From what I have seen, human beings have amazing awareness. This keen awareness is showcased in the subtleties of banjo set up. Adjustments like string height, string spacing measurements, fret height and neck shape combined with bridge height, head tension, tailpiece adjustment make for very unique recipes of individual players banjo sound and “feel”.
But the amazing part is how players who are “tuned in” to these specifications can “feel” or “sense” when the adjustments do not fit their ideal. I know craftsman and players who have felt that one neck was .005” thicker or thinner than another neck. I know players who can feel if the strings are .002” higher or lower than they were before.
These are tiny measurements but in the hands of experienced players and craftspeople, these numbers translate to a different “feel”. In most cases, these tiny measurements don’t necessarily mean the difference between a player’s happiness or dissatisfaction. The point here is that we human beings have extremely keen awareness.
What Is Important To You?
Here is a potentially shocking fact: What you personally think is the best, most perfect set up on your banjo, is not perfect for everyone else.
Deering has built and sold more banjos than any American company in history. After selling more than 120,000 banjos, I can assure you that every great banjo player, professional and amateur, has decided likes and dislikes in banjo set up, many of which are completely contradictory or at minimum, definitely different from each other.
We have had wonderful players who needed their string height to be ¼ inch at the 22nd fret. (our standard is about 1/8 inch at the 22nd fret.) We have had players who needed the strings higher above the head of the banjo so a custom neck angle and neck set had to be built into the banjo.
We have had players who needed their strings as close to 3/32 inch at the 22nd fret. (almost impossible to play without buzzing unless they are used to it and play VERY softly.)
We hear from players all the time that “this is the only way it should be done…” spoken so emphatically that it feels like a religious sermon. The truth among all these opinions is that set up subtleties are extremely individual and should be chosen based on personal need….not what someone else claims to be “absolutely necessary.”
If I am 5 foot ten inches tall, I would not adjust my car seat the same way Greg Deering would as he is 6 foot 7 inches tall. In fact, I could buy a small, medium or large car and be relatively comfortable in each. Greg pretty much needs a large car if he doesn’t want his knees on the dashboard or the top of his head pounded on the inside of the roof even with seat all the way back and down.
As for banjos, when I was playing in college, I played extremely softly and could adjust my action easily to 1/8 inch or a touch lower without buzzing. However, some local “experts” told me my banjo “buzzed” because they played very hard. They said my banjo was out of adjustment. That was wrong. My banjo was not set up for their style.
I wasn’t wrong, I had set up my banjo for my light touch.
You Can’t Really Ask Someone Else
The reason I encourage everyone to trust their own sense about banjo set up is because everyone has a unique approach. Too often beginners are swayed by “experts” that blatantly say “this is the way it must be done… Or you are wrong.”
I can assure you for every set up that I have been told was “the correct set up” I could find you hundreds of other “correct set ups” from thousands of other equally qualified players. Of course, it’s hard not to “try” what hot players do, because we hope that the same set up contributes to their skill and success and would also help us be successful.
There is some truth to this, but I have seen through 40+ years in the music industry that while some set ups might appeal to more players than others, there are still elements that are unique to each of us and these elements should be honored and maintained.
Part of the reason that Deering sets actions at about 1/8 of an inch above the 22nd fret is that this height is about as low as most players can comfortably play without buzzing and it is easier to raise the action higher than this for the player who needs a higher string action.
Setting our action at 1/8 of an inch above the 22nd fret is not a statement that “this is the way it should be”, but it is a way of presenting a banjo to a customer that plays comfortably and can be adjusted a little bit for personal preference.
One of the world’s foremost banjo players prefers his strings to be a full one quarter of an inch above the 22nd fret. I know one player who prefers his action closer to 5/16 above the 22nd fret.
I would personally be uncomfortable with strings this high but never would I argue against these great players…EVER.
Also, I know a few players who squeak their strings a little below 1/8 of an inch at the 22nd fret. Very few players can play this extremely low set up without strings buzzing incessantly.
I truly can’t say that “low action” is more desirable than “high action” or “mid height action” or that the reverse is true.
Banjo Head Tuning
We have found that many players like our banjos when the head is tuned to approximately G#. We also know many players who like to have their head tuned A, Bb, F#, F, etc.
Just when you think you know what everyone wants, someone wants something else. This is not a bad thing at all. It is part of the big beautiful picture that is the world of banjos.
When it comes to banjo strings, there are some inescapable facts. Light gauge strings put less tension on the neck of a banjo than medium gauge. Light gauge strings, within the balance of the individual string have a ratio of increased low end response with reduced midrange response and increased high-end response.
Medium gauge strings tend to have more pronounced midrange response and therefore could be considered a more flat or “even” response.
Having said that, this begs an important question: who cares? If a person is playing for personal enjoyment, many of these considerations should be decided on personal enjoyment: What do you like?
Professionals have requirements such as blending with the band, having to have enough volume to reach into a microphone, needing more midrange response from a recording point of view, or blending well with the guitar, fiddle, dobro etc. So professionals choose setups for a variety of reasons. This is also why professionals might have a banjo they use for stage playing and one that they play at home for practice and fun.
One of the most enjoyable things about trying different strings is discovering all the unique sounds from the different brands and the different gauges. Fortunately, strings are not very expensive and this can make for a lot of fun experimenting.
Banjo heads come in different crown heights and are made of a variety of materials. The crown height is determined by the banjo design. For example: Goodtime banjos all work best with a high crown head. Most Deering models are designed for a medium crown head. After determining the crown height for your banjo, the choice of head then becomes a sound decision.
Just like strings, the choice of head makes a tremendous difference in the sound of a banjo. As a fun exercise, if you go to the Deering website and go to this link:
This lists many of the banjo heads that we have for sale but with each description is a little information about how each one sounds.
Beginners Can’t Know
When we are born, we can make sound but we don’t know how to make words. When we are four years old we might be able to make words but do we know what a dangling participle is?
It takes time to know what we want and what we need. As a beginner, many of the subtleties of set up cannot be known based purely on lack of experience.
Probably the best advice to provide a beginner are these three concepts:
- Play your banjo
- Play your banjo
- Play your banjo
It is only through experience that you can really know with certainty what you prefer and why.
In other words, let’s say you are playing your banjo and you feel that you have to push very hard to get the strings down to the frets. Instead of getting out your manual and adjusting your banjo, try going to your local music store that carries a good selection of Deering banjos and try a few other banjos. If you find that the banjos you try in the store are all easier to push the strings down, then you might want to look at adjusting your banjo.
On the other hand, if you find that they are about the same, then you may find that your fingertips are somewhat tender (which they are naturally and this is perfectly normal) and more practice will develop the necessary calluses on your fingertips.
Notice, all of this has come down to you experimenting and trying other banjos and not taking the word of “an expert”. Through experience, experimentation and playing your banjo, you will naturally, at your own pace, begin to understand the subtlety of set up and what it means to you.