|5 Tips to Keep Your Banjo in Top Shape|
|Have you ever found your banjo to be a little off but didn’t know why? Try these five care and feeding tips to quickly make sure everything is in top shape. We’ve even dug up some antiquated videos of Tom demonstrating these points for your edification. |
1. Check Your Bow
Banjo necks are susceptible to changes in humidity. There are two symptoms that your neck has been affected: string buzz and high action. You may be shocked at the sudden change in playability, but the solution is simple: adjust the truss rod.
Check the bow by holding down a string on each end. Then note the remaining distance from string to fret at around the 10th fret.
If the string is touching the fret, your neck is too flat and you need to loosen you truss rod (usually a counter-clockwise turn, start with a 1/8 turn).
If the string is too far (more than a business card or two), you’ll need to tighten it.
If you have a Nechville, the tool you’ll need is a 1/4″ nut driver with a narrow shoulder. Craftsman #41971. We also keep some on hand.
2. Check the Head Tension
Heads can loosen over time and some new heads stretch out over the first couple weeks. If you have a drum dial, you can ensure proper head tension in seconds. We factory set our heads to 92-93. Otherwise try tightening the head if your banjo has become “dull” sounding.
Here’s how to adjust the head on a Nechville.
3. Check Bridge Intonation
If your banjo seems to be going out of tune up the neck, be sure to check your intonation.
Play each string’s harmonic at the 19th fret followed by the fretted note. The goal is to get them to match. For the high G, it might be easier to use the 15th fret harmonic.
If the fretted note is sharp, you need to move your bridge back toward the tailpiece.
If the fretted note is flat, move your bridge closer to the neck.
4. Change Your Strings
Put on a fresh pair of strings. And while you’re at it take a minute to wipe down your banjo. For fun, experiment with different string guages or maybe a different wound 4th than you’re used to.
5. Oil Your Fingerboard (optional)
Pure orange and lemon oil can protect and defend your fingerboard from cracks and add a nice sheen. Just make sure it is non-varnishing.
And that’s it! Run through these steps every so often to ensure that you and your banjo are ready to take on the world.
Banjos are machines, mechanical by nature. Look for these warning signs that show your banjo is far from running its best.
The fine print: Some of these adjustments require prowess and technical expertise. If you are not comfortable with any of these procedures, please contact Nechville or bring your instrument to a professional luthier.
1. Your banjo goes out of tune quickly, or does not stay in tune
- Change your strings the right way
- Stretch out new strings
- Upgrade your tuning machines if necessary
- Make sure your neck connection is stable
2. Your banjo goes out of tune up the neck
- Check your bridge’s intonation
- Consider using a compensated bridge (if you aren’t already)
- Check for excessive fret wear and a warp or twisted neck
- Check the bow in your neck, adjust your truss rod if necessary
3. Your banjo sounds “tubby”
- Check your head tension and consider tightening or replacing your head
- Consider a lighter bridge, the right bridge can have a huge impact on sound
- Consider light strings
4. Your banjo sounds too bright or “thin”
- Your head may be overly tight, check with a drum dial and adjust
- Consider a heavy bridge that will bring out more sustain and lower harmonics
5. Your banjo buzzes in certain spots on the neck
- Check the bow in your neck, adjust your truss rod if necessary
- Check for excessive fret wear
6, Your action is too high/too low
- Make sure you have the proper bow in your neck
- Adjust your neck connection to raise or lower your action
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Has this happened to you? You pick up your banjo- just before heading into the jam, studio or big stage- only to find there’s a sudden fret buzz!
Let’s take a look at the probable cause, the easy fix, and how to prevent it.
Changes in humidity cause your banjo neck to move. This can cause the neck to bow or straighten (or back bow), allowing the string height to vary in consistency up and down the neck. The string may come close enough to the string that it vibrates against one or more frets when being played. Or the action may become unacceptably high.
How do you measure proper bow?
Place a capo on the 1st fret and hold down the 4th string at the last fret, you should see a small gap between the string and the fret.
While the string is held down:
- See if you can slide a business card in between with room to spare. If so, you have too much bow.
- If the string is closer than a business card, or is already touching, your neck is too straight.
Nechville banjos require a 1/4″ nut driver with a narrow shoulder. The one pictured is made by Craftsman, #41971.
If it’s a Nechville, you may not need to remove the truss rod cover screw. It is designed to swing out of the way like a door.
If you have too much bow, turn the nut driver clockwise (start with 1/8 turn or less)
If your neck is too straight, add more bow by turning the nut driver counter-clockwise.
Carry the necessary nut driver in your case and perform this adjustment when needed, perhaps 2-3 times a year.
However, if you don’t know the business end of a 1/4″ truss rod driver with a particularly narrow shoulder here’s something that can help:
If you keep your instruments out of the case, use a humidifier in the room(s) where your instruments are kept when the air is dry. Home heating systems and especially wood stoves dry the air out considerably.
If you keep them in their cases, invest in a guitar humidifier to be placed in the case. Several are available at local or online music retailers. For the ultimate in-case system, Boveda makes 2-way humidity packets you can put in your banjo case. These constantly adjust to provide an ideal humidity range inside the case. If you go this route make sure to read about seasoning your case.
The 2019 SPBGMA Convention held in Nashville provided plenty of evidence that Nechville Banjos are continuing to gain prestige among the elite pickers there. After over thirty years in business, most banjo pickers recognize the name Nechville. But events like these give players a chance to actually try and fully understand what they have heard about for years. Nechville is revolutionizing the instrument with new designs and practical solutions for common banjo problems. Tom Nechville reports that the 2019 SPBGMA weekend was perhaps the best ever for Nechville banjos
Power picker Daniel Mason, a player with Hank Williams III, fell in love with his new Renaissance Vintage. This new model from Nechville combines the modern elements that they are known with the look of an antique. Tarnished copper and bronze metal parts and an artificially aged head give that 1930’s vintage look. The modern features for such as the elegant Heli-Mount frame, tunneled 5th string and compound radius frets add to the instrument’s playability and ease of adjustment.
On the contemporary side, Winfield champion Steve Moore picked up his first Nechville, a custom straight neck Phantom. Rather than having a short fifth string or a tunneled fifth, this neck has a full length fifth string. The fixed position of the fifth string can be moved anywhere he chooses between the zero fret and the twelfth. Steve is enthused about all the new inspiring ideas that are coming from the addition of those five extra notes to the banjo neck.
Riley Mathews, another Nashville area talent, settled on Nechville with all the modern conveniences but in a bit more traditional style. The new Photon model retains the shape of the popular Phantom neck with hidden 5th string tunnel but with old time inlays and the traditional look of a shiny nickel plated Heli-Mount frame.
Pete Wernick banjo instructor Gilbert Nelson also joined the Banjo Revolution team. He picked up his first Nechville at the show. Gilbert liked the neck form the Photon, but chose the black Eclipse Heli-Mount body of another model. Only with Nechville can you easily switch necks from one banjo to another in just seconds.
Many players have heard the Nechville name. But not as many have had the experience to meet Tom Nechville in person to gain full comprehension of his design and the many improvements he has introduced to the banjo world. The Nechville display appears at major festivals all over the US and each summer at La Roche Bluegrass festival in France. Nechville looks forward to his first trip to Japan hopefully in the coming two years.
The excitement over Nechville continues to grow as happy customers earned over the past thirty-plus years continue to grow in numbers.
This article goes beyond basic banjo setup and seeks to explain the difference between standard banjos and Nechville’s helically mounted banjos. If we want to judge sound differences between the two types, we must determine what effect the mechanical differences impart upon the sound. Being very subjective, each players’ opinion as to what constitutes “best” may vary.
While it is difficult to define the positive tonal aspects of the best banjos that truly tug at our emotional heartstrings, it is obvious to most players when a negative sound such as sonic dissonance or a mechanical buzz is present. Likewise bad intonation caused by imperfect fret or bridge position is measurable attribute that we can minimize with good building and set-up practices.
String vibration is a natural phenomenon that delivers a fundamental note plus sub vibrations of the string called harmonics. It is the job of the bridge, head and tone chamber, or “banjo pot” to transduce the string’s vibration into the sound that we hear. Complex variations in the pressure applied upon the stretched membrane through the bridge, defined by the string’s harmonic signature, compress and stretch the air on both sides of the head. This causes sound waves, which are further processed by the instrument’s body.
It is the intent of this article to consider just what are the sources of unwanted frequencies or dissonance that can interfere with the purest sound that a banjo can make.
The tradition of simply using our ears and a long process of trial and error has given us the banjo we use today. What if we wanted to design a banjo of pure sound, without distractions from unwanted resonances? A quick look back into banjo building history may shed some light on this.
The mechanical hardware in a common bluegrass banjo consists of 24 hooks, nuts, metal flange, metal tension hoop, two metal rods acting as bolts and stabilizers for the neck and body connection, plus the hardware needed to anchor strings to the body. All these metal connections were not particularly designed to affect the acoustical tone but they can and do impart a metallic nuance to the regular banjo’s sound.
In our ideal virtual design of the banjo pot, we run into a complication when we bolt the neck to the tone ring and pot. Scientifically as well as intuitively, we want to find a design that separates and frees the acoustical components from the mechanical/structural ones.
An advancement in banjo design in the 1920’s allowed the tone chamber to nest into a one or two piece flange that allowed for fewer metal hardware attachments directly to the cylinder of the tone chamber. Fewer mechanical attachments to the tone chamber must be a factor in generating a better tone, since banjos based on the Mastertone of the 1930’s continue to dominate even in the bluegrass of today. The Gibson design, however, still depends on the neck being bolted directly to the tone chamber with a dual coordinator rod system.
It was not until the mid 1980’s that Tom Nechville brought us Helically mounted banjos, or Heli-Mounts. In the world of Nechville, the neck bolts to the integrated hardware of the Heli-Mount frame. This allows for insertion of the tone chamber from the back of the frame and is compressed in place without any metallic stress or unwanted resonances. The Heli-Mount yields automatically even head tension while extending the rationale of the Mastertone design to its ultimate fulfillment.
More information on Nechville and banjo design is available at www.nechville.com.
The favorite part of my job is getting to travel and meet new pickers. I met Andre Dal several years ago at the European world of Bluegrass in the Netherlands and continue to run into him at La Roche France festival and other banjo related events in Europe. I am particularly impressed with his love for the music and his perseverance through a number of setbacks in his playing career.
Andre Dal first got mesmerized by bluegrass banjo after listening to the Deliverance soundtrack, featuring Eric Weissberg. Like many banjo players today, Andre got hooked by the fun, hard driving sounds of Bluegrass.
After starting on the guitar, the banjo quickly became his obsession. Andre started to learn the banjo when he was studying in London, in 1997. In the following years after initial lessons from a Portuguese musician he met Gerry Rolph in southern Portugal. He was a pioneering bluegrasser in England, back in the 1960s and, fortunately for Andre, he moved to Portugal. He took lessons with him and eventually bought one of his banjos, a Gibson RB-75 J.D. Crowe, mahogany model. Gerry set Andre on the lifelong course of studying and playing banjo.
In 2007, Andre began a yearly pilgrimage to the European World Of Bluegrass (EWOB) festival in Holland (now it’s called Voorthuizen Bluegrass Festival) and became the only Portuguese member of the European Bluegrass Music Association. In 2009, he gave up his geological engineering job and went to work for his family’s restaurant giving him more freedom to play. His band (Stonebones & Bad Spaghetti) was formed that same year and they started to play at festivals around Europe and England. Over the years, Andre shared venues with such great names as Tony Trischka, Bill Keith, Ross Nickerson, Pete Wernick, Jens Kruger and others but still aspires to perform in the United States.
After years of intense practicing, Andre developed a physical condition known as Focal Hand Dystonia. That condition nearly forced him to quit playing but in 2011, he decided to change fingers and started to use his 2 middle fingers and thumb for 3 finger picking. He invented a device to prevent his index finger from moving and after repeated attempts to return to using the usual fingers, he perseveres with his new approach and continues to improve. His ability to play is not the same as it used to be but he compensates with lots of energy and clever adaptation. For Andre, the joy of playing overshadows the need for perfection.
When coming to Portugal on vacation, various bluegrass players have made their way to André’s family restaurant to be welcomed with a jam. During a visit by American musician, Dave Badgade, a song was recorded for his debut album, History in My Hands. Andre also spreads the bluegrass spirit with a monthly bluegrass session in Lisbon.
In May of 2018, Andre’s maple Deering Tenbrooks Saratoga Star banjo, purchased in 2014, was stolen. He’s been looking for it locally and on the internet but until now, no luck.
Being without a banjo resulted in further degeneration of his condition until he decided to buy a maple Galaxy Phantom from Nechville. Having developed an earlier friendship with me, Andre was familiar with the Nechville features of easy set up, safer travel, great sound and wonderful looks. That helped make it an easy choice for replacing his Tenbrooks.
Now, in Andre’s words, “I’m really happy I went for a Nechville banjo. On the first day, I took the neck off and set it back together. Never before in 20 years I did that on my other banjos.” As Andre likes a bright banjo sound, he is able to pull that off easily with Nechville’s even head tensioning system. He says “It’s easy to change the action too, anyone can do it.”
Right in-line with Nechville’s desire to unite the planet in musical friendships, the Phantom won Andre’s heart. “I’ll be playing it for years to come at festivals, jams and concerts,” he boasts.
Nechville spreads the Banjo Revolution online at www.nechville.com and through worldwide travels at festivals and workshops.
For their first year of sponsorship at Winfield, Nechville has created an irresistible prize banjo including all the features most commonly sought after in a modern made professional instrument. The result surprised even the makers.
The Renaissance Vintage restates the classic beauty of the “Golden Era” of banjos with refinements that have come to predominance only in recent times. Maintaining the essential ingredients of genuine old growth mahogany neck, authentic antique rosewood fingerboard, classic looks, pre-war formula tone ring and combining many of the advancements popularized by Nechville over the past 30 years, has given the world a new standard by which to judge banjo excellence.
The resulting combination is an example of refinement and aesthetics. The full width five string compound radius neck and Comfort Beveled armrest give effortless playability. The fifth string peg is repositioned on the peghead, so the neck is more sleek with better stability. The tonal character is complex, with warmth and volume attributed partly to the block style mahogany rim. The intonation is perfected by Nechville’s Enterprise radiused compensated bridge. The fullness and depth are characteristics of Nechville’s Helical Mounting construction. In every respect, and in every detail, the Renaissance Vintage welcomes the challenge.
Good luck in the competition!
The Nechville design distinctly separates the structural members from the tonal members, allowing the tone ring and rim to enter fully into the tone component category. Since the Heli-Mount to neck connection rigidly provides the structural requirement to carry the string tension, the tone ring and rim are freed from their structural job and can be designed for purely acoustical purposes.
In 2018 I’ll return to two great Ken Perlman events, Midwest Banjo Camp and American Banjo Camp. These are wonderful opportunities to get out of a rut and gain new inspiration as a beginner or intermediate player from some of the best teachers around. Also I’ll be around to help supercharge your banjo and let you try the latest and hottest creations.
As a player myself for over 45 years, I am very excited to see two brand new banjo camps emerge that offer more opportunities for advanced learning.
They are also represent rare chances to become friends with lots of other players. This is why we do the banjo, isn’t it? To engage musically with like-minded musicians and share our abilities in our ongoing quest to improve ourselves. This can best be done in the context of a new kind of music camp.
The Banjo Summit– I have long had the wish to hold an event like this. Professionals need to invest in themselves for continuing education and professional development. I cannot think of a better environment for professionals and aspirants to come to teach, learn, play and network with others in the spirit of expanding the banjo’s role in music. Jake Schepps is hosting this event, accompanied by lots of progressive super musicians who are really re-defining the banjo. If you believe the banjo has a place in a variety of musical genres, YOU need to be in Boulder this March! We will play a lot and learn a lot and have a lot of fun. I’ll bring Summit Beer from St Paul. And if you act before Feb 15, you can take advantage of a 20% discount. Just plug in the code Student20Summit into the enrollment form where it says “How did you hear about Banjo Summit?” and the discount will appear as you check out.
Blue Ridge Banjo Camp – The name “Bela Fleck” gets most banjo players’ attention and when I heard that Bela himself will be sharing his secrets and insights at his very own camp, I immediately went nuts. Like the Banjo Summit, I would expect the focus of a camp featuring Bela, Tony Trischka, and Mike Munford to be slanted towards the progressive side of the banjo. In addition to that obvious benefit, the event itself is held in the heart of Appalachian Bluegrass country where we can expect to soak up a healthy dose of the region’s finest music from Bluegrass banjo player of the year, Kirsten Scott Benson. Bela is not excluding any eager banjophiles to this beautiful venue. As I understand it, the organizers want to know as much as they can about every participant so they can truly customize the curriculum for those that come. It sounds like you are surely going to open the road for expanded vision for the banjo this summer. If you are as serious about expanding your banjo skill as I am, you’ll be there to enjoy the beautiful place, great food and musical friendship.
I personally want these camps to succeed and grow, so I am personally inviting you to go. I have a passion for hearing new things on the instrument. There is a huge need for camps that widen the focus to the development, growth and potential of our instrument. I imagine that there will be scheduled classes to help people organize their time, but I think the real meaningful content of these new camps will be in the jams and personal sharing between like-minded banjo nerds who have left their egos at home. See you this summer! Tom Nechville
P.S. Please share this with your picking friends. Thanks!
Last year was another good one where we celebrated 30 years of banjo building. Jane and I got a chance to travel a bit and spend a little more time together. Business-wise, we delivered banjos to more pros like Paddy Kiernan, Rich Stillman, Steve Martin, Caroline Jones, Rex McGee, Rick Sampson, Dave Kiputh and others.
I always wonder if I am doing enough of the right things to promote myself and my business. Probably not, but nevertheless, I am lucky to be working in this happy business, exactly because of you.
I am writing this with my friends in mind, and it is you that I want to thank for your friendship and continuing support. Please keep in touch since we will no doubt have banjo projects to discuss soon.
All the best wishes for 2018!