Recently I had an email from a customer who was confused by “radius” versus “compensated” bridges. I thought a brief explanation might be of help in finding the right banjo bridge for your instrument.
First we should discuss bridge height. The heel cut on your banjo neck is actually directly related to the height of your banjo bridge; did you know that? Yes, if you choose a bridge that is taller or shorter than the heel cut you can run into action issues.
Frequently folks decide they need a lower or higher action and they take what they feel is an “easy” way to do this by buying a bridge that is shorter or taller.
Let me give you an example. If you want increased action down the neck at frets 1-4, you may decide to put a taller bridge on the banjo. But, what happens is you find that the action up the neck (from fret 5 forward), is too high. If you choose a shorter bridge; while the action may seem better on the higher frets , it will be too low and buzz on frets 1-5. That is because the correct way to adjust action is by using the coordinator rod in your pot assembly. Please refer to the Deering Maintenance Manual for further instructions on the right way to adjust your action.
Now that we know you should use the right height, what exactly is done by using “other types” of bridges?
This type of bridge is meant to help with the intonation of a banjo. For the best intonation on your banjo, technically speaking, each of the strings should be at a different distance from the nut. That means strings 1 and 5 are the closest, 2 and 4 are a step back towards the tailpiece, and string number 3 is the furthest. You can see these types of bridges made in an arc shape, as a stair-step shape, and some just compensate string number three with a little v-notch. These bridges are great for folks with perfect pitch or just “great ears” who can hear the slightly off-pitch of a traditional straight line bridge.
Features a curved top edge that matches the curve of your fingerboard and is make it easier to fret your banjo. The majority of banjos are made with a flat fingerboard. Here at Deering we use a 12” radius on our radiused fingerboards. The radius fingerboard is meant to help you have greater “ease of play” meaning that your fingers don’t have to press as hard to bring the strings into contact with the frets. The fingerboard is curved, like the bottom of your fingers. You find many professional players who prefer this type of bridge since they play for so many hours.
A traditional bridge with a flat top/saddle and flat feet. This one has been around for decades and is the one you will find on most banjos. Because a banjo neck is not very wide nor are the strings very stiff, this type of bridge is easy to use and adjust on your banjo head.
Deering has recently introduced a special bridge we call the Smile bridge because the feet of the banjo are actually curved. Even when you banjo head is up to tension, the flat bridge does get pushed into the mylar plastic of the head from the pressure of the strings. This causes a slight “air space” that is hardly discernible but lessens the contact of the bridge to the head.
Greg Deering and Jens Kruger worked on our Deering bridges to come up with a curve on the bottom of the feet that allows them to sit snugly into that natural curve caused by the pressure of the strings. The seating of the bridge is now much tighter and there is better sound conductivity. This also relieves the stress found in a traditional bridge allowing the Smile™ Bridge to vibrate without constriction. The result is an instantly fuller and more expressive midrange, less constricted low end frequencies, and a wonderful balance across all strings.
While there are different materials used on bridges that can affect their ability to transmit the vibration of the strings through to the pot assembly, most manufacturers today will use ebony saddles and maple bodies for their bridges. It is fun to experiment with other materials and this article is meant to explain the “types” of bridges only. Remember that you have the ability to choose what works best for you and the key point is, as always, to have fun playing your banjo.
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