What is a Banjo Rim, Tailpiece, Banjo Tone Ring, Pot, Tension Hoop, Coordinating Rod, Banjo Vellum, head, Banjo Flange, Planetary Geared Tuners, Neck Truss Rod ? All these and more banjo parts are demystified and explained here by Deering and Eagle Music.
In the following notes, we shall use for example, the USA built Deering Banjo models to explain materials chosen for parts and general banjo build quality.
The Banjo Rim or Pot
Maple has long been used to make banjo pots because of its fine grain, strength and bright clear tone on stringed instruments. The entire violin family instruments use maple for their backs and sides. All Deering banjos have solid violin maple rims. Steinway and other quality brand pianos use maple for the pin blocks of their pianos. Bowling alleys are commonly made of maple for its hardness and durability.
Some far eastern made banjos have soft aluminium or plywood rims that do not have the sparkle, brightness or clarity of the USA built banjos. Deering uses a steel rim on the Boston series banjos. Tap on a disassembled aluminium rim and you hear a “clunk”. Tap on a disassembled Deering steel rim and it rings brightly, clearly and long. Soft aluminium has little or no musicality. It is a reasonable building material but has a poor musical tone. Likewise, many of the Far Eastern made banjos have wooden rims made of softer plywood. The softer, porous wood does not have the hardness, fine grain structure or tone character of a musical quality hard wood like violin maple.
The Banjo Head
The most popular banjo head size is 11” high crown. Types of heads: Top frosted, clear, fiberskyn, Kevlar, bottom frosted, black and Renaissance. Top frosted heads are brightest and crispest. Clear heads are bright with more sustain. Black shiny heads are mellow, warm and soft with more sustain. Fiberskyn heads are warm and plunky with less sustain. Bottom frosted heads have good sustain with nice bass response, not as bright as top frosted. Kevlar is snappy and responds a bit like an arch top banjo due to its stiffness and thickness. Heads can be used to achieve certain sounds and looks. Heads come in three crown heights (height of the playing surface above the head’s stretcher band, the rim around the edge of the head.) high, medium and low. High are medium are the most common and the easiest to find. For example, all Deering made banjos work with High and Medium crown heads.
Good quality banjos have adjustable tailpieces (except for many of the ‘‘old time ‘‘ banjos like the Deering Vega Old Time Wonder that has a small fixed tailpiece for traditional appearance and sound.) The best adjustable tailpiece has no resonance of its own, so it should not be made of brass, bronze or hard steel that would ring and interferes with the tone of the rim and tone ring. For example, all USA made Deering, Goodtime and Tenbrooks banjos have the Deering adjustable tailpiece made of a non-resonant alloy.
Bracket Shoes and Flanges
Deering Goodtime banjos have zinc alloy bracket shoes and Deering resonator banjos have zinc alloy resonator flanges that also do not interfere with the tone of the rim and tone ring. Zinc alloys are acoustically dead so these critically functional parts do their job helping support the head tension, without infusing any unwanted and interfering sounds to the banjo.
Brackets and Nuts
These parts must be made of steel for strength and durability and have consistent threading to make adjustments accurate and controllable. These parts are “isolated” from the rim by the zinc flange or bracket shoes and also by the banjo head that is held in place by the tension hoop (or stretcher band as it is sometimes called). which is also isolated by the stretched head.
The Tension Hoop / Stretcher Band
Deering tension hoops are brass or steel and Goodtime tension hoops are steel. Both are isolated from sound interference by the banjo head.
The Coordinator Rod(s)
These rods need to be solid, and made of a strong yet non-interfering alloy. All Deering, Goodtime, Vega and Tenbrooks have solid rods of this same alloy. Many traditional banjos have brass rods which interfere with the tone even though this is a traditional metal used for this part.
The Tone Ring
Tone rings come in many designs and alloys. Some banjos do not have a tone ring but stretch the head over the wood or metal rim. Bluegrass style banjos (like the Deering Sierra) have a bell bronze tone ring that weighs 2-3 pounds and is precisely fitted to a three ply violin maple rim. Historically, Maple is the most accepted rim material in banjo building. Old time music banjos are commonly open back, with tone rings made of brass and the tone rings are lighter in weight. Some entry level banjos have steel tone rings that have a bright, responsive sound and feel. Many import banjos advertise a “bluegrass style tone ring” but don’t tell you what kind of metal they are. Most of these are “pot metal” or zinc alloy, which, while appropriate for a flange or shoe, is inferior in tone to the USA built tone rings. Even the import banjos with “brass” tone rings can have cheap die cast tone rings that do not have the correct grain structure or alloy for the best musical vibration and yet these banjos can sometimes cost as much as a good American made banjo.
The term ‘Banjo Pot’ refers to the rim with all the parts that are assembled around it.
The shape: Though a good feel of a neck is subjective, the neck must “feel” good to the player. It must make the strings feel easy to push down with as little effort as possible. Generally, thick, bulky, poorly shaped necks can be found on some far Eastern banjos and are more difficult to play. However, thickness alone, does not make a neck feel bad or “great”. The “great” feeling neck has subtle shape characteristics that are difficult to put in words, but instantly discernible by the human hand. Certain curves, slopes and shapes, when artistically combined are comfortable. Neck shapes have been developed to a shape that has optimum playability by the great American banjo companies like Deering.
The material: Mahogany and Maple are the two most popular banjo neck woods currently in use. Walnut, Koa and Rosewood are also used but not quite as popular. Import banjos often use terms like “Mahogany stained hardwood” to include the word “mahogany” to mask what wood is actually being used.
Tuning Machines – Banjo Pegs
The best tuning machines are geared for smooth, easy tuning. Some inexpensive banjos have friction pegs that are difficult to tune and frustrating for the novice player. Tuning machines with buttons that stick out to the side of the peghead are usually referred to as “guitar style” tuners. Geared tuning machines that stick straight back from the peghead are called “planetary style” tuning machines. The term planetary refers to the arrangement of the gears in the tuner that surround other gears much like the formation of the planets in the solar system.
The truss rod in the neck of a banjo controls the ‘‘relief ‘‘ or subtle curvature of a banjo neck and helps counter act the pressure of the strings to help prevent warping and twisting. An adjustable truss rod can be used to change the “playability” of a neck by allowing the neck to curve a little more or by flattening the neck out a bit more. Players with a hard attack generally need a little more “relief” in the neck and players with a lighter touch generally like a slightly flatter neck.
The top nut is usually made of a hard material like, bone, ebony, mother of pearl, Formica or other synthetic material and guides the strings through slots over the finger board so they are separated evenly and in correct relationship to the width of the fingerboard. The nut is ‘cut ‘ to a depth for the strings to give the best ‘‘action ‘‘ in the first position.
The Position Markers / Inlays
The dots or other inlays are used as reference points on the finger board to tell the player at what frets certain notes are found. Dots and fancy inlays are the same in function but only different in cosmetic appeal. Side ‘position’ dot markers are found on the side of the neck on some banjos.
Frets are usually made of nickel silver and are either pressed into the fingerboard or pressed and glued in. They are shaped sort of like a round topped ‘T ‘ with tiny barbs on the tang to grip the fingerboard slots they are pressed into. Frets can be jumbo or narrow as found on vintage banjos. Some higher end custom banjos have stainless steel frets.
The Banjo ArmRest – Different types and how they fit
The prime aim of the banjo armrest is to give the player comfort on the wrist/arm of the picking hand. There are many different designs and styles of armrests. Most banjo arm rests are designed to fit on banjos in relation to the number of tension hooks (sometimes called brackets) on the banjo.
The traditional Gibson type flat armrest can have one or two brackets for fixing it to your banjo. These brackets are spaced to span over the tension hooks on your banjo. The brackets on the armrest have a flat metal bar that positions behind two tension hooks and clamps to the tension hooks via a hexagon screw that when adjusted pulls the bracket tight against the hooks.
the Deering banjo armrest is similar to the Original.
Some armrests are versatile and will fit on banjos that have 18 or 24 tension hooks, whilst others are designed purely to fit a specific number of tension hooks.
The old vega style ‘Wire’ armrest that can be bought from eagle Music is very versatile in that it will fit OPEN BACK banjos that have any numb oog tension hooks from 12 to 34
Please click on this link to view our arm rest selection [coming soon]
Banjo sound and volume …Fitting an armrest can also affect the tone of a banjo in that it can restrict your arm from resting on the banjo head and deadening the movement of the head. Any body contact (arm, hand fingers) with your banjo head will lower the volume of your banjo.
Most armrests can be adjusted for height to give the player the optimum position for your style of playing. All players have a different way that they ‘attack’ their strings.
Please call us to ask which arm rest is suitable for your banjo.
THE BANJO BRIDGE and Its Function
The banjo bridge does exactly as its name suggests …it forms a bridge for the strings to pass over the banjo head and transmits sound from your strings into the banjo head. Bridges are available in different heights and they are measured in imperial measurement …The most popular three heights being 1/2”, 5/8” and 11/16”The most popular bridges are made from AAA grade maple with an ebony top. Some bridges have inserts made from bone or plastic to help give a brighter tone.
Tone, Volume and Action
Changing your bridge will alter and affect the tone and volume of your banjo, it may also alter the ‘action’ of your banjo! (The ‘action’ is the distance that your strings are from the frets of your instrument. Your strings will be easier to press down when you have a ‘low’ action. However, the ‘action’ should not be set so low that you get ‘fret buzz’)
In general the simple rule is: Low Bridge = Low Volume High bridge = More Volume.
5/8” is the optimum and most popular bridge height.
Note: Some novice players think that the height of the bridge is for setting the ‘action’ of their banjo …this is not the case! The action is set by adjusting the ‘neck angle’ on a banjo.
However, in some cases where the banjo neck angle cannot be adjusted that only way to change the action of the banjo is to alter the height of the bridge.
The intonation of your banjo is affected by the position of your bridge. The rule is that the bridge is positioned on the banjo head twice the distance of the measurement from the inside of the nut to the 12th fret. On a 5-string banjo the bridge is generally positioned square, but on tenor and plectrum banjos it helps intonation to set the bridge at a slight angle giving the heavier gauge fourth string a greater distance than the thinner plain first string. The bridge should sit flat and square making full contact with the banjo head.
Shape of Banjo Bridges
You can buy ‘Of the shelf’ Compensated 5 string bridges, some of which compensate the length of all the five strings and others that only compensate the length of the third string. Modifications to the shape of a bridge can alter the sound of your banjo eg. if you ‘thin’ your bridge by sanding it, this will give your bridge lesser contact with your banjo head and the result will be a brighter ‘snappier’ tone, many plectrum banjo and uke banjo players do this. Unwanted harmonics and overtones can ‘sometimes’ be suppressed by sanding the bridge thinner towards the treble end.
The resonator If you fit a resonator to your banjo, it will have more volume and will project the sound forward. Without a resonator, your banjo will be quieter and sound more mellow. A “frailing” banjo would not have a resonator.
The tailpiece The tailpiece plays a very important role in the tone and volume of your banjo. Its prime function is to anchor your strings. Its secondary function is to angle your strings to exert maximum pressure on the bridge in order that the bridge transmits sound into the banjo head. Adjustable “clam shell”, “Scruggs” type, “Kershner and “Nashville” types are available. Please enquire for prices.