Understanding how the environment can affect the sound and playability of your banjo is very important. Because your neck, your rim, and your resonator are made largely of wood and wood is quite susceptible to environmental conditions, let’s review some basic points that will help us understand and correct the effects of the changes caused by the change of weather and location of your banjo.
The changes in environment have a direct effect on both the action and the relief of the neck. An acoustic guitar player can sand and adjust his saddle on his instrument to lower the action or use his truss rod in the neck. Banjo players, on the other hand, are quite lucky. We have more ways to adjust action and relief than the guitar player. But which should you use and when?
A neck on a banjo is not flat. It may look flat to the casual observer but it is not. It has what I like to call a “Mona Lisa Smile” shape. There is a gentle concave curve to the neck. This makes absolute sense because if the neck was really flat, every time you fretted a string, it would come into contact with all the frets below and buzz instead of ringing melodiously.
Banjos are sort of like people, they like moderate environments. If it gets too dry, too hot, too cold, or too humid, the neck of your banjo will let you know that it is not happy. The first symptom is usually buzzing but finding the source of the buzz issue is not always as easy as it might appear.
I had a call recently from a man who was having problems with buzzing coming from his low D string on his Deering banjo. He had recently changed strings and was having some vibration from the low D-string tuner. We discussed with him various things to check which he did but to no avail. He was sure it was a bad tuner and we had no problem with sending him one except we asked him to check one more thing.
He shared that his banjo had been stored in the basement of his home and now he had it in the house and was getting it ready to play. We suggested he check the relief of the neck with the truss rod and put in some more relief as we felt the neck had flattened out during its time in the basement…and, bingo, the truss rod adjustment made the buzz go away.
The general rule of thumb is that when the weather is too humid, the neck will swell and you end up with it flattening out the natural curve. When the weather is too hot, the neck will dry out and you will have too much bow/relief in the neck. In both cases, you run into playing issues that seem to be action related but are in truth, relief of the neck.
To correct this neck relief issue, you want to use the truss rod in the neck of your banjo that you access by removing the truss rod cover on the peghead of the banjo.
You will need a ¼” truss rod wrench, a credit card for a gauge, and a clip on capo.
You adjust this by using the truss rod nut with the truss rod wrench.
Turning the truss rod nut clockwise with tighten it and flatten out the neck.
Turning the truss rod nut counter clockwise loosens it and puts more bow in the neck.
You want to only turn the nut 1/8 or ¼ of a turn and then recheck the relief. Keep the turns at a minimum.
Action is the distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret. When this distance becomes too close, you get string “buzz” an annoying sound that is not melodious but buzzing like a bee. If the distance is too large, then you have to work harder to get the strings into contact with the frets. Neither of these is a good condition to have fun or make beautiful music.
You measure the action at the last/highest fret on your banjo. At Deering we like to set the action at 1/8” at the last fret for optimum playing response.
There are a several things that can cause action to change:
Understanding the differences between action and relief and how they are adjusted on your banjo will make you a much more effective banjo owner and give you the ability to make adjustments when a luthier is not close at hand. While the buzzing of the bees in the meadow is a sign of spring, duplicating that sound on our banjo is far from a pleasant experience! You now have the knowledge to make playing in the meadow with the buzzing bees a fun time on your musical journey.
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