Setting up Your Banjo

A banjo is an accumulation of parts.   Aristotle 

References

There is plenty of advice on the net when it comes to setting up your banjo, as long as it is a five string.  But most of the information is valid for tenor too, just remember you are not trying to sound like Earl.

Bill Palmer the most extensive setup site on the net. Read the whole thing.

Frank Ford's site, a treasure house of information.

Howard Anderson's scientific look at head tightening.

Banjohangout.org has a wonderful set of links. Go to the forum and ask a question on setup if you have one.

Roger Siminoff has a comprehensive book on the subject.

Mike Holmes has a nice set of articles on banjos and banjo setup.

Here is a paper from a physicist on banjo setup.

Vin Mondello talks about calfskin heads.

Lee Kaufmann has a gorgeous site on banjo setup.

Richie Dotson has a nice useful site.

Here is an excellent site devoted to tenor and plectrum banjo with lots of information although not about Irish tenor banjo.  Go to the site index for more stuff. 

Banjohangout has a great thread on setup of the Irish tenor banjo.  (Disclosure: I started the thread.) 

More later including some video

As far as I can tell, most Irish tenor banjo players don't know how or have little interest in learning to set up their instruments. Not that I don't understand, it took me three years to get up the courage to take my first five string apart, but the fact is that a banjo is just a bunch parts and nothing else. Of course, if you don't put them together properly the banjo won't work or more commonly will not be at its best.

When you first get a banjo, you can be assured of one thing: that the banjo needs to be set up properly. The reasons are simple, parts loosen, the wrong parts are on the banjo, or they are out of line. This happens because vibration loosens parts and banjos vibrate, even when they are not played (and especially when they are shipped) because the head picks up all sorts of signals and transmits them to the rest of the banjo.


The last time I counted all the parts of my banjo, I stopped counting around a zillion (last count in the neighborhood of 85 for my Masterclone, and if you have a bracket type banjo add another 50 parts and some parts have parts) each of which has to be tightened to the proper torque and balanced against all the others while maintaining the proper alignment. No wonder people are daunted by the prospect of setting up a banjo!

But there are some simple and powerful things you can do to affect the sound and playability of your instrument. Most of the cost is in the time it takes to make the needed changes and a little common sense helps too. As an owner you can change the sound more readily than the playability which often requires a good luthier, but there are plenty of things you should know to do, even if you are not going to do them yourself.

First is what I consider the general consensus about what changes the sound the most: Type of Head, Head Tension, Bridge, Tailpiece, Strings, Picks in that order. (There may be some quibbling about the end of that scale, but the beginning is pretty much agreed on.) All of these can be changed or modified by the owner without too much danger of screwing up. But there are 7 different types of heads, 30 bridges to choose from, 10 sets of strings (materials and winding types), 15 tailpieces, and 200 picks, so the combinations are daunting. What you have to do is find an optimal combination for you and make it work. Lets look at some of the options:

Head

As a rule, the thicker the head, the more bass is brought out. But a thicker head also kills off some of the treble sound of the banjo so you have to make a compromise. Skin heads are the exception because they stretch and thin as pressure is applied to them which means that they have different tonal qualities depending on the humidity and tension. In addition, skin heads have a unique sound that is wonderful in the best conditions and terrible in the worst. The reason that plastic heads are so common is that they are uniform in manufacture and are not as sensitive to environmental change. When you decide that you want to change that head, you need to decide without any references (unless you have a friend with the identical banjo) which head you want and that can be tough unless you are willing to do the work of changing the head, tensioning it and waiting for weeks for it to settle in and continue to play it until you are satisfied that it will either work or not work. Changing heads is a long term project.

One aspect of heads is that they tend to age by becoming less stretchy as time goes on (this is true of both skin and plastic) and a lot of them reach a point of maturity that is pleasant to hear while others just go flat. Of course, we are talking years before this happens. Some vintage banjos still have the original heads on them and they sound terrific.

As a rule, if your banjo tends to sound shrill, a thicker head will help balance it out and if it is tubby and you want more treble, consider a thinner head such as a clear head (the thinnest.)

There are only two mylar head makers, Ludwig and Remo. All other brands are made by one or the other. I like heads made by both of them.

Head Tension

Tightening the head is one of the first things that banjo players do to their instruments and most of the time it is done without any consideration of the effects on the banjo. As a head is tightened, it changes the way the vibration from the strings is translated into sound. A looser head will emphasize the bass tones while tightening the head makes the treble sound more prominent. But this is only a trend. The bluegrass banjo players, who are looking for a specific sound in their instruments (which are mostly Gibson or Gibson clones because that is what Earl Scruggs played), find that there are usually three points as you increase tension that sound good to them. These tend to be right after the head is finger tightened on, somewhere in the middle between finger tight and broken, and somewhere at a higher tension. Since a banjo is just an assemblage of parts, you can vary the tension between those poles and listen for the best sound. As long as you return to the tension you like and as long as you have not changed another component, you should be able to duplicate that sound.

You will read a lot about tuning your head to a particular note. The idea is that each banjo has a basic resonance and if you tighten the head until it hits that note, your banjo will sound its best. While there may be some truth to this, I think it is virtually impossible to tell what note is being played if you hit the head with a mallet because there are so many overtones. You are better off just tightening the head until it sounds good to you and then tightening it a little more until it strangles the sound. Then you just back off until you find your sound again. All the other stuff is nonsense, but I am in a minority on that one.

 By the way, I tighten the head by starting with one of the nuts closest to the neck and going around one at a time.  I only tighten a sixth of a turn each time making sure that the tension ring is level.  You will read about using a star pattern which can get very complicated, but I have found that the easy way works just as well.  When you first put a head on, you will need to tighten up a lot.  I usually put my elbow on the middle of the head after putting the head on and push very hard to stretch the head a little.  This is an old drummer's trick to seat the head.  It will not break the head, so be bold.

Bridge

If you read my other article on bridges you will know that bridges make a huge difference in the sound of a banjo. Each banjo is different and each banjo's response to a bridge is different, but some bridges seem to be better than others. I am constantly making new bridges and trying them out and like the sounds I get on each banjo even though I get a variety of sound with each bridge type. The trick is to enhance the banjo so it produces a pleasing tone. The choice of which tone you want is up to you.

The bridge is important because it transmits and filters the vibrations from the strings to the head which then amplifies (and changes) the sound. If your bridge does not do a good job, the rest of the setup is for naught. If you have to spend more money than you wanted to on one component, it should be the bridge.

Bridge placement is a skill that all banjo players should have. It's actually very simple, the scale length of your banjo is exactly two times the length from the nut to the twelfth fret. Measure the nut to twelfth fret distance and double it. This is where the bridge goes, more or less. Once there, check the harmonic on the twelfth fret and then press the string to the fret to see if it is the same note. I usually check the G string first and set that side of the bridge and then check the E string. Usually this means that the bridge is at a slight slant but if so, that's the way it should be. This means that your intonation is close to where it should be. The D and A strings will just have to be approximate unless you have a compensated bridge. Since we mostly play out of first position, it is most important that the first seven frets be in tune.

Tailpiece

Your tailpiece should be adjustable so you can put some tension on the bridge to help it transmit sound. Tailpieces also transmit a little sound to the rim of the banjo and they filter out some of the overtones. I use a variety of tailpieces on my banjos trying out several until I find one that works best. My Masterclone has a Fults tailpiece on it which I love because it is so versatile. But any good adjustable tailpiece is fine.  The starting point for the adjustment is about 15 degrees of angle from the bridge to the tailpiece.  This or something close to it seems to work for all banjos.

Strings

The most important aspect of strings is gage. The GDAE tuning requires a fairly thick G string if it is going to sound good. Because each banjo is different, I usually suggest that players start out with the GHS custom set from Elderly Instruments. I like the stainless steel sound and the gages are good for my banjos. I also play bronze strings on some of my banjos. You can try various octave mandolin sets since most octave mandolin strings are long enough for a tenor banjo.

Picks

I use Dunlop .63 mm nylon picks (light gray) which seem to works best for me. A lot of other banjo players agree, but there are so many picks out that you should try as many as you can find. I find that the lighter picks work best, after all the banjo is a very loud instrument and you don't need much to set one off.  (Update)  Since I have been playing a banjo with an eleven and a half inch head, I have found that it responds better to the Dunlop .73 mm pick.  It seems that the wider the head, the heavier the pick needed to energize the head.  My Cello Banjo responds very well to a 1.5 mm to 5 mm pick.

Loose Parts

The bane of all banjo players is the buzz that you can't find. Most of the time, if it is not the nut or bridge or the action set too low, it is a loose part somewhere on the banjo. Since there are a zillion of them, it makes sense that you do an inspection every so often to see if anything is loose. Because a banjo is designed to transmit all vibrations, a loose screw in the headstock may sound like it is coming from the head. Often you just have to check every part including the truss rod before you find the buzz. It is all part of owning a banjo.

Read the articles I link to on the left and decide if you want to setup your own banjo. If not (and many great banjo players decide not to) then find a good setup person and take the banjo to them every so often. Banjos tend to slowly go out of whack so you may not even notice it until you have it looked at and fixed.

Remember, your banjo is you friend, keep it healthy!

Here is an exchange I had on thesession.org about setup. 

Hi guys, I am wondering what tenor banjo you are using. I know there are discussions on the number of frets, string gauge, but what about the maker? Is there any good banjo maker(s) favored by Irish banjo players?

I currently have one banjo made by Vega, but thinking of buying another one. I saw Seamus Egan using Bacon & Day, but Paramount also look very nice. Any opinion?

# Posted on May 15th 2006 by lowdens Re: Tenor Banjo Maker

Hi lowdens, are you familiar with John Bernunzio, Rochester, NY ?

http://www.bernunzio.com

He's got all sorts of tenors for sale. I bought a 1927 Vega, Whyte Laydie, "R" (17 fret) from him in Feb. I'm delighted with it....tone and action are excellent.

He fitted a resonator (Vega) for me at no additional cost.

If you're looking for a new banjo, have a look at Tom Cussen's site. Eoin O' Meachair of Caladh plays one. There's a link to Tom site on Caladh's and you can hear Eoin play.

Re: Tenor Banjo Maker

I have two Bacon&Days, and I must say they are lovely. The older banjos have (in my humble opinion) a nicer rounder sound than the modern banjos. But it's also a question of the setup. I know I can recommend B&D anytime, if you find a nice one!

# Posted on May 15th 2006 by Larshansen Re: Tenor Banjo Maker

I used to play a Clareen Elite Gold, and they play like a dream! But they have the somewhat sharper sound, much more cut. If you play a resonator Clareen, and play it hard, you'll be leading the whole thing everytime you play! (not to say that it's not cool;)

# Posted on May 15th 2006 by Larshansen

Re: Tenor Banjo Maker

Here's another link. Eamonn Coyne playing a David Boyle banjo.

http://www.eamonncoyne.com/profile.htm#

# Posted on May 15th 2006 by Strathfoyle Re: Tenor Banjo Maker<

i play a dave boyle banjo and am delighted with it. it has a deep tone and looks beatiful.dave is excellent to deal with also but im not sure what his waiting lists are like.

# Posted on May 16th 2006 by mike meade Re: Tenor Banjo Maker

Thanks guys for the comments.

After I posted this topic, I looked for some thread dealing with tenor banjos and found quite a few including the discussion on D. Boyle's and Clareen's.

On and off, I check the websites of some shops including Bernunzio's but haven't ordered anything yet. I will keep my eyes on it as I don't think I will spend that much money for new Boyle nor Clareen. Anyway, I am quite interested in B & D and Paramount at this moment I don't know why.

I do agree with the comments of those who mentioned that the setup is very crucial to determine the tone of the banjo, anyway...

Now I wonder what kind of tone do those banjo players look for. I have played Seamus Egan's Bacon & Day, but the sound of his was very crispy. I was quite surprised by it as Vega Little Wonder (with animal skin head) which I currently have doesn't sound like it at all...

I wish I can try more banjos...

# Posted on May 17th 2006 by lowdens Re: Tenor Banjo Maker

Each of the vintage brand banjos have a distinct sound that any jazz banjo player can recognize at a distance. So it is no wonder that your Little Wonder sounds different from a B&D. Of course you have a skin head on yours so there is the annoyance factor of environmental changes. But I have the same banjo and love it.

My experience with Paramounts, B&D, Vega, Weymann, and Leedy is that they all sound good as long as they are setup properly. After that it is a matter of taste.

Don't get caught up in the "sound like Earl (Scruggs)" mentality that the Bluegrass players have. They spend all their time and money tweaking banjos to sound like a set of recordings that are 50 years old. Even Earl's banjo doesn't sound like them since the recording technology has changed.

Instead learn to produce the best tone on your instrument that you can and then go out and listen to as many banjos as you can. One of these days a banjo will just cry out to you and you will know that that banjo is the one for you.

Mike Keyes

# Posted on May 18th 2006 by mikeyes Re: Tenor Banjo Maker

Hi Mikeyes,

Thank you for your comment.

I have read your comments on the other threads about banjo, too, and I start wondering what is the best tone on my banjo now.

I don't think I know about setup of banjos so much other than changing the strings, so I don't know how to adjust the things like banjo head, bridge, tailpiece etc... I want to listen to as many tenor banjos as I can, but in my area, I know only one banjo player other than me playing Irish music. So it is difficult for me to compare different banjos...

Anyway, now I feel like trying to find out what kind of tone my banjo can produce.

# Posted on May 18th 2006 by lowdens Re: Tenor Banjo Maker

OK, here is the short course on setup.

Banjos, unlike guitars or fiddles, are an assemblage of parts which means that (theoretically, anyway) you can take them down to their component parts, of which there are many, and then put them back together again. If you duplicate the fit and the various tensions, etc., a banjo will sound exactly the same as it did before you took it apart. Try that with a guitar and you will end up with a pile of firewood.

If any of the zillion parts of a banjo is not fit the same, the sound will change, again theoretically, and some parts have a greater effect on the sound than others. Also, since banjos are vibrating machines, parts loosen all the time, usually just enought to change the sound.

That being said, most banjos are in need of a setup every so often because constant playing, the environment, and the animosity of non-banjo players all have a tendency to change things. If your banjo has a skin head, it is even more sensitive to these forces.

We will use as an illustration a typical Vega Little Wonder tenor banjo. The LW is an entry level (in 1925) banjo with great genes. They are usually found with a 17 fret neck, although 19 fret instruments occur, may come with or without a resonator, and have the entry level tailpiece by Grover. When setup for Irish tuning they have a little bit of snap to the sound but overall are mellow sounding. Quite a nice little banjo.

The first thing to do is to inspect the banjo from top to bottom. 17 fret instruments are not as prone to neck warpage as the 19 fret ones, but it does occur. Look down the neck from the side to see if there is any forward bowing. You can also press the G string at the twelfth fret and the first fret to see if there is any space under the string. If there is not, you have a problem as there should be some, this is called relief and it allows the strings to vibrate without hitting a fret in the process. If there is excessive bowing (which to some extent is subjective, but after a while is obvious) this will interfere with intonation and fretting which is a bad thing. Reject that banjo unless you are willing to pay to have it fixed - the problem could be in the neck, the dowel stick, or the fit to the rim, all expensive fixes unless you do them yourself. Also check for twist in the neck. A little clockwise twist of a few degrees (looking at the bridge from the headstock) is not a bad thing, most fiddles have that, but a noticable twist is another costly item. This type of inspection should be done before you buy if possible. The good news is that 17 fret instruments are usually free of excessive warping.

The next thing to do is to look at the rim. If there are any de-laminations (you will see a split in the lamination of the rim) that will effect sound. This is one thing you can fix, you fill the de-lamination with glue and then clamp the hell out of it until the glue sets. Use tite-bond original and it should do well (unless you want to deal with hide glue which is the best way to go.) If the rim is solid, then check the bracket bolts and make sure that they are all snug but not over tight. Then check all the other screws but don't touch the hooks and nuts that hold the head on. The idea is to make the banjo a unified a unit as possible so that when you start the setup, you don't have loose parts around to rattle and mess things up. While the LW does not have coordinator rods (these should be slightly over finger tight and not used to set the neck) or truss rods (they should be snug and set the neck to have a little relief, don't use it to set the action), those banjos that do should be set so there are no rattling nuts and bolts.

More theory: The components that effect the sound of your banjo are as follows, in order of importance: The head and head type, head tension*, bridge* and bridge placement*, tailpiece, tailpiece tension*, strings*, and picks*. Those components with the asterisk (*) are easy to adjust or change while the others require time and taking parts off the banjo (well the strings do to, I grant you.)

Heads generally give you a brighter sound as you progress from a clear head (brightest and thinnest), through the various frosted heads, to the Renaissance head to the fyberskin head (Tyvek, the same stuff used to protect the engineered wood on the side of your house.) Skin heads are a separate category as they have a unique sound and unique problems, more on this later.

I prefer the less bright heads but not Fyberskin which I think just dulls everything.

Bridges can change the sound from bright to darker depending on construction, wood and mostly weight. Heavier bridges are darker sounding with fewer of the highs. Well made bridges such as the Kateyz, Snuffy Smith, Scorpion, and several others are more expensive, but can be tailored for your instrument and the sound you want. Changing a bridge can make a remarkable change in the sound.

Tailpieces can in themselves cause a change in the sound, but the pressure that a tailpiece places on the bridge is arguably more important. The angle of the string from the bridge to the tailpiece should be about 13-15 degrees according to every source I can find. I prefer the Oettinger tailpiece which allows individual string angles (they are not to be used as fine tuners) that place similar stresses on each string. But I also use a variety of other tailpeices and they all seem to impart a special sound to the instrument.

Most of you are familar with the different tones that come from stainless steel and the various bronze materials that strings are made of.

Picks often change the way an instrument sounds. I prefer the .60 Dunlop nylon picks on my banjos and very thick picks on mandolin and guitar.

Now to setup, I hope you are still with me.

The most common thing that is wrong with a banjo is that the head is not tuned properly. Most of the time the head is too loose. Plastic heads (more on skin later) tend to stretch for at least 6 months after they are put on and hooks/bolts loosen with playing and temperature change. As you will find out, a small change in the hook tension can mean large tonal changes. If you talk to the majority of BG banjo players they constantly talk about tuning the head of a banjo to a specific note, usually G or G#. Naturally, they are all wet.

Banjos are individuals and you can't tune a head to a specific note and expect it to be great. Besides, I seriously doubt that very many players can hear a specific note when the head is tapped as there are numerous overtones sounded with this procedure. The best way to use your ear is to listen for the sound of the banjo being played while you slowly tighten the head down. (Tighten, then play, not both at the same time.)

Before you tighten the head, make sure that the tension ring is on square to the rim. You do this by taking several measurements from the hoop to a fixed point such as the top of the brackets. This distance (you can make a crude gauge with a dowel) should be the same all around, otherwise you will warp the tension ring over time and the banjo will not sound good. (For those of you with coordinator rods, any excessive tension there will warp the rim with similar results.) Once the head is on square, you can begin to tune the head. I also prefer to lubricate the hooks using wax or a very small amount of a thick grease (the wax will not stain your banjo.)

My preferred method is to tighten the head in small increments (one sixth of a turn) in a clockwise manner starting at the neck and going all around. Some prefer to use a star pattern (tightening opposite nuts back and forth as if you were tightening the head gasket of a car) but I always get lost and have found that the way I use now is just as good as long as you make sure that the tension ring is square. At some point (experts say that there are at least three points) your banjo will start sounding good to you. If so, don't stop, instead keep on going until you start to choke off the sound. Then simply back up the number of increments you need to get the good sound back. At this time you can take measurements with a DrumDial or a Neary wrench (all available from janet Davis and are used by drummers) to see what your tension numbers are. Later on when you find that the tone of your banjo is fading, you can reset the tension to the optimal one. I don't use those aides any more as I can usually just find the sweet spot with my ears.

If you are beginner at doing banjo mechanics, it can be daunting. Most of us fear that we will break the head. Unless you head is faulty (there was a run of faulty Remo heas for a while, and if you are not improving your sound, you should check for small breaks at the hoop) you will be hard pressed to break a plastic head. In fact, I have seen demonstrations of people standing on the head while it was on the rim of the banjo (neck was off, of course.)

Remember that your head will stretch after you tune it up and you will have to do this again at some time. One way to slow the process of stretching down is to pre-stretch the head by pressing down on the tense head with your elbow or the heel of your hand to set the head on the rim. You will not break the head unless the head is defective.

The next step, if you need it, is to make sure that the bridge is in the right place. Check this by playing the harmonic at the twelfth fret and then playing the note at the twelfth fret. If they are different, move the bridge, closer to the headstock if the note is flat, closer to the tailpiece if it is sharp. Check the E note and the G note (you can't do anything about the others, anyway) and most of the time you will find that the bridge is slanted when you are finished. This is OK. This is called compensation and is there because the strings have different gauges.

If you decide to change bridges, remember that putting a new bridge on changes the tension dynamics of your banjo and you have to a) let it settle in for a week or so before deciding if it is helping (although sometimes the change is dramatic and immediate) and b) you may have to reset the head to get the best sound from your new bridge.

Next look at your tailpiece and see if it is putting any pressure on the bridge. If you have a no-knot tailpeice, change it out for a Waverly type (don't worry if it is for a 5 string banjo, the banjo can't count) which has some capability of putting tension on the strings. Go for that 15 degree string angle.

The next thing you can do is to change strings. Most Irish tuned banjos have G strings that are too light in gauge, especially with a 17 fret instrument. I prefer a .042 inch string as my G string but each instrument will need a little experimentation as to string gauge and type of material. I use Stainless steel on my Littel Wonder, but yours may vary.

The rest of it, especially the action at the nut and neck/rim fit issues, are best left to the experts (well anyone can change out a tailpiece) but are worth the money as far as playability goes.

Skin heads are a special class. Skin is a very durable material for heads but it is sensitive to head and humidity. It is hard to break a head, but if you leave it in an attic at full tension, it will dry out, become brittle, and eventually crack. I keep my LW skin head at about 80 percent of the tension that makes it sound good and I literally warm it up with my body heat as I play. This means that I have to tune it down during a session until it stabilizes in the environment but as far as I am concerned it is worth it. I keep the banjo in a climate controlled room (AC and a humidifer, it is not that fancy) and am aware of the state of the head at all times.

Try these tricks and see if you have a different sounding banjo when you are finished.

Mike Keyes