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THE BANJO BRIDGE…
is at the heart of making your banjo work and it is the real key to your banjo’s sound. No doubt you are aware of the vast differences that different bridges can make. Through my thirty plus years of building bridges, I still marvel at that fact.
I was in a conversation with Sonny Smith the other day. He said the bluegrass banjo sound is changing and that the Nechville banjo fit that change perfectly. I thought that was interesting. I don’t know if I would say it the same way however. There is a complicated web of factors that influence what sound you might consider to be best. Let me say this at the risk of raising an argument. My view is that with the development of more varied styles and genres, it benefited the music to make modifications to the traditional set up in order to smooth and refine the sound. I think people are finding that the influence of jazz and other music on the banjo has indeed resulted in the banjo becoming a little more musical. Evidence of this long term trend can be heard during any bluegrass radio show that spans the 30’s to today. Players of traditional Bluegrass today are mostly aware that the “old banjo” is not the only sound that works. In fact, our obligation to honor the essence of Bluegrass does not mean we should use 1940’s technology to produce music that will thrive into the future.
I have succeeded for 30 years as a builder only because I have found customers with discerning ears. They have taken time to figure out why helical-mounting leads to enhanced tonal purity. I didn’t invent the modern banjo sound, but I initiated several sound design enhancements when I wasn’t getting what I needed from my old Mastertone. I realized in the early 80’s that for Bluegrass and acoustic to grow as it has, the banjo needed some refinement and variety, so that is what I dedicated my life to. (I sometimes wonder about myself)
Sonny is right. Banjo makers and set up specialists have learned to improve traditionally made banjos, with better tone and balance, which indeed has helped the Bluegrass sound evolve. Lucky for me, the even, pure tone inherent to all helical mounted designs fits in all musical situations and is adaptable as musical needs change. . . I’d simply say, Bluegrass continues to get better as musicians discover banjos that enhance but don’t distract, and blend but can still stand out when you want them to. What is holding you back from learning more about Nechville?
Making music is a great hobby. It’s a fun and creative outlet, It can be expensive if you collect expensive instruments. But compared to Cable TV, Golf, Boating, skiing, and driving, hunting, raising pets, or sky diving, it’s cheap. Especially if you are wise and purchase good instruments with high resale value.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to buy the best instrument you can afford. I know many people who have wasted money on banjos that looked good, and even sounded pretty good for a while. Then the instrument starts needing continual adjustment, and unfortunately never delivers top-tier performance. Then people lose money on a trade for a slightly better instrument which still doesn’t measure up over time. Even after a player has lost money several times over on inferior banjos and settled on one he thought would be his last, invariably a picky player’s ear begins to seek alternate sounds.
Please don’t just go out and buy a banjo just because somebody said it was the best. Make your best choice by learning what really makes a banjo great. Here’s a practical checklist for those of you looking.
The following is a list ofthings that I find important as a player and a builder. You’ll have your own priorities however, like how it sounds and looks, but the following are banjo luthiers’ details that may not be obvious to you but are worth considering when looking for a banjo.
* Smooth dressed frets (wider frets wear slower)
* Ergonomically contoured playing surface (compound radius retains neck integrity while improving playability)
* No excessive weight (professional banjos can be 7 pounds or less)
* Neck angle adjustability (don’t expect coordinator rods to give you much if any adjustment)
* Evenly tensioned head (Helical mounting guarantees even-ness)
* Low enough string height with high enough bridge (taller bridges increase power and sustain)
* Beveled non-metal armrest (metal armrests cut down circulation in your arm)
* Bridge properly compensated for intonation and optimal action on each string (bridge should be custom fitted to each banjo)
* Easy head changing (Save time for more practice)
* Wide and generous Neck to body interface (for tuning stability and solid sound)
* Dual point anchoring for tail piece (tailpiece shouldn’t move from side to side)
* Easy string changes (avoid tailpieces with covers for quickest changes)
* Straight-line tailpiece design (keeps string energy directed straight into head)
* Flexibility of options (does it have adaptability for alternative tone components or necks?)
The Nechville Helimount acoustic banjo is a breeze to set up and adjust to your liking, but I recently realized that there is a great need for more precise instructions for the more advanced players and those with very specific tone ideas in mind. When I am working in person, I always help people understand their banjo a little better, but I can’t do that with everybody, so here is my best shot at walking you through all the set up steps and adjustments that you can do on a Nechville banjo.
Let’s start with by making sure the head is set for the right sound and playability. Like any part of a banjo, The type of head is an important set-up choice. Something to think about before changing heads is what will the head do to the level of the playing surface of your head? For example, If you are going for the warmer sound of a relaxed head, you’ll benefit from using a high crown head, especially if you prefer to use a smaller bridge. The high crown allows the tone ring to push the head up higher in relation to the tension hoop so you can use a shorter bridge. If you go too tight with the high crown, the playing surface might get as high as the top of the tension hoop, which is not recommended.
Please don’t use low crown heads in a Helimount, unless you use it with an archtop tone ring. The low crown with a flat head tone ring may not give you enough room to thoroughly engage the thread of the flange ring with the thread of the Helimount, and it could become cross threaded. When replacing heads, always spin the flange ring in by hand and be sure it is level and nothing is preventing full mating of the threads.
I would also avoid certain specialty heads like Kevlar, and thick reflective heads: they usually don’t sound right, and their stiffness makes them difficult to use for the same reason as the low crown, unless they have been previously stretched out in another banjo. 5 Star and Lugwig white frosted on top plastic heads will work, but you’ll find the sound bright but one dimensional. I prefer the Remo standard heads for a bit more depth and full ranging response. The Renaissance translucent heads give a more organic or warm effect. Continue tightening your head to playing tension, place the bridge and tune it up.
There is a window of perfect tension for every banjo and it occurs when the head is around 90 on a drum dial. This corresponds to a head ringing when tapped with a G# note. You may need to add considerably more tension than you would expect to reach this optimum point. However it is possible to over-shoot the ideal tension. Beware if the sound gets sharp, cold and one dimensional. For more information on heads, see the Nechville News archive and look for anarticle, “Heading for Great Sound.”
Once you think the head is tight enough, Check the neck bow. Hold down a tightened string at both ends of the fingerboard, and there should be a small distance from that string to the middle frets. I mean less than .01 or 1/100 of an inch of bow. That’s only a thick sheet of paper. A 1/4″ nut driver is the tool of choice for adjusting the truss rod. Be sure you have one that is small enough to fit into the access hole on the peghead, (call Nechville if you need one).
With the proper neck Bow and tight head, now it’s time to install your favorite height bridge and check the action (my favorite is a 3/4″ radiused bridge). If you are satisfied with the action after reaching this step, great , it is time to skip to the next paragraph below. If however the action is too low, you have a choice. Either install a higher bridge, tighten the head more, move the neck up to decrease neck angle, or do any combination of these 3 things to arrive at the best action. Consider how each adjustment affects the overall tone and whether it will take you closer or farther from your goal. When I mention these effects, note that the converse is also true (go the other way to remedy high action).
Taller bridge usually means more mass, increasing sustain, raising action, and giving the banjo the capability of being played with more volume, as long as the mass of the bridge is not muting too much. Keep the bridge under 3 grams and you should be OK. It is great to have an assortment of bridges, especially if you have several banjos. Changing bridges at this point in the set up process is a good idea, because you can learn more about what size and weight bridge your banjo likes with the particular head tension and neck angle that you are starting out at. Tighter Head means higher action, brighter and louder sound to a point, and generally a more focused and stable sound. If head barely yields to finger pressure, and reads over 92 on the drum dial, it might be too tight, in which case the bass response and body sound of the instrument can be lacking.Neck Angle is adjustable via the set screw on the bottom of the Heel. Loosening this screw loosens the neck, and the strings’ tension will pull the action higher. Retighten the set screw firmly when you reach the proper action. Note, lowering action is best done with strings loosened, and the banjo placed face down in your lap while seated. You may need to re-lower and re-raise the neck angle a couple times to arrive at the perfect action. Be sure Allen screw is all the way tight and neck will not move when twisted.
Now that you have the head and action at playable levels, how does it sound? Perhaps it isperfect, but the point of this article is that as a picky player, you, like me will not be satisfied with perfect. We want special, magic, extraordinary. This lofty aspiration is what keeps my interest and is my continual aim. My builders are fantastic craftsmen who produce perfectly set up works of art. Part of my job is to give each banjo a personality of its own. It is not an easy thing to teach, because every instrument is different and it is hard to predict what might make the instrument come alive. The following is a list of ideas, not a sequence asset out previously, but are optional techniques mentioned here for discovery.
The fun of this is that there is still room for surprises, Most of the adjustments I do have predictable results, But there are still times when I am surprised at how certain combinations of set up factors react. Are you looking for a gut rattling bass? Maybe the answer lies in finding the right bridge. conventional thinking would dictate a heavier bridge for enhanced bass, but maybe your ear is longing to hear the bright side of the banjo’s lower register. Perhaps a well crafted lighter bridge with a looser head would do the trick.
Do you want the overtones to enhance the experience of playing, not detract from it? Try moving the tailpiece forward and back, making the distance from the end of the tailpiece to the bridge different. Try Playing the strings on the wrong side of the bridge. Are they tuned to a common interval of the open string? I like the interval to match the second harmonic, or the 5th note of that string’s scale, but tuning it to other notes is possible with a Nechville tailpiece. First use thesmallest Allen wrench and back out the small setscrews until the tailpiece almost touches the frame. You’ll also have to loosen the lower set screw, but you can re tighten the lower set screw later if you want the strings to have the highest break angle over the bridge and add extra down pressure on the tailpiece. At this point, the tone should be sharp and snappy, but perhaps not full bodied enough for your liking. Now try exactly the opposite. Loosen the strings and tighten the small top tailpiece set screws. This moves the tailpiece back, decreases Break angle and lowersthe pitch of the sympathetic notes behind the tailpiece. As you move the tailpiece in and out, monitor the notes you hear when plucking behind the bridge. Try it with the larger bottom set screw barely snug, and have a friend help you monitor the sound as one of you tightens it. A piece of leather or felt between the strings behind the bridge would mute some of the high sympathetic vibration, perhaps yielding a “drier” tone.
Do you want the strings to jump to life with a mere touch? Try a Renaissance Head, and tighten it up a lot. Use a relatively light, but tall bridge, ie, 3/4″ 2.3 gram and moderate, (not too low) string action. Let the tailpiece tension off except for only slight down pressure. Then go aheadand try the down pressure by tightening the large Allen screw on the tailpiece, Try to find where you like it best.
Are you seeking easy, fast and clean playability ? That requires perfect fret level and perfect neck bow and perfectly shaped bridge. Given that there is an ideal neck bow shape, (not straight, but with perhaps .008 ” of bow) there is an optimum height for each string from the fingerboard as defined by the bridge’s shape. Of course with a radiused fingerboard, The bridge will need to have a similar shape, but too often people ignore the importance of the proper action of individual strings. The heaviest strings tend to get struck hard by the thumb, and so the 3rd and 4th strings need a bit more room to vibrate without hitting the frets. This means making the bridge higher in the middle than may be simply dictated by the neck’s radius. On a flat board, this would mean that a slightly radiused bridge would work better, allowing lower action on your 1st, second and 5th strings. However if you simply radius your bridge, you will be compounding the problem thatis already so common in banjos, and that is the 3rd string being sharp up on the higher frets. Make sure the 3rd string especially is compensated with a longer scale, and particularly if you have followed my advice and radiused the bridge more than the curve of the frets. The amount of compensation needed varies whether the bridge is sagging or higher on the 3rd string, but with the medium strings I use, (10,12,14,22,10), and a healthy radius, the 3rd string is set back about .080 from the other strings.
Do you want a banjo with perfect rich tone? Call Nechville for an assortment of heavy bridges. We will sell you several Enterprise bridges at a discounted price if you want to buy 3 or more. Start with a big bridge, and you can play with it by cutting deeper slots, and taking more ebony off the top. That will lower strings and perhaps change the harmonic content of the tone. You can spend time rounding the corners of your bridge, and thereby reducing the weight a little. Most of my best sounding banjos have bridges weighing between 2.4 and 2.8 grams.
The type of head and head tension are huge factors in controlling sound. A heavier, frosted head like a 5 star head tends to dry up the sound for less ringing and sustain. I have noticed the clear heads and black heads do have a bit of ringiness. When adjusting or installing a head, monitor how it sounds after every few twists of the Helimount wrenches. You might find a special tension that works even if it’s looser, but it is probable that you’d need to also raise action for play at looser head tension.
Once you find an ideal head tension for your banjo, mark the turning flange ring inside the banjo with a small piece of tape near the middle of the neck, And you will be able to return to that exact spot any time you choose. Your ideal tone may be different than mine, but given the ease of adjustment and armed with a little knowledge as to how to go about it, you will be ready to meet your next musical adventure.