I have been choosing 5 string bluegrass banjo for over 26 years, and have been teaching for many of those years. I’ve seen a lot of banjos come and go, and I know the average student needs a few tips to make their banjo sound its best.
If I had 10 new students starting today, I know 6 or 7 of those students would tell me, “I’ve had this old banjo in the closet for 20 years and I thought it was time to learn how to play. That.” Which most didn’t. know is that even sitting in a cupboard, the banjo is out of adjustment. Tender loving care is needed!
*Important*: There is no substitute for a good instrument. It is a fact that a low-end instrument is more difficult to learn. It’s harder to play, harder to manipulate. If you play a low-end banjo for some time, then switch to a higher quality instrument, you will be surprised how easy it is to play. Most students start out with the cheap learning instrument, then switch to the “Cadillac” a few years later. This is backwards. You should give yourself the benefit of learning something that is easy to play, right from the start. Having said that, many people don’t have the budget for an expensive banjo, plus they may have an old banjo on hand, ready to learn. This article will help those people. Don’t be fooled into thinking we’re going to make your cheap $ 100 Japanese banjo sound like a Gibson Mastertone. We will make it ring better, but we are not turning a Ford Escort into a Cadillac in any way.
Item # 1: new strings
Perhaps one of the most dramatic changes you can make to the overall sound of your banjo is to change the strings. This is not difficult, and you may do this at home. One big consideration is keeping an eye on the gauge of your string. Most string manufacturers label their string sets with words like light gauge, medium light, medium, etc. My recommendation is to go with medium light; you will find media too hard for your fingers. If you have thin fingers or are young, you may even prefer light gauge strings. You will have to try different outfits to develop a preference.
A good recommended string change interval is to change the strings after every 8 hours of playing time. And if you’re taking the banjo out of the closet for the first time in weeks, months, or years, definitely swap it out. Strings will corrode, wear out, rust, become dull, etc., even if the banjo is in the closet. See the author’s information to contact me with questions.
Item # 2: establish the bridge
The bridge is that little piece of wood that the strings pass through, just before they reach the end of the banjo. If the bridge is out of place, your banjo will not deliver the proper notes. The bridge is not insured; it is held in place by the pressure of the strings and can be moved. To set up the bridge, you will need an electronic tuner.
Measure the distance from the nut to the 12th fret. Then make the distance from the 12th fret to the bridge the same. Once done, tune your banjo. Once tuned, put the fret on the first string (the highest of the two D strings) at the seventeenth fret and see what your tuner tells you. When the bridge is set to the right, this will be a tuned G note. If the tuner says the note is too high, move the bridge a little towards the tail. Retune and check again. If the tuner says the note is flat, move the bridge towards the neck a bit. Retune and check again. Continue checking, moving, and re-tuning until the first string, when played at the 17th fret, shows a G note in tune.
* Helpful tip *: Once the bridge is in place, whenever you do a string change in the future, just do one string at a time so the bridge does not roll over you.
Item # 3: head
This is a setting that tends to make a big difference to the overall sound of the banjo. Most beginners are afraid of this one, but it is not necessary. All you need is some screwdrivers or socket wrenches, and maybe a screwdriver. It’s pretty straightforward. Coincidentally, the head is the white “skin” that you can play like a drum; the big white circle that forms the face of the banjo. When the supports that hold the head tightly loosen, then the head becomes “mooshy” and “chubby.” A firm, crisp head gives you that classic banjo twist!
The first step is to remove the back of the banjo (this is called a resonator). Most banjos have 4 thumb screws that hold the resonator in place. Generally, no tools are needed to remove these screws. Sometimes you will need a screwdriver to remove the screws that hold the back.
Flip the banjo upside down and watch the “fingers,” or brackets, sound the banjo. At the lower end of these brackets are bracket nuts. These brackets and nuts are just fancy nuts and bolts; nothing for them. Grab your sockets or nut drivers and find out what size will fit over your bracket nuts.
Once you have the correct tool, start with a nut and tighten it. *Important*: Don’t accelerate with all your might! Just “snap” this bracket. It is possible to spit or break the head if you put these nuts. Tighten the nut with very little force, then move on to the next one.
Most banjo repairmen say you should make a nut, then move on to the one directly in front of it, on the other side of the banjo, and tighten it. Work around the banjo, adjusting each pair like this. Remember to slightly tighten the nut.
Once you get back to where you started, you will probably find it loose again. It is very common to have to do 3 or 4 passes around the banjo before getting everything set. When you have everything sharp and tight, put the resonator back on and enjoy!
With a little love and tenderness, you can spice up your old low-end banjo a bit more life. I always recommend buying as much banjo as you can afford, but reality shows that we will have to work with what we have available. Set up your old banjo with these simple tips and you’ll be happier with the overall sound and playability.