|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.
While the benefits of our banjos have been presented in a variety of ways over the years, there are still those who are not aware. Some players are inspired to purchase a new instrument because of the beautiful sound that it makes. Others are motivated by popularity of certain brands.
A decision to purchase the best banjo involves more than its sound or its current popularity. In today’s banjo marketplace, there is one essential decision to ponder. Yet unfortunately, the vast majority of banjo buyers do not even know that this choice exists.
If you were to purchase an adding machine without knowledge of a calculator, or a typewriter without knowledge of a printer and computer, you would not be happy when you discovered the new way of doing things. It is our challenge to inform those of you banjo lovers what you have been missing for quite a few years now.
As a player, can you imagine a dream world where your sound is refined, your notes are articulate, distinct and yet full and saturated with tone? Maybe you play different styles of banjo and have several instruments set up accordingly. In our dream world, your perfect banjo can quickly adapt to different player preferences and will disassemble for easy transport and travel.
You may never have asked for your banjo to be constructed differently; to have one tone-harnessing helical thread that perfectly nests your tone chamber for perfect resonance. Your dream tone is even on every fret with your head automatically tightened perfectly evenly.
Set up is no longer a hassle. It becomes fun to modify your playing options and resulting sound.
We made this dream a reality. Were you aware that there are 60-80 fewer parts required in a Nechville banjo? The construction is permanent and foolproof.
Whatever sound your traditional banjo makes, it does so with its tone bell and mounting rim firmly fixed to the neck with metal hardware. Additionally you have dozens of hooks and nuts, lugs, hoops and other metal parts attached to the body that we would like to refer to as the “Tone Chamber”. What tone do you get from the tone ring and rim that is attached to all those metal parts? It is no surprise why the banjo is often called “tinny” , “brash” or “metallic”.
Did you know that Nechville makes a banjo whose neck is attached to a one-piece hardware frame that holds your tone chamber without any interference from metal connections at all? Were you aware that there is only a single thread that presses the tone chamber up from behind to deliver you a palate of sound from dark and warm to excitingly brilliant?
If you have not been aware of these things, you are now. We invite you to become a member of the family of Nechville players by simply contacting us or inquiring with one of our dealers. We wish to assist you in finding the ultimate instrument for a lifetime of enjoyment.
Visit us at www.nechville.com to learn more. Or better yet, give us a call.
The past few years, although I have not been a regular band member, I have been playing a little more often on my own. The benefits of a regular set aside practice time are potentially great. If you are like me though, it’s tough to stick to such a schedule for long. Regardless of how regular your playing time is, I’ll just repeat my most common bit of advice; Play until you are well warmed up and then go a little longer. The extra time you commit is when you’ll actually improve. The next time you play, do it again and you’ll start noticing new things appearing in your playing.
Beyond the obvious benefit of impressing your picking pals, Your quest for improvement will certainly train your ear to be a better judge of sound. As you continue to play you will continually fine tune your sense of pitch so that tuning becomes easier. You may however find that as your ear develops pitch sensitivity, you are tuning more often or requesting that others recheck their tuning more frequently.
As a player of almost 50 years and a builder of more than 30, I still need to spend some serious time playing my creations, so that every nuance of the sound and feel becomes noticed, and ideas form about ways to improve it. I wonder how builders that don’t play are able to decipher the level of professionalism that it takes in today’s banjo world. I am impressed with the playing of banjo building buddies Rob Bishline, Jaroslav Prucha and Glenn Nelson. Geoff Stelling and Steve Huber have also long been been known as good pickers. Deep down I consider myself a player ahead of being a builder, but the building pays the bills for me in this universe. My obvious point is that the best players tend to build the best instruments due to their years of study of the sound of the instrument through playing in various settings. My intention is not to question anyone’s talents as player, listener or critic, but rather to stimulate awareness during your own playing that can refine your ears in the quest for sound perfection, and the perfect playing experience.
In an effort to make sense of this, let’s talk about the concept of satisfaction. Musical satisfaction is first and foremost dependent on the concept of perfect pitch. Each note of your instrument, both fretted and open must be aligned perfectly with the corresponding notes played and sung by the other musicians in the group. It takes considerable effort and time to achieve harmonious tuning in just one instrument, let alone a whole band. The instrument must be built with particular attention to its ability to come in tune with its own harmonics. In other words, the fret scale must be accurate, the bridge and nut must be placed precisely and compensated for discrepancies, the string heights and gauges must be taken into consideration, and the general construction of the instrument must be stable. You likely have experienced the satisfaction of a well- tuned instrument, and you know the amazing potentials that can be reached when 2 or more great instruments achieve matching pitches and are held by great players.
If satisfaction were only as simple as reaching perfect tuning, I think we would hear a lot more great music than we do now. It also requires a great deal of skill from the player to maintain cohesive tuning throughout a performance. Even slight variations or finger position or holding pressure can throw an instrument out of tune. Therefore we buy the best instruments we can afford, and practice until we have mastered the art and skill of perfect pitch, (also sometimes called tonality).
To complicate the picture a bit more I now introduce the concept of tone. Being completely different from tonality, our ears are so amazing that we can hear extremely minute changes not only on the pitch of notes but in the character of sound (tone) produced by an instrument. Yes, satisfaction first depends on great pitch tonality, but assuming we have fulfilled that challenge, we now must look toward our aesthetic sense to discover just what we imagine our perfect tone to be.
I think it is safe to say that most Bluegrass players, for example have developed their sense of tone by listening to their role models. The masters who inspired us to play are quite normally dictating to us what our tone should be like. With the vast popularity of Scruggs, his iconic banjo sound still echoes as the tone many of us want coming from our banjos. Likewise, you may have noticed that the general tone of much of Bela Fleck’s playing has a different and perhaps darker tone that his followers may wish to emulate.
If the total purpose of the banjo were to preserve and protect a pure form of music such as bluegrass, we would need nothing but old Mastertone copies set-up to sound just like Earl. We all know however, that is not the banjo’s purpose. It is a modern musical instrument known for its distinctive voice and suitability for playing complex fingerstyle melodies and patterns. Its sound is highly evocative and creatively inspiring for musicians in widely diverse forms of music. Happily for us creative types, the banjo exhibits a unique ability to produce an infinite number of subtle changes in tone. This touches on the greatest benefit of my own Nechville instruments. With just a small amount of training, you can learn to alter and transform your Heli-Mount sound to fit whatever artistic visions you carry in your head. It might be Scruggs, Fleck or Kruger. But more importantly, it might be you!
Please continue your exploration into the world of personalized banjo tone by exploring the Nechville website. Our site is undergoing some major changes, so you will want to check back often. There is always something new and interesting to discover and we invite you to subscribe to our free banjo info hotline with insider deals and special opportunities.
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.