Dave writes:

Dear Pete,

I have a Stelling pickup fitted to my banjo, but I’m plagued with feedback (especially in one band which has a drummer). Should I :

  1. Get a better pickup?
  2. Get a fancy amp with frequency filters and the like?
  3. Get a fancy microphone?
  4. Accept that banjos can’t be amplified withoput feedback?
  5. Superglue the drummer’s door shut while he’s at home?

Paul from Ithaca, NY writes:

I am playing in a band called Urban Horse Thieves and use a Deering Crossfire for the more electric and rowdy tunes, but I’d really like to use my Stelling Sunflower more on our grassier tunes. We play a lot of loud bars, including the famous Chapter House and the Nines, and I have been having some feedback issues with the Stelling.

I have been using a Fishman pickup and preamp, so I can get lots of output, but the head on the banjo acts like a microphone and starts to feedback pretty quickly. I recently decided to try using a combination set up with the pickup going thru a processor (for flange, phase, chorus, etc) and a mike for the more natural sound. I think I can blend them and use the mike to give me more punch on leads, fills, etc.

Do you have any suggestions on equipment (brands of mikes, feedback arresters, signal compressors, etc) that might give me more output without feedback. (And yes, I have told everyone else, including the drummer to play more softly!!) I also intend to have my amp face me at the next gig (like a monitor) and send out a signal via the mains in the PA.

Dear Dave and Paul,

This is a big topic! You have already thought of some of the main things to consider. I think this problem is a tough one for banjo players, more so than other acoustic instruments, due to the head being so sensitive to vibrations from monitors. Tony Furtado tapes his head up so much it seriously deadens the instrument and changes its tone pretty drastically. Bela Fleck when he plays with the Flecktones uses a mounted-on-banjo mic and I think a pickup, and blends them. Still doesn’t sound as great to me as his great tone as a player, through a regular mic.

Best solution from some points of view is if the whole band is on ear monitors. Ear monitors don’t feed back. Mics can work pretty well in these situations. There are important drawbacks, but the band can really hear itself, and with separate monitor mixes, it can be pretty cool. But it’s weird hearing only through headphones and not hearing the room at all. Also, ear monitors are pretty expensive when you consider that they require a wireless system to send and receive the signals. Maybe there’s a way you alone could use ear monitors with no speaker-monitor, thus possibly reducing the likelihood of feedback.

I use a Prucha Elban plug-in banjo (with pickup) for sit-in-with-loud-bands gigs. It is a “real” banjo with normal head size but a slightly smaller resonating cavity. It sounds pretty good, but I have to watch out for having it too loud in the monitors, or… feedback.

For what it’s worth, most all of the times I play (even with my band Flexigrass, which has a drummer — a relatively quiet one I might add), I do fine with a microphone. My favorite, AKG 414, actually has a wide pickup pattern, but rarely causes feedback in the situations I use it. Shure SM-57 is another favorite, less feedback-prone, with a much smaller pickup pattern.>>

Of your 5 suggested solutions, I think these two are best:

  1. Get a better pickup?
  2. Get a fancy amp with frequency filters and the like?

For me, the Prucha works, but I only use it in occasional situations, not my main band.

In general, it’s a good idea, as you did, to ask people who you think can be helpful. Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but at least you now what I know.

Best of luck, and if you find a good solution, please let me know!

Pete Wernick