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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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