How Does Environment Affect the Sound Of A Banjo?

by Carolina Bridges

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?

What Is Neck Relief?

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.


How Do You Check Neck Relief?

You will need a ¼” truss rod wrench, a credit card for a gauge, and a clip on capo.

  • Clip on the capo at the first fret.
  • Put your finger down across all five strings at the 22nd fret.
  • I like using a credit card with the numbers facing up for a gauge. The actual thickness that you need is something that is 1/64” or .015-.022”.
  • With the capo on at the 1st fret, and your finger on at the 22nd fret, with your free hand, take the credit card and run it under the string and on top of the 7th fret.
  • If the numbers are rubbed, you need to put more relief in the neck.
  • If there is a canyon between the strings and the fret, you need to flatten it out.

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.

What Is Action?

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.

Causes and Solutions To Action Issues

There are a several things that can cause action to change:

  • A loose banjo head can make your action go low. Why? Because the bridge sinks into the head and the strings get too close to the fingerboard frets and buzzing will occur. SOLUTION: Tighten your head tension. Learn how to tighten your head tension here.
  • Check the front edge of your tailpiece for pressure. It should sit at about ¼” +/- 1/32” off from the top of the banjo head; measured from the bottom of the front edge and the top of the banjo head. This pressure pulls the strings down over the top of the banjo bridge and can affect the action. To adjust this on your Deering Truetone tailpiece, first take your thumb and push down on the front edge of the tailpiece and then loosen or tighten the adjustment screw on your tailpiece. You do the thumb pressure first so you don’t strip the threads on your adjustment screw.
  • For a Goodtime tailpiece, you will use the ½” nuts on your pot assembly that hold the tailpiece in place. You have an oval slot that allows you to lower or raise the tailpiece for action adjustment on the front edge. You will need a ½” open-ended wrench to make this adjustment.
  • Given that your head and your tailpiece are secure, now you go to the lower coordinator rod (the one furthest from the banjo head if you have two of them in your pot assembly) to lower or raise your action. If you have two rods, you may want to loosen the upper one slightly but do remember to tighten it back up at the end of the adjustment process. Learn how to adjust your coordinator rods here.
  • The coordinator rod’s main function is to firmly anchor your neck to the rim but it is also used to adjust your action.
  • You will need an Allen wrench/nail to fit through the hole in your co-rod to prevent it from rotating during the adjustment procedure. If it rotates, it will loosen the neck connection to the rim.
  • You will need a ½” open ended wrench to adjust the nuts at the tailpiece side of your pot assembly.
  • To lower the action loosen the nut on the inside of the rim and tighten the nut on the inside accordingly.
  • To raise the action, loosen the nut on the outside of the rim and tighten the nut on the inside accordingly.
  • Turn the nuts only ¼ turn at a time then check action. Over-turning the nuts can break the rim, strip the hanger bolt, or pull the hanger bolt out of the neck so be careful.
  • Snug it all back up and you’re in business!

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.


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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