Trent Ciolino's MIDI Electric 6 String Banjo


This is the 6 String Electric MIDI banjo I built this winter for Trent Ciolino, of New Orleans, a great and very original banjo player and as I came to know him, a really great and pleasant to work with person.  

This instrument is strung like a traditional 5 string banjo, but with an extra low string before the high drone, in this case tuned usually to a low A. It features 3 pickups, a piezo under the drum head, an EMG 81 humbucker magnetic pickup, and more unusually, a slightly rewired Roland MIDI pickup that can convert his signal to MIDI language and interact with synthesizers, creating a near infinite array of sounds that can come out of this instrument, without him having a need to switch from the instrument he has spent his life working on techniques for.  

Trent and I worked out the designs together to make it suit him.  The body of the instrument is larger than a standard banjo, especially in depth, but is carved hollow on the inside to give it quite an acoustic sound as well, and to reduce the weight.  The body and neck are carved from african mahoghany, and the face is made of bookmatched canary wood, with decorative details of padouk, coca bola, bucote(mexican rosewood), tulip wood, bloodwood, and ebony.  The fingerboard is quartersawn ebony with canary stripes.

We decided to lengthen the scale length slightly to 27", to give more resonance on the low 'A' string.  At Trent's request, I tunnelled the drone string through to the headstock with the other strings, to keep all the tuning machines together and out of the way, but the drone emerges at the 5th fret as is standard on 5 string banjos.  Grover tuners hold the tuning, and the other end is secured to a tailpiece I hand carved in bronze and exotic woods designed to fit standard loop end banjo strings or ball end strings to give him multiple choices down the line on how to string it.

This instrument was a lot of fun for me to build, and I also greatly enjoyed working with Trent as a player.  I am proud of the instrument and the process.  I feel that this banjo is truly a collaboration between Trent as a unique player and myself as a unique builder, and that that is an ideal way for instrument building to be.

  This photo shows pretty good details of the body.  The word "knobby" came up a few times in our design discussions, but it in fact has only the neccessary control knobs for the 3 pickups, volume and tone for the piezo and the EMG, and a volume for the midi, a switch for straight electric , MIDI blend with electric, or straight MIDI, and 2 buttons that can select synthetic sound banks or other parameters on an external synth module.  The tone ring was hand made by myself for this instrument, with a 6" diameter that can take standard drum heads, each type of which gives a slightly different sound. The holes in the upper left of this photo are actually sound holes for its acoustic resonance.                                                                  The inlay on the neck is made of tulip wood                           I think the contour of the back is best shown in this black and white photo.  It is designed to fit against the chest like a glove, to make it rest naturally in a proper playing position, with a cutaway sculpted from the back to allow easy access to the higher frets

This photo shows the first bridge I made for Trent's banjo.  It is made of bucote, bloodwood, and tulip wood, with a bone saddle, and you can see the MIDI pickup sitting on the bridge immediately in front of the strings.  I built 2 separate bridges for Trent, so there would be 2 possible acoustic sounds for it.  This bridge gives a more stable sound something like a cross between a guitar and a banjo, and the other one, which he is currently using, has a much thinner and more traditional banjo shape to the bridge, with the MIDI pickup on a separate mount made of bucote that floats over the head without touching it, and gives a punchier, more true banjo sound, as well as more acoustic resonance.

 I feel very good about giving this instrument many possibilities for different setups in what I hope will be a long future of Trent playing on it.  He is a very experimental player, and I feel that the flexibilities built into this piece will make it last through the many innovations I see his music going through in the future.