Banjo parts and adjustments, simple explanations of how they affect the sound and tone of your banjo.
I have revised this article that I wrote back in 1988 during my Cleckheaton days with Dave Mallinson and David J Taylor after being asked so many questions about banjo set-ups by many banjo playing friends and customers. Also see our other specific blog articles relating to all banjo parts.
If you are a banjo player, you may already be afflicted by the ‘vellum pluckers’ condition. A condition which leaves you constantly asking yourself, “It’s not quite sounding right, is it? Or is it?” If you haven’t yet been afflicted, the following hints, adjustments and modifications will help you through some of the traumas. A banjo is different from most other stringed instruments: you could think of it as a mechanical ‘drum’, with many adjustable parts. So, as a banjo player, it will help you to develop your D.I.Y. and mechanical skills, along with your musical ones.
What kind of banjo do I need?
Choosing a banjo, we have many books, tapes and videos to take you from beginner to advanced player. You may ask “what kind of banjo do I need?” Here is a description of the most common banjos used today, and a simple explanation of the music they are chosen for.
The Tenor banjo
In the early 1900’s this banjo was designed and made for playing jazz music, it was tuned C4, G3, D2, A1 and either picked or strummed. This is the banjo that has been adapted for playing tunes in Irish and traditional music. In order to make the playing of fiddle tunes, jigs, reels etc. easy, we put heavier strings on the tenor banjo and ‘drop’ tune it to G4, D3, A2, E1. (The fiddle and mandolin are tuned to G4, D3, A2, E1, only an octave higher). Scales and tunes that are written for fiddle are now much easier to play. You can play the tunes on a ‘C’ or jazz tuned banjo, but it is much harder. Another golden rule when stringing ‘drop’ tuned banjos is ‘The shorter the scale length, the heavier the strings’. Tenor banjos come in standard scale (usually 19 fret) or short scale (usually 17 fret), the scale length is the distance between the nut and the bridge. They may be ‘open back’ or have a resonator fitted. The resonator was designed to increase the volume of the banjo. The resonator projects the sound forward.
The Five String Banjo
The earliest banjos that came from America (even earlier, from Africa!) reached maturity around the late 1800s. Many fine open back five-string banjos from this period can still be found today. The most popular five string models today have heavy tone rings and are fitted with a resonator. These banjos are chosen for playing bluegrass, folk and general banjo music. The most popular tuning is G (fifth drone string), D4, G3, B2, D1. Normally played with a plastic thumb pick and metal fingerpicks fitted to the first and second finger. Open back banjos have a more ‘gentle’ feel. They are a favourite type for frailing style. A point to note is that all five string banjo types can be used for bluegrass, frailing, old time and jazz. (In some cases you just tune the strings differently).
The Plectrum Banjo
This banjo has a neck as long as the five-string banjo but is fitted with only four strings. The instrument is ideal for chord work. You can ‘pick’ or ‘strum’ using a plectrum.
Heads, skins, vellums, which type do I need?
The skin, vellum or head This can be adjusted and tensioned like a drum. The choice of skin and tension applied will give a different sound to the banjo.
a) Clear plastic This head will give the loudest, bright thin sound.
b) Plastic head spray finished “Frosted Top” This head will give slightly less volume than the above, but with more “body”. These heads can be obtained with the sprayed on coating applied to the inside or the outside.
c) “Fiberskyn” plastic head This head will give less volume than the above heads but will give a rounder sound with much more body and depth. The sprayed on fibres are applied to the outside of the head to emulate a real vellum, but unlike the vellum, the fibre head is not affected by humidity.
d) Calf or goat skin vellum The vellum will give the traditional full bodied “mellow” sound, but remember that a vellum is affected by humidity and temperature. You can experiment with different heads and different head tensions to find your desired “personal” sound but remember, any adjustment on head tension will affect the height of the strings in relationship to the fingerboard, as the bridge moves with the head All the above heads and vellums are stock items at Eagle Music.
Bridge, how does it affect the sound of my banjo?
The bridge The bridge can alter the tone and the volume of your banjo. If you change your bridge from 1/2” to 5/8” you will get more volume. Don’t forget that this might, depending on your instrument, make the “action” (that is the distance you have to push the strings down to the frets) higher and more difficult. If you sand a bridge to give less area contact with the head, the tone will be “snappier”. You can also taper the bridge from the bass to the treble end to try to eliminate unwanted overtones and harmonics. Compensated 5 string bridges are also available. Maple and ebony bridges are supplied in various heights, also with bone inserts for a clearer sound. Remember, the bridge must be positioned on the head the same distance from the 12th fret as the 12th fret is from the nut. The bridge can be slightly angled to compensate for the heavier fourth string on a tenor or plectrum banjo, the distance at the fourth string thus being slightly greater than at the first string.
Tailpiece, how does this affect the sound?
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.
Resonator, what is it’s function?
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.
Armrest, do I need one?
How can the arm rest affect the tone of a banjo? If an arm rest is fitted to your banjo, it can keep your arm from deadening the movement of the head, which could lower the potential volume of your instrument; also, it can he adjusted to alter the angle and position that you “attack” your strings, which brings in the… strings.
Strings, what type should I use?
Strings come in many different grades, materials and gauges, each of which gives a different sound and “feel” to your banjo. Experiment with all aspects to find your preferred tone and volume, but remember this brief note: thinner steel and nickel for more “clang” and “twang”, heavier wound bronze or phosphor bronze for a “warmer” sound with more body. Note that custom gauge sets can be made up at no extra cost Last but not least, the position that you strike your strings, what you strike them with and the pressure that YOU can exert accounts for much of your banjo’s tone and volume.
Plectrums, picks, The choice is yours
Plectrums, picks etc If you are a plectrum player, experiment with different shapes, thicknesses and materials. The nylon picks give a softer sound, the harder the pick the “chunkier” the sound. Remember this brief note: the closer you pick to the bridge, the harder the sound. The further you pick from the bridge, the mellower the sound. The “old masters” prefer to use a tortoise shell plectrum: I prefer to see the shells on the backs of the tortoises! Fingerpicks and thumbpicks likewise come in all shapes and forms. Again, experiment, although you don’t have as much choice as you have with plectra. Bluegrass players go for metal fingerpicks for attack and volume.
Vellum, how do I fit a new one?
Please note – these instructions apply to natural skin vellums only! Fitting a plastic head is much simpler. Basically, all you need to make sure of when fitting a plastic head is that you apply equal tension gradually, all round the circumference of the head, tightening up hooks evenly and symmetrically.
Fitting a Natural Skin ‘Banjo Vellum’.
When the time comes to fit a new vellum, it is also a good time to clean all the metal parts of your banjo and remove all grime and dust from the inside of the banjo rim! (The ‘rim’ is sometimes called the hoop) Vellums (Sometimes called ‘banjo heads’ or skins) are available at Eagle Music Shop in different qualities and types. Calf skin and goat skins are the most popular …natural white calf skins are the most expensive. Order a skin that is larger in diameter than the banjo rim, normally 30mm excess all around is sufficient, this allowance is for pulling around the flesh band (sometimes called the vellum wire), and gives you some leeway for cutting off and finishing the job neatly on the inside of the bezel (sometimes called the stretcher band or hoop).
Firstly study how your banjo ‘pot’ (The pot is the whole assembly) is assembled (If you have a camera, take some photos to remind you later) note the position of the bezel in relation to the neck, tailpiece and rim. (Banjo parts can be distorted and ‘out of round’ from years of use or abuse!).
Remove the strings from your banjo and commence to strip down the ‘pot’. Keep all the tensioning hooks (Sometimes called brackets or ‘J’ hooks) and nuts as they are matched (This makes it easier to assemble later, as threads can differ from one hook to another)
Take some time out here to clean all the metal parts …Take care with plated parts, and do not use abrasives on gold or thin nickel plating.
Now is the fun part …To Mount Your New Vellum on The Flesh Band/Vellum Wire
Study the new vellum and note which is the ‘face’ and which is the ‘back’. The ‘face’ is normally smooth and the ‘back’ is normally rough. This is very important, as I have seen a fair number of vellums fitted the wrong way around!
Have a large clean towel at the ready, laid out on a flat area …Fill a large clean bowl with fresh clean cold water. Immerse the vellum completely in the bowl of water and leave until the vellum is supple, this normally takes about ten minutes depending on the thickness of the vellum. Remove the vellum from the water and shake off the excess water, place the vellum ‘face’ side up on the flat towel. Visually check that there are no wrinkles in the vellum and feel that the vellum is supple. Place the ‘flesh band’ (Sometimes called the vellum wire) central on the vellum leaving an equal amount of surplus skin around the edges. Holding the bezel above the ‘flesh band’, start to fold the surplus skin up and around the outside of the ‘flesh band’ and at the same time folding and tucking it inside the bezel and working in a circle motion around the whole circumference of the bezel. Visually check all around the vellum for evenness.
Now working with the hoop on your banjo…evenly spaced around your banjo’s hoop, fit half a dozen of your banjo’s tension hooks and nuts. Ensure that they are loosely fitted and ready to accept your new vellum. Now place your new vellum, flesh band and bezel assembly onto your banjo hoop. Here you can note if your bezel has a weld joint and position this to be hidden underneath your tailpiece. Position the vellum assembly carefully and evenly around the hoop and locate the six tension hooks in position …do not over tighten the tension hooks at this stage but visually check that they are evenly pulling down on the vellum. Seeing that no folds or wrinkles appear …ease the vellum up and under the bezel and ensure that there are no overlaps or folds as it passes over the ‘flesh band’. Gently press down in the centre of the vellum to give a little ‘slack’ in the vellum for later tensioning after the vellum has dried. Visually check again that the bezel is pulling down even and gently tighten the six tension hooks to leave the bezel slightly higher than the face of the vellum …The bezel will be tightened down to it’s final position when the banjo is assembled before being finally ‘set up’ for playing. Have a last final check that the vellum is evenly stretched and that there are no wrinkles or folds evident.
Now lay the whole pot assembly on one side in a clean dry position, in a cool dry room. Under no circumstances should you use a ‘hair dryer’ or any form of heat to speed up the drying process. Leave for at least twenty four hours, best to leave even longer to ensure that the whole of the new vellum is dry. Please Note: The part of the vellum under the bezel will take much longer to dry than the face of the vellum, so don’t rush the process when you ‘feel’ that the face of the vellum is dry!
After a day or so, remove the vellum from the hoop by undoing the six fitted tension hooks. Leave the vellum ‘off’ the hoop for a further few hours, this will allow the mating parts to further dry out. The vellum should not feel ‘tacky’ and should not stick to the hoop. If you try to fit a vellum that is not completely dry, you can cause distortion of the vellum or even cause it to split. When you are quite sure that the vellum is completely dry, this is the time to finish off the vellum by trimming the excess skin from the inside of the bezel. Use a sharp ‘Stanley’ type knife for this process, it is also good practise to protect the face of the vellum with a thin piece of card or plastic (a piece of old banjo head is ideal for this purpose) as you work around the circumference of the bezel.
Now to Fit Your New Vellum to Your Banjo Rim
Sprinkle some French chalk on the inside of the vellum in the area where it locates with the rim, and shake of the excess before offering it to the rim. Note the orientation of the bezel and place any welding joints in position so that the tailpiece will cover the join. Fit all tensioning hooks and nuts until finger tight. Working diagonally and evenly, tension each hook and nut so that the bezel pulls the vellum down evenly. ‘Correct’ vellum tension is a personal choice. However, the vellum needs to be tight enough so that when pressed with your thumbs, you feel a reasonable tension and no sign of ‘sagginess’. Experience will teach you how tight your vellum needs to be. Please do not hesitate to contact our technical department at ‘Eagle Music Shop’ if you need more information.