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How Does your Banjo Ring and Frequently asked Questions. Author, Steve Noon, Cleckheaton, 1988

Banjo parts and adjustments, simple explanations of how they affect the sound and tone of your banjo.

Eagle’s answers

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.

How often should you change the strings on your banjo, guitar, mandolin etc?

We are often asked the question ‘How often should I change my Strings’?
In the following notes, Eagle Music  gives examples of how strings are affected by different players and how they react to usage. How strings ‘work’ and the frequency that you should change them.

There are many answers to this question and it all depends on the player. A professional player who works his strings hard, may change strings for every performance to insure against string breakage during a live performance. A general rule for all players, is to change your strings when they have lost their tone and tune-ability.

Strings have a different tolerance to each individual player. Some players have dry hands and can make their strings last longer, and some players have ‘rusty fingers’ that corrode strings fairly quickly. It’s all relative to how much acid and skin debris you deposit on your strings from your fingers.

The strings are a ‘disposable’ part on your banjo and relatively inexpensive. They greatly affect the tuning, tone, power and projection of your banjo. A new set of strings can transform your instrument and the enjoyment that you will get from it.

Here are some notes for your consideration:

  • New strings are brighter with better tone and volume
  • New strings tune easily
  • Some players like their strings to be ‘played in’ for a week or so, at which time the tone mellows
  • Old ‘dying’ strings are difficult to tune, have poor tone and volume
  • Low cost ‘budget’ strings wear out and die quickly
  • Nickel strings are bright and metallic
  • Phosphor bronze strings have a warmer tone
  • Nickel wound strings last longer than phosphor bronze wound and are less reactive to players who have ‘rusty fingers’

String cleaners eg. Fast-Fret and Kyser prolong string life and keep strings brighter for longer – Use before and after each playing session.

Coated strings eg. Elixir last longer but some players don’t like the ‘feel’ of the coating.

Changing the strings on your Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar, Ukulele etc – advice from Eagle Music

Eagle Music explains here all the do’s and don’ts when fitting a new set of strings to your instrument. It is important that you understand that the weight, size and tension of your strings affects the set-up and action of your instrument.

First, I offer you this simple advice, invest in a string winder. A string winder will take all the work out of string changing and as an added bonus it will speed up the process! I insist that string winders are used at all times in our workshop, this ensures that our customers get a lower priced bill when it comes to the cost of paying for workshop time!

In the following notes, I shall assume that you are a right handed person, and that you are going to change the strings and then tune your instrument to standard tuning. The string set that we are using in the example is our most popular standard Eagle-Puretone set as follows, 1st also referred to as the ‘top’ -string is the furthest away from your chin when holding your instrument in the playing position. (If your instrument is part of the mandolin family, you will have a pair of 1st strings) The ‘bottom string’ is the string that is nearest your chin.

The string numbers eg.’9’ or ‘12’ refer to the diameter of the strings and they are measured in imperial measurement, which is used by the USA manufacturers (Not Metric) a ‘9’ for example measures .009” (which is nine thousandth’s of an inch in diameter)

Also take note before changing your strings what gauge of string set is already on your instrument, if your instrument is correctly set-up, the nut will have been cut to suit the gauge of strings that are already on your instrument. Changing up to heavier strings, without having your top nut cut to suit, can cause the thicker strings to bind in the nut. Slight binding can be cured by rubbing a little graphite into the slot (an HB graphite pencil or softer is fine)

Remove your Old strings

Please Note: Your instrument is ‘SET UP’ under tension, so it is a good idea when string changing, not to take all your strings off at the same time. Change one at a time. Slacken off your 1st string and unwind it from the capstan/pillar on your tuning peg, then remove the string from the tailpiece or bridge saddle.

Attach the new string to the tailpiece or bridge saddle, note from the remaining old strings that are still on your instrument, how the strings fit to your tailpiece or bridge. For example: Tailpieces on banjos come in many designs and on some tailpieces the string lays across the top/front of the tailpiece.

Hold some tension on the string to keep it attached to the tailpiece/bridge, as you lay it along your fingerboard and feed it through the hole in the pillar on your tuning peg, pull the string through the pillar with your left hand until there is no ‘slack’ on the string. Keep tension on the string with your left hand. Some of this excess that is now pulled through your pillar will be ‘cut off’ when you have tuned the string to its correct pitch.

At this stage you need to give yourself some ‘slack’ on the string, this ‘slack’ will allow you to put at last three turns around the pillar/capstan on your tuning peg. To do this, keep hold of the string with your left hand pull tension on the string. Then place your right hand index, middle and ring fingers behind the string near the pillar with the back of your fingers touching the instrument and ‘clamp’ the string against your fingers with your right hand thumb. Still holding tension on the string with your left hand, transfer your grip to hold the tension of the string now with your right hand.

Turn your right hand approximately ninety degrees with your index finger remaining in contact with your instrument, this action will pull some ‘slack’ back through the pillar. At this point ‘kink’ the string to ‘dog-leg’ the string as it enters and leaves the hole in the pillar, now in the same motion wind the string around the pillar to take up some of the ‘slack’ that you are holding in your right hand. Note the direction that the string winds around the pillar. It will be wound in the same direction as the old SECOND string that is still attached to your instrument. (Anti clockwise, assuming that the old string was fitted correctly!)

Tuning the 1st String

Carrying on from iii. above and still holding tension on the string with your right hand to keep it attached to the tailpiece, move you left hand to the tuning peg button and start to wind tension onto the string. At this point note that the string is located in its groove in the nut of your instrument, also that you are turning the tuning peg in the correct direction …you can see the pillar rotating as you wind the tuner peg. Carry on turning the tuner button until you take up all the ‘slack’ from your right hand. Then continue to ‘tune’ the 1st string to pitch. A clip-on electronic tuner is very useful for this operation, also to speed up the operation, use of a ‘string winder’ which is very helpful. At this stage you can ‘cut off’ the excess from the string …always tune your string BEFORE cutting off the excess. A small pair of wire cutters is a handy tool to have in your instrument bag, or you may want to invest in a state-of-the-art ‘string speed winder’ that has a pair of clippers on the end of the winder. For neatness, clip the string close to the pillar leaving approximately 6mm (¼”) Angle the remaining part of the string towards the neck face to avoid spiking yourself, but ensure that it does not touch the face of the neck which can scratch the finish when it is being wound.

Fitting and Tuning the 2nd, 3rd 4th etc. Strings

Fit the 2nd string using the same method as the first string and tune it to pitch. Fit the 3rd string in a similar way and tune it to pitch. Note that it winds around the pillar in the correct direction. Then fit the wound 4th string and tune it to pitch. Note also that the fourth string winds around the pillar in the correct direction. Carry on with the remainder of your strings with the same method. NOTE: NEVER cut the excess off a wound string before it is tuned to pitch, doing so can cause the string to unwind and loosen it’s winding along the length of the string.

5-string Banjos Only:-

Fitting and tuning the 5th or Octave String

The fifth or ‘octave’ string is attached to the tailpiece in the same manner as your other four strings, but it will have a guide on the neck of your banjo, it may also have a plastic ‘sleeve’ that fits onto the string to protect the side of your banjo neck. Take note of such things when you remove your old 5th string. Again ensure that you give it enough ‘slack’ when fitting to allow at least three turns around the pillar of the tuner button. The fifth string is tuned to high ‘G’ which is an octave above your 3rd ‘G’ string.

I have written these notes as simply as I could to help the beginner. I have tried my best to write down and explain the way that I change my own instrument strings! String changing is very much a ‘knack’ and I am certain that you will develop your own ‘knack’ of changing your strings based on the above notes.

Musical Instrument Strings – everything you need to know

Eagle Music is the ‘Pickers Paradise’. Our range of strings is world class including Eagle-Puretone, D ‘Addario, Martin, Elixir etc. We explain all the different types and ‘how to change strings’ and ‘when to change your instruments strings’.

All the different type of string gives a different sound and “feel” to your instrument. Experiment with all aspects to find your preferred tone and volume, but remember this brief note: thinner steel and nickel strings will give you more “clang” and “twang”, heavier wound bronze or phosphor bronze will produce a “warmer” sound with more body.

Strings come in many different materials …including high tensile Steel Unwound Plains,  Phosphor Bronze Wound, Nickel Steel Wound, Stainless Steel Wound, Bronze and Brass Mix Wound (80/20) etc. Nylon, and Nylgut etc.

Strings come in many different size gauges  and are measured in Imperial measurement (not metric) The string numbers eg. ‘9’ or ‘12’ refer to the diameter of the strings and they are measured in old imperial measurement, which is used by the USA manufacturers (Not Metric) a ‘9’ for example measures .009” (which is nine thousandth’s of an inch in diameter)
Strings come in ‘Ball End’, ‘Loop End’ and ‘Tie on’

It is important that you check and buy the correct gauge of strings before re stringing your instrument. The gauge and Weight of your strings affects the action and set-up of your instrument.

Each of the different type of string gives a different sound and “feel” to your instrument. Experiment with all aspects to find your preferred tone and volume, but remember this brief note: thinner steel and nickel strings will give you more “clang” and “twang”, heavier wound bronze or phosphor bronze will produce a “warmer” sound with more body.

Note that Eagle-Puretone custom gauge sets can be made up At Eagle Music 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 exert as you play, accounts for much of your instruments tone and volume.

We are also often asked How often should you change the strings on your banjo, guitar, mandolin etc?