What is a banjitar? It is a banjo with guitar abilities and vice versa. Wait a second, what is a banjo? A banjo is defined by a floating bridge on a vibrating drumhead. What is a guitar? I have no simple answer to this question, but the type of guitar we are talking about in this article is an electric guitar.
I have been developing an electric banjo-guitar hybrid for a few months now. First, let me set this up for you. There are two flavors. A five string banjo flavor, and a 6 string guitar flavor. The necks and playing styles are different but the sounds and body setup will be the same. Why not just stick to banjos? I believe a 6 string guitar will appeal to more players. Lots of guitar players seek out that banjo twang, but most banjitars on the market do not deliver. It seems to me that this instrument has been overlooked and under-developed. Most banjitars I have seen are clumsy, out of proportion and gimmicky. The poor design, really limits the instrument, and it remains a novelty. If I can develop a great 6 string banjitar, why not offer a 5 string version too? Of course this makes sense and it is what I will be doing. For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on a six string guitar neck with a drumhead resonator, basically a guitar with a banjo sound.
We know a neck is a neck, nothing much to change or improve on, but the body is where the average banjitar falls short. There are so many things we expect out of a complex instrument like this. First, it is important that we fully preserve acoustic capabilities while maximizing electric capabilities. This is the problem. A drumhead is perfect for that acoustic banjo sound. Okay, so we have the acoustic part figured out. Now lets add a guitar coil pickup. Plug it in. It just doesn’t sound right. Sure, it is amplified, but it doesn’t sound like a banjo anymore; it doesn’t even sound like an electric guitar because it has basically no sustain. Not fun to play, throw it away. This is why I believe the banjitar is a flop. Why give up so soon? We can fix this problem.
Alright, the banjitar as-is sounds cool acoustically, no issue there. Let’s keep the single coil guitar pickup too, it allows us to plug-in, and I like that. A coil pickup works by sensing a change in electromagnetic fields. You will hear only the “pure sound” of the strings, not the tonal characteristics of the instrument itself. What else can we do? Add a piezoelectric pickup of course. A piezo pickup can be used to amplify the actual vibrations of the instrument, not just the isolated sound of the strings. This is how we can preserve the sound of the banjo though an amp.
We are getting closer! But we still aren’t there yet. Putting a piezo on the drumhead is pretty good. The banjitar now sounds like a banjo acoustically and electrically. But don’t forget about the coil pickup. A vibrating steel string disturbs the magnetic field above the coil and the amp turns it into sound. Cool. But a drumhead doesn’t exactly let a string vibrate for very long: lots of volume and little sustain. It sounds dead through an amp. This is great for an acoustic situation, but bad when we are plugged in. The best sustain comes from a heavy and solid body. I hate to do it, but let’s scrap the drumhead and piezo and make a solid body with a coil pickup. Acoustically, there is nothing, but plug it in and it sounds amazing. It is an electric guitar. That iconic sound. It sure would be great if I could switch between this electric guitar sound and that classic banjo twang. I would never need another instrument. Oh well… Don’t give up yet we can do this. Let’s take the drumhead and put a block of wood underneath, now the bridge is sitting on the block, which is resting on the rim. We did it! We made a drumhead into a solid body. So close now. It just needs to be buttoned up neatly. I have created a moving ramp-plate that is lever-activated to do just this. Push it up, create a solid body electric guitar, which utilizes the coil pickup and has proper sustain as expected from an electric guitar. Push the lever back down, and the block moves out of the way, allowing the bridge to vibrate freely on the drumhead. This option lets us play acoustically, or plug in and use the piezo or the coil pickup or both at the same time.
This instrument is nearly ready, and it really is as good as it sounds.