Punch Brothers: American Pickers
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A member of Leftover Salmon and John Cowan’s band prior to joining Punch Brothers, banjoist Noam Pikelny plays a 1941 Gibson PB-7 that is noted for its weight as much as its sound, with a custom Robin Smith neck that extends past the head to offer 24 frets and two full octaves.
“It’s my main banjo, and it’s like the heaviest banjo Gibson made,” he says. “They sound different because of all the extra metal. It was a four-string banjo when it left the factory, but like many of the old banjos it was converted to a five-string.”
Pikelny uses a McKinney-Elliott capo, endorses GHS strings, and is partial to old National fingerpicks. “The older National fingerpicks have kind of a different alloy to them that I like.” When it comes to cases, Pikelny says nobody really trips his trigger. “I don’t use a particular case; it depends on what I want at the time. I haven’t put much thought into it because I don’t think anyone’s making the perfect banjo case.”
And in a nod to Punch Brothers’ overall mission of exploring new musical frontiers, Pikelny uses a B-string bender, a device normally used on a Fender Telecaster or another guitar, to bend his B-string up a whole step. “It was made by a friend of mine named Bob Fults in the Champaign, Illinois area,” he says. “It didn’t require any modification of the banjo and I’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
For amplification, in addition to the ATM35 everyone uses, Pikelny uses a Fishman banjo pickup. “The Fishman is really the best one out there, it’s maybe like the Gerald Jones pickup was many years ago but has a hotter output.”
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Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge is from a musical family and has been surrounded by top-notch players all his life, with his father being Seldom Scene banjo player Ben Eldridge. Chris is a Martin man, and is using a 1939 Martin D-28 for his work with Punch Brothers.
“It’s a really great guitar and I love it,” he says. “But because we’re trying to use pickups in tandem with microphones now I’ve been leaving the Martin (which has no pickup) at home for now, and I’m using a contemporary dreadnought made by a luthier in Japan named Hirosi Suda. Before the Martin I have now I was using a phenomenal 1937 D-28 that used to belong to the great Charles Sawtelle (original Hot Rize guitarist who died in 1999). The owner of that guitar kind of loaned it to me for a few years, and before that I had a fantastic 1954 D-28.”
Even though it doesn’t see much road action, Eldridge did use his newest Martin on Who’s Feeling Young Now. “I used the ’39 Martin and a Gibson, I’m not sure what the model number is, on the last album.” Eldridge uses John Pearse strings, Blue Chip picks, Karura cases and an Elliott capo.
A former member of the Infamous Stringdusters who spent some time studying with Tony Rice, Eldridge is comfortable in the skin of a musician, which can sometimes be a hard place to live. “I was extremely fortunate to grow up around all kinds of wonderful musicians,” he says. “It made the idea of having a life in music very easy to imagine.”
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Fiddler Gabe Witcher has been a prominent name among fiddle players for more than a decade, contributing to movie soundtracks, television commercials and albums by such legends as Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. While he has professional equipment to be sure, Witcher laughs at the notion of one website erroneously listing him as a Stradivarius owner.
“I play on an old German violin, a copy of a Maggini I got from [fiddler] Stuart Duncan,” he says. “Stuart and I have been buddies for a long time, and he came across it and thought I might be interested in it and I was, and I’ve been playing on it for the last 10 years or so.”
For amplification Witcher uses a device called The Band, a device that fastens around the body of the violin and provides amplification through a ¼” jack. Made by the British company Headway Music Audio, The Band simply fastens with Velcro and comes off at the end of the gig. “I’m using The Band in combination with a microphone,” he says. “We’re still actually trying to figure out what’s going to work best on fiddle, trying to figure out the least invasive way to put a pickup on.”
Witcher uses Pirastro strings which are hand-made in Germany. “The thing about strings is finding something that’s made well that sounds good with your instrument,” he says. “It’s kind of a trial and error thing finding the right strings, they have to sound great and they have to stay in tune.”
If there’s one thing in his equipment arsenal that Witcher is sure to guard with his life, it’s his violin bow. “Bows are as important as any other element,” he says, “and my bow is a [deceased French bow maker] Eugene Sartory. It’s probably worth 20 times what my violin’s worth.”