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UK Banjo Suppliers FAQ's

FAQ Page 2:  About Banjos:  Technical Points

Questions Covered On This Page:
How do I fit a new skin?
How tight should a skin be?
What's a resonator for?  Do I need one?
Can I fit a pick-up to my banjo?
What's the best type of bridge to use?
What are the best strings to use on my banjo?
What's the difference between old time and bluegrass 5-strings?
What's a zither banjo?
What's a long neck banjo?
What's the difference between a mandolin banjo and a banjolin?
What's the difference between short and standard scale tenor banjos?
What's a tango banjo?

How do I fit a new skin?
The first question here is whether you want to fit a skin (i.e.  a piece of animal hide) or whether you simply want a new head on your banjo because the old one is unsatisfactory for some reason. 

If you want a real skin head to get an authentic "old-time" tone, you need to obtain a piece of top grade calfskin - thin, even and very stretchy.  This sort of skin is quite expensive these days and cheap goatskin won't do!  There is an excellent website (accessible from the Banjo-L link) that tells you how to do it step-by-step.  It isn't easy and the real problem is getting the head tension right with the tension ring in the right place (i.e.  neither too high nor too low).  My best advice is never trim off the excess until the head is bone dry and in the right place.  Until you trim it off, you can always remove the calfskin and restretch it - as many times as you need to.  With plenty of patience, it can be done though it might well take you a long time.  Ready made skin heads pre-stretched on an aluminium ring are available (see my "Parts" list) but they only come in 11" size.  These are very much easier to fit.

If you simply want a new head on your banjo, consider fitting a ready made synthetic skin.  There are 3 common brands (Remo, Elite and 5-Star) and they come in a large variety of sizes (see my Parts and Accessories page) - all old-fashioned imperial (inches and sixteenths).  They are usually fairly easy to fit though a small amount of woodwork may be necessary when fitting the first synthetic head that a banjo has ever had.  To establish the required size, dismantle the banjo and measure the outside diameter of the top of the top of the body and the inside diameter of the tension ring.  Take several measurements (north-south, east-west etc) to find out if your banjo has become significantly oval.  In an ideal world, there should be no more than 1/16" difference between any two measurements of the body or the tension ring.  There should be 1/16" difference between the size of the body and the size of the tension ring.  If that is the case, you order the banjo head the same size as the body.  With some sizes, you get a choice of crown height (i.e. how deep the ready made head is).  Measure the depth of the tension ring and order the appropriate crown height - low crown = about 1/4", medium crown = about 3/8", high crown = about 1/2".  Many of the less common sizes are available only in medium crown.

If your banjo is seriously oval (1/4" difference in measurements) you may not be able to fit a synthetic head at all and will have to resort to calfskin.

If your tension ring is much over 1/16" larger than your body, you may have to fit an oversize head which will be a little sloppy but should tighten down reasonably well. Deduct 1/16" from the actual size of your tension ring and order a head that size.  This head will be a loose fit on your banjo body but the tension ring should pull it tight.  This is particularly common with modern Far Eastern banjos which often have an 11" body and an 11 3/16" tension ring - you have to either fit an 11 1/8" head or replace the tension ring with a correctly sized 11 1/16" type.  The latter option is preferable in the long run as the correct fit of parts is quite important to the tone of a banjo.

If your banjo is of a size that Remo don't make, you are stuck with calfskin unless you want to send the whole banjo to me.  I can make a synthetic Mellinex head for most banjos but it isn't really a d-i-y job.

If you're stuck with some aspect of this topic, drop me an e-mail.

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How tight should a skin be?
You may see a good deal of advice on how tight a banjo head should be.  Most of this advice relates ONLY to the tension on modern bluegrass 5-strings and should not be taken as universally applicable.  The best advice I can give is that you tighten the head just enough to give you the sound you want from an instrument.  Never use excessive force on the tension hooks of a banjo.  If the banjo sounds right to your ear, then it is set up correctly for you.  Other players might prefer a different sound - but it's your banjo!  When adjusting the tension, only ever tighten the tension hooks by 1/6th of a turn all round and then re-tune the banjo and play it.  If you prefer the sound you have now, then try tightening up by another 1/6th of turn.  At the point where you get a sound that you don't prefer, back off the tensioners by 1/6th of a turn and call it done.  If the tensioners start to get difficult to turn or make squeaking noises, stop tightening and accept that that is the maximum tension that you are going to get. If you really don't like that sound, think about changing the banjo!  Most vintage banjos and many modern Far Eastern instruments won't take anything like the tension that modern American bluegrass 5-strings are designed to accept.  Attempting to overtighten a head may cause serious damage to your instrument.

What's a resonator for?  Do I need one?
A resonator is a reflector plate of some sort fixed to the back of a banjo.  It collects some of the sound waves which are travelling backwards off the skin and send them forwards. This increases the overall volume of the banjo and alters the tone to some extent (it often impart a hollow, echo-ey, ringing tone).  The resonator can be made of solid wood, laminated wood, solid metal, a mixture of wood and metal or some other material and can be concave, flat or convex.  Over the last 100 years, almost every conceivable variety of resonator has been made and tried.  Many of them work well and they all have different characteristics.  The most effective form for increasing sound volume was (in my view) the Martin resonator of the mid-1920's which was a convex metal plate polished to a mirror finish and mounted just inside the bottom of the banjo rim.  The least effective that I have ever seen was a flat plate of clear perspex which seemed to absorb sound like a damper (it was too flexible, I believe).  Between these two extremes, there are many variations though the commonest nowadays is a convex laminated wooden resonator which looks rather like a shallow fruit bowl.

Resonators generally don't make as much difference to the volume as you might expect - a well designed banjo projects about 75% of its sound forward anyway so you get only about 25% more volume from a good resonator - less from a poor one.  Many players consider that a resonator spoils the tone of a banjo and won't have one at all (old-time 5-string players in particular).  It is a truism that the only person who doesn't know how loud a banjo sounds is the person sitting behind it, playing it!  Before embarking on a resonator banjo (and most open backs can have a resonator added), consider the circumstances where you will be playing it.  Noisy acoustic sessions with lots of free-reed or brass instruments may demand extra volume but a session dominated by fiddle and flute players may well be wrecked by an over-loud banjo.  One compromise is to have a "pop-on" resonator that can be put on or taken off very easily according to need.  If you really need massive volume for playing gigs, think about a pick-up and an amplifier rather than a resonator.

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Can I fit a pick-up to my banjo?
The short answer is yes, but you need to choose the right type of pick-up:

Type A:  The "bug" 
The cheapest forms of pick-up are simply piezo-ceramic transducers that you stick on to the banjo skin.  These work by converting vibrations from the skin into a fluctuating electrical current.  These produce lots of signal and are ideal for feeding a strong, clear signal to a recording device in a studio.  They are very prone to feedback and difficult to use for live gigs especially with monitor speakers.  Anything physically stuck to a banjo head will impair the acoustic tone to some extent - so choose the lightest pick-up you can afford (lighter usually equals more expensive).

Type B:  The live bridge
This form of pick-up is a piezo-ceramic transducer fitted into a special banjo bridge.  These work by converting vibrations in the bridge into a fluctuating electrical current.  These function rather better than simple stick-on transducers and are less prone to feedback.  They do tend to come fitted to big, chunky bridges (unavoidable, I fear) which don't produce the ideal sound for many types of acoustic playing.  You also have to cope with a loose wire flapping about behind the bridge which some players find unacceptable.

Type C:  The mini-microphone
This form of pick-up is a small, usually dynamic but sometimes crystal, microphone mounted somewhere on the banjo, often on the bridge or the tailpiece.  These can give an excellent signal for recording but tend to be prone to feedback.  The best models are very light and produce a low level signal which needs an external pre-amp.  This increases the cost quite a bit but reduces the feedback problem. If they are carefully mounted, the effect on the acoustic tone is minimal.

Type D:  The sliding magnetic
This type of pick-up is a magnetic induction coil pickup very similar to an oversize electric guitar pick-up.  This works by converting the vibrations of the strings (in the magnetic field produced by the pick-up) into a fluctuating electrical current.  As this type is not in contact with any vibrating part of the banjo, it is much less prone to feedback though some types produce a low-level signal which may need a pre-amp.  This type is very good for stage work though it needs careful mounting to get the pick-up into exactly the right place to get the optimum signal.

Type E:  The induction coil
This type of pick-up is a large circular magnetic coil mounted directly underneath the bridge.  It picks up the vibration of a metal plate placed under the central foot of a 3-legged banjo bridge and converts that to a fluctuating electrical current.  This produces a very low level signal and needs a pre-amp.  It is a very clean, precise signal and ideal for very high level stage work as there is no contact between the pick-up itself and any vibrating part of the banjo.  It is almost feedback-free.  The drawback is that the metal plate under the bridge foot can impair the acoustic tone if it is too thick - but it can fail to deliver sufficient signal if it is too thin.  Very careful fitting is necessary to achieve optimum results.
I can supply and/or fit all types of pick-ups  - see my Set-up, repairs & restoration page.

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What's the best type of bridge to use?
The simple, but unhelpful, answer is "whatever suits you best".  In truth, as most banjos and all players are individuals, there is little alternative to experimenting with various types of bridges to see what suits you. Here are some general guidelines to help you with an initial selection but bridges are cheap enough that most people can afford to buy half a dozen and try them out.  It is worth bearing in mind that most commercially available bridges are actually bridge BLANKS - intended for you to customise them as suits you best.  There are various considerations in choosing a bridge:
Number of legs:  Bridges are normally made with either 2 or 3 legs.  The 3 legged variety are a bit heavier than the 2 legged and will withstand string pressure rather better.  On the other hand, that extra weight slows down the vibration a bit and reduces the sound level slightly.  If you favour light strings, try 2 legged first.

Material:  Bridges are normally made of plain maple, maple with an ebony top or maple with an ebony top and little hard plastic inserts.  In general, plain maple gives the softest tone and the hard plastic inserts the hardest.  The most popular type of bridge is the maple with an ebony top which gives a middling sort of tone.

Shape:  Bridges are normally straight but are available curved or staggered.  In theory, the curved or staggered bridges improve the intonation of a banjo.  Try a straight one first and think about the much more expensive types only if you find you have a problem with the banjo failing to play in tune.

Thickness:  Bridges can be any thickness you want - blanks are available in sizes from 1/8" to 1/4".  You can easily sand a thick bridge to make it thinner.  A thinner bridge gives a sharper tone, a thicker one gives a plunkier tone.  They are always tapered, being about twice as wide at the bottom as they are at the top.  Bear in mind that a very thin bridge may be a good deal less strong than a thicker one and may be inclined to fall over if the base is too small.

Height:  Bridges can be any height you want from about 3/8" up to 1".  Ideally you should be able to set the bridge height to give you the clearance over the skin that you require and then adjust the neck angle to give you the string height over the fingerboard that is comfortable.  In practice, a lot of banjos (including most vintage banjos and quite a few modern ones) are just not that flexible in terms of available adjustment.  It is often a question of a series of compromises.  The height of the bridge influences the "attack" and volume of the banjo - generally, the higher the bridge, the greater the "attack".  If your preferred bridge height leaves you an impossibly heavy action, you have to reduce it until you get a comfortable action.  This may not be the optimum sound and if it bothers you a lot, consider having the neck re-set to get a more appropriate angle.  It isn't unusual for bridges to be set up so that the bass strings are slightly higher than the treble strings.

Angle:  Most bridges are set horizontally across the skin (with the neck as the vertical) and are at 90 degrees to the skin. With high bridges (above 5/8") it is sometimes beneficial to slope the bridge feet a little so that the bridge leans back about 5 degrees towards the tailpiece.  This can help to prevent it falling over. Some banjos won't play in tune unless you set the bridge a little bit off the vertical i.e. at a small slant to the neck.  Usually this involves the bass strings being a little longer than the treble strings, though not invariably.  It might look a bit odd but it can often make all the difference to tuning and intonation.  Mandolin banjo bridges are quite different and are usually constructed so that the different string lengths which are required for proper intonation are pre-set when the bridge is straight.  This type of staggered bridge is occasionally useful on a short scale tenor.

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What are the best strings to use on my banjo?
This is another of those questions to which the only real answer is "whatever suits you best".  There are an almost infinite number of combinations of gauges and materials and the best method is to try out quite a few to see what you like.  Here is some general guidance.

Material:  Most plain (i.e. unwound) strings are made of stainless steel.  It is available in steps of .001" from .008" to .020" though you can sometimes get strings graded as close as .0005" (i.e. .0095").  I prefer loop ended strings for banjos as they fit most types of tailpieces.  There is no problem in using ball ended guitar strings if they happen to fit easily onto your banjo.  Always buy good quality as cheap strings may not be very even (i.e. they tend to have "thick spots") which makes them hard to tune.
Wound strings have a stainless steel core with fine wire (either nickel, bronze, phosphor bronze or some other alloy) wound round it.  These are available in .002" steps from .016" up to .060" though you can sometimes get strings graded as close as .001" (i.e. .025").  Some makers wind their wound strings on a hexagonal core rather than on a wound one - I've never found that this made much difference.  I prefer the traditional loop ended strings but there is no problem in using guitar strings if they suit you and your banjo.  Choice of the winding material is very personal.  I like the traditional sound of nickel wound strings but many players like the other materials.  Some of these other materials may not work as well with a pickup as nickel does. Try out as many different kinds as you need to get the sound you want.

Weight:  I seem to like the sound of most banjos with relatively light stringing.  This is a purely personal view and you should try out various different weights of stringing to find out what suits you and your banjo best.  Here are some general guidelines:
Be very wary of trying to put heavy strings on old banjos.  They weren't designed to take that much stress and you may warp or bow the neck.  If you really want a banjo that will be happy with that sort of string weight, buy a new or relatively modern one purpose built for it.  There's little point in having a great sound if you wreck the banjo in the process!  I will advise on maximum string weights for banjos bought from me.

Always increase string weights gradually on any banjo - banjos generally don't like sudden and dramatic changes in stress.  If you have a banjo strung with light strings and want to change to heavy, don't do it in one go.  Go from light to medium and let the banjo get used to the extra stress for a month or so before going on to heavy strings.  This applies even to modern banjos and you may need to adjust the truss rod a couple of times to get the counter stress correct.  Take it gently!

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What's the difference between old time and bluegrass 5-strings?

In principle, there is nothing to stop you playing any style of 5-string banjo on any type of instrument.  In general, however, those who play the "old-time" styles (frailing, clawhammer etc) tend to prefer an open back banjo whereas those who play "bluegrass" style tend to opt for resonator banjos.

It goes further than that (since you can add or remove a resonator from most types of banjo) - the "old-time" players tend to favour:-
simple banjos (those with only a rudimentary tone ring or none at all)
Vega Whyte Laydies (or their descendants)
Vega Tubaphones (or their descendants)
Bacon FF styles (or their descendants)
whereas the "bluegrass" players almost always opt for a Gibson Mastertone style banjo (or one of the many close relatives of this type).

Much debate exists about which is the "best" banjo for a particular style.  My advice would be to play as many banjos as you can of various types and choose what works best for you and your style of playing.  One of the best old-time players I know frails a Gibson Mastertone with the resonator removed (yes, the flange does dig into his leg) whilst one the best bluegrass players in the UK plays a vintage Tubaphone (admittedly with a resonator added).  It's all a matter of personal taste but if you need a general guideline, look at open back banjos if you're into "old-time" and resonator banjos if you're into "bluegrass".  One thing you can't do is set up a banjo to do both - if you want to play "old-time", you'll need your banjo (whatever it is) set up for that style and the same goes for "bluegrass".  The two styles are so different in their requirements for right hand work that there simply isn't a compromise set-up that works for both.  In most cases, attempts to achieve such a set-up result in a banjo that doesn't work for either style.

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What's a zither banjo?
The zither banjo is a type of banjo often said to have been invented by Alfred Cammeyer.  Whilst this claim is clouded with controversy, the broad style of banjo is beyond dispute.  It is fundamentally a banjo with a smooth wooden body with the skin stretched over a framework which is suspended inside it (conventional banjos have the skin stretched over the outside of the body).  It could be regarded as a wooden instrument (like a guitar or mandolin) which has a skin soundboard quite unlike the conventional banjo which is a drum with a neck on it.

A well constructed zither banjo (with a good thick rim and a perch pole) is a fine instrument.  It has a very different tone from a conventional banjo and is rather quieter.  It can be an excellent instrument for playing "parlour music" or for accompanying singing.  They can be set up for a variety of style of playing though perhaps classical picking (the ancestor of 3 finger chromatic) suits them best. 

The drawback is that zither banjos were something of a craze in the last quarter of the 19th century - which meant that a great many instruments were made.  Many of these were very cheaply constructed and have not worn at all well.  The existence of so many poor quality instruments has given zither banjos a rather bad name which is a bit unfair.  If you'd like an instrument of this type, look for an example made by a reputable English maker (Essex, Weaver, Temlett etc) and make sure it's still in good playing order.  Even the best instruments will deteriorate if left in a damp attic under full tension for 50 years!

One point worth noting - many zither banjos were constructed with the fifth string running in a tunnel under the fingerboard and tuning at the peghead (unlike the conventional 5-string which has its 5-string tuner positioned halfway down the neck).  This isn't a necessary characteristic of the zither banjo (they exist with more conventional 5-string necks) and some English makers (notably Windsor and Dallas) used this method for the 5th string well after the demise of the zither banjo.

Zither banjo construction was also used for 8 string mandolin banjos (quite common), 4 string banjoleles or banjolins (less common) and 6 or more string banjos (rather rare).  Don't be confused by finding a zither banjo with 6 tuners at the peghead - it's not likely to be a 6 string banjo - it was common practice for makers to use standard sets of guitar machine heads and just leave one of them unused.

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What's a long neck banjo?
The answer to this question depends on who you are!

A 5-string player will use the term "long neck" to refer to a Pete Seeger style instrument.  This has 25 frets and a scale length around 30".  It tunes rather lower than the conventional (26") 5-string - normally to a chord of E.  It has a great tone and was originally designed by Pete Seeger for accompanying singing in the lower keys.

A jazz player will use the term "long neck" to refer to a plectrum banjo.  This has 22 frets and a scale length around 26" - rather like a conventional 5-string without the 5th string.  It can be tuned CGBD, DGBD or DGBE and is normally used as a rhythm instrument in traditional jazz bands. It's a "long neck" because it's much bigger than a standard (23") or shortscale (21") tenor.

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What's the difference between a mandolin banjo and a banjolin?
A mandolin banjo is an instrument (either conventionally constructed or of the zither style) with 4 pairs of strings (8 strings in total) tuned and played just like a mandolin.

A banjolin is a very similar instrument but with only 4 strings.  It is tuned like a violin but played like a mandolin banjo.  It is often confused with the ukulele banjo or banjolele - one guideline that I use is that 
large body + narrow neck = banjolin
small body + wide neck = ukulele banjo
This isn't infallible but it's a reasonable guide.

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What's the difference between short and standard scale tenor banjos?
The obvious answer is the scale length.  The standard tenor banjo evolved over a period of some years into a banjo of about 23" scale tuned CGDA.  These days, they are also tuned GDAE (the so-called "Irish" pitch, one octave below a mandolin).  This type of banjo is very good for playing chords in a jazz context.  It is also excellent for playing melodies in the "Irish" context though the stretch from one note to another is a bit long for some players.

Most modern banjo makers offer a standard scale tenor which will work for either tuning.  The longer string length makes this type of banjo quite tolerant in terms of tuning which means that you can get away with a rather more modest instrument and still get acceptable playability.

The short scale tenor banjo was the earliest form of this instrument.  When out-of-work string players (from the redundant "Palm Court Orchestras" in all probability) went along to their local banjo maker to get an instrument for the new style of "dance craze" bands (Tango & Ragtime), they seem to have opted for a four string instrument tuned the same as a viola with a scale length of about 20" - 21".  It is my belief that this earliest form (from about 1914 onwards) was played initially as a melody instrument and only later evolved for use as accompaniment - fundamentally, all string players are melody players!  Those who were used to the concept of the banjo for accompaniment had already dropped the fifth string from their banjo (it's a menace in the brass keys!) and invented the plectrum banjo.

Most short scale tenors will work reasonably well in the old "jazz" pitch (CGDA) though their small size can make them a bit less powerful than the later standard scale resonator tenors.  Many early short scales have a body size well below 11" (which later emerged as a more or less optimum size for a banjo body).  Some snags arise with tuning as the short string length makes it fiddly to get a note (particularly the bottom one) exactly right.  Very few of the original friction type tuners will work satisfactorily.  This can be rather more of a difficulty with short scale tenors tuned to "Irish" pitch as the bottom string has to be quite heavy.  In truth, a short scale tenor needs very precise tuning pegs (ideally good quality planetary tuners) to be properly playable in an everyday sense. 

The solution to these problems is to buy a well made short scale tenor.  This will have precise tuners and a neck that will withstand the extra pressure of the drop tuning.  The slightly "iffy" reputation of the short scale tenor (some players will tell you that they never play or stay in tune) stems mostly from misguided attempts to get low grade instruments with friction tuners to work as Irish session banjos.  The problem, I believe, was the result of the low quality of the instruments rather than their scale length.  It is, however, a fact that a short scale tenor NEEDS to be a better quality instrument than its standard scale relative to work as well.  If you're short of cash, this may be a consideration in your choice of which type of tenor to choose.

So, what are the advantages to short scale tenor?  Firstly, it's a great deal easier to play.  For most people, the whole range of notes available in first position on a violin will be easy to play without moving the hand at all - just the fingers!  The stretch is very comfortable and this gives you all the notes you need to play most forms of traditional music (especially Irish).  The shorter stretches also make chord playing rather easier and there are relatively few players who will miss the 18th and 19th frets (though if you one of them, there are many period instruments with extended fingerboards) . It's also a much easier instrument to handle - it's small size can be a distinct advantage at crowded music sessions.  The slightly lower volume of the more modest instruments can be quite appropriate in many circumstances and a "bolt-on" resonator boosts an open back quite nicely if you need it.  Many examples of ferociously loud short scale tenors exist and most modern makers offer a short scale Gibson Mastertone type which will hold its own in any company!

To sum up, the standard scale tenor is rather more forgiving in terms of tuning and quality but rather more difficult to play and handle.  The short scale tenor, on the other hand, is more demanding in tuning and quality terms but rather easier to play and handle.  If you're unsure, try playing a good selection of both types before making your choice!

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What's a tango banjo?
Another name for the short scale tenor deriving from its earliest use in the Tango bands from around 1914 onwards.  There is no record of when the tango banjo first appeared - it was probably a widespread response to the demands of string players who needed a banjo that they could play without too much effort.  Examples from the earliest times are known from Boston, New York and Chicago banjo makers though the oldest I've ever seen came from the Cole workshop in Boston (about 1911 - 1912).

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