6-String Banjo Set Ups

by Barry Hunn

Unlike a guitar, the 6 string banjo can have its voice dramatically altered by the player.  Brighter, warmer, less sustain, more sustain, more mid-range emphasis, etc., by merely changing a couple of components and making adjustments. This “guitar players’ banjo” can meet any musician’s needs.  Here’s how:

Bright and Crisp:  

For the brightest, crispest sound, a top frosted head and brass wound strings is a great combination.   Bronze wound strings are almost as bright, but not the pinnacle of brightness like brass.  The tailpiece can be adjusted a little closer to the head to increase downward pressure on the bridge which makes the sound a bit sharper or snappier. This combination has a moderate level of sustain; not too much and not too little.

Warm and long sustaining:  

A shiny black head and nickel wound strings will be the warmest, least bright combination.   The shiny black head sustains about the most of any head and the head has little to no brightness.  The nickel wound electric guitar strings start off moderately bright and hold that moderate brightness for a long time.   The tailpiece should be adjusted away from the head for the least pressure on the bridge for the mellow, warm tone with long sustain that many banjoists prefer.

Warm with short sustain:   

Fiberskyn heads are not only warm toned, but the soft surface of the head absorbs some vibration and stops the sustain short.   Nickel wound electric guitar strings are very compatible with this combination.  While banjos are always associated with the ringing sustain of round wound strings, a set of flat wound strings will make a six string banjo absolutely plunky.  Blues players sometimes love the ultra-warm, plunky banjo sound.

Combining these characteristics:  

Here is where the banjoist “creates a signature sound”.  I’ve listed some combinations that are rather extreme: the brightest, the warmest WITH sustain and the warmest with short sustain.  One of the most beautiful, expressive and dynamic features of the six string banjos is being able to create sounds in-between these extremes.  For example, a player can combine bright strings with a warm head or a mellower string with a bright head.  There are many head styles and materials which have varying effects.

  • A clear head sustains like a black head. It is brighter, but not as bright as the top frosted head.
  • A bottom frosted head sustains like a black or clear head, but is warmer and fuller than the clear head.
  • A renaissance head is a completely different sound and is warmer than top frosted, brighter than a black head, and sustains more than fiberskyn.
  • Kevlar heads are ultra stiff and sustain pretty well.  They have a crisp snap - yet they sound pretty warm.
  • The wild prism head is very much like the black head. Very warm, not very bright, and long sustaining.

Try it, You’ll Like It    

The fun part of this information for the guitarist, is that unlike a guitar where a string change, nut or saddle change or change of picks are most of the options to change the basic banjo sound, the banjo has the capacity to change its basic character dynamically.

The combinations are a little too numerous to describe here so here’s the best part:  You can be your own inventor.   Banjo heads cost between $30 and $35.  Strings are $6 to $25 a set.   These are inexpensive experiments that can lead you to “your sound” or as John Hartford used to say “get the sound that’s in my head.”

Whether you play a Deering Boston 6-string, a Deluxe 6-string, an Eagle II 6-string or a Vega Senator 6-string, these head and string combinations will give you control over your sound like you’ve never experienced with an acoustic guitar.

There Is No Wrong Combination

Because we are all individuals, none of us talk, sing, play, dance or walk the same.   Our bodies, life experience and outlook on life influences our music.  There is no “right” or “wrong” way to play your banjo or to set up your banjo, if it’s set up the way YOU like.

We wouldn’t tell Mozart to “spice it up a little” anymore than we would tell Leonardo Da Vinci to “add a little more cobalt blue…”   When we think about these great masters, it sounds absurd to think about telling them how to make a better piece of art.  The same is true for you.  Why should you try to “imitate” another musician to feel you are doing  something “right”?

When we are learning to play, it is perfectly natural to try and recreate a great lick, or great song from an artist that has inspired us.   But, after a certain point, the music comes from YOU!

So, if YOU like your banjo set up the way YOU like it, then that’s all you need to be concerned about.   Besides, with the flexibility of a six string banjo, you may decide in six months that you want to chase a different kind of sound.  With a six string banjo you can.

Isn’t that wonderful?

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