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What is a 'banjo set-up' ?

Posted by Banjophobic on Friday, March 14, 2014

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New players to this instrument are often unaware of the need for the banjo to be properly 'set up.' All stringed instruments have the need for a good set up but the banjo, with all its various metal, wood, and other components, the 'set up' is a much more involved process than, say, an acoustic guitar. With so many variables to know about and adjust, the beginning player can be overwhelmed by it all. Hopefully these next few articles for the BHO newsletter will help demystify both the process and affect of a 'set-up.'

The first thing we should define is what a 'set up' is, in plain terms. A 'set up' involves adjusting the banjo's components to achieve the proper playing action (string height above the fingerboard) and the 'best tone' and volume for the particular instrument. I use the word  'best' with subjectivity in mind as there really is no 'best tone' that will please every player. But for the person buying a new banjo, especially a beginner student of the instrument, the set up should be aimed at making the banjo as easy to play without issues like 'buzzing' , which we will discuss later, and to get a good tone potential. 

As a general rule, higher end banjos especially well known maker's instruments, come with an excellent set up. Most newer players or those who really don't know what kind of set up they need will be perfectly happy with the 'OEM" set up. More seasoned players who have a better grasp of the various  set up 'tweaks' and who have developed their own particular set up parameters will almost always adjust the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) set up to those preferences. Beginners who have no skills or knowledge of set up can learn how to do basic work from websites like the Banjo Hangout, its forums and or other online sources and videos. I think its a great idea for every player to learn at least the basics of set-up to be able to better appreciate the beauty of the banjo's construction and also to familiarize themselves with things that affect tone and playability. Those are things that can help you later on and make you more knowledgeable about set up that you do for yourself, or pay someone else to do.

This brings up an often asked question: "Should I pay someone to do my set up or do it myself?" This depends on

  1. Your experience doing set ups on banjos
  2. Your overall skill set with certain tooling
  3. Your ability to diagnose set up issues and correct/adjust them as per point #1
  4. The amount of motivation and/or time you have to tackle doing your own set ups and
  5. Your budget.

Some things every player can and should learn how to do, like changing strings, cleaning the instrument properly, tweaking head tension, keeping the bridge in the proper spot, etc. But then there are areas of set up that involve removing components, such as head replacement, or disassembling the instrument completely to, for instance, re-cut the heel for action adjustment or refit a tonering. Those types of set up changes should be left to someone who has lots of real experience doing it. There's no worse feeling than buying an expensive banjo, only to break or maim it in a botched attempt to do something to it you are not skilled enough to do. Some things should be left to a professional or be postponed for later, when you have the skill set to do it. 

New players also discover that other players offer 'free' set up advice and throw out lots of critiques of set up. Everyone has an opinion about set up and most of the time it is a sincere attempt to be helpful. But you will soon start wading into what I like to call the 'tar pits of subjectivity'. There is simply no one set up that works for every banjo, the player's style, or likes--period.  Every player you encounter will have an idea of the 'best' set up, based on either what they read about or have tried themselves. As you get more familiar with the instrument, your ears gain the ability to hear subtle changes in how the banjo feels and sounds. You will also understand and be able to weed through the avalanche of advice and information you encounter and decide what is useful to your preferences, and what is not. My advice is to seek out players who are experienced with set up, or set up professionals, and have your instrument properly adjusted for your current skill level. As you progress, your set up needs will change. You should spend your time working on your playing skills, not constant tinkering with the banjo's set-up... that is of course, if you are more interested in being a good player versus being a banjo tinkerer. 

Searching Google for 'banjo set-up" will most likely cause a meltdown of your computer's hard drive and you will know why this topic can be overwhelming to the new player. In upcoming articles I will break down the various aspects of a 'set up' and attempt to help you get a handle on the lingo/terminology and help you be more knowledgeable about the whole process. I will break down the language and explain how various adjustments affect playability and tone, as well as the processes involved in well-known set up procedures. Be on the lookout for those future articles.

Thanks for reading and see you in the next installment !

John Boulding

19 comments on “What is a 'banjo set-up' ?”

dbrooks Says:
Friday, March 14, 2014 @4:29:32 PM

Good advice, John, and an excellent foundation for further discussions.

buzpat Says:
Monday, March 17, 2014 @1:56:50 PM

Nice article John & you are the one to get the point across. You have the tone most are after & know how to relay a lot of this to others. I compliment you on all the hard work to help others, Buzz

PigAnkle Says:
Monday, March 17, 2014 @2:43:06 PM

Underlining this point: " There is simply no one set up that works for every banjo, the player's style, or likes--period." There are mutually exclusive tones that sound great. Sometimes you want a bright, crisp banjo, sometimes you want a murky, growly banjo. Evey six months or so, I like a sound on a recording, and I adjust everything I can on my banjo to get a new tone out of it. Way cheaper than buying a more banjos.

Nolicks Says:
Monday, March 17, 2014 @3:56:58 PM

Thank you John most informative, as I am looking to reset my instrument

mpgraves Says:
Monday, March 17, 2014 @5:24:20 PM

Looking forward to this series. I also
Ike the bite size approach. Thanks

firemx220 Says:
Monday, March 17, 2014 @5:30:43 PM

I think every beginner should have the first setup done by a professional so they know what it should feel and sound like. ( sound meaning no buzzing or any other weird sounds)

overhere Says:
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 @2:22:38 AM

Excellent topic. Your unselfish dedication is unheard of. Even us old guys learn new tricks from your knowledge. I think we all are thankful for people like you.

Banjophobic Says:
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 @7:25:44 AM

Thanks folk-appreciate the feedback and comments. There's lots to talk about on this subject, but I will try to keep it concise and centered on the important aspects of set-up.

marthastone Says:
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 @9:15:40 AM

I'm looking forward to this series, because I know nothing about banjo setup except that my Ome needs one! I've had it for 14 years now, and I love it so much that I'm afraid to take it to someone to do a set up because it might come back as a different banjo, which would leave me brokenhearted. It's a conundrum, to be sure. Then there's the whole question of who to take it to, and whether or not to have them replace the head, which has ugly glue spots on it from glueing cute little trinkets on it. SO, the more I learn about set-up the better, until I get overwhelmed and then bored. Thanks!

rfrizzle2 Says:
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 @9:27:09 AM

Thank you John, Your a awesome contributor to this Form. Looking forward to more info on the banjo setup.
Thank you
Rich Freeze

spaman Says:
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 @10:00:29 AM

Thanks John, as a new player I appriciate the advice. Look forward to hearing more.

Spitfire-Smith Says:
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 @12:06:45 PM

Great post John! I am planning to disassemble my banjo soon for a thorough cleaning so I look forward to your future posts!

JohnTN Says:
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 @4:49:53 PM

Thank you John. After reading so many times here on the BHO that a good setup is critical, I have wanted to post that very question (just what exactly comprises a good setup), so I will be looking forward to reading this series.

tomrice Says:
Wednesday, March 19, 2014 @6:37:20 AM

Couldn't have stated one thing any better than overhere has done above!

Banjophobic Says:
Thursday, March 20, 2014 @6:52:45 AM

Thanks again everyone. I really hope this series will be helpful and informative. I am just passing on what I learned through the years..paying it forward.

the Twanger Says:
Thursday, March 20, 2014 @2:31:26 PM

I am fascinated by this. It almost appears to be a black art. I look forward to this.
Knowledge dispels fear

AndrewColchester Says:
Friday, March 21, 2014 @3:53:40 AM

John, I look forward to your article with keen interest. I would love a step by step instruction of what is involved. I've owned a banjo since 1963 and changed the head 3 times. I've adjusted the bridge and tightened the head till it seemed about right, and I'm quite sure it's not perfect, but it works. Then people come and talk about 'set up' in such reverential terms and I haven't a clue what they're talking about, and round here I wouldn't know who to ask. So I await with keen interest!

South Jersey Mike Says:
Sunday, March 23, 2014 @7:53:34 PM

The strings need to be changed? I guess I really need this article.

Ed Emrich Says:
Monday, March 24, 2014 @6:53:57 PM

Good read and topic. I know that there is no best set up. I got the string replacement and head tension but the Rods inside and how they affect the action forget it. As an industrial arts teacher I can fix anything but a broken heart and set up my banjo. Looking forward to earning my banjo independence.
Ed, frozen In Michigan

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