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Thread: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

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    Default "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Hi folks,
    I haven't met a banjo-mandolin that I've warmed up to -- and I'm a jug band guy!

    I'm interested in hearing from folks who have found a particular vintage banjo-mando that has ascended above the usual harshness. I've had experience with a Vega Little Wonder, and an Orpheum. What about Gibson? Other Vega models? Paramount?

    Also, has anyone found any set-up hacks that can dampen the overtones (beyond the usual "put a sock it in")? I think I read somewhere that using a mandolin bridge rather than a banjo bridge can help: has anyone tried this?

    Thanks,
    Michael

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Have you tried reducing the head tension a little bit? Or a real calfskin head? If so, maybe you need one without a tone ring - Vega had one, like maybe style "K" (?) - not sure of the designation.

    I have a Little Wonder that I like, but yes, it is kinda, well, banjo-y. It is definitely a special purpose instrument.
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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    I have an old Washburn tango banjo - it has a mandolin scale but has 4 strings, an 11inch overspun metal pot (no tone-ring), goat skinhead. It is bright sounding but not too piercing. You could try stringing it with 4 strings to reduce the loudness and maybe a different banjo head.

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    As I've told this tale several times hereabouts over the years I'll just repost the pertinent parts:

    I picked up a Vega Little Wonder with a plastic head when I was in a jug band, and fearless leader wanted to bring that sound into our arsenal. He called it "the happy sound," which it kind of was. It was utterly impossible to play anything bluesy on it. It was great on upbeat, bouncy numbers and ragtime tunes; slower, slinkier stuff required the mandolin. It never needed amplification. I was fond of saying it was "utterly devoid of subtlety."

    Somehow I found a vintage one with a smaller head made of skin - much quieter, even sweeter, bless its heart - and traded for it. Sadly, when that head broke and my luthier said it needed more work, especially to fix its slightly warped neck - which would have cost twice what my buy-in had been - I left it at his shop and said I'd think about it. I was no longer in the band, so I wasn't terribly motivated. That was 25 years ago or more. It might be a better story than instrument. At any rate, not worth repairing, from a cost standpoint.

    That's all by way of saying the possibility exists. Small, natural skin head - that's what you want. My sweetie just gave me her mom's old one which is of that sort, but needs a good bit of TLC to get it going again. The head is so small I thought it was a banjolele at first glance. But it's 6" across, with eight strings, so I think if and when I get it up and running it might just be a nice sounding banjo-mandolin.
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    An interesting option is a cumbus banjo mandolin. They have a strange resonance with their spun aluminum closed back and are full sounding but not so piercing as typical banjo mandolin family instruments.

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0009VCKA8

    seems unavailable? they used to make them by the carload

    You could also set it up single string.

    https://zeynelabidincumbus.com.tr/ur...umbus-ukulele/

    but it seems to be out of stock!

    What happened to Cumbus?

    is this in stock?

    https://zeynelabidincumbus.com.tr/ur...ndolin-renkli/

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Quote Originally Posted by journeybear View Post
    My sweetie just gave me her mom's old one which is of that sort, but needs a good bit of TLC to get it going again. The head is so small I thought it was a banjolele at first glance. But it's 6" across, with eight strings, so I think if and when I get it up and running it might just be a nice sounding banjo-mandolin.
    Sounds like you are more motivated to give this one the TLC it needs

    Mine's been modified to have 4 strings, has foam under the bridge and inside. I like the sound of it, but neither my DH nor my cats do

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Quote Originally Posted by Sue Rieter View Post
    Sounds like you are more motivated to give this one the TLC it needs

    Mine's been modified to have 4 strings, has foam under the bridge and inside. I like the sound of it, but neither my DH nor my cats do
    Ah, very perceptive, you are! But the other, a goner it was. There is no try, only do or not do. Not do, the right thing was.

    OK, enough Yoda-yadda-yadda!

    Getting some good suggestions here. The only one I don't like is the single-string approach. Yes, it will reduce the volume, but I think perhaps less than you might think. The real downside, though, is the loss of that jangly magic that is inherent in mandolinesque instruments. I think the main issue to address is the head. Plastic heads have got a whole lot of POW! And as I said, smaller is better in this matter. But the full size heads are more common, and thus less expensive. Fortunately, your area is a traditional hotbed of folk activity, so you might find a good variety of used as well as new instruments available at music stores. Happy hunting!
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    I like the raw sound of my Little Wonder, but I'm not sure you will, mjbee, since you said, "I haven't met a banjo-mandolin that I've warmed up to -- and I'm a jug band guy!" As journeybear put it, the Little Wonder "was great on upbeat, bouncy numbers and ragtime tunes; slower, slinkier stuff required the mandolin." We have a member who inevitably advises using banjo strings for a sweeter sound, but I haven't tried that yet, as I'm not looking for a sweeter sound -- my mandolins can provide that. I'm presently working on Gus Cannon's Walk Right In (not the middle-of-the-road 60's "folk" version), which is just the sort of tune for my Little Wonder with mandolin strings. However, if you're a jug band guy and haven't warmed up to banjo-mandolin...
    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: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Thanks for all the replies so far! I have tried a looser-tension head: sounded like mud. Calfskin would indeed mellow out the sound a bit. The idea of a smaller head is intriguing: I have a couple of banjo-ukes tuned as mandolins, and they are stellar!: clear, crisp, and bright. Tone ring or not? I'm not sure: better banjos have better tone rings, so my thinking is the same with "manjos": but again, I defer to those with experience, and that's why I am askin'! Anyone have one with top-shelf tone ring (a tubaphone, whyte laydie, or mastertone, for example) ? How about resonators? Would that make a difference? Re: 4 versus 8 strings: I have a paramount melody banjo (scale length works better for CGDA tuning) which is very mellow and clear. The double course may contribute to nasty overtones. But as journeybear says, with single strings maybe the "jangly magic" is lost (the mojo of the manjo??)

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Well I don't know if this has been mentioned, but it is a banjo and as such mandolin strings are way too heavy for a good sound. I use two sets of tenor banjo strings and the heaviest string is a 28. I never see a heavy string on a 5 string banjo and shouldn't have a heavy string on a banjo mandolin. If you want a better sound lighten up on your strings.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    I don't know how much this will help, but here goes.

    This is one of the songs we used to play, and it was a feature for the banjolin. So that "counter-melody" behind the singing was my deal. Same with the lead in the instrumental passage, especially the ascending figure done solo - like walking the high wire without a net, it was. I think the mandolin would have been too gentle, too sweet to carry this. I also doubt a single-string banjo would have worked, with all the tremolo passages. It's all custom-made for banjolin. Which may be what was being used here, I'm not sure. I'm sure I'm biased toward double strings (in acoustic settings), but I believe that's the best approach here. And I was using my Vega Little Wonder the vast majority of the time. When I say it was utterly devoid of subtlety, that may have been overstating it. But it was a challenge to get a sweet sound out of it. I managed, somehow. It was thirty years and more ago, though, so that much remove has softened the discomfort of the recollection.

    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    I know it is hard to believe but I only own one mandolin-banjo, a Weymann 25 with a 7" head (calf skin). I bought it decades ago and it has a sound I can stand. You can hear the melody not just percussive coffee-percolator sound. They are built solid as a rock too. I have always found the large head MBs, even from the best makers like Gibson, Bacon, Vega and even larger head Weymanns to be ear-shattering.
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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Quote Originally Posted by pops1 View Post
    Well I don't know if this has been mentioned, but it is a banjo and as such mandolin strings are way too heavy for a good sound. I use two sets of tenor banjo strings and the heaviest string is a 28. I never see a heavy string on a 5 string banjo and shouldn't have a heavy string on a banjo mandolin. If you want a better sound lighten up on your strings.
    Could you share a link to suggested strings? I changed the head to calf skin and would like to try some banjo strings. Also curious what material I should be considering.
    Thanks in advance!
    Steve

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Nice, Jim! But I really like the case. I'm partial to purple. My case for the Vega also had purple lining.
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Quote Originally Posted by prairieschooner View Post
    Could you share a link to suggested strings? I changed the head to calf skin and would like to try some banjo strings. Also curious what material I should be considering.
    Thanks in advance!
    Steve
    Steve, I use GHS tenor light set 220. 10 1/2, 12, LW20, LW28. This set has worked nice for me and gives my a nice sound without the earsplitting that is usually associated with a banjo mandolin. Just remember to buy two sets.
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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    A long while back I took a fascination to a pal's Gibson M-B and thought I really wanted one.
    Mandolin Brothers had one (can't remember the brand) and I stupidly offered my EM-150 (which I wasn't playing at the time) in trade.

    MandoBros were playing vulture ball and wanted me to throw in a couple/ three hundred bucks as well, despite the fact that the EM was in perfect shape.
    I bailed, never to regret it.

    I did pick up a "Michigan" labeled one a few years back.
    It's painful on the ears but I'm going to try again someday using Pops's suggestion of much lighter strings.
    Still play the EM-150 regularly.
    Have no idea what I had on my mind.

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Quote Originally Posted by brunello97 View Post
    Have no idea what I had on my mind.
    Resist the Dark Side, you did.

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    I don't have one, but am sort of looking to get one for blues. If it's anything like a tenor you can sort of mellow it out with head tension and palm muting at the bridge. I think.

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    If you don't mind paying a (very) modest price for one PM me.....

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Quote Originally Posted by lowtone2 View Post
    I don't have one, but am sort of looking to get one for blues. If it's anything like a tenor you can sort of mellow it out with head tension and palm muting at the bridge. I think.
    It might also help to stuff the head with a towel or cloth. On larger heads it cuts down on the echo.
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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    I use a piece of foam between the head and the dowel stick. You can vary the size and the fit by of the foam to change how much muting effect you want. You can also shift the position from the neck area of the pot to the tail or anywhere in between.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Hmmm... Seems to be a bit of discussion along the lines of "I'm thinking of getting a mandolin-banjo; now, how do I get it not to sound like a mandolin-banjo?" That element of raucousness is why those instruments were built in the first place.

    I work in a Celtic band where mandolin-banjo is one of the lead instruments. Mark Deprez, who plays it, built it himself, adapting a resonator tenor banjo body with a mandolin neck he made. It's a loud instrument, for sure, but not a bit grating, IMHO:

    Innisfree jig medley: Irish Washerwoman, Swallowtail Jig, Saddle the Pony

    Other musicians are Barbara Jablonski on hammered dulcimer, Kathleen Cappon on 12-string guitar, and myself on Sobell mandola.

    Not saying you have to "build your own," but a larger body, and a head made of either natural skin or a substitute like the Remo Renaissance or Fiberskyn, not tightened "to the max," plus lighter gauge strings, might cut down on the "snarl." There are several expedients for muting banjos, but if you want that mandolin-banjo sound, then accept that they sound like mandolin-banjos, IMHO.
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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    That element of raucousness is why those instruments were built in the first place.
    I beg to differ, sir. I blame the invention of hybrids on the impulse to enable musicians to vary their sounds without having to learn to actually play other instruments. So a mandolinist can seem like a banjoist without actually becoming one - which would be too much of a sacrifice.

    I think these bits of advice are suggestions on how to temper the banjolin's sound, not eliminate it. As Bach himself said, "A well-tempered mandolin-banjo is a palatable compromise between the sweet wonder of the hand harpsichord, or mandolin, and the rambunctious revelry of the fretted drum, or banjo." This appears in the apocrypha of "The Well-Tempered Clavier." I hope I've got that translation aright.
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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    Hmmm... Seems to be a bit of discussion along the lines of "I'm thinking of getting a mandolin-banjo; now, how do I get it not to sound like a mandolin-banjo?" That element of raucousness is why those instruments were built in the first place.

    I work in a Celtic band where mandolin-banjo is one of the lead instruments. Mark Deprez, who plays it, built it himself, adapting a resonator tenor banjo body with a mandolin neck he made. It's a loud instrument, for sure, but not a bit grating, IMHO:


    Innisfree jig medley: Irish Washerwoman, Swallowtail Jig, Saddle the Pony

    Other musicians are Barbara Jablonski on hammered dulcimer, Kathleen Cappon on 12-string guitar, and myself on Sobell mandola.

    Not saying you have to "build your own," but a larger body, and a head made of either natural skin or a substitute like the Remo Renaissance or Fiberskyn, not tightened "to the max," plus lighter gauge strings, might cut down on the "snarl." There are several expedients for muting banjos, but if you want that mandolin-banjo sound, then accept that they sound like mandolin-banjos, IMHO.
    Sounds good to me!

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    Default Re: "banjo-mandolin" and "nice sounding": an oxymoron?

    I have one - it's from the 'teens or '20s and was probably a decent one in its day. I'm away with family but will post a pic of it on here when I get back - I'd be interested to hear any thoughts about it. My reaction to playing it is consistent with the above - not subtle and you can't do everything on it, but you don't need an amp in many circumstances as it's really loud. In the spirit of the thread title - when I took it to Lyn Hardy (luthier in Woodstock) to set it up better after I got it, she gave it a long look and said that, from a luthier's viewpoint, banjolins "combine the worst things about mandolins with the worst things about banjos..."
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