What is a Banjo ?

A banjo is a collection of shaped woods, a drum head, strings, tuning pegs, and some other metal parts necessary to hold the thing together. It is round at one end and pointed at the other.

Great arguments are presented when the origin of the banjo is debated. Some say it is from Africa, more say from India, others say it is from China. Human memory cannot recall its age (There are often great debates when a banjo itself is presented at a music jam) . The instruments from these origins are of little value when placed in the hands of musicians from the Western World. There are not many animal skin gourds with strings being played in Jazz, Old Time, Dixieland, or Bluegrass music. These instruments lack volume or accuracy of sound for the music we know. Even modern refinements since 1840 to the banjo are unclear. Whether Jole Sweeney from the U.S.A. put it together or not, he is given the credit for its development and popularity. Joel played a homemade banjo with 5 strings. The short string was on the wrong side of the fingerboard to be used as a drone string with a high pitch. He was a very well known player in his day and many people copied his instrument and style of music. Then, as playing and manufacturing abilities developed, the five-string banjo phased itself right out of existence. Well, almost. It survived with a few mountain folk who held a simple faith for uncomplicated music and instruments.

In the 1920's, Brass Band music suppressed the banjo. Manufacturing companies had to change the banjo to compete. People like Stewart, Gibson, and Washburn and others got back into the business with a short neck, heavy stringed, resonator back, tone ring type changes to the banjo. Some of the finest banjos were produced from 1925 to 1940. Since the Folk Revival in the late 1950's, banjo are back in a multitude of sizes, types, prices, and conditions. With new technology, some companies are now making the finest quality banjos.

How do you choose one ? Read on.


Varieties of banjos

Banjos come in all shapes and sizes according to the type of music they were designed for and the price range to suit your budget. There are right and left-handed banjos. About one in a thousand is a leftie, so make sure you get one that is pointed in the right direction for you. Four string banjos have at least three different neck lengths. A short neck or three quarter size, a standard neck for jazz or Dixieland, and a long neck plectrum for dance bands. Five string banjos are also made in three common sizes. A three quarters size, a standard size for folk and bluegrass, and a long neck for folk music. Other banjos are for special uses or someone's idea of trying to combine other instrument necks on a banjo head to get a different sound. There are six string banjo-guitars, eight string banjo-mandolins, four string banjo-ukes, plus many other unusual combinations including electric pickups. Banjo have been made with wooden drum heads, tin cans, or even a bass violin neck on a bass drum.

If you are going to get a banjo for yourself, be careful to choose the right one for the type of music you are going to play. Seek advice from your friends, other musicians, music stores, music teachers, pictures, books, etc. Don't buy a banjo until you know what it is like, how it sounds, and is the right one for the music you want to hear and play. My first advice is to borrow one, or rent one until you decide. More accurate history can be found on the www.mugwumps.com website or the www.bluegrassbanjo.org website.

I always like to imagine some primitive hominoids sitting around a campfire banging their drums, plucking bowstrings and having a few sips of a favourite fermented beverage. Add a couple of them chanting in harmony and you got it.... a Jam session.


How To Get Your Own Banjo

In the first banjo article, I talked about the history and different types of banjos. For Bluegrass music, the most common banjo is the standard length neck on a five-string banjo. This type usually has 22 frets and a short string tuning peg at the 5th fret. We'll talk more about frets and strings in the next articles.

Seek advice from friends, other musicians, music stores, music teachers, pictures, and books (even on the web) when trying to choose a banjo. Don't buy a banjo until you know what it is like, how it sounds, and is the right one for the music you want to hear and play. With a bit of experience at looking at banjos, you can find one that will be suitable.

THREE MAIN WAYS

FIRST; Borrow or rent a banjo.

This is the least expensive way unless you break it or it is stolen. At least, you can see it, touch it, even try to play it. You can do all of the necessary checks to see if it works like a banjo. Borrowing a banjo is the best way to determine your interest, your ability, and if this type of banjo will be suitable for your music. There are lots of banjos out there, so do some looking around, Check with family, friends, and other musicians to find the one that might be in someone's closet, basement, or attic. Make a deal with them to borrow it until you find one you would like to own.

SECOND; Buy a new or used banjo.

In the next articles, I will discuss the checks you need to do to see if the banjo is playable and worthy of purchase. Get the advice of someone who knows. It is a lot like buying a car. Without some background knowledge you could get stuck with a lemon that will spoil your musical experience. Don't be fooled by the thought of buying the cheapest model to start with. Most cheap banjos are just too poorly made and too difficult to play easily. Better quality banjos are easier on your hands and ears. Better banjo will also retain their value if you decide to sell them.

Cheaper model banjos usually wind up hidden in someone's junk storage or sold at garage sales for less than 100 bucks. Don't waste your money. Most cheap banjos have skinny necks and not suitable for larger hands, poor quailty metals, and no adjustment rods in the neck or back of the banjo. Its a matter of time until the woods warp. With no adjustments possible in the banjo, it becomes a throw-away model.

You should buy the best banjo you can find for the amount of money you can afford to spend. You will like the better sound and appreciate the resale value.

 THIRD; Build a banjo.  

You may decide to have one built by a qualified maker, or buy a kit and do it yourself. This is a last resort method for the wealthy or a skilled craftsman. The banjo will still have to pass all the playability checks to be worth the expense. Most custom made banjos are fancy inlaid and fancy priced. But, if you buy the best you can afford, you can never go back to playing lesser banjos with the same feelings as you have playing the better banjos. Pride of ownership of a great instrument is a wonderful thing to share with other musicians.

In summary, If you are a learner, you should borrow one first. If you consider yourself an experienced player with lots of bucks, get a custom model. The rest of us will be somewhere in between those two extremes.

 ARE ALL THE PIECES THERE ?

When looking for a banjo, you should try to be familiar with the parts of a banjo to see if pieces are missing. Don't be scared off of a banjo because it has no strings, no bridge, missing bracket hooks, or a cracked skin head. These things are missing off old banjos because of abuse or neglect and can be replaced. Most replacement parts are available from music store dealers, suppliers, or instrument repair shops. You may not get an original part, but it should be suitable to make the banjo playable again.

Look more closely at the banjo for serious damage before letting it out of your hands. Check for damage to the wood finish, cracked wood in the neck, body, or resonator, the tuning pegs, the string nut, missing frets, bad glue joints, broken metal parts such as the tension hoop or the bracket flange, inlays and edge bindings missing. These are all serious faults that usually require a professional repair. You may have a good banjo after the repairs, but the cost may be not worth it. This is where you need a second opinion from an experienced person.

So, good luck trying to find a banjo for yourself. Make sure the neck is wide enough for you get your fingers on each string. Also make sure there is an adjustable steel truss rod in the neck and some type of string action adjustment rods in the back of the body. We'll talk more about what to look for next time.


Playability check of your instrument ( includes banjos ) 

This is not about who is playing, what they are playing, of even if they should be playing an instrument. I will discuss that at another time. Letís just talk about how an instrument is set up to make it as easy to play as possible. Let us trash the myth of ' an instrument has to have a high action to get lots of volume '.

Neck

Is the neck straight? This means are all the frets at the same height on a flat surface. Your instrument must have a flat fretboard to get the best playability from it. You can look down the neck to see if it is warped or twisted, but your eyes are not good enough to see if the neck is bowed down or humped up. To check for a flat neck you can use a straight edge ruler, or do as I do. I use the banjo strings.  The best way to check if the neck is flat is to have all the strings on the banjo, with the strings being close to 'in tune' as possible. This puts the correct pressure on the neck. Now, with a finger, press down the middle string at the first fret. With your other hand, press down the same string behind the last fret. You are using the string as a straight edge guide. Check under that string at the 10th fret to see if there is a gap between the fret and the string. If the space between the fret and the string is more than the thickness of a sheet of paper, the neck is bowed down and needs to be adjusted for best playability. If the string touches the 10th fret before you have the string all the way down at the last fret, the neck is humped up and needs to be adjusted. Sometimes the neck gets out of adjustment because of high or low humidity, but most often because it was never set up correctly after it left the manufacturer.

Truss rod

This is the adjustable steel rod placed in the neck under the fretboard when the banjo was made. Without a truss rod, the banjo neck will bend until you can shoot arrows with it. (Another of the 1001 uses for a banjo.)  A lot of pre-1920's and cheaper banjos were made without an adjustable truss rod. You don't want one, unless you want it for decoration.

How do you look for a truss rod in the neck ? A small metal or plastic cover plate on the front of the peghead is usually held on by two or three little screws. Under this cover plate will be the adjusting end of the truss rod. A nut or socket head can be tightened to straighten out the bowed down fretboard, or loosened to reduce the humped up fretboard. This adjusting is not recommended for inexperienced persons, because sometimes even 1/4 of a turn is too much. This info is given to you so you are aware that with a truss rod, the neck can be straightened. A banjo with a bent neck is not very playable past the 3rd fret.

Frets

Check the frets are the same height all along the fretboard. Check to see if the frets are all the same type and size. Someone may have replaced frets with fretwire that is skinnier or fatter than the other frets. Frets come is various widths and heights. Electric basses have very large fretwire, while mandolins have very small fretwire. Check the frets have no deep grooves in them under the strings. This will make the strings buzz on certain notes or the note will not sound clear. Really deep grooves cannot be filed out and need to have the fret replaced. Replacing frets is a professional level repair.

Tuning pegs

 

Check the tuning pegs will keep the strings in tune. Sometimes the screw on the bottom of the peg knob is loose. This screw should be fairly tight to prevent the peg from slipping. On the type of peg with a top nut and washer holding it on, make sure the nut is fairly tight to prevent it from turning in the peghole.

Head tension

Check the tightness of the head. The bridge should not sink more than 1/16th of an inch below the head level. The easiest way is to look inside at the back of the banjo head. If the head is too loose, the bridge feet will make a big bump or sag in the head.

I will discuss head replacement and tightness in another article.

Bridge height

This is the actual height of the bridge. Bridges come in different heights such as 1/2 inch high to 3/4 inch high. The standard is 5/8 of an inch high. All adjustments should be made using the 5/8 bridge.

Action height of the strings

This is the height the strings are set above the fretboard. This is why we straightened the neck first. Measure the height of the strings at the 12th fret on the fretboard. The strings should be above the fret about 1/4 of an inch. A low string action is about 5/32 of an inch and the high string action is about 5/16 of an inch at the 12th fret. The string action must be in this range or you get string buzzes with too low an action, or the notes will be stretched out of tune when fretted from too high an string action. Too high a string action may cause finger tip damage (blisters), and it reduces the speed at which you can play easily. If the string action is too low or too high, it must be adjusted to make the strings more playable. Last, the string action height at the top nut. This height can be measured with feeler gauges or the skinniest guitar pick. This string height above the fret is the most critical for easy playing.

The strings must be above the first fret by at least twenty-thousands (.020) of an inch or the strings will buzz. If the strings are higher, then the strings are much harder to push down than necessary. Lowering the string height on the top nut is best done by an experienced person. This is where the string grooves in the nut are cut with a small saw blade that is the thickness of the string. The string angle in the nut is critical to provide accurate noting and prevent buzzing.

In the next article, I will discuss adjusting the string action height using the coordinator rods in the back of the banjo, and correct placement of the bridge.


Adjusting the String Action Height on a Banjo

The string action height on a banjo is measured at the twelfth fret. The strings should be above the fret about 1/8 of an inch. Remove the resonator to see which type of adjustment is on the banjo. These bars or rods have several functions. First, they hold the neck to the rim or pot. Second, they keep the rim from going oval because of the string pressure from the tailpiece. Third, they are used to adjust the height of the string from the fretboard. There is not a standard method for all banjos. Each manufacturer has different ways to adjust the string action on their banjos. In the last 100 years, there have been many adjustment inventions. Some adjusters are lock nuts on a threaded rod, turnbuckles, clamps and pins, shims, even the old 'screw-in-the-woodenbar' types.

Older banjos will have a square wooden bar going from the neck to the tailpiece end inside the pot under the head. It is usually fastened with a large screw that also holds the tailpiece. This is a fixed bar that requires an experienced person to either shim the neck or change the screwhole to a slot to move the string action. Not recommended for beginners. Put the resonator back on and keep on playing. Newer banjos have a single or double steel rod with adjustment nuts.

This adjusting function is a tricky one. By adjusting the lock nuts on the rods, you can raise or lower the string action height. This is also an experienced person job, but I will explain it to you. The adjustment method used on Gibson banjos is nicely described in a 1930's catalog. Gibson and their clones use two threaded rods with nuts and washers.

The rod closest to the head is called the spacer rod. This rod uses an internal thread and washer to keep the neck held tight to the pot. Usually a small hole in the middle of the rod is used to tighten this rod to the neck. Use a small nail or allen key to turn the rod tight. The neck and rim must be tight together to transmit the sound properly.

The other end of the spacer rod has a nut and washer. This nut must be tight enough to prevent the pot from going oval shaped, and the nut and washer not rattle. If too tight, the sound will be dampened. Just about 1/8 turn past finger tight is enough. You can experiment with the sound after you have adjusted the second rod correctly.

The rod furthest from the banjo head is called the adjuster rod. This rod also has an internal thread and washer to hold the neck tight to the pot. You may have to loosen a nut at the far end in order to turn the rod to tighten the neck to the pot.

The Gibson Method

'To draw the strings closer to the fretboard, insert a nail or punch in hole in center of rod to prevent turning. Loosen inside nut and tighten outside nut'.

"To draw strings away from fretboard, reverse the nut adjustment'. (Loosen outside nut and tighten inside nut).

Please do these adjustments very cautiously until you have success in raising or lowering the string action height. Measure the height of the strings above the 12th fret. The average height is 1/8 inch for low action to 3/16 inch for high action. My preference for best playability is 1/8 inch.


Bridge Location on a Banjo

The bridge location can either be measured or tuned electronically for the exact location. I will discuss both.

Hopefully, you have read the previous articles about setting up the string action for the best height for you. You will also need the banjo tuned to correct pitch for best results. To place the bridge correctly on the banjo head, you will need a ruler. Measure the distance from inside the top nut (bone) at the peghead to the 12th fret. Now, measure the distance from the 12th fret to the bridge. The measurements must be the same. If the measurements are not the same, move the bridge carefully until both measurements are the same. Retune the strings then check the measurements again. Caution; Be careful when you move the bridge. Make sure it is standing up straight and at right angles to the strings. If the bridge falls over, it makes a frightening noise or you may break the bridge. Move it a little at a time.


The second method of correctly locating the banjo bridge is to use a tuning meter. With the banjo in tune, play the 12th fret harmonic note ** on the middle G string. Check with the meter, it should read a perfect G. Now, play the fretted note on the 12th fret of the same G string. Check with the meter. If the fretted note is higher or sharper than G on the meter, the bridge is too close. The bridge must be moved further back toward the tailpiece. Or, if the note you played at the 12th fret is too low or flat on the meter, the bridge must be moved closer to the fretboard. Move the bridge a little at a time. Retune the strings and do the procedure again until both the harmonic note and the 12th fret note are exactly the same pitch. Now the bridge is in the correct position for all of the fretboard notes to be accurate even up to the last fret.

If you have mastered this bridge location procedure using the 12th fret, you can also experiment using the 19th fret. That is, the harmonic note at the 19th fret and the fretted note on the 19th fret. These notes are also exactly the same pitch. This is even more accurate than using the 12th fret. This tuning procedure can be used for all instruments that have frets and adjustable bridges. I've used it on banjos, mandolins, electric guitars, and electric basses. It does not work on violins or dobros (no frets). Even acoustic guitars can be checked to see if the manufacturer has located the bridge properly. To adjust a fixed bridge guitar, some professional has to change the bridge saddle.

More technical information on the science and mathematics of music can be found in books or on the web. Hermann Helmholtz was a German scientist in the 1850's. He did all the math on things like note pitch, resonance, law of the length of strings, harmony, etc.


** To play a harmonic note, touch the string very lightly over the 12 fret and play the string. This should give you a note that is one octave above the open string tuning. There are also harmonic notes over the 5th, 7th, 19th, and 24th fret positions.

TUNEABILITY CHECK OF A BANJO

In the previous newsletters, we checked the banjo all over and tried to make it playable. Now, there are still a few other things to do. You have to tune it. It is arguable that a banjo can never be tuned, but I will try to give you a few of the methods.

Let's do a quick check on the banjo to see if it will stay in tune if you do manage to tune it. With the strings tightened enough to stop them from buzzing on the frets, check the place where the neck joins the rim of the banjo. There should be no looseness or twisting of the neck. The neck and rim joint should not be flexible. If the parts move around, you will never keep the banjo in tune. The truss rod in the neck will keep the neck straight and the coordinator rods will keep the neck tight to the pot and keep the pot shape round. The neck to rim joint is where to look for shims that someone may have placed there to adjust the neck angle. Shims will not transmit the sound and is a poor way to fix a banjo.

Next, the pegs and strings must be of good quality or the banjo will not stay in tune. A new set of strings is a worthwhile investment to carry with you when scouting for a banjo. Ask the owner if you may put them on the banjo. This is always a good excuse to examine the banjo while you are putting on the strings. Leave the strings if you have to. It is still an inexpensive way to check out a banjo. The owner may be glad to have the new strings.

TUNING TO PITCH

This is a method used to standardize musical notes. When a string is plucked, struck, or bowed, the vibrations can be measured in cycles per second of time. This is called 'frequency', cycles per second, or c.p.s. Metric people call this vibration frequency 'hertz'. International musicians have agreed to use 440 cycles per second as the 'A' note on a musical scale. More technical info on the science and mathematics of music can be read by searching the works of Herman Helmholtz, a German scientist in the 1850's.

What does this mean? It means, a standard 'A' note is 440 c.p.s. or any multiple of it. For instance 110, 220, 440, 880, 1760 c.p.s. are all 'A' notes. So are 55 and 27.5 c.p.s. The lowest 'A' note on a piano is 27.5 c.p.s. Now we just need to know where to use all this info other than in 'Trivial Pursuit'.

TUNING THE 5-STRING BANJO

Each string on a banjo is given and number and a name. The skinniest string is #1 and the fattest string is #4. The shortest string is #5. The name of each the strings depends on the note it is to be tuned to on the banjo. Many tunings are available for the 5-string banjo such as the 'G' tuning, 'C' tuning, 'D' tuning, minor tunings, modal tunings, long neck folk tunings, etc. I will use only the standard 'G' bluegrass tuning here.

The string names are: D - first string, B - second string, G - third string, D - fourth string, G - fifth string.

PITCH PIPE METHOD

A pitch pipe is similar to a small harmonica. Pitch pipes are available for 4-string banjos, 5-string banjos, guitars, fiddles, and mandolins. Be sure to get the correct pitch pipe. Another pitch pipe type is called a 'chromatic', which has all 12 notes of the scale. This is the one your music teacher may have had when they were trying to teach you to sing. Pitch pipes have a separate hole to blow into for each note. Choose the string name note and blow into that hole. Turn the banjo tuning peg until you match the same sound of the string with the pitch pipe. This is 'tuning by ear'. It is difficult for beginners. The danger is you could break a string trying to match the sounds. Get some help or try another method.

TUNING FORK METHOD

Tuning forks are available in different notes. One fork for each note. The note name and frequency is marked on the fork stem. The'A', 'C', and 'G' forks were most common, but expensive. With a 'G' fork, hold it by the stem, strike the tines against your knee, and hold the base of the fork on your banjo bridge. Turn the middle 'G' banjo tuning peg until you match the sound of the string with the sound of the fork. This may take several tries to get the string tuned. This is more difficult than using a pitch pipe, but when you get it right, the string will vibrate and you can feel the string move when you touch it lightly with your finger. Again, get help.

PIANO OR GUITAR METHOD

This method relies on you knowing someone with a piano or guitar to help you find the right notes. The fourth string 'D' is one white key above 'middle C' note. This is still tuning by ear and requires practice and patience. Get help. 

TUNING METER METHOD

Using an electronic tuning meter is the most accurate method in use today. I recommend buying or using the best meter you can find. All bands and recording studios rely on them or accuracy of tuning. Music stores will give you a lesson on how to use an electronic tuning meter if you ask them. Basically, you have to know what note you need for each string, (see chart above), turn the meter on, and turn the banjo tuning peg for that string until the meter indicates the string is in tune. Less expensive meters may only have a slide button to select the note you need and a light to indicate if the string is in tune. These are usually the older guitar tuning meters. Better quality meters have an needle indicator to show if the string is higher or lower in pitch. The best quality tuning meters will have a 'hands off' feature. This means you just turn the meter 'on', pick the string, and the meter indicates what note you have played. Some tuners have a needle, high and low lights, and a background light for use in dark areas. Turn the banjo tuning peg until the meter indicates the note you need and shows you are in tune. Continue until all 5 strings are in tune. Sometimes you have to do all of the strings several times if the banjo was really far out of tune. The performance of the electronic tuning meter varies with the battery strength. Make sure you turn the meter off when you are done with it.

Well, so much for tuning, gets lots of practice. If in doubt about your tuning, get a meter and use it until you are comfortable enough to argue back to someone who thinks you are out of tune. Prove it to them by showing it to them on the meter. Then check their instrument for tune.


Good Tone Influences For A Banjo

Tone of a banjo is very controversial, like taste, everyone will be different. Many things influence the banjo tone. You may choose which you like best. All the pieces on the banjo contribute to the tone. Even your playing ability and where you play it determine the sound. Lets start with the pieces themselves.

TYPES OF WOOD IN A BANJO

The type of wood used in the neck, rim and resonator are very important. The softer the wood, the more mellow the sound, and the harder the wood, the more clearer and louder the sound. Mahogany is a very soft wood, easy to use in production, and very common on beginner banjos. Mahogany makes a very warm and mellow sound even in expensive banjos. Maple, walnut, rosewood, and ebony are hard woods. Banjos made from these woods produce a louder, clearer sounding tone.

All of the wood parts on a banjo, inside and out, should be finished with a laquer or wood sealer to keep the moisture in the air from swelling or shrinking the wood.

Finishing the wood keeps the banjo sound consistient. Lower quality banjo are usually painted to hide the wood grain or wood defects such as knots, filled holes, or glue joints. Good banjos, like good furniture, will always have the wood grain visible. Many are stained with a shaded effect to highlight the wood grain patterns.

TONE RING

Take the resonator off the back of the banjo and look inside. The head must be supported by something. This is the edge where the inside of the head rests on the rim. It is the most important tone influence. Poorer quality banjos have only the rim edge, no tone ring, to support the head. The head may sit on the wooden edge or the aluminium edge of the rim. Better quality banjos have a brass or steel rod around the top of the rim to support the head. The best banjos have tone rings of cast bell bronze metal. Tone rings were designed to allow the head to vibrate to its maximum to produce its greatest tone.

Many varieties of tone rings exist, but all the good ones are polished, plated, heavy, and carefully fitted to the rim. Some tone rings may also have holes drilled into the inner face of the metal. Cast tone rings are also classified as either 'flat-head' or 'raised-head' types depending on their cross section shape. Flat-head tone rings produce a more bass sound because of the larger surface area of the drum head. Raised-head tone rings, or 'arch-tops' as they are called, produce a higher treble sound because of a slightly smaller surface area of the drum head.

COORDINATOR RODS

Coordinator rods inside the banjo rim act as a spacer to keep the rim from squashing into an oval shape. Older or poorer quality banjos have a wooden bar that will absorb a lot of the vibrations and allows some flexing of the neck. This leads to poor tuning and tone loss. Better quality banjos have at least one steel coordinator rod to hold the neck and rim firmly together. The best banjos have two steel rods. One for spacing and the other for string height adjustment. They hold the neck and rim very firmly and transmit maximum sound.

HEAD TENSION AND HEAD THICKNESS

Head tension is a major influence in volume and a minor influence in tone. The drum head must be tight enough to allow the strings and bridge to do their work of making sound. Technology allows us to measure the torque on the head bracket bolts. Generally, the bridge should not press down on the head surface more than one-sixteenth of an inch from level on the flat surface. Head thickness of the plastic or skin head is another tone influence. Thin plastic (mylar) allows for a clearer tone. Clear, frosted inside, or frosted outside heads are personal choices. Thicker skin or other synthetic fiber heads make a more mellow or muted tone.

TAILPIECE

The tailpiece must be a hard metal. The tailpiece should not bend, twist or stretch. Make sure it is attached correctly and sitting firmly on the tension hoop and not touching the head. Some tailpieces have an adjustment screw on the back to keep a slight down pressure on the strings. Too much down pressure or too long a tailpiece will mute the volume.


More Good Tone Influences For A Banjo

BRIDGE

The bridge must be made of a hard wood, usually maple with an ebony top edge. Plastic inserts in the bridge will cause tone loss. Bone or pearl inserts in the bridge will also change the tone. Tenor banjo bridges have two legs sitting on the head. Five string banjos bridges should have three legs to distribute the sound evenly to the head. On the top edge of a bridge, the ebony should only be about one-sixteenth of an inch thick to allow maximum sound. Bridges may be sanded thinner and the corners rounded. If there is too much wood in the bridge, it will absorb more of the vibration energy produced by the strings. Some bridges are curved or cut with zig-zags on the top to compensate for accuracy of tuning.

RESONATOR

The resonator reflects the sound from the back of the banjo to the front. Banjos without a resonator do not project as clear a sound. The inside of the resonator should be as smooth and shiny as possible to reflect the sound outward. The air gap between the bottom of the rim and the resonator should be at least one-half an inch clearance to allow the air resonance inside the banjo to project outward. If the air gap is too small, the banjo will seem muffled.

STRING NUT

The string nut at the top of the neck should be made of bone or a synthetic bone for best sound. A soft plastic nut will cause tone loss. Other materials such as pearl, brass, steel, or hardwood. produce different tones.

STRINGS

Strings come is assorted thicknesses for each string number. Strings are measured in thousands of an inch such as .009 or .023. Strings may be packaged in sets called 'light' or 'medium'. Light gauge strings are easiest to play with quick response but lack great volume. These are best for beginners or a player who plays extremely fast with a low string action. Medium gauge strings produce more volume but should be used only on better quality banjos. The extra string tension may bend the neck on a lesser banjo. Older banjos and those with wooden coordinator rods in the back should not use the heavier gauge strings. Strings made of 'silk/steel' or 'nylon/gut' are available for these banjos. The fourth string on any banjo is a 'wound' string. This means a small string is wound around a core or center string to make a fatter string. Pick a popular name brand such as Gibson, Vega, GHS, D'Addario, etc to start. With experience, you may prefer one brand over another. Some sound brighter, or louder, or last longer. Strings lose their tone brilliance after a few weeks of hard playing. If you play less, they last longer. If your hands sweat a lot, the strings lose the tone rapidly. The beginner banjo player should change strings about once or twice a year. When you think the tone is gone, or the strings are rusty, replace them.

PLAYING DISTANCE FROM THE BRIDGE

One of the most important tone influences is how close you pick the strings from the bridge. Picking the strings close to the bridge produces a very hard or metalic sound. Picking the strings near the end of the fretboard produces a very mellow sound. Changing this distance while playing is a technique used to vary the sound of the banjo. An optimum distance is about two or three inches from the bridge. Each banjo is slightly different in sound, so you need to experiment with this distance to find which distance produces the best sound for your banjo. Other factors also influence the banjo sound such as indoors, outdoors, wall materials, room size, microphones, etc. You have to try them all. Same as banjos, you got to play a lot of banjos before you find one that is just right for you.

HEIGHT OF STRINGS ABOVE THE FRETBOARD

The string height or 'action height' has an influence on the volume of sound. The higher the strings, the louder you can play without buzzing noises. If the action is too high, it will affect your speed in playing and hurt your fingers. Find an action height that is suitable for comfortable playing and try to get better sound from the other banjo parts.
 

Playing Location and Banjo Sound

Your playing location will influence the banjo sound.

Too much humidity in the area will cause the banjo to sound dull or brassy. Lack of humidity will cause the banjo to sound thin or tinny.

If you play the banjo in a small room with hard walls, the banjo sounds great compared to playing the banjo outdoors. The bathroom is a great sounding room. You can even watch your face contortions in the mirror as you play. It is difficult to watch your hands when you play the banjo in the mirror. All the actions are backwards to what you are used to seeing.

Some people have other suggestions about playing the banjo. Its like the bagpipes, you either like 'em or you don't. A guitar player once suggested to me where to put the banjo, not only would it not fit, but it would also be hard to play it in that position. Be considerate of others who may not enjoy the banjo as much as yourself.

Playing the banjo outdoors is a true test of banjo tone and volume. You will be able to pick the sound of the banjo you like when you hear it played outside. Take the banjo, or several, and a friend (preferably a banjo player) outside. Sit or stand in front of a building or trailer facing the wall. Have the friend listen about 50 feet away. Now, play or strum the banjo. If you have more than one banjo, have the friend choose which banjo is the loudest, clearest, mellowest, etc. Now, change places, have the friend play or strum the banjo. You can then decide which banjo you like best for your taste.

Another way to hear the banjo tone is to stand about a foot away from a wall facing it and play the banjo. This is how a microphone will hear the sound. Experiment with playing the strings closer and further away from the banjo bridge. This also influences the sound.

Another way to listen to banjo tone quality is to tape record the sound as you play in several locations ( inside, outside, against the wall, etc.) Youu can also record the sound of several banjos and listen to the playbacks. Choose the sound you like best.

If you are going to own a banjo, listen to several before you decide. Some people like the 'popping ' sound, or the deep bass 'twang' or a high 'ringing' sound. Everyone's banjo sound taste is different.

A 'die-hard' bluegrasser will like the hard driving loud volume. Most other band members like the banjo to be clear, mellow, and not too loud to drown them out. Some of us older pickers who play a variety of musical styles like a banjo that does it all. We adjust the volume and tone by how we play a certain song. The secret to being a good banjo player in a band is to ' blend in'. That is, not too loud or too soft, but to be heard at the right times, not overpowering.

Most good quality banjos can be 'set-up' to maximize its sound and produce the sound you like. Lesser quality banjo are not too variable in the sound tone because they cannot be adjusted correctly.


More Info About Banjos

Banjos are a lot like cars. Most will get you there, but the sporty ones will get you there in style. How do you tell a plain one from a flashy one ? Read on.

FINISH

Most banjos are finished with a varnish or laquer, sprayed on and buffed to a high gloss shine. Expensive finishes let the grain of the wood show through even though it may have coloured stain or gold flakes under the finish. Check the neck and resonator are made from the same wood and have the same colour finish match. Better quality banjos have a decorative wood marquetry and/or plastic edge bindings on the peghead, neck, neck heel, and resonator. Custom made banjos may even have carving on the peghead, neck heel, and resonator sides and back. Poorer quality banjos are painted to hide the wood grain, glue joints, and wood knots, etc. and have no edge bindings.

INLAYS

The amount of mother of pearl or abalone shell inlays in the peghead and fretboard is a status symbol of quality banjos. As a decoration, the pearl or abalone is cut and inlaid flush with the wood in a distinctive pattern. Highly prized designs are the 'Hearts and Flowers', the 'Wreath', and the 'Flying Eagle'. Some custom banjos have names, or intricate carved figures of people or animals inlaid on the neck or peghead. Other patterns such as the 'Dragon Head' or 'Vines' are also popular. Check to see if they are real mother of pearl or abalone and not a plastic imitation inlay. Some not so popular ideas have been covering the peghead, fretboard and resonator with plastic and stenciling on a design with paint. Rinestones and other decorations have also been added to banjos, but are just for show. Lesser quality inlays are made with white plastic or just have dots on the fretboard.

HEADS

Banjo heads are made of top quality mylar plastic in 'clear' or 'white frosted coating'. The white frosting spray also come in a smooth or rough finish, on the inside or outside of the head surface. The best ones have a 'star' or 'crown' company logo printed on them with a metal band epoxied around the edge. Animal 'skin' heads are a thing of the past unless you are restoring an antique. Synthetic skin heads with fiberglass are now available of simulate the original animal skin heads. I recommend the white frosted mylar heads for best sound.

STRINGS

Most strings are made with high quality musical steel. Strings are available as brass wound, monel, stainless, and other exotic metals. There are a wide variety of strings. Price and popularity usually tell which ones are the best. This is a variable for your sound taste. Find out what kind of strings the professional musicians prefer to use.

METAL PLATING

Metal plating on a banjo can be gold, chrome or nickel. The metal plating is another sign of quality. Gold is the top quality, either in 'bright' or the duller 'satin'. It is expensive and may wear away quickly. Newer plating include a clear vinyl protective coating over the gold. Chrome plating is the most popular. It is shiny, long lasting, and easy to maintain. Nickel plating is also popular, but not as shiny as chrome. Nickel plating is duller but very resistant to skin acid and scratch marks. New finishes in plating are black or gold anodized and coloured powder coat.

ENGRAVING

Metal parts on expensive banjos are usually engraved with a design or pattern before plating. Designs include leaves, flowers, vines, or geometric patterns. Look for the company name on the tailpiece as a sign of quality.