5-String Banjo Setup: Making Your Bluegrass Banjo Sound Better

I have been playing 5-string bluegrass banjo for over 26 years, and have been teaching for many of those years. I’ve seen a lot of banjos come and go, and I know the average student needs a couple of tips to make their banjo sound its best.

If I had 10 new students starting today, I know 6 or 7 of those students would say to me, “I’ve had this old banjo in the closet for 20 years and I thought it was time to learn how to play it.” What most don’t realize is that even sitting in a cabinet, the banjo will go out of tune. A little tender loving care is needed!

*Important*: There is no substitute for a good instrument. It is a fact that a lower end instrument is more difficult to learn. It’s harder to play, harder to manipulate. If you play a low end banjo for a while and then switch to a higher quality instrument, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to play. Most students start out with the cheap instrument to learn, then switch to the “Cadillac” a few years later. This is backwards. You should give yourself the benefit of learning something that is easy to play, right from the start. Having said that, many people don’t have the budget for an expensive banjo, plus they may already have an old banjo on hand, ready to learn. This article will help those people. Just don’t be fooled into thinking we’re going to make your cheap $100 Japanese banjo sound like a Gibson Mastertone. We’ll make it ring betterbut we are not going to turn a Ford Escort into a Cadillac in any way.

Item #1: New Strings

Perhaps one of the most dramatic changes you can make to the overall sound of your banjo is to change the strings. This is not difficult, and you they can do this at home. A big consideration is to look at the gauge of the strings. Most string manufacturers label their string sets with words like light gauge, medim light, medium, etc. My recommendation is to go with medium light; you will find that the mids are too hard for your fingers. If you have skinny fingers or are young, you might even prefer light gauge strings. You will have to try different sets to develop a preference.

A good recommended interval for changing strings is to change strings every 8 hours of playing time. And if you’re taking your banjo out of the closet for the first time in weeks, months, or years, definitely change it. Strings corrode, wear out, rust, dull, etc., even if the banjo is in the closet. See the author’s information to contact me with questions.

Article no. Fix #2: Set the Bridge

The bridge is that little piece of wood that the strings go through, just before they reach the end of the banjo. If the bridge is out of place, your banjo will not produce the proper notes. The bridge is not attached; it is held in place by the pressure of the strings and can be moved. To set the bridge, you will need an electronic tuner.

Measure the distance from the nut to the 12th fret. Then, make the distance from the 12th fret to the bridge the same. Once this is done, tune your banjo. Once in tune, play the first string (the higher of the two D strings) at the 17th fret and see what your tuner tells you. When the bridge is properly adjusted, it will be a G note in tune. If the tuner says the note is too high, move the bridge back a bit toward the tail. Retune and check again. If the tuner says the note is flat, slide the bridge toward the neck just a bit. Retune and check again. Keep checking, moving, and tuning until the first string, when played at the 17th fret, shows a G note in tune.

*Handy tip*: Once the bridge is set up, anytime you do a string change in the future, simply do one string at a time so the bridge doesn’t move on you.

Item #3: head

This is a setting that tends to make a big difference to the overall sound of the banjo. Most beginners are afraid of this one, but you don’t have to. All you need are some wrenches or sockets, and maybe a screwdriver. It is quite simple. Coincidentally, the head is the white “skin” that you can play like a drum; the large white circle that forms the face of the banjo. When the supports that firmly hold the head loosen, the head becomes “mooshy” and “tubby” sounding. A crisp, tight head gives you that classic banjo feel!

The first step is to remove the back of the banjo (this is called a resonator). Most banjos have 4 thumbscrews that hold the resonator together. Usually no tools are needed to remove these screws. Sometimes you will need a screwdriver to remove the screws holding the back.

Flip the banjo upside down and watch the “fingers,” or brackets, playing the banjo. At the lower end of these brackets are bracket nuts. These brackets and nuts are just fancy nuts and bolts; nothing for them. Grab your sockets or lug wrenches and find out what size will fit over the nuts on your bracket.

Once you have the correct tool, start with a nut and tighten it down. *Important*: don’t accelerate with all your might! Simply “adjust” this mount. It is possible to spit or break your head if you turn these nuts. Tighten the nut very lightly, then move on to the next one.

Most banjo repairmen say you should make a nut, then go to the one directly in front of it, on the other side of the banjo, and tighten it. Work your way around the banjo, tightening each pair like this. Remember to just tighten the nut.

Once you get back to the one you started with, you’ll likely find it loose again. It is very common to have to make 3 or 4 passes around the banjo before everything is tight. When you have everything crisp and tight, put the resonator back on and enjoy!

In conclusion

With a little tender loving care, you can get a little more life out of your old low-end banjo. I always recommend buying as much banjo as you can afford, but reality shows that we will have to work with what we have available. Set up your old banjo with these simple tips and you’ll be pleased with the overall sound and playability.

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