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A whole new banjo on my lunch hour

Posted by MrNatch3L on Friday, February 6, 2009

No doubt about it, I waited far too long to get myself a good banjo. I started messing with banjo back in the 70s but never got a really good instrument. Eventually it wasn't about money - I got to the point where I could have bought just about anything up to 5K if I'd really wanted to (I didn't spend that much because I don't play that well yet). I held out until I understood once and for all that The Mutt was holding me back as a player. This long wait is proving to be a disadvantage because I got used to living with a less than optimal sound. So I don't always recognize when my new banjo's sound is getting out of whack. I got my Bishline custom Heirloom in November 2006, and I have not been able to play it as much as it really should be played, so it's still settling in. On top of that, the untra-thin laminated neck definitely responds to seasonal changes - I've found I need to tweak the action about twice a year, winter and summer.

In the last couple of weeks I've done a little recording and that's when I realized I was not happy with the banjo sound. Just playing it, I had not really noticed what was happening. At first I attributed it to mic placement, bad room acoustics, not having real great mics and so tried changing those and still didn't like what I was hearing. It finally dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, that's how the banjo was really sounding.

Now the thing about this banjo is, I never really changed the setup that Rob Bishline did originally. I've corrected minor changes in the neck, done a little tweaking of the tailpiece height, but that was about it since I got it. I think I was trying to preserve Rob's setup or something, and of course that just ain't possible. A new instrument is going to change and settle. So I did some tweaking of head tension and tailpiece but I still wasn't getting what I thought I should be getting.

So today I took a long lunch hour and did something I never really had the guts to do before. I took the head tension all the way down to finger-snug, and set the Presto tailpiece all the way up. I then tightened the head to the point where all the lug nuts were just starting to feel slightly resistant to the wrench - I guess about 1/2 turn all the way around. Then I tuned with the tuner, and played open and capoed up A, B, and C. I then experimented with setting with the tailpiece, tuning each time to pitch after each 1/4 turn on the nut,  and playing open and capoed again. In each key  I also listened to it miked with my large diaphragm condenser mic, and I tried each setting with the resonator put back on.

The first go-around told me the banjo was sounding tubby. So I backed the tailpiece all the way off and took 1/8 turn all the way around the head, and did the same process with tailpiece and playing open and capoed. After about 3 rounds of 1/8 turn on the head I found a tailpiece height that was starting to sound pretty good. I wondered how far I could go until I was not improving things anymore.  I did about 2 or 3 more rounds of 1/8 turn on the head. On what proved to be the last round of head tightening, I got to a tailpiece adjustment - I think only about 3/4 turn from finger tight - and realized I had a whole new banjo. In 2 years I never heard it sound like this. It's a cannon. Eye-opening power and pop! The responsiveness improved as well. Yes, it's a cannon, but it's also a blushing young  maiden and it responds to a gentler touch. I'm going to have to learn to back off with my right hand again.

So if you've got a banjo with decent components and you aren't satisfied with the sound, get out your lug wrench, take the tension all the way off the head and tailpiece, set everything finger tight, and then systematically tweak and test in small increments. Long before things get so tight that you've overdone it (don't overdo it!!) you should run across the sound you like. You'll know it when you do. And it will be like getting a whole new instrument. If you don't find the sound you like, then maybe you really do need a whole new banjo after all.

And you might even be able to convince your spouse.

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