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Thread: Confused about the sound of banjo ukes

  1. #1
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    Default Confused about the sound of banjo ukes

    I've been wanting to find a ukulele banjo that sounds similar to those old-timey banjo ukes. You know the like, very tinny, almost a metallic sound. The problem is all the banjo ukes I've tried have a much fuller and boomier sound. Here's a video showcasing this fairly well, comparing a new Kmise and a vintage Gibson banjo uke: https://youtu.be/cQet44ssVmU?t=332

    I personally much prefer the latter. I've owned two banjo ukes so far. A horrible Harley Benton which I thankfully were able to sell quite quickly, and the Gold Tone Little Gem which is decent enough quality but does have that fuller sound that I don't really fancy. So my question is, what actually makes the banjo uke sound more tinny like the Gibson in the video? Is it the strings? Open or closed back? The material of the banjo head? A resonator? Or is it the build of the instrument overall?

    I've been trying to test different strings on the Gold Tone Little Gem, but unfortunately anything else than Aquilas or similarly thick strings tend to snap when I try to put them on so I haven't been able to test properly yet. I also took off the back of the Little Gem which seemed to brighten the tone a bit but I'm not fully convinced.

    If the answer is the build of the instrument overall, I might just have to go for a more expensive banjo uke that simply has the kind of sound I want. I've seen that the Gold Tone DLX Banjolele seems to have that kind of tinny sound I like. Other similar but cheaper banjo ukes seem to be the Ozark 2037 and the Barned & Mullins UBJ1, but I cannot for the life of me find any reviews or videos of them. If anyone has any info on these or other suggestions it would be very much appreciated.

  2. #2
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    Hi Dohle, I have that Kmise banjo uke, and really like it. It was not expensive, and the quality is very good. I achieved a nice "plinckety" sound by 1) making sure the head was nice and tight (not ridiculously so, but pretty "taut") and evenly-tensioned all the way around, and then 2) taking off the back, placing a loosely wadded plastic grocery bag within the open space, and then re-attaching the back. The "stuffing" kills undesirable "ghost tones" and gives it a nice "staccato" sound.

  3. #3
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    I don't know much about banjo ukes and the few I tried frightened me as they were so loud. But I know quite a few banjo players and they are in two groups. The bluegrass players prefer the closed back resonator types for aggressive lead picking. The clawhammer players prefer the open back types for more gentle song comping. So for a banjo uke an open back may be more suitable for what you're looking for and you may also consider learning clawhammer style to make it sound right.

  4. #4
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    If the sound of the Gibson UB 2 is what you’re after, why not just track one down and buy it?

    I personally own a Firefly banjo uke from the Magic Fluke Company and have been extremely happy with it.


    Scooter
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  5. #5
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    My Firefly is nice and plinky. My old 1920s Stella banjo uke is also plinky, but the frets are right in the neck, no fretboard, and the intonation above the 5th fret is more hopeful than actual.
    The Southern Cross (Open back) is a boomy, full-sized banjo-y sound - when I stuffed a pair of rolled socks against the head near the neck, the bass all but disappeared and the treble was perfect.

    Still working on how I like the sound best.

    -Kurt

    And I never adjust the tension on the head, after ruining a 5-string banjo years back... I'll pay someone else to do that.
    Donaldson Kumalae-style soprano * Magic Fluke Timber Bass * Ohana CK450QEL * Ohana CK-65D * Ken Timms Soprano
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  6. #6
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    The sound difference is definitely down to the "open" resonator on the Gibson. My old "John Grey & Son" had a similar (metal) resonator, until I removed it, simply because it was far too loud for what I wanted, though I'll admit to preferring the mellower tone it has now

    My limited experience with strings on my instrument suggests that Aquila "Reds" #90U are much better balanced for a banjolele than the generic ukulele "nylon" strings that were fitted previously, though I'll admit to being a fan of Aquila strings, and "reds" in particular, so I may be biased

    YMMV
    There are those who will wax lyrical about the ability to play a double shuffle with a split fan and a tight G-string ...
    it just makes me walk funny!

  7. #7
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    Had an SS Stewart from the 20s that was quite penetrating, I put a sock between the bar and the head when playing in a circle of ukulele players so not to dominate the sound. Aquila strings for it seemed fine. The SS Stewart was a lot cheaper than a Gibson but it wasn't a Gibson.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dohle View Post
    I've been wanting to find a ukulele banjo that sounds similar to those old-timey banjo ukes. You know the like, very tinny, almost a metallic sound ... the Gold Tone Little Gem which is decent enough quality but does have that fuller sound that I don't really fancy. So my question is, what actually makes the banjo uke sound more tinny like the Gibson in the video? Is it the strings? Open or closed back? The material of the banjo head? A resonator? Or is it the build of the instrument overall? ... I also took off the back of the Little Gem which seemed to brighten the tone a bit but I'm not fully convinced.
    From this I'm guessing that you want low sustain, and the tone emphasising the treble.

    1. Low sustain is the most important in getting that sound you want. One way to achieve this is to damp the head (as already described, but the plastic bag/socks approach is not really adjustable). I made a small block of wood with felt glued to one face which fits between the underside of the head and the dowel stick/coordinator rod. This can be slid along to find the best spot - it will be somewhere between the feet of the bridge and the rim by the tailpiece, and that short distance produces quite a change of sound. Also, heavy bridges sustain longer than lighter. And you want strings which don't sustain too long - Aquila Nylgut, or nylon, and not fluorocarbon which tend to long sustain.

    2. A combination of things affects the treble/bass balance of the sound. Open back is more treble than resonator. Tight head is more treble than loose. Light bridge emphasises treble, heavy bass.

    You could play with all these pretty cheaply to see if your current uke can give you something close to what you want (of course, only the UB2 will give you the exact UB2 sound). I'd start with damping the head, and a square of sponge is quick and cheap. Use a narrow sponge (maybe a kitchen washing up sponge with the scourer part cut off) so you can slide it around. If that's working, cut some wood to size and glue on felt for your precision sustain mute. If you seem to be winning, then you can fine tune with the other options.

  9. #9
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    I have several banjo ukes, and each has a different sound, but I like them all. It will be difficult to get the exact sound you want. I recommend contacting Aaron Keim at Beansprout ukes. I'm sure that between the two of you, you can find the right sound. He makes first class instruments.
    https://www.thebeansprout.com/

    An alternative would be trying several different types of strings on your Gold Tone.
    Too many ukes, but I can't stop buying!
    https://www.catskillukulelegroup.com/

  10. #10
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    Massive thanks to all of you for the advice! I actually managed to get a more clear and trebly sound from the Gold Tone Little Gem by stuffing a cloth between the rod and the head and also by removing the back piece. The trouble here is that this basically ruins the looks of the instrument as the whole body is made of clear plastic. I'll have to try to think of a more subtle way of dampening the overtones of the instrument without ruining the looks.

    Even with this success, I wasn't completely satisfied with the sound of the Little Gem, and with the additional struggle with the looks, I decided to get a new banjo uke. One that I can tweak to my heart's content without having to think about the looks that much. I've basically accepted that I'll probably never be able to get an instrument that will completely replicate the sound of those vintage banjo ukes without spending a huge sum of money. The vintage Gibson banjo ukes are definitely too expensive (although frustratingly I just missed out on an auction of a UB1 which actually wasn't that expensive), and the closest modern equivalent to those would probably be the Gold Tone Deluxe banjo uke which would set me back around 700 euros (yes, it's that expensive in Europe). Maybe that's something to aspire to in the future, but for now I've settled on a Magic Fluke Firefly soprano since I managed to find one surprisingly cheap and with free delivery as well. I know it doesn't have 100% the exact sound I'd like from a banjo uke but I've heard very good things about their banjo ukes (even in this thread), and I'm planning on making it my project for achieving a sound as close as possible to a vintage banjo uke.

    Also I like the looks and size of it. Much more so than a banjo uke with a massive resonator.

    Cheers.

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