    YMMV of course.
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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    [COLOR=#000000]* Tuning reliability etc?

    Depends on the condition. Nothing about banjoism itself that gets in the way of reliable tuning.
    Jeff, I agree with everything you said but one thing - tuning stability.

    If you are using a plastic head, a banjo (mandobanjo too) can be very stable in tuning.

    However, a natural skin head is not so stable, as it will be affected by temperature and humidity.

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Here is one being played very well and in the type of music it is best suited for (I think).


    Charley

    A bunch of stuff with four strings

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    I'm glad this topic came up. I've seen one advertised locally and have been wondering.....

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    While not as loud you can still hear the mandolin, and the banjo mandolin has a nice sound. That's what it should sound like, I do like if for other music too.

    Took me years to figure out lighter strings made these useful instruments instead of loud and obnoxious.
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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Oops double post.
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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Has anyone tried using nylon strings on a banjo mandolin? The ones I have encountered have been, well, aggressive, shall we say. Maybe that could tone them down a bit, like a banjo uke, or a banjo with nylon strings?

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Gold Tone makes a decent one, the MB-850. Goes for around $640 US new. There are many many used ones all over the market; you can pay a lot for an old Gibson or Paramount, or a few buxx for a Bruno et. al.

    I've been playing for many years in a Celtic quartet with Mark Deprez, who plays a mandolin-banjo he largely built himself. It has a body nearly the size of a standard banjo, and a resonator. While it definitely is loud, I think it avoids the "harsh" or "brash" criticisms that I usually read on the Cafe. You can judge for yourself in this recording of Innisfree:

    MP3 of Jig Medley: Irish Washerwoman/Swallowtail Jig/Saddle the Pony.

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    I have a Vega Little Wonder. I do like it but I don't play it much. It had a torn head when I got it, six years ago. I am pretty sure I have not replaced the strings since installing a new head. I believe the crud and corrosion mellow out the tone. Somewhat, anyway. Vega made great banjos.

    One difference in playing the mb vs the mando. This one has a shorter scale length and I do notice that when I play it.
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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Great - now I have a pretty good idea of what a mandolin banjo is like. To finish - how do those compare in sound volume and quality with resonator mandolins? Those seem to vary from Chinese fantasy salad drainers with a resonator lid and a wood handle, through fairly regular wooden mandolins with the a resonator fitted, to one piece wood salad bowls with a colander lid, to small Dobro guitar styles. YouTube through a small speaker makes them sound anything from sitar mandolin to shamisen on acid, or Gerry Douglas on helium through to rather nice bluesy mandolin with metallic edges (I think that was a new National).

    What do you think?

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Quote Originally Posted by A 4 View Post
    Has anyone tried using nylon strings on a banjo mandolin? The ones I have encountered have been, well, aggressive, shall we say. Maybe that could tone them down a bit, like a banjo uke, or a banjo with nylon strings?
    There's a few setup like this on YouTube (sorry I don't have URLs), and some on Ebay, maybe to stop it folding in the middle with metals fitted?

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Quote Originally Posted by A 4 View Post
    Has anyone tried using nylon strings on a banjo mandolin? The ones I have encountered have been, well, aggressive, shall we say. Maybe that could tone them down a bit, like a banjo uke, or a banjo with nylon strings?
    I like the sound of an open back banjo with Aquila nylon strings. Have any of you heard a banjo Lin or mando-banjo strung with these strings? I think I remember Aquila having mandolin strings in their catalog.

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    There are suppliers who will put together custom sets of strings accoring to your wishes. One such, operated by a Café member, https://emando.com/ whose products I have used over the years, (NFI) has prices competitive with major manufacturers. No nylon strings, but all metal string options, including ultralight nickel-wound strings.
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: Mandolin Banjo?

    Does anyone know the difference between a mandolin banjo and an onion? Asking for a friend.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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