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Tightening a new head





Now we put the new head on. Set the new head onto the top of the tone ring and put the tension hoop over the top of the head. Line up the cut in the tension hoop where it meets the fingerboard so it is centered relative to the end of the fingerboard. I've found that sometimes it's necessary to push the tension hoop and head down a bit to get the first brackets and nuts on. If this is the case gently push down on the tension hoop until you have enough thread showing through the flange to attach a nut. I start by placing a few brackets evenly spaced around the rim. Then I tighten these a little bit to give myself more room to put the rest of the brackets on. Don't do any real tightening until all brackets are attached and hand tightened as evenly as possible. After all the brackets are snug be sure that the stretcher band is even all the way around, that the neck cut is still lined up, and that the brackets are perpendicular to the head. If they aren't you may need to shift the position of the flange so that the brackets line up properly.

Let's start tightening. There are many theories about how to tighten a head. To me this more of an art than a science. I just start on one side of the neck and go around the brackets in order. The main thing in the beginning is to not try to tighten the head up all at once. Before the head really starts to tighten up there may be slack in some of the brackets as you work your way around. Try to turn the wrench about the same amount each time rather than trying to make each bracket tighter than the one before it. Once the head starts to feel firm (it doesn't take that long) I check again to see if the stretcher band looks even all the way around and is properly aligned with the the neck. One way to be really precise is to set the pot upside down on a flat surface and measuring the height of the rim from the head all the way around. I use a small metal ruler to check. This is lot easier without the neck and arm rest attached.

I usually never tighten more than a quarter turn each time around. Mostly I try to feel the resistance going up as I turn the bracket wrench or nut driver. Usually this means tightening about a 1/8th turn or less. As I tighten each bracket the next one will be a little looser. At this point I try to tighten it to same pressure as the one before it. This can mean that you have to turn the nut farther than the one before. After the slack is out of the head this is necessary to actually tighten the head further. Just don't overdo it. Keep checking if stretcher band is level. If one side or end seems higher tighten the brackets there until you have them the same height. Check this repeatedly while you are tightening the head. Tighten until it seems firm to the touch when you push down but still has a little give. We'll fine-tune it later.

There are many opinions on how tight a head should be. I don't have a magic formula for this but here are some thoughts on the subject. In general, a tighter head will produce a sharper tone than one that's looser. When I was getting started playing serious bluegrass banjo the prevailing idea was to get as sharp and metallic a tone as possible. This led to shaving bridges way down, tightening heads as much as possible, and using the biggest and heaviest tailpiece available and cracking it as low as it would go. By today's standards this was about the worst way possible to setup a banjo though there are still people around who like that “old time” sound. The current trend today is to create a fuller, more balanced tone especially with so many great banjos on the market that are built to match the classic old Gibsons as closely as possible. This means that us old guys really need to LOOSEN UP literally.

At the very least your head needs to be tight enough that the bridge doesn't sag noticeably. The most important quality that I want to stress when you tighten up a new head is that you want to end up with the tension as even as possible. When it's tight enough to make a clear sound I tap it with my finger, usually with a finger pick on so I hear an actual note. I just give the head a quick pop with the main body of the pick next to a bracket about 3/4 of an inch or less from the edge. I go around in each bracket comparing the pitch as I go. My main goal is just to get this tone as consistent as I can all the way around. Sometimes you need to tighten a bracket, sometimes loosen one a little until it seems pretty even. I like to have the head as loose as possible at this point so I have room to tighten it later if that's necessary. When the head is evenly tightened it's time to put the strings, bridge, and tailpiece on and tune it up.

Keep in mind that you'll want to keep checking the head even after you've gotten it to the tension you like. A new head will need to settle for a few days. I keep checking regularly to see if it's still at the tension I want and that the tension is even all around. It's good to be patient when tightening a new head. With all the pieces that make up the tone chamber any changes you make can need time to settle before they reach their final alignment. It's usually a good thing to put the banjo down and let it sit overnight. Check everything the next day and keep doing this until it's stable.

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