Following up on last weeks post (here), in which I described the addition of a round brass tone ring to my Buckeye, I'm using this week's post to talk about my next bit of banjo tinkering: adding a 6th string to El Hefe, the "Pisgah-esque" banjo that I built in a workshop just over a year ago (post about that process here). This project is still in the planning stages, so today's post will part 1 of a two parter....however I've got the necessary equipment on order so I hope to bring you part 2 quite soon!
Motivation: Why add another string to my banjo?...and where would it even go?
A couple months back, I got my hands on a Gold Tone 6 string banjo owned by a local Old Time musician and took it through a couple D tunes alongside a fiddler. I'll clarify here that when I describe a 6 string banjo, I'm not talking about a banjo that is tuned like a guitar (commonly known as either a banjitar or guit-jo depending on who you talk with); rather, the instrument I am talking about is basically a 5 string banjo with an extra bass string added between the 4th string and the 5th/drone string (which I guess is best referred to as a 6th string in 6 string configuration). When tuned to the equivalent of double D (aDADE), the added bass string on a 6 string banjo is tuned an octave below the 3rd string (i.e. aADADE) giving the instrument extended range. For various reasons (outlined below), playing this banjo was an amazing experience!
A couple week's back I wrote a pair of blog posts about playing in the low octave (here and here) with the second post focusing on techniques for filling space when you run out of range in the bass register; with a 6 string banjo, this particular annoyance happens less often : ) Playing the Gold Tone that night, I was instantly able to play the whole low octave B part of "Soldier's Joy" (which I focused on in the aforementioned low octave post, again here) along with low octave arrangements for several other tunes. On a related note, there are tunes for which the banjo lacks the range to even play the standard octave melody (i.e. an octave below the standard fiddle part) and the added bass string fixed this issue for a couple tunes as well. I'll avoid getting too "into the weeds" about this until I've got a 6 string in hand to give some audio files....
On top of how musically-useful the extra bass string on the 6 string was, I was also amazed at how quickly I figured out how to use it! Perhaps due to the tuning symmetry across the banjo, everything felt so instinctive; the low notes I needed just fell right under my fingers on the 5th/bass string. I've yet to try a 6 string banjo in A (aAEAC#E), A modal (aAEADE), Old G (gGDGDE), or Open C (gGCGCE) equivalents, but I can already see the possibilities! I definitely wanted one in my collection.....and soon!
Why convert El Hefe?
While I could simply buy a purpose-built 6 string banjo (Gold Tone has discontinued their model but you can still find them used....), I've got several reasons for converting El Hefe instead. First off, with a 3.5" deep 12" pot capped with a white ladye tone ring, El Hefe puts out some massive bass. I really think that the low notes of an added bass string will really boom out of that setup. Secondly, since I built El Hefe, I've got no qualms about taking a drill/saw etc. to it (you may remember that I have a "no saws etc." rule for my Buckeye); I am also comfortable saying that I've got the skills/experience necessary to make the necessary mods, which I'll outline later. Finally, I've struggled to figure out separate roles for my two irreplaceable banjos, both of which have 12" deep-pot construction. From this perspective, turning El Hefe into a 6 string is a much better option - buying another banjo would only make the problem worse! I don't doubt that I'll often want the simplicity of a 5 string, so the Buckeye is definitely in no danger of collecting dust either.
After all that....how am I going to do this??
Believe it or not, I don't think it will actually be that hard or expensive! The biggest things I've got to do are as follows: 1) add another tuner to the headstock; 2) Get a 6 string bridge; 3) reconfigure/add slots to the nut; 4) Get a 6 string tailpiece. I'll go through the details of each of these steps below:
1) Add another tuner to the Headstock
To add another "long string" to my banjo, I'll obviously need to add another tuner to the headstock. Since I built this banjo at a workshop with the Pisgah guys, we used Balsam banjo works hardware (Balsam banjo works is Pisgah's sister company; www.balsambanjoworks.com). I am able to buy a single matching tuner from those guys for ~$20....and its in the mail : )
As for where to put this thing: most of the 6 string banjos I've seen have the extra tuner right in the center, which is likely what I'll do as well:
El Hefe's current headstock with indications for where the new tuner will go.
The first 4 tuners were installed with a drill press to allow for drilling straight holes. I'm still in search of one I can "borrow" in the area, and I may have to buy an appropriate drill bit as well. If I can't find a drill press, I suppose I could try going free-hand with my hand drill. If this sounds sketchy, keep in mind that this is actually the way we drilled the hole in the base of the neck to attach the dowel stick as well. Theres a chance that I may simply take the banjo to Elderly and have the repair department to install the new tuner as well.
2) Get a 6 string bridge
Believe it or not this part is already done! I contacted a guy on Banjohangout asking for some dimensions of his Buckeye (!!) 6 string (banjo 166, which you can see on Greg's site here) - specifically I was asking about string spacing at the nut and bridge. He generously offered to send me a spare 6 string Buckeye bridge for my "project" and wouldnt take a dime for it! Its always nice to come across generosity out in the world and I've noticed theres a lot of it in the Old Time community : )
I've placed the bridge on El Hefe in the picture below (I just diverted the current strings to fill slots 1,2,3,5 and 6 on the bridge):
El Hefe with a snazzy new 6 string Buckeye bridge in place; the bridge was generously donated by a fellow 6 string enthusiast from Banjohangout!
The bridge is centered to the best of my ability and all the strings still sit comfortably over the neck! I've got pics below of where the strings lie above the 5th and 12th frets:
Pictures of where the strings lie above the 5th fret (left) and 12th fret (right) with the 6 string bridge placed on El Hefe. Note that the 4th string position is not filled on the bridge, which explains the strange string spacing in both photos.
The most important thing to note above is that neither the 1st or 5th (future 6th) strings fall off the edge of the neck; Though the 1st string appears pretty close to the edge at the 12th fret I can actually fret it all the way up the neck without losing it off the side (and I rarely venture above the 7th fret anyhow...). If this wasn't the case, I'd likely have to get a bridge with thinner spacing, which might be a bit uncomfortable from a playability standpoint. The width of El Hefe's neck is one of the big reasons that I thought this project might work to begin with.
3) Reconfigure/add slots to the nut:
In the end I'll need a nut with 5 slots instead of the current 4. I thought about ditching the current nut and making an entirely new one, but it seemed easy enough to simply carve new slots alongside the existing ones, saving both time and money. I really don't care that there will be "extra" slots that reveal El Hefe's 5 string past : ) Here's the nut as it currently looks:
El Hefe's current nut with 4 slots for the 4 "long" strings of a 5 string banjo.
The only question is where to cut the new slots. My plan is to use the current 1st and 4th string slots for the future 1st and 5th strings and cut 3 additional equidistant slots in between. I was initially worried that the end product would be a bit "crowded" but the kind soul that sent me the bridge told me that the distance between the 1st and 5th strings on his instruments is 1& 3/16", which is exactly where the 1st and 4th strings land on El Hefe currently. This is actually wider than the spacing on my electric guitar, which I can play comfortably, so I figured I wouldn't mess with success. The new strings will end up arranged as follows:
Diagram of where the 5 "long" strings in the 6 string configuration of El Hefe will end up sitting (in red). Note that I'll leave the "outer slots" where they are and cut new slots for the middle three strings.
I've got a $10 set of nut files in the mail; these were designed for guitar work and look quite cheap, but I hope that they'll work at least long enough to cut these new slots : )
4) Get a 6 string tailpiece
I know that these are available (obviously they're used on banjitars) but I may see if I can get away with doubling-up on the center loop of my 5 string tailpiece for now. I just like the current brass tailpiece and this would also save me a bit of money : )
Once again, all of the necessary tools are on order, and I really hope to get this done quite soon! The biggest pain will be drilling the hole for the new tuner since I'll likely have to remove the other tuners to do this right. My aforementioned bridge-donor buddy tells me he uses strings of the following gauges for his 6 strings: (10.5, 12, 15, 26, 40, 10). For the most part, I use slightly lighter strings on my banjos (5 string configuration: 9.5, 11, 15, 21, 10) so I'll likely pick something a bit lighter for the new 5th string (maybe in the 32-36 range?) when I get things set. With the new tuner, the new bass string, the new nut files, the new drill bit, and a free bridge (thanks again!)....I should be able to do this whole thing for under $40!
Can't wait to get this done and share some pics/audio of the results - stay tuned!