How to Setup Your Banjo

Why must a banjo be set up? When a banjo is built at the factory, it is set up to a set of specifications and quality standards that the company has in place.  Unfortunately, that means that it is playable when it leaves the factory rather than set to the maximum ability for tone and playability.  From there, an instrument can change for any number of reasons such as moisture content changing, stress, or abuse.  Even an instrument that has been set up properly will change in time.
What is action? When we refer to the action of an instrument, we are talking about how close the strings are to the frets. If the action is too high, the instrument will be hard to play.  If the action is too low, the strings will buzz against the frets.  The best place to set the action is just high enough not to buzz according to the musician.  Heavy pickers might need a higher action where a soft picker might get by with the action set low.
      The tone ring is the heaviest component because of its size and the fact that it is made of solid brass.  The picture to the upper right is looking on the inside where the tone ring is mounted between the head and the wooden pot.  The picture to the right shows the outside and the tone ring can be seen in the middle just under the head and the tension hoop.  A tone ring extends just over one inch below the head and all the way around the pot.  This allows the head to be stretched over a large area and the brass adds tone to the instrument. 
How to install a new set of strings.  There is not much to say here, just make sure that you have at least 3 wraps on the big string and five on the smaller.  It is important that all of the strings are wrapped in the correct direction.  Clip off any part of the string that is not needed.  Watch out for sharp wires in the areas where your hands might be; they hurt, so bend them in a safe direction.  Click here to view a picture that might help to understand this.
What kind of strings should I use?  I use Martin Vega, Banjo Strings, Medium .010 - .023, Nickel Wound.  The main thing that I feel is important is that medium gauge strings will add tone to a Mastertone style banjo.  Other styles might work better with light.  You might have a brand that you like better; they're cheap enough to experiment with.
Setting the Action  First of all this picture is for a double purpose.  The cloth is a sound damper used for practicing quietly. 

Look at the two rods that run through the pot.  Both rods are used to hold the neck to the pot.  These rods should be tight (the small hole in the rod is for a nail to fit so it can be turned) near the neck but be careful, the neck is attached with only two 1/8" threaded rods and they will break if you force them.  The size of the rods that you can see is deceiving. The nut on the bottom rod at the tail end should just lock the rod still.  Do not pull or push with this rod. The top rod has a long nut as you can see.  The two nuts at the tail end are used to set the action of the neck.  Very Carefully, loosen the two nuts at the tail end (Top rod, inside nut, outside nut).  You can pull and push with these two nuts as needed.  Use the other as a lock nut.  A little experienced help would be a good idea here.

 

Buzzing Frets  Let's say that you have set the action but one fret buzzes somewhere down the neck.  You know that if it were fixed you could get even a closer action.  To check to see if it is higher than the rest, lay a small straight edge across several frets and see if you have made a see-saw.  If you do, you can file it down with a small smooth file.  Check it regularly until the see-saw action goes away.  If the fret seems to be coming out if the wood, try to tap it back down before and filling it done.  The frets are just pressed into the wood.  If the wood becomes too dry, the frets can come out.  Wipe the fingerboard with olive oil and they will tighten up again. 

Tip!  If your potato chip bag rips down the side while eating (I mean working on your banjo), force the tear back up into the split.  If the crack has no where to run, it will stop.  Hey, musicians have to snack too!

 

Tone and Sound Killers: As said above, the rods must be tight where the neck is attached.  Some of the sound comes from the neck.  If the connection is poor, then some sound will be lost. 
The arm guard shown above in the area labeled "The tone ring", should not be allowed to touch the tension hoop.  This will rob sound from the head. 

 

As said before, some of the sound comes from the neck, yet the head and tone ring must remain separate in order to ring.  Often the fingerboard will touch the tension hoop and the sound is robbed.  Make sure that the two pieces do not touch.  If they do, you will have to remove the neck and sand back the fingerboard area.  Again, a little experienced help would really be a good idea here!

How tight should the head be? This is a hard one to explain.  If the head is too tight the sound will be "tinny" (like tin).  If it is too loose, it will be low and muddy.  Strum the strings, take your five fingers and apply pressure around on the head.  If the pitch changes too much, it might be too loose.  If you have very little change and the sound is high an "tinny", it might be too tight. 

If you want to adjust it to see where it is, loosen the nuts on the back side of the head until they are in place but have no pressure.  First snug them all up.  Start tightening them going around the circle a little bit at a time (about 1/8 turn).  If some start getting hard to turn, slack off and give the others a little more.  You are looking for even pressure.  Shortly after they start getting tight, you will want to play it to see where you are.  Too tight and the head can split.  Be careful!  In most cases the neck will have to be readjusted. 

Tone  If you have everything set up as in the examples above, you should have all of the volume that you need.  Now let's talk about the tone.  Tone can be described as the color of the sounds that you hear.  The tone ring has the most influence on the tone.  In this case, what you have is what you get because they are not adjustable.  If your banjo does not have a tone ring, most of the other adjustments will still work the same. 

The tail piece should be set about 1/8" up from the head.  The more pressure on the bridge, the more sound goes into the head.

The Bridge  Most of the sound goes into the banjo at the bridge so you can see how important it is that this be right.  There are several things that effect the tone here.

First the size of the feet on the bridge.  The smaller the surface area toughing the head, the higher and "tinnier" it gets.  The more surface area toughing the head, the lower and more bass it gets.

Second, the material of the bridge itself.  The standard wood of choice is maple; other wood will work but maple has proven to be the best for tone.    

Third, the material that comes in contact with the strings.  Bridges have a strip of wood glued to the top of the maple for tone control.  This piece of wood absorbs the vibrations from the strings.  If this wood is soft such as rosewood, it will produce low soft sounds.  If it is hard such as ebony, it will produce a higher tone color.  I build my own bridges; I use curly maple topped with rosewood, ebony, and coconut shell.  I have found that coconut shell is much harder than ebony.  It produces a larger window of tone color and allows the tone ring to ring out better.  My bridges also are polished to allow the curls to glow.  Click here to read more.

Forth, the shape of the groves that hold the strings.  If the grove is not cut right, it can cause buzzing of the strings.  You might not hear it but it will not be right.  A string could sound a little dead.  The groves should hold half of the string and be sloped to the rear. 

Variations of shape: most bridges are straight, but there are compensated bridges as well.  These bridges are set up to make the middle strings longer to help the strings from dischording.  Some times the chords do not sound like they are in tune when a chord is played close to the head.  Compensated bridges help to correct this problem.

 How to know if the bridge is in the right location.  This process works with the banjo, mandolin, and guitars with "movable" bridges.

First, pick one string; I use the first string. Find the fret that is located in the middle of the strings length. This is sometimes marked with a double dot. When fretted, the note will be one octave higher than when the string is played "open". Now, over that fret we want to "chime" the note. "Chiming" is done by barely touching the string and picking the note, then quickly moving your finger away so that the string can vibrate. This makes a beautiful sound and can be done after a little practice. Now, compare the chimed note to the fretted note, they should sound the same. If the fretted note is lower, then the bridge is too far away from the neck. Too high, and the bridge is too close. Adjust until the notes are the same.

 

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