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Guide to Banjo Setup     
Tuning the head

Your banjo head should be firm at this point with the strings and bridge in the correct position. If you pick the banjo at this point and it already sounds great, feel free to stop here. The next step is to figure out how tight the head needs to be in order for the banjo to sound and play its best.

There are a LOT of opinions on the subject of head tightness. The discussion usually revolves around tuning the head to a specific note, usually either G, Ab/G#, or A. You have 2 choices at this point. The first is to not worry about the specific note the head is tuned to and to just experiment until you find a tension that gives you a sound and feel you like. The other choice is to use specific notes as a starting point and going up or down from there. Whatever you choice you make, it's very useful to learn how to hear the note the head is tuned to. This gives you a consistent way to measure the amount of tension that sounds best so you can duplicate this setting later. I've found that it's often a good idea to put the banjo aside overnight to settle in before going on to the next phase. When you pick it up the next day you'll need to go back and see if the head is evenly tight and correct it again if it's not. You should also recheck the bridge placement. If the head had been pretty loose the bridge may have sagged a bit and as you tighten it the bridge will sit higher and the intonation will change enough to notice.

As I pointed out earlier a tighter head usually has a sharper, crisper sound than a looser head. This will not be the only factor we want use to figure out how tight the head should be on a specific banjo and for a specific banjo player. There's a point of diminishing returns where a head that's too tight just makes the banjo sound thin and piercing. Everything here is relative. Keep in mind that heads can also be too loose to sound good.

Some banjos do sound noticeably better with a tight head while another banjo might prefer a head that's looser. This can be true even if both banjos are the same brand and model. Some people keep a head loose to get a “fat” sound from the banjo. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. Tone quality is related to head tightness but tone itself is still a matter of personal preference. And it isn't the only thing we need to consider when setting up a banjo.

There's another factor I think is sometimes overlooked in this process. This is how the banjo responds to your right hand when you play it. Head tightness has a huge impact on this. I don't have a particularly strong right hand since I'm left handed. I like to have the banjo respond quickly when I play a string lightly, but also like it to respond when I hit it harder. I play a fairly wide range of styles that often require different volumes, speed, and tone qualities. As a result I try to set my banjo up to be easy to play with my right hand and capable of a wide range of tone and volume. Many pickers play in a particular style that relies on pretty consistent tone and volume from the banjo . Neither way is better, but it does influence how you set a banjo up.

In general a banjo head, strings, and bridge are a system under tension that is used to amplify the sound of the string being played. The more efficient this system is the quicker it can respond and with less force necessary to start things moving. Some factors that affect responsiveness are the gauge of strings used, the tailpiece and its height, and the design and materials of the bridge. I'll talk about each of these later.

Let's move on to how to tune the head.

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