I have 4 banjos that I use depending on what project I'm doing at the time.
My oldest and dearest banjo is a Clifford Essex, Paragon model which was
restored at Tom Cussen's workshop in Galway. I used this on Time To Time album back in 1990 and it has a lot of miles on the clock, so I was giving it a rest for a while. It has a unique sound and is very easy to play. My wife Marie found this instrument for me in a local newspaper in Dublin in 1988. I had stopped playing for a couple of years, and this was just the fillip I needed to get back into the music again.
I have used my David Boyle banjo on almost every tour since 1996. It's a great strong robust instrument for a heavy workload and has never let me down. It was made by Dave to my own specifications, and he did a wonderful job. I've seen loads of players with David Boyle banjos in the past few years. I strongly recommend them. Great players like Barney McKenna and Kieran Hanrahan also use them. What ever you want Dave can build it in to your instrument.
For recording I prefer to use either my Epiphone Recording A that I bought from John Bernunzio in Rochester USA in 2004. His web site is worth keeping an eye on. His staff are knowledgeable and extremely helpful to musicians. The Epiphone is a heavy banjo so it has a loud sound with a nice bit of sustain for a tenor banjo and you can use this to good effect in the studio. I used it on every track of No Place Like Home album.
I play my Gibson TB3 a lot at home. I got this from Vinnie Mondello in Arizona. He rebuilt it and did a wonderful job. It's more fragile than the others so I never bring it abroad or on flights. It has a typical American banjo flavour to it and I'm really enjoying it at the moment. I use it for open tunings and Bluegrass tunes. It's also a lot lighter than the others which is important to me as I hurt my shoulder a few years ago and find the heavier instruments difficult to drag around and play when I'm standing on stage.
Electrics / Pickups / Pre-Amps
The Dave Boyle banjo has a Fishman Rare Earth pickup installed, It's an active pickup so I don't use a preamp unless I really have to. The placement of the pickup is more important than you might think as a tiny movement under the steel shim which is attached under the skin can determine whether you get a sweet soft tone or a strong mid tone. It's a matter of personal preference. I have mine set to a strong position for live gigs. and I ask the soundman to take mid out. It works for me.
Recently I put a McIntyre piezo pickup on the Gibson. It has in my opinion the most natural and sweet sound of any pick up that I've used ... but it needs a preamp which can colour the original sound of the pick up, so you must be careful with the graphic settings. I've tried Boss eqs and Baggs eqs but find the Fishman fiddle eqs the most compatible for this pickup. Also because it is stuck on under the skin of the instrument it has a mild muting effect on the acoustic sound. So I take it off when I use a mic in the studio.
I have a DPA miniature mic, and I mean miniature, it's tiny for live work also. It's made in Denmark and DPA are known for excellence at the top end of the market so it's not cheap but what a sound, I love it and I've been an advocate for pickups only for years.
I use a small Aer Domino Amp on stage. It's a help if you're playing with electric guitars, bass and drums. I use a Boss AB pedal to switch between banjos during performances.
I've discovered the electric guitarists favourite leads. They're called Planet Waves and I use the ones with the on/off switch on them. No more bangs on stage and you can unplug and tune without the whole world knowing about it.
I've used St George leads also. These are optical cable leads and are supposed to give a better signal from instrument to sound desk. Mind you if you are using pedals you must use the St George link leads also as any use of common leads in the line will nullify the benefits of using these leads. I think that the American standard jack measurement is smaller than European one so these leads don't fit quite as tightly into Euro jacks and Japanese musical appliances.
I use D'Addario nickel ballend strings for live work.
For the studio I use bronze wound on the 3rd and 4th strings as they have a better tone but they're expensive to be using them all the time. I don't yet have a string endorsement deal guys ... hint hint.
- 10.5 for A or first string
- 13 for D or second string
- 22 for G or third string
- 28 or 30 for C or fourth string
I sometimes bring the C up to a D on the fourth string so I mostly use 28.
What can I say about the most personal item of every stringed instrument player.
When I was learning how to play the banjo in my teens, I quickly realised just how important this little item is. After all it's the only contact you have with the banjo to actually make the sound happen. It's vital, that's all I'll say in this regard.
It matters what type of material the plectrum is manufactured out of, and what shape it is.
I don't use tortoise shell picks because they crack under the relatively high tension of the tunings used in both Irish tenor tunings and my jazz tenor tunings. Also because our music is so fast you want plectrums to almost bend under the movement. If the pick is too light it's hard to play with conviction and you might end up cutting the sides of your fingers on the strings, because you are pushing in too hard on the pick to achieve a good loud tone.
A lot of American mandolin players use very strong hard picks but the mandolin is very highly strung and a lot more taut than our banjo tunings. They tend to glide the picks over the strings, almost a rubbing movement. I use grey picks from Jim Dunlop with a nylon base and a .60 gauge. So does Barney McKenna of the Dubliners.
I use a .73 gauge for Jigs because I probably use less improvisation and I look for more sustain because of this. If you have a strong muscular wrist you can get different gauges to suit your grip but the main thing is not to use a plectrum that will shatter. Some players use plectrums that are pointed, like a triangular tip. I always thought these gave a very thin sharp tone to the banjo. It's a personal matter of taste and comfort. If your plectrum is bent after you have been playing for a time you are gripping it too tightly. Take a loose grip and don't be afraid of it falling out of your hand, believe me, it's happened to the best of us.