We all want a shortcut to get better without putting in the time and hard work that professional musicians do. In reality, there is no shortcut. You must practice, listen to music, and dedicate yourself to truly get better. There are though a few things you can do that do not involve practicing which will change the tone you are getting out of your banjo. Here is a quick list of 5 easy things you can do.
This is something you should be doing regularly. I would suggest at least once a month. If you play a fair amount on your banjo, then you should be doing it more regularly. Dirty and worn out strings on an instrument will deaden the tone of your instrument and can even make your intonation go out. If your strings are very dirty, the intonation will go flat.
Once you get the hang of changing your banjo strings, you’ll be able to do it no time. I’ve seen musicians on stage break a string mid song and change it before the song ends without missing a beat! A fresh set of strings will bring life back into your banjo.
Keeping your banjo head evenly tight will help keep your banjo sounding the best it can. The majority of players keep their head tuned to around a G# pitch (the pitch you get when you mute the strings and tap on the head). Different head tensions give your banjo a different tone. The tighter the head, the brighter the tone. The looser the head, the more mellow the tone. Head tensions usually range anywhere between a F# and a Bb. When you get up to a Bb, you are really getting tight and anywhere past that will most likely break the head. When tightening your banjo head, one of the most important things to do is to keep the tension even all the way around the head.
Their are a lot of different banjo bridges out there on the market and each one can change your banjo’s tone in different ways. The new Deering Smile™ banjo bridge can give your banjo a very even, balanced tone, with a more expressive midrange and less constricted low end frequencies. Bridges can sag in the middle over time due to pressure from the strings onto the banjo bridge which creates an indentation in the head. This pressure compresses the bridge into a natural curve creating a stress within the bridge, limiting its ability to vibrate freely and thus inhibiting the tone. This inward curvature can also make it more difficult to play.
An adjustable tailpiece such as the Deering tailpiece you can adjust the angle at which it pushes the strings down to the head. The steeper the angle you give it, the more pressure you are putting on the strings which will give your banjo a sharper tone. The less of an angle you give it, the more mellow the tone you will get. Not all tailpieces are adjustable. A popular one is the No Knot tailpiece that is found on a lot of old time style banjos. With these tailpieces you get what you get.
There are a lot of different types of banjo fingerpicks and thumbpicks for sale. They can be made with different materials, different shapes, or even different angles. Try different picks out and see which ones you like the best. What works for one person may not work for another. They can range from under $1 to $45 and higher. There are nickel, stainless steel, brass, bronze, plastic picks and more. Some might work for one style of playing and others you might like for another style or texture of playing.
Whatever you do with these five ideas, just make sure to choose the setting or type that you like. Not what someone tells you you should use. Listen and trust your ear.
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