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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 '.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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
TYPES OF WOOD IN A
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.