I’ve been picking 5 string bluegrass banjo for 26+ years, and I’ve been teaching for many of those years. I’ve seen many banjos come and go, and I know that the average student needs a couple of pointers for making their banjo sound as good as it can.
If I were to have 10 new students start today, I know that 6 or 7 of those students would say to me: “I’ve had this old banjo in the closet for 20 years and I thought it was time to learn how to play it.” What most don’t know is that even just sitting in a closet, the banjo gets out of adjustment. Some tender loving care is needed!
*Important*: There is no substitution for a nice instrument. It’s a fact that a low-end instrument is just harder to learn on. It’s tougher to play, tougher to manipulate. If you play a low-end banjo for some time, then switch to a higher quality instrument, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to play. Most students start out on the cheap instrument to learn with, then switch into the “Cadillac” a few years in. This is backwards. You should give yourself the benefit of learning on something that’s easy to play, right from the get-go. Having said that, many people don’t have the budget for an expensive banjo, plus they might have an old banjo already in hand, ready to be learned on. This article will help those people. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that we’re going to make your cheap, $100 Japanese made banjo sound like a Gibson Mastertone. We’ll make it sound better, but we aren’t going to turn a Ford Escort into a Cadillac by any means.
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 tough, and you can do this at home. One big consideration is to watch your string gauge. Most of the string manufacturers label their string sets with words like light gauge, medim light, medium, etc. My recommendation is to go with medium light; you’ll find mediums way too tough on your fingers. If you have slight fingers or are young, you might even prefer light gauge strings. You’ll have to try different sets to develop a preference.
A good recommended string changing interval is to change the strings after each 8 hours of playing time. And if you are pulling the banjo out of the closet for the first time in many weeks, months, or years, definitely get them changed. Strings corrode, wear out, rust, become dull, etc., even if the banjo is just sitting in the closet. Consult the author’s information to contact me with questions.
Item #2: set the bridge
The bridge is that little wooden piece that the strings pass over, just before they reach the end of the banjo. If the bridge is out of place, your banjo won’t make the proper notes. The bridge is not fastened down; it’s held in place by the pressure of the strings, and it can be moved around. To set the bridge, you’ll 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 this is done, tune your banjo. Once in tune, fret the 1st string (the higher of the two D strings) at the 17th fret, and see what your tuner is telling you. When the bridge is set right, this will be an in tune G note. If the tuner says the note is too sharp, then scoot the bridge back towards the tail piece just a little. Retune, then check again. If the tuner says the note is flat, scoot the bridge towards the neck just a little. Retune, then check again. Keep checking, moving, and retuning until the 1st string, when fretted at the 17th fret, is showing an in tune G note.
*Handy tip*: Once the bridge is set, then each time you do a string change in the future, just do one string at a time so that the bridge doesn’t move on you.
Item #3: the head
This is an adjustment that tends to make quite a difference on the overall sound of the banjo. Most beginners are afraid of this one, but there’s no need to be. All you need are some nut drivers or sockets, and maybe a screwdriver. It’s fairly straight-forward. Coincidentally, the head is the white “skin” that you can play like a drum; the big white circle that makes up the face of the banjo. When the brackets that hold the head tightly work themselves loose, then the head becomes “mooshy” and “tubby” sounding. A crisp, tight head gives you that classic banjo zing!
The first step is to remove the back of the banjo (this is called the resonator.) Most banjos have 4 thumb screws holding the resonator on. Usually no tools are needed to remove these screws. Sometimes, you’ll need a screwdriver to remove the screws holding the back on.
Turn the banjo upside down, and notice the “fingers”, or brackets, ringing the banjo. At the bottom end of these brackets are bracket nuts. These brackets and nuts are just fancy nuts and bolts; nothing to ’em. Grab your sockets or nut drivers, and figure out which size will fit over your bracket nuts.
Once you have the correct tool, start with one nut and tighten it. *Important*: don’t crank down with all your might! Simply “snug” this bracket. It’s possible to spit or crack the head if you crank on these nuts. Snug the nut with very little force, then move to the next one.
Most banjo repairmen say that you should do one nut, then move to the one directly across from it, on the other side of the banjo, and tighten it. Work your way around the banjo, tightening each pair this way. Remember to just barely snug up the nut.
Once you return to the one you started with, you’ll likely find it loose again. It’s very common to have to make 3 or 4 passes around the banjo before you get everything snugged down. When you have everything crisp and tight, put the resonator back on and enjoy!
With a little tender loving care, you can squeak some more life out of your old, low-end banjo. I always recommend buying the most banjo you can afford, but reality proves that we’ll have to work with what we have available to us. Get your old banjo set up using these simple pointers, and you’ll be happier with the overall sound and playability.