c.2012 Fretted Banjo Bass (revised)

Update: I've revised this post to include new pictures and description since I originally posted this instrument. I wanted to show it off in a finished (rather than prototype) state!

I've been playing upright bass a bunch lately and have always found the idea of banjo basses, fretted like this one in the fashion of a mandobass, tamburitza-bass, or electric bass -- or fretless and upright like a double bass -- intoxicating. I like the sound, which varies considerably depending on who makes one, but hadn't found any factory or small builds "as is" that I liked wholeheartedly from a tone or aesthetic perspective.

I tried the Gold Tone Paul Beard resonator bass in December and enjoyed it, but like most "acoustic bass guitar" instruments, the volume (or voice) simply just wasn't good enough to cut appreciably in a jam environment. I also tried out their 14" banjo bass, too, but the rim just wasn't big enough to do the job on the low E string nicely.

I put this one together first as a prototype to test out some design ideas, then refined it with better hardware... and now it's a bona-fide musical instrument with a lot of punch and volume. It's still best played with a pick (preferably hard felt) but it's now heard nicely in a group with just fingers. The tone reminds me of the lower register piano strings more than an upright bass tone, which is a good thing since that cuts nicely through mid-range guitars.

Originally I built this with no tonering and left the "drum" style tension hooks on. It also had a (tone-sucking) Remo Fiberskyn head on, which I replaced with a Remo Renaissance head. I also added a ton of banjo-style tension hooks and shoes and a copper propane line tonering around the top edge of the rim, effectively making this an "archtop" banjo rim. All of these were tone and volume enhancements and truly made about a 150% improvement in both.

The neck is a typical Allparts Fender J-bass knock-off with rosewood fretboard and maple "skunk stripe" neck. Tuners are Grover copies.

Though volume would edge up slightly with round-wound bass strings, here I'm using 100w-45w flatwound bass strings to get more of a smooth tone (and less finger noise) from the instrument. Round-wound strings would be an excellent choice if you really want to do a lot of slap or percussive stuff on the bass, though. As far as type of strings... this will take any long-scale electric bass strings.

Maple bridge with adjustable ebony topper. The tailpiece is a repurposed electric mandolin bridge.

Because the drum heads have such big "flesh hoops" (the aluminum bit that holds them in shape and lets you apply tension), I couldn't get the hooks over a proper tension hoop, so they pull directly on the flesh hoop. Check out the copper tubing used for the tonering. Ever since working on a Windsor Whirlie 5-string banjo that used a lighter-weight aluminum tonering, I've been intrigued with alternate metals for tonerings. I find that modifying instruments to accept the copper rings makes more of a warm, direct, and less ringy tone. Perfect for bass!

The rim is a repurposed 18" rosewood bodhran frame drum. It looks pretty slick, though!

Because the neck is bolted on to a body that's mounted over the head rather than attached to a heel that's then attached to the rim, the instrument is extremely stable. I haven't had to tune it since putting it back together again.

After I modified the rim, I changed the orientation of the rear bracing to an "X" as seen top to bottom. I used to have the neck align with one of the braces but rotated it instead, since the body of the instrument acts as a 3rd brace at even another angle, further strengthening the rim.

The tiny tack nails are just there to make sure the hoop didn't slip around while tightening up the head.

While you can play this sitting down or hung from a strap, you can also play it standing up. I have a length of steel with a foot on it for putting into this "end pin" drilled-out hole, so that it stands up at a proper playing height. I like it all ways for different reasons, but find it's easiest to pick it with a felt pick when in the lap or hung from a strap.

Note that while this instrument is good and solid and ready to go and looks grand, because it was originally a prototype, it has a couple extra tiny drilled holes in the rim here and there and I didn't fully sand out all of my cutting of the (quartersawn Spanish cedar) body before finishing it.


Anonymous said...


Reminds me of my solid body Fender bass.


Anonymous said...

I should have said the sound file reminds me of my Fender. This animal is totally different in the design department. So creative.