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Apr 17 2017

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Mr. Fred’s weird banjo thing

Our friend, Mr. PH Fred, always has the oddest guitars, and the oddest requests for modifications of those guitars. Last time, he had us turn an acoustic guitar into a Stratocaster (check it out here: Elvis Meets Nixon). This time, he made what seemed like a pretty easy request, to install a Lollar Charlie Christian pickup into his Epiphone wooden head banjo. As most things that Mr. Fred does, what at first seems simple, is actually deceptively complex.

Here’s Mr. Fred’s banjo before it went under the knife:

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First, I had to map out and create a routing template for the Charlie Christian pickup. It’s an odd shape, and it won’t fit in any standard pickup route. I carefully measured and cut a new template from acrylic plastic. This was by far the most complicated, time consuming part of the whole job, as prep work usually is. (I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who said something to the effect of “give me 4 hours to cut down a tree and I’ll spend the first 3 hours sharpening the axe.”

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With the routing template made, I mapped out where it would end up on the banjo. I centered it on the neck, and opted to place it right under the 15th harmonic on the open strings.

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Here’s the completed route, done as always with our favorite Festool router:

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The pickup is pretty deep, but fortunately wasn’t so deep as to have the banjo’s metal crossbar interfere with placement. The tricky part with the electronics was that the banjo’s rim is really thick, and even long shaft pots wouldn’t make it all the way through. They weren’t long enough for the threads to be exposed, and therefore the nuts couldn’t grab on to them. My workaround was to create a recess around the shafts, which also helped to keep the knobs at a slightly lower profile and kept them out of the way from accidental bumps.

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Now that all the funny business was complete, it was simply a matter of wiring the whole thing up. I really like to keep my wiring as tidy as possible, so I ran everything along the banjo’s cross bar and firmly tied everything down. Methinks it looks pretty good:

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And that’s it! Unsurprisingly, this thing sounds pretty monstrous. The Charlie Christian pickup is super hot, and it really compliments the thin, tinny nature of a wooden headed banjo. Mr. Fred tells us that it’s currently his favorite instrument, and it’s forcing him to write music in all sorts of ways he hasn’t done before. We’re looking forward to some new music, Mr. Fred! Thanks for the fun project!

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