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Click to go to home page.Setting up a Six-String Banjo

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™

If you ordered a banjo online and spent less than $2000, your banjo will not be ready to play when it comes out of the box. In most cases the banjo is shipped with the bridge packed separately and the strings untuned. That's a good thing, especially if your banjo came from China. Otherwise, the chances of your banjo arriving with the bridge smashed are very good. If you bought a really expensive banjo, placing the bridge may be the only work you have to do before tuning and playing it.

However, 999 out of 1000 banjos made in China never had the head tightened properly or neck adjusted before they went into the shipping container. The inspector is supposed to make certain that all the pieces are there, and that they are more-or-less attached to each other, and that nothing is seriously damaged (sometimes they miss that one), but they do not take the time to do the work necessary to try them out to make certain they're ready to play. Some vendors, like Elderly Music, claim that even the Chinese instruments they sell are set up before they go out to the customer, and boutique music store owners often do initial setup as well. But big-box stores, even big-box music stores never crack the case before sending it fresh from the shipping container to your house.

So it will take you a little work to make all those pieces work together the way they should. If you have a full-service music store near you and are willing to pay list price for a banjo that is really ready to pay (or else buy at a steep discount and spend maybe $75-150 paying for the setup separately) , you can avoid the hassle. Otherwise, you are getting exactly what you paid for.

If you aren't used to setting up instruments yourself, get someone who is to look at it right away (while you still have return privileges). I believe that half of the people who give up on six-string banjo within a month of its arrival do so because they don't know how to make the thing playable - they either assume that they got a piece of junk or else that they lack the musicianship to get decent sounds out of the thing. (The other half believed the hype that no learning would be necessary to go from three-chord guitarist to master banjo player, and when they realize they sound even worse on banjo than they do on guitar, they blame the banjo instead of looking in the mirror.)

This page is intended to get you past the not-knowing-what-you're-looking-at-or-how-to-set-it-up hurdle. The parts of a 6-string banjo.  Click for a bigger picture.

Six-String Banjo Parts

The picture to the right is just to get you acquainted with the major parts of a banjo, so if you're a complete newbie, the following sections will make more sense. Banjo terminology varies among player communities, so you might see or hear things called differently. The part that the drum head stretches across and that the neck connects to has a number of names: "pot," "body," "shell," etc. The tuners are sometimes called "tuning pegs" or some such. The head with the tuners is often called the "peg head." On the other hand, the drum head is often called just the "head," so you may have to listen to the whole sentence to know which "head" the speaker is talking about.

Also, resonators are optional. These are bowl-like wood pieces that attach to the back of the banjo's pot to reflect sound from the back of the drum head (and keep it from being absorbed into your belly). A "backless" banjo is one that does not have a resonator. This reduces the volume and sustain a little, which actually helps guitar-style strumming to sound better on a six-string banjo.

On bottom-line banjos that have resonators, the resonator is bolted onto with little brackets instead of a full resonator flange. This makes them easier to convert to an open-back banjo if you want, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, since an open-back six string banjo is easier for many guitar players to get used to.

Two other parts you can't see in the drawing are the coordinator rod(s) and the optional tone ring. The coordinator rod runs under the drum head between the heel and the tailpiece. On cheap, backless, or lightweight banjos, there is usually only one rod. On heavy and higher-priced banjos, there are usually two. This adds stability and helps keep the banjo from going out of tune if you change position while you're playing it, which can happen with cheap banjos. Coordinator rods are also used to adjust the angle of the neck as it reaches the banjo. You don't usually want to fiddle with that on an expensive US-built banjo, but you may need to on a cheap one. Many of the cheapest banjos have a "turnbuckle" arrangement on the coordinator rod that allows you to adjust the neck angle quickly. In a sense, that is their way of letting you compensate for flimsy manufacturing, at least until you need to adjust again.This breakdown shows where a tone ring would sit if your banjo had one.  Unless you spent a lot of money for it, your banjo probably doesn't.  Your back thanks you. Click for bigger photo

Tone rings, like resonators, are optional. They are metal rings that attach between the drum head and the pot. They allow the drum head to vibrate more freely, which increases volume and sustain.

Note: - On "pop-top" banjos (like the Dean in the photo below), the pot, tone ring, and resonator flange are all replaced by a single piece of metal, usually cast and milled aluminum. This gives them more volume and sustain than cheap wooden-pot banjos that lack a tone ring, but it gives them a harsher tone than high-end banjos with wooden pots, tone rings, and solid resonator flanges. So you very seldom see a really cheap banjo or a really expensive banjo made this way. One thing about them that is a disadvantage to me is the shape of the "flange" with all those points. If you want to experiment with an open back banjo, don't get one of these, unless you want your banjo to double as a medieval weapon.

For more information about the parts of a banjo, check out Deering's article on the subject here.

Put the Bridge On and Tune the Banjo - On most six-string banjos the bridge should be between 12 1/4 and 13" from the twelfth fret. Figure out which end of the bridge needs to go under the skinny strings, put the bridge under the strings, and start tightening the strings until the bridge stays in place by itself.

Initial bridge placement on a 6-string banjo.  Click for bigger picture.Now measure the distance between the nut and the twelfth fret. The distance from the twelfth fret to the bridge should be about the same. Tune the banjo up to guitar tuning (EBGDAE, starting with the highest string first). You may use a digital guitar tuner if you're not used to doing this by ear. A friend who plays guitar can help you with this part.

Fine-Tune the Bridge Placement - Hold your left forefinger finger on the low E (sixth) string just over the twelfth fret without pushing it down onto the fret, and pluck the string with your right hand. You should hear the "octave" overtone, a bell-like sound one octave higher than the sound of the string unfretted.

Now press the string down just behind the twelfth fret and pick it again. If the overtone is lower than the sound at the twelfth fret, move the bridge toward the tailpiece. Otherwise move it toward the neck. Note: This skootching back and forth will untune your banjo, but it's necessary. When you've got the bridge in the right place, you can retune.

Why does this work? When you make a string half as long as it was before, it goes up an octave. In a perfect world, the distance from the 12th fret to the nut should be exactly the same as the difference between the 12th fret and the bridge. But when you push down on the string, you are stretching it just a little, so if the distances are exactly equal, the fretted string will be a tiny bit sharp. So you move the bridge toward the tailpiece a tad to compensate.

Once they are the same, compare the octave overtone on the high E (first) string to the sound of the same string fretted at the twelfth fret. This time you adjust by skootching just the end of the bridge. 90% of the time the bridge will not look "straight" when you're done. Sometimes there's quite an angle. Don't feel bad, this is normal, despite the nice "straight" bridges they show in the catalogs. Now retune the banjo.

For more information on bridge placement, check out the Deering article here.

Checking Under the Hood

Now it's quite possible that placing the bridge properly is all you will need to do before you can start playing or learning on your new banjo. But many banjos ship without other things being tightened as much as they should be. Even if they were set up perfectly, the trip across the Pacific followed by a train trip to the distribution center, by a truck trip to the store or your house, will probably cause your banjo to need "tweaking" by the time you get it anyway. So most manufacturers at the low end of the price spectrum don't even bother. Are all the parts there? Check. Are they fastened together well enough for the banjo to come out of the box in one piece (not counting the bridge)? Check.

Why do you need to learn to set up your own banjo? Because no matter how well it is set up for you, it won't stay set up indefinitely.

Most banjos have three different kinds of wood, in addition to many steel and brass parts, and a mylar drum head. All of those materials expand and contract differently with changes in temperature and humidity. So they're designed to have a little "give." Otherwise things could snap if exposed to unexpected dry heat, for example. So when you do have to make an adjustment, it can be as much art as science

Unfortunately, there's no way to tell whether the following things are exactly right when you first get your first banjo. So if you suspect that anything is seriously "wonky," you may want to pay a professional to "set it up" the rest of the way or get a friend who knows banjos to show you how to do it. My preference would be the latter. Why? Because the banjo will need adjustment again within a year, if not within a month, and you might as well know how to do it.

Check Banjo's Pot-to-Neck Fit

Underneath the head of the banjo there is/are one or two long bolt-looking things that have the twin function of keeping the pot from distorting and holding the neck on the banjo with the right amount of stability. These are called coordinator rods. They will have an effect on whether the neck is pulled back the right amount, but at this stage, the main thing to do is to check for excessive play or wobble between the neck and the body. It will never be 100% rigid, and trying to achieve that will probably break your banjo.

How tight is too tight? Well, having the banjo detune slighty when you change your body position radically is normal. For example if you strum the final chord of the song, then lift your the banjo up to the microphone, you may sense the banjo dropping a bit in pitch. This is normal. but going in and out of tune whenever you change chords is not. About one in five import banjos has this problem, so you'll probably dodge the bullet, but it's worth checking for. If you have this problem, you'll have to take the resonator off to fix it, but that's okay, since you'll probably have to take the resonator off to tighten the drum head anyway.

Don't do anything with the coordinator rods yet, we'll come back to them.

Does the Head Need Tightened? - Most banjos are shipped with the head fairly loose. Once you have the bridge in place and the banjo in tune, look to see if there is a big depression in the drum head of the banjo under the bridge. In most cases, 1/16" is too much displacement. Some people don't like to see even a perceptible depression at all, but if this is your first banjo, you may want to err on the side of caution. To tighten the head, you need to take off the resonator. That's generally attached by four big thumb screws going into little blocks in the bottom of the resonator. Usually they're so tight you need a screwdriver or pliers to get them started anyway. On really cheap banjos, the resonator is attached by itty bitty screws running from the bracket right into the wood. Some cheap banjos have both, a sort of belt-and-suspenders approach, I suppose.

Once you have the resonator off, locate the little wrench that came with the banjo. Loosen the strings a little, then start working your way around the banjo, tightening the nut on each bracket 1/8 to 1/4 a turn at a time. If you come across one that isn't tight at all, feel free to snug it up a little. On cheap banjos, the brackets that are attached to the resonator brackets tend to be looser than the rest.

Don't go backwards. Snugging one bracket tight will automatically make the two on either side a little looser, so don't get upset if brackets that felt snug a second ago now feel loose. Just keep going around and around the banjo.

Your goal is to get the same amount of pressure on the head all the way around. It will never get so tight that you can't turn the wrench, but you will notice a little more resistance as you go around the head again and again.

Some people try to tune their banjo heads up to specific notes, the way drummers do, such as a "G." You muffle the strings and tap the head so that you can hear the tone behind the thunk. Or not. Some folks can't hear it until they get more experience with the banjo.

When you can barely see a depression under the bridge with the strings brought up to tune, you're probably tight enough. When you can't see a depression at all, stop; it's tight enough.

For more information on tightening your banjo's head, check out the Deering article here or check out the video here.

Checking/Adjusting the Neck

Check the neck for bows by sighting down each edge of the neck like an archer sites down an arrow to see if it's straight. It is possible that one edge of the neck seems more bowed than the other - which means that the neck may be twisted. It's also possible that the neck is bowed unevenly - part of the neck is nearly straight while another part dips or bulges. Either of those problems may signify an instrument that is irreparable without herculean effort. But most of the time the neck will either be straight or bow upward smoothly along most of its length, so that the fingerboard is slightly concave.

If the neck is bowed, locate the adjustment screw access. On most banjos, you can get to the end of the adjustment screw by unscrewing a triangular piece of plastic on the head. If you can't find an adjustment screw period, the instrument may not have one, and the only "remedy" for a bowed neck may be to install lighter strings than you planned, which may reduce pressure on the neck enough for it to pull back a little.

Find a nut driver or hex screwdriver that fits the end of the adjustment screw. They're seldom metric, if that helps, and some instruments even come with them.

Loosen all the strings so they're a bit flat. Loosen the middle strings enough to get the wrench or hex driver into the end of the adjustment screw and make at least a partial turn.

Holding your face well away from the instrument, in case a string snaps, tighten the adjustment screw a bit, then sight down the neck and see if you're having any effect. Keep going until the neck seems fairly straight.

Retune the strings. If you have time, let the instrument sit a bit so the neck can decide whether it's happy where it is - sometimes the string pressure will pull it back into a bow even after you've tightened the adjustment screw.

The last few times I've set up used, but decent banjos or guitars, I've gone through this step several times. I leave the old strings on for this step, since all this tuning and detuning is hard on the strings, and I would rather beat up the old ones than prematurely age the new ones.

Check/Adjust Neck Curve, String Height

On most instruments that have any hope of being made playable, adjusting the neck will bring the strings close enough to the fretboard to play without serious pain. (If you're a new banjo player, you may have trouble distinguishing serious pain from newbie pain, but do your best.)

When you fret a string at the second fret (by pushing down on it between the first and second fret) the string should just about lay on the first fret, but it should not buzz against any other frets when you pick it. Try this on all six strings. Then do the same test on the third, fourth, and fifth fret. If you discover no buzz at all, you might be able to bring the neck back a little bit farther and improve the action.

Tighten the neck a little bit at a time, checking for fret buzz after each quarter-turn. Eventually you will get fret buzz somewhere along the neck. Once you do back it off a quarter turn. Even if you are still getting that buzz, the neck will adjust itself over the next day or so. Unless the fret buzz is so bad it will keep you from practicing the instrument, put the cover back over the adjustment screw hole, tune the instrument again, and leave the ajustment screw alone for a day or so. If after a day or two, there is still fret buzz, back the adjustment screw off another quarter of a turn.

Many instruments play best when the neck curves back very slightly so don't get nervous if the neck does that but everything else seems fine.

For more information about checking or adjusting your banjo's neck, check out the Deering article here.

Check/Adjust Coordinator Rod(s)

If you can get the neck into playable condition without messing with the coordinator rods, great. Just leave them alone. Sometimes, though, your neck can be perfectly straight, and the strings are still a half-inch from the fingerboard by the 12th fret. If that's the case, try loosening the strings and tightening the coordinator rod(s) slightly, then retuning and trying again. If nothing seems to help, it's time to have a pro look at it, though.

For more information about the coordinator rod(s) check out Deering's video here.

Conclusion

Like Darth Vader, who's "more machine than man," your banjo has many mechanical parts that need to be in adjustment for maximum results. Hopefully you won't have to do all these tweeks on every banjo you acquire. If you had to do all of them on your very first banjo, you may have put in hours on the thing and still haven't got to learn the first chord. If that's the case, I am truly sorry. But you're still WAY better off trying to learn on a banjo that is in playing condition than one that is not.

The web is turning into a great place for keeping musical traditions alive. Many folks have spent many hours trying to share their own "lessons learned." If you're finding our resources or those we link to helpful, the best thing you can do is to learn what you can and pass on what you learn.

Please get in touch.if you have found a resource you'd like us to add, if you'd like to ask questions, or if you'd like to sign up for our newsletter.

- Paul Race


Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you come away with some great ideas for "sharing the joy."

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