If you've been reading this blog in recent weeks, you'll realize I'm on a bit of a "tinkering" kick; About a month ago, I wrote a post about adding a second tone ring to my Buckeye (here) and since then I've been slowly adding a 6th string to my other banjo, "El Hefe" (posts in order: here, here, and here). This week I thought I'd share one of my earliest success stories of instrument tinkering: converting an old classical guitar to a "Cello-banjitar."
What in the world is a Cello banjo?
Several years back Gold Tone introduced the CEB-5 model banjo, which was the first Cello banjo I'd ever heard of. As a recovering cellist, the "Cello Banjo" moniker caught my eye. However I soon realized that the Gold Tone CEB-5 has little to do with an actual cello; its simply a 5-string model tuned an octave below standard tunings (note: Gold Tone does make a 4 string model, the CEB-4, which is tuned like a cello and typically played with a pick). Since I spend a lot of time in the "low end" of my own banjos (here), a banjo that's all low end seemed right up my alley!
To be clear, though Gold Tone has re-popularized the cello banjo in recent years, there are historical roots to this instrument as well. In the late 1800's/early 1900's, banjos came in a variety of intended musical ranges including piccolo banjos (tuned an octave above standard banjos), banjeaurine's (tuned like a standard banjo capoed on the 5th fret), and cello banjos (once again, tuned an octave below standard). Just as today's orchestras contain string instruments of a variety of ranges (i.e. violins, violas, cellos and basses) the aforementioned banjo variants were meant to populate "banjo orchestras," which were actually quite popular in those years. When the popularity of banjo orchestras waned, cello banjos faded into obscurity as well.
How does one make a cello banjitar?
Essentially, one takes 5/6th of a standard set of classical guitar strings and places them in the "wrong" slots on a classical guitar. To explain: standard tuning for a guitar (from low to high with the numbers indicating octaves in relation to middle C, which is "C4") is "[E2][A2][D3][G3][B3][E4]" while a 5-string cello banjo in modal tuning would be tuned "[A3][E2][A2][D3][E3]." These tunings actually have 3 strings in common (those in bold above). In the end, I was able to get every note I need by using the strings that were already on my guitar. However....what about the 5th string? I certainly didn't want to drill a hole/install a tuner on the side of the guitar's neck. I landed on a pretty simple solution: use the current 2nd string as the new 5th string...and have it go all the way to the nut! Finally, we need 5 strings not 6 - one of the string slots would simply remain empty.
Therefore, you can turn a classical guitar into a cello banjitar (in A modal tuning) by swapping strings as follows:
1) put the 2nd string from a classical guitar set in the 5th string slot. Tune this string to A3, which is a full step below where it is normally tuned (B3)
2) put the 6th string from a classical guitar set in the 4th string slot. Tune this string to E2, which is the same note it is tuned to in standard guitar tuning.
3) put the 5th string from a classical guitar set in the 3th string slot. Tune this string to A2, which is the same note it is tuned to in standard guitar tuning.
4) put the 4th string from a classical guitar set in the 2rd string slot. Tune this string to D3, which is the same note it is tuned to in standard guitar tuning.
5) put the 3rd string from a classical guitar set in the 1st string slot. Tune this string to E3, which is 1.5 steps below where it is normally tuned (G3).
6) Leave the 6th string slot empty (you can also throw out the 1st string from your classical guitar set).
Doing this will give you a cello banjitar in low octave A modal tuning, with a 5th string that goes all the way to the nut (and, once again, an empty 6th string slot). I chose A modal tuning for this example because it shares the most notes in common with standard guitar tuning (making the above list simpler). Other standard cello banjo tunings (e.g. aDADE) will work equally well. As I play capo-less and use Old G for G tunes (here), I've never tuned the cello banjitar down to Open G (gDGBD), but you may consider starting with a "high tension" classical guitar set if you're going to spend a lot of time there.
So how does it sound?
In short - surprisingly good! The wood-topped guitar body gives a lot more sustain to the notes than a banjo body would, but this is actually quite pleasant with low notes played on nylon strings. I find that I naturally play a bit slower on the cello banjitar to combat notes bleeding into one another too much. Another tip (which I've also heard for cello banjos) is to play a bit closer to the bridge than you would on standard banjos for a bit more note definition. I've never tried the cello banjo with a fiddler but I bet it would work pretty well. My guess is that it lacks the cut/volume to carry in a larger group or jam however. All right, let's hear it:
The Hobart Smith tune "Last Chance" played on the cello banjitar.
I actually made this recording several years back and its interesting to go back and hear it once more. I probably got a bit overzealous with the "slappy" drop thumb (...I'm not playing bass in a funk band....) but hopefully it will give you an idea of how the thing sounds regardless : ) If you've got a classical guitar lying around I encourage you to make one of these up as well - it'd be pretty neat if there were two of these out there!
I've spent the last week or so getting to know the 6 string banjo: next week I plan on sharing some of my thoughts about what I've learned so far! Until then....