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Guide to Banjo Setup     
Principles of Banjo Sound

If you've come to this part of my site I assume you want to make your banjo sound and/or play better than it does right now. The banjo is one of the easiest instruments to modify or upgrade. You don't need to study for years or buy expensive tools. All you need is some basic knowledge and a desire to experiment. This section is the product of many years of tinkering on every banjo I've owned as well many that belonged to friends or students. I don't claim to have all the answers. If you've talked to other banjo players at festival or jams, or visited discussion groups on the internet, you may have noticed that many people think there is a specific RIGHT WAY to do everything presented here. The implication is that anything different is a WRONG WAY. That's not how I approach the subject. Every banjo and every banjo player is different and the only person whose final opinion about your banjo counts is you. So take what you want from here and come back for more when you need it. And above all, have fun!

Over the last 40+ years I've done everything I could to make the banjo I had at the time sound and play better. Some things improved the sound and other things made it worse. I'm still learning new things about every aspect of banjo setup. I really believe there aren't any rules that can't be broken and that every banjo player needs to decide what makes their specific instrument sound and play the way that suits them best. Here are my thoughts on the subject. I hope they'll help you get the most out of whatever type of banjo you have.

One of the best ways to start is to think about how a bluegrass banjo works as a musical instrument. If we were setting up a clarinet or trombone we would need to understand these instruments could be changed and how these changes might affect the sound of the instrument. The banjo has the greatest number of things that can be changed or replaced compared to just about all the stringed instruments I'm familiar with . This means it has the widest range of ways to change the sound and playability of the instrument. First let's take a look at a few basic principles that all musical instruments share.

All sound is made by something creating vibrations in the air that hit our eardrums and are relayed to our brain. Beating two sticks together gets the job done as does a concert pianist playing a great Steinway piano. I like to describe the banjo as a drum on a stick. This is literally where the banjo started from in Africa. The typical bluegrass banjo is made using a lot of bell metal and a very tight drum head with a back on the drum to increase the volume and direct the sound out to the front of the player. We pluck a string causing it to vibrate. This vibration is conducted through the bridge to the banjo's head. Vibrations in the head cause the air inside the banjo to vibrate. These sounds/vibrations are bounced off the inside of the resonator and projected out the holes in the flange straight at anyone listening.

This process should be pretty obvious to anyone who thinks about it. However, this doesn't explain how the unique sound of any single banjo is created. Very few banjos sound exactly the same (if they did we wouldn't need to bother learning how to set them up). Most good banjo makers create instruments that tend to sound and play in ways the are similar (as do guitar or mandolin makers). But there are intentional differences. There's also a big difference between all the people who play banjo. Everyone plays differently and also has a different idea of what a banjo should sound like. Since we can change almost everything on a banjo why not try to find that perfect “sound” we're all looking for?

In this section I'll try to explain the basic options for banjo setup. I want to give you enough information to understand what can be done and how to begin to take control over your banjo. I have to warn before we start. One of the hardest things to learn about banjo setup is when to stop. This has been a problem my band mates have come to become know and not quite love. You get everything sounding playing really GOOD and then you decide that just one more little tweek would make it REALLY GREAT! In my experience this almost never works. In fact, much of what I know comes from trying to get back to that GOOD places after I've gone for it and messed things up. Now I try to curb this impulse as much as possible. I've found that putting the banjo in the case over night can fix a huge number of problems. If whatever you d0 makes your banjo sound or play better, stop and come back later when your ears and fingers are fresh. You'll be happy you did.

Finally, I need to mention that not all banjos can benefit from the techniques in this section. Most beginner banjos are very hard to change since they're made to be inexpensive. They don't use standard parts or the methods of construction used in higher level instruments. Things like head tightening for instance are often impossible without a strong possibility of something breaking. Many either have no truss rod or have ones that don't really work so this technique can also be a bit dangerous. But they can almost always benefit from better bridges, strings, etc. so if you have one of these instruments you'll still benefit from reading the rest of this section. Not many people will need to do everything I talk about here at one time so study the parts that interest you now and come back later for more.

Before we get to the really fun stuff I need to explain a little more about how banjos work to produce the sounds that we all love. Let's get started!

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