The lyrics “like a bridge over troubled waters” might well have been written by a banjo player and his search for the Holy Grail of bridges for his banjo! Bridges do play a critical role in the sound of a banjo. Thick ones, thin ones, compensated ones…which is best? That is something every banjo player can decide for himself but there are a few “basics” that I hope can help lead you to the best choice for your playing needs.
WHAT IS A BANJO BRIDGE?
I actually found the best definition of a banjo bridge in the book Banjo for Dummies by Bill Evans. On page 243 he says, “The bridge is a piece of wood, (usually with 3 contact points, called feet) that sits on top of the head and transmits the vibrations from the strings that rest on top if it to the head and the rest of the banjo.” The bridge is held in place by the tension of the strings from the tuners to the tailpiece. It is not glued in place like a guitar bridge but is a “floating” bridge like on a violin."
EFFECTS OF WOOD
- The wood that a bridge is made of is critical. The bridge is figuratively and literally the connection between the pot assembly and the neck by way of the banjo strings. So it is critical that the wood that the bridge is made of be a good sound conductor. Traditionally it is made of an ebony “saddle” or top portion and a maple “body” with three feet.
- At Deering we make our own banjo bridges out of the same tonal maple as our maple banjos and the same ebony that is used on our fingerboards. If you take a close look at the maple of a Deering bridge, you will be able to actually SEE the grain lines.
Click here to see a photo where you can actually COUNT the grain lines because they are clear and easily discernible.
- You will notice that one side of the ebony saddle is rounded, while the other is not. That is so the player who rests his fingers on the bridge will have a smooth, rounded surface against his fingers instead of a sharp point. It is a fine detail that will make your playing more comfortable.
- The denser the wood the more grain lines you see, the better the ability of the bridge to transmit the level of intensity desired by the player to the pot assembly through the banjo strings. Greg Deering Signature bridges are made of the densest of the maple we use and are all especially chosen by him before he signs them.
Click here to order your Greg Deering Signature bridge
- Ebony has traditionally been used for the top/saddle portion of the bridge. Because it is very dense and hard, the ebony will have less of a tendency to “sag” in the middle due to the tension of the strings across it than softer woods would. It will also hold up better against the “sawing” action of the steel strings and provide good sustain and a sweet tone because of its increased density. A brief investigation on the internet and in our reference literature here at the factory did not bring me any authoritative references on why it might have been chosen initially so if any of you have some good historical context here, please send it our way so we can share it with our readers.
- A simple search on the internet will show you the wide variety of woods that other builders use like birch, teak, koa, rosewood, and other exotic woods. These will all transmit the vibration of the strings differently and alter the sound of your banjo. Again, the beauty of the banjo, or the “hot rod of acoustic instruments”, is that you can enjoy experimenting.
The Deering bridges are 3/16” thick at the feet which is a popular dimension used in banjo bridges. Every banjoist has a different touch and draws out of each banjo a different sound. The fun is in the experimentation and the cost of most bridges is modest enough for the banjo player to indulge his desire for variety in tone.
- As a general rule, a bridge that is thicker and heavier will give you a sweeter tone, increased volume, and more bass response. You don’t want it too thick or it can possibly mute the sound of your banjo, making it duller. This is a case of “more” is not necessarily “better.”
- The thinner and lighter a bridge is the faster and crisper the response, and the brighter the tone. Again, too thin a bridge could make the banjo sound “sharp” or “harsh” and possibly mechanically sag sooner under the pressure of the strings.
While banjo bridges are made in various heights, it is good to remember that the heel cut of your banjo has been set for a specific height of bridge. You can go up or down but you should understand that you might not be able to set the action of your strings to a comfortable playing action. (We will discuss ACTION in another article.) If the bridge is too short and you cannot adjust the action (the distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret) up higher, you will get buzzing of the strings on the frets and possibly pick noise on the head when you play.
That being said, banjo bridges are made in various heights from ½” through 11/16” or taller. At Deering the 5/8” bridge is used on the majority of our banjos and, for the most part, this is what you will find on most banjos.
- A taller bridge, because it increases the angle and tension of the strings across the top, can make the banjo sound sharper and more penetrating. Some might say that it increases the volume of the banjo because of the sharper tone. If you have been used to playing with a 5/8” bridge and move to a taller bridge, it may challenge the established “muscle memory” of your picking hand. You may have to experiment around to find an alternative that is an acceptable compromise for sound and playing comfort.
- Many professionals prefer the 11/16” height on a bridge. Deering uses this height on our Tenbrooks models and on the Terry Baucom Signature model. This height has a more penetrating and sharper tone, and it allows players to get up and under the strings more easily. These Deering banjos have the heel cut made to accommodate this bridge height.
BRIDGE SPACING, SLOT ANGLES, & BUZZES
- The standard Deering 5-string bridge spacing is 1 11/16” from the first to the 5th string. Some players, like Terry Baucom, like a wider string spacing and his signature model banjo has a bridge with 1 7/8” spacing.
- A 1 ¾” spacing is sometimes referred to as “Crowe” spacing. Players with larger hands sometimes prefer this spacing as they feel less “cramped” because it allows more room for “inside rolls” on the strings.
- Buzzes can be caused by a bridge slot that is improperly cut. The string should come across the top of the bridge and only impact the top front edge and then fall back down toward the tailpiece. This helps give the banjo a clear, crisp sound. The front side of the Deering bridge (the side with the name on it and the side which should be FACING the peghead for proper placement) is cut at an angle. This angle causes the bridge to lean toward the tailpiece. This also stabilizes the bridge against the pull of the strings and drives the pressure of the strings more directly into the head. This added pressure translates to more efficient delivery of the energy of the strings to the entire pot assembly, giving the player a crisper, clearer tone overall.
Traditionally banjo bridges have been cut flat. Violin makers have created their bridges at an angle for years. In that same tradition, we now make our bridges with an angle, improving both the sound of the banjo and the stability of the bridge.
If improperly cut, the string can fall into the groove and cause an annoying buzzing sound. To correct this take a V-file or bridge file and cut the groove slot with an angle downward and toward the tailpiece so that the string makes contact right at the face of the bridge. DO NOT MAKE THE SLOT DEEPER; you just want to change the angle.
COMPENSATED BRIDGES VS. STRAIGHT LINE BRIDGES
- The straight line bridge is the one most commonly found on a banjo.
- A compensated bridge is a bridge that is not straight but is somewhat U-shaped with notches that make each string a different length from the nut. In theory, each string should be a specific distance from the nut for precise intonation all the way up the fingerboard. A bridge that is “compensated” is one that makes each string a different length to accomplish the improved pitch up and down. It is heavier than most bridges and so sustains a lot and has good bass with a sweet tone. I can't say it is louder or punchier but it may appear louder because the clarity of the tone projects better than a slightly muffled tone.
- Compensated bridges come in various shapes. Some of them are called “moon bridges” because they form an arc, like a slivered moon. There is a type of compensated bridge that is essentially a straight line bridge with a little notch bumped out at the 3rd string, which is the string that should be farthest from the nut. The Deering compensated bridge looks like a little series of steps going up to the 3rd string and back down again to the fifth. Essentially, the 1st and 5th strings are the same distance and closest to the nut, the 2nd and 4th strings are the same and next furthest from the nut and the 3rd string is alone and the longer distance from the nut.
- Sometimes you will see a straight line bridge that is angled on the head. This is an attempt to use it as a compensated bridge. If you have strings 1-3 in good intonation, numbers 4 and 5 will be out just a little and vice versa. It is a matter of compromise in setting the intonation when using a straight line bridge.
- While these rules of thumb are interesting and can offer some guidance, the best approach is to try bridges until you find the sound you are after. If you want more bass, then a light, thin bridge is probably not going to be what you want. The bridges that compensate the third string only, are not usually dramatic in effect in "sweetening" or correcting intonation. Fully compensated bridges do offer excellent correction and can tend to be a little thicker and heavier. We have some curved bridges made by Warren Yates with innovative features like maple feet with coconut shell top. This bridge has a sharp, biting tone, which is great if that is the character you are after.
- Much of these differences can really only be discovered by experimenting. If you use the rules of thumb, decide which direction you want to go, and listen to your tone with each bridge, I think you will find the punch, power, and sweetness that you are after.
SETTING THE BRIDGE
- The scale of a 5 string banjo is 26 1/4” measured from the front of the nut to the front of the bridge. Start by setting your bridge at 26 3/16” from the nut.
- To get the bridge set at the “sweet spot” for best intonation, you will want to use the harmonics.
- First, you will fret the 1st and 4th strings at the 12th fret and pluck the strings.
- Next, you will create a harmonic note by placing your finger lightly over the 1st/4th strings so that the pad of your finger just barely comes into contact with the string, and then pluck. This chimed note and the plucked note should be the same if the bridge is in the right place.
- Beginners don’t think they will “hear” this but once you have mastered the technique of creating the harmonic, you REALLY will hear it! If the notes are not the same, move the bridge.
- AWAY from the nut on the neck if the fretted note is higher (sharp) than the harmonic (the string is too short) or
- TOWARD the nut if the fretted note is lower/with more bass than the harmonic (the string distance is too long).
The front side and backside of Deering bridges are also cut differently to compensate for the tension of the strings on the bridge and to give it greater stability. The backside (side facing the tailpiece) is cut at a 90 degree angle and the front edge (facing the nut) is slightly angled back; this combination offsets the string tension and keeps the bridge more stable on the banjo head.
Yes, this is just the beginning of your adventure in banjo bridges. Take what you can from these basics and see what kind of fun you can have with your banjo. If you have some favorite “bridge tips” of your own, don’t forget to send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.