People who are brand new to the banjo often times don't realize that there is a bit of tender loving care required for keeping your banjo sounding great. It's almost like caring for a pet! We're not talking tough stuff, and the good news is that you can do it yourself!
If 10 people contacted me today and asked for lessons, 7 of those 10 people would tell me "I've had this banjo under my bed/in my closet/in the attic for 20 years and I figured it was time to learn how to play it". These new students are then quite often surprised to hear that those 20 year old strings HAVE TO BE CHANGED. "But Banjo Paul, they haven't even been touched in 20 years!" I'm often told. Not only do the strings need to be changed, but there are likely a couple of other key adjustments we need to make, even if your banjo hasn't been touched in years.
Even more surprising to some people is that their brand new banjo sometimes needs adjusting. This is usually the case with a low-end, cheaper banjo purchased from a large, impersonal music store, or from a store whose staff just isn't familiar with banjo issues. Sometimes, part of the "discount" price is that no one invested any man-hours into fine-tuning the banjo; they just slapped it together and shipped it out.
This page aims to help you with a few basics when it comes to banjo setup. Now bear in mind that the world of setting up banjos is a highly technical one and there are people who specialize in it. I am not one of those people! Being an experienced banjo player means that I've learned a few basics over the years, and I'd like to share those basics with you so that you can have a better picking experience with your banjo. You can and should seek out a professional for an even more in-depth look at getting the most out of your banjo.
Ready? I have 3 main areas of banjo setup to address with you. Just click each of the tabs above to learn more!
Many beginners are surprised to find out that strings don't last forever. Keeping your banjo locked up in a case and stored in a closet for any length of time isn't insurance against the strings going bad. You could consider your strings to have a "shelf life" of some length of time. That length of time will vary according to temperature, humidity, and the amount of playing you do.
I'm sure there are opinions amongst experienced stringed instrument pickers as to how often you should change your strings. It's going to vary, but I've been telling my students to change their strings about every 6 months unless you are playing heavy. In that case, change them more often. If another experienced picker gives you a different opinion, just remember that I told you it might happen! I am not more right than them; they aren't more wrong than me. They indeed could be more right than me! But...in the experience I've gained over many years of picking, I have figured out what works for me.
Remember that strings rust and corrode, even if you don't touch them. If you pull the ol' banjo out of the closet after many months or some number of years, it'll be time to change the strings, without any doubt. The old strings will be corroded and they will have degraded over time.
So we know that strings degrade by themselves under the bed (just like me when I would play hide and seek and no one would look for me. I spent hours degrading under that bed.) But the demise of your strings is also brought on by touching them. Your skin oils and acids corrode the strings. Depending on your PH balance and various other bits of your physiology, you might even wear your strings out just by touching them, much faster than another person does.
Changing strings is not tough. You can do it! I promise. All it takes is practice. You might even have to sacrifice one set while you are learning. You can break the process down into a simple description: hook the loop over the appropriate hook on the tailpiece, route the string over the bridge and then over the nut, feed it through the hole in the tuning peg, and wind the string onto the peg. Be sure to leave the string loose when you begin winding onto the peg so that you have plenty of wraps of the string to go around the peg. Then the string won't slip on the peg.
This little string conversation isn't meant to be a complete tutorial on changing strings; the length might get too long if I tried that. Plus tail pieces can vary banjo-by-banjo. If I include pictures and graphics of my tail piece it might confuse you. (Pluse including my tail piece might get me in trouble with the censors!) You can use my simple description above to guide you in your string change, and you can even contact me if you have questions. One little tip I will give you though is in the picture at the left: it's most common to wind your strings onto the tuning pegs in the direction of the yellow arrows. If you do it the opposite way it isn't wrong necessarily, it's just that you'll be different than the other kids on the block if you don't follow this standard "convention" when it comes to the direction of string winding.
String changes produce the most dramatic effect when it comes to making your banjo sound better. If you've been active with your banjo and picking for a while, you won't even believe it's the same banjo after your first string change. It will sound so pretty and bright and smooth that you'll think you purchased a new banjo!
Your banjo is a precision instrument. Even if people accuse you of missing some teeth; even if people wonder if you cruise your family reunion to pick up dates; even if people see you walking your child to school because you are both in the same grade (*...insert your favorite banjo player joke here...*) even if all that is true, you can smile to yourself with quiet pride, knowing that you actually play a rather high-tech instrument. This is very evident when you consider the placement of the bridge, which isn't fastened down. That bridge has to be precisely placed after the instrument maker uses logarithms to measure the placement of the frets. It's all quite high-tech.
Because your bridge isn't fastened down, it's surprisingly easy to move it out of position. Even a small nudge can produce negative effects on the overall sound of your banjo. Having the bridge out of place affects the "intonation" of the banjo. That's a fifty-cent word that has to do with being able to produce the right notes when you fret your banjo.
Getting the bridge into the right place is a really crucial part of setting up your banjo. Here's a rough, thumbnail sketch of how to place the bridge: the halfway point of the distance from the nut to the bridge is the 12th fret on the banjo. So, measure the distance from the nut to the 12th fret, and then set the bridge that same distance away from the 12th fret. Remember that's a general rule of thumb; you have to then "dial it in" by doing some finer adjustments.
Get your bridge placed according to the instructions above, then get the banjo in tune using your electronic tuner. (The tuner is critical for this.) Once your banjo is in tune, fret string 1, waaay up at the 17th fret, then pick it. If your bridge is correctly placed, your tuner will tell you that it is hearing a G note. Likely this won't be exactly what you get because as I said we have to dial things in a little better.
Likely when you do as I described, your tuner will tell you that it is hearing a G note that is either too sharp or too flat. If the note is too sharp, simply scoot the bridge a tiny bit towards the tailpiece. If the note is too flat, scoot the bridge towards the neck. Once you move the bridge it'll likely knock the banjo out of tune, at least a little bit. So...retune! Get the banjo back in tune, then repeat the process. You may have to "scootch" the bridge around 3 or 4 times until you dial it in. Just don't move it in large increments so that you don't overshoot your mark.
Be patient and keep scootching the brige, retuning, and then checking that note. After 3 or 4 attempts I think you'll find that you've reached that sweet spot and you now have correct intonation. You'll have a great sounding banjo that doesn't go sharp or flat when you fret it!
The last basic area of banjo setup that I'll talk about is the banjo head. A crucial part of making the banjo sound crisp, punchy, and, well...like a banjo...is to tighten the head. Many older banjos end up with a spongy, loose, soft head, and this will cause your banjo to have a low, "tubby" sound. (The reason all of that happens is a very simple one and easy to fix: the brackets that hold the head tight come loose.) A tight head gives your "banjar" some zing! Without the head being tight, your banjo will lose much its sustain and resonance. Once you've tightened the head, you'll see that it goes a long way towards improving the sound of your banjo. If your head is mushy feeling or loose, give this a try! You'll be amazed. All you need is a socket or a nut driver to make this adjustment. (Did your banjo come with a funny little wrench? That's for tightening the bracket nuts!)
Don't be afraid to try this adjustment at home by yourself, but at the same time do it with a little care. The first step is to remove the resonator from the back of the banjo; after that you'll tighten the bracket nuts and you'll be good to go!
You can see the two pictures below for a visual reference, but usually the first step of removing the resonator is pretty easy. From what I've seen of people's banjos, there are usually 4 thumb screws that hold the resonator on. Most often, you don't even need any tools to remove these thumb screws; they are just "finger-tight" and somewhat easy to remove. (You might need to grunt a little like you do when you remove the ketchup bottle top.) Every now and then I see that the resonator is actually held on to some banjos with some screws that are screwed right into the wood. For these you'd need a screwdriver. Whichever fastening system your banjo uses, just remove the fastenters that are holding the resonator on and the resonator will come right off the back. You can see my resonator below, showing one of the 4 thumb screws that hold my resonator on.
Once you have the resonator removed, grab your funny-looking bracket wrench, or an assortment nut drivers or sockets, and see which size fits over the now-exposed bracket nuts. (You can see these in the picture above right. That's my banjo with the resonator removed and the banjo turned upside-down.) Once you have the correct size of wrench/nut driver/socket, simply tighten these nuts. Similar to changing the tire on your car, you'll want to get one nut tight, and then go to the one directly across from it on the other side of the banjo and tighten it down. Keep working around the circle in this fashion, doing one bracket nut, then the one across from it, then another, then the one across from that, etc.
IMPORTANT: bear in mind that the head is plastic, and if you crank the brackets down with all your might, you'll certainly crack or split the head. I "snug" the bracket nut with very little force, and then move to the next one. This is a very unhelpful instruction to you perhaps because it doesn't give you any real frame of reference to tell you how hard to tighten. The best I can tell you is I turn the tool until I start to feel some resistance, then stop. I'm not straining; I'm barely using my muscle power. For those of you who are mechanically inclined, I'm putting very little "torque" on the bracket nuts; certainly not using the full power of my arm. I go around the banjo "snugging" the bracket nuts, and by the time I've hit my third or fourth pass, I'm feeling that the bracket nuts no longer have much room to be tightened any further.
You'll need to make three or four passes around the banjo; each time you come back to the ones you've already tightened, they'll be loose again until you've made 3 or 4 passes around the banjo.