I heard a conversation the other day between two different stringed instrument repairman. The conversation ranged from frustrations of customers descriptions of service requests to laughter at some of the unintelligible requests. One comment was when a customer asked one repairman to set up his banjo “right”. Another request was to set up the banjo with the lowest action possible with as much “crash tone” as possible. Both were highly skilled professionals and were lamenting the lack of clear communication and definition that comes from many of their customers.
Upon reflecting on this conversation, I thought it might be best to talk about what specifically we should be saying to our repair techs in setting up our banjos.
I have spoken with many customers over the years who have been afraid of insulting their repair techs when they ask for something very specific. The usual comment revolves around “Well, I really don’t know exactly what I’m doing so I don’t want to be too specific and act like I know a lot but also get the wrong thing.” This sensitivity is commendable but doesn’t really help the tech know what you want.
As an example, Deering sets up all of our five string banjos with approximately 1/8 of an inch of clearance between the string and the 22nd fret. So, if your banjo has strings higher than this, and you feel that you would like to have string height lower for greater comfort, it is perfectly okay to tell your tech that Deering specifies approximately 1/8 of an inch clearance between the first four strings of a five string banjo and the top of the 22nd fret. Given this one dimension, you can then talk to your tech and ask if your string height can be lowered any more than this. (Granted, this is a low action by almost any standard but there are other aspects to set up like truss rod curve etc. that can affect the playability of a banjo with the strings still sitting 1/8 of an inch above the 22nd fret.)
This would help your tech much more than asking for “low action” or “best playability.” For some professionals the action twice this high is considered the best playability. Anything lower is un-playable.
Many techs don’t want to push their own preferences over the preferences of their customers. But, without clear and specific measurements or descriptions, the tech often has to base his or her customer set up decisions on “what’s most popular” or “what is stereotypically thought of as good”. What works for someone else will not necessarily work for you. Set up is a uniquely personal series of choices. But you must learn to be specific.
Both playing approaches are beautiful so once you determine which of these setups work for you and you adjust or have your banjo adjusted to these criteria, it’s not unreasonable to ask your set up tech for a description of the dimensions like string height, neck curvature, etc. You can also take some measurements yourself if you feel comfortable doing so to reproduce your favorite set up on your banjo in the future.
On a banjo there are three measurements and a tweak that will usually take care of most of your banjo set up needs.
Tweak… adjusting the tailpiece (which will also involve measurements.)
On virtually every banjo the same technique applies to checking truss rod or neck curvature. This works on 17 fret tenors, 19 fret tenors, six string banjos, five string banjos, and plectrum banjos.
Hold one string down at the first fret and then hold that same string down at the highest fret. (on five string banjos, do this with one of the first four strings, not the fifth string.) You should see a gap between the bottom of that string and the top of the seventh fret. On virtually all banjos the seventh fret is closest to the middle of the string’s length. The gap between the top of the 7th fret and the bottom of the string is usually somewhere between 5 thousandths of an inch up to 25 thousandths of an inch for most well set up banjos.
Most Deering banjo truss rods are adjusted to create a forward neck curve somewhere around 9 to 10 thousandths. This amount of curvature works for many players, but is not gospel.
Goodtime banjos are designed to stay within normal playing tolerances without a truss rod so the actual neck curvature will vary very slightly.
Playing on a neck that is absolutely flat requires a super light players touch that not many players can manage. Most players have enough variation in their string attack that a flat neck will buzz incessantly.
So, you can use an automotive “feeler gauge” to measure the gap at the 7th fret. You can also use a banjo string that is 10 thousandths of an inch thick as a gauge. On banjos with an adjustable truss rod, a 10 thousandths gap often works well for many players. Players who play hard will sometime prefer more curve to allow for the wider vibrating movement of the strings.
Whatever size gap works for your playing, make a note of it and keep the information in your banjo case. Your repair tech will appreciate your specific request.
These truss rod or neck curvature measurements seem to be fairly consistent on 17 fret tenors, 19 fret tenors, plectrum banjos, five string banjos, five string short neck parlor banjos and six string banjos.
Set your truss rod before all the other adjustments. You might finesse the truss rod setting after the other adjustments, but starting with the neck curve gives you the foundational first step to setting up your banjo.
When a banjo head gets loose or soft, the bridge sags and the strings get lower to the frets. The head is a major part of the tone of your banjo. So, you want to set your banjo head tension for the tone you want.
Generally, a tighter banjo head makes the banjo brighter and reduces the lower, “warmer” part of the sound. It also makes the banjo respond quickly and makes the sound crisper or snappier.
A softer, or looser head, enhances more of the warmer sound of the banjo and reduces the brightness of the banjo. It also makes the strings a little slower to respond or a little more “plunky”.
Many players like the sound of their banjo tuned to somewhere around G sharp when the head is tapped and pitch is heard. Some players seeking a brighter and crisper sound will “tap tune” the head to A. Other players seeking a warmer, mellower tone will tune the heads down to F, F sharp or G to highlight some of the lower frequencies in the banjo.
Tuning the head is measurable if you practice listening to the pitch of the head while tapping it with your finger. Dampen the strings with one hand and then tap the head and try to hear what the pitch is. This takes practice so don’t be disappointed if you can’t do this immediately.
Devices like “drum dials” which tell you the tension on the head are useful if you know what tension you want. So, when your banjo sounds the way you want it, then measure the head tension with the drum dial and write it down and keep it in your case. Then you can virtually repeat it when you adjust your head in the future.
Other players adjust the head till the banjo sounds the way they want it. This is still the best approach because that’s the goal - your banjo sounding the way you want it!
Remember concepts like “tap tuning” or “drum dials” are ONLY intended to help you “tune up” your banjo to your liking.
What the head is tuned to or the tension setting used is just a guideline. It’s not the G sharp by itself you want or the certain drum dial tension number that is what head tuning is for. But it can be helpful to get you in the ballpark instead of starting from zero every time and having to “re-discover” your tune up specs. Once you tune to about G sharp, you may find G sharp plus or minus gives you the precise sound you want. If your drum dial setting is “9” you find that slightly less or slightly more than that, is exactly what you want. But these techniques just help you get there quicker with less trial and error.
When you have the head adjusted to “your sound” that will determine where the bridge needs to be in terms of how high it places the strings above the frets.
The biggest effect on the height of the strings above the frets is the neck-to-rim angle.
Once you have the truss rod adjusted to about 10 thousandths, and the head adjusted to the sound that you like, then the final step is to adjust the neck angle.
The neck angle has the biggest effect on the height of the strings above the frets but the finger board curve and the head tension must be set first as they are the “givens” or the “foundations” from which the neck angle is then based.
When the forward edge of the Deering Truetone tailpiece (or any adjustable tailpiece) is higher above the head, there is less downward pressure from the strings onto the bridge. When the forward edge of the Deering Truetone tailpiece is closer to the head there is more downward pressure from the strings onto the bridge.
When the first adjustments, truss rod, head tension and neck angle are adjusted to your liking, then you can set the tailpiece height for the sound you like.
There are two things to remember about the tailpiece adjustments:
1. The downward pressure of the strings on the bridge does affect the bridge height. If you have the tailpiece set high, the downward pressure is minimum. If you like the sound of the strings pushing harder on the bridge, then the bridge will be pushed slightly lower into the head by the increase downward pressure of the strings.
This string-on-the-bridge pressure might cause you to have to finesse the neck angle slightly after you have already adjusted the neck angle. It may have no significant affect but if your action is very low and you increase the downward pressure on the bridge, it will push the bridge deeper into the head which will lower your strings closer to the frets which might cause buzzing unless you adjust the neck slightly.
2. Most tailpieces are mounted to sit solidly on the top edge of tension hoop of the banjo. When you tighten the banjo head, the tailpiece will lose the solid connection on the top of the tension hoop. When you tighten the tailpiece to re-connect with the tension hoop, you have now lowered the forward edge of the tailpiece closer to the head. So to maintain your tone you will need to readjust the tailpiece after you adjust the banjo head.
If you have measured and made a note of your preferred tailpiece height above the head at the forward edge of the tailpiece, you can reproduce it again after the tailpiece is adjusted to sit firmly on the tension hoop. Again, this just helps give you a guideline to put your banjo back to playing the way YOU want it to play.
Making adjustments on all Deering banjos is really easy. But, if you are uncomfortable doing the work yourself, a competent repair tech can do this for you - preferably one who has adjusted banjos before.
Keeping a note pad or laminated card in your case with your banjo set up specs on it will make you a popular customer with repair techs. You can have fun talking about your “crash tone” or “crunch in the low end” or “paint peeling power” with friends all you want. But since instruments are made by measurement and “finessed” into the most comfortable playability and desired tone, at least having something very concrete and measurable makes getting your banjo set up more predictable and less prone to mis-interpretation.
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