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Set-up: Part 2

Posted by Banjophobic on Tuesday, April 15, 2014

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Let's talk about one of the aspects of a good set-up, which is the term 'action'.  There are two main things we are trying to accomplish with a good set-up of the banjo, one being A) changing the action/playability to suit the player and B) 'better' tone and response. The  term 'action' is used to identify the height of the strings as they cross the fingerboard (and sometimes over the banjo's head surface too, in more advanced set-ups). How high or low your strings are over the fingerboard has a major impact on the instrument's 'playability', which is exactly what the name implies, which is to improve how the banjo plays. But let me say this; there is no one action for every banjo

For each player, how hard they pick, the gauges of strings used, and the rest of the banjo's set-up have to all be factored in when determining that particular banjo's action setting. While there are accepted ranges of action when measured at various points on the fingerboard those ranges are not set in stone.

You might ask, "How do I know what my action should be?" The main reason to have a 'proper' action for your banjo is to prevent 'buzzes' on the frets, which is simply the string not having enough room to freely vibrate after being plucked, to clear the tops of a fret(s). There is a simple rule that determines your action, generally speaking. The rule is this: the harder you pick, the more energy you impart to the string and therefore the higher your overall action needs to be to avoid buzzes. The reason is simple, which is the more energy given to the string, the wider that ellipse the string makes over the frets. There are other factors in set-up that can affect where you action can be set, like how loud your banjo is. Having sheer volume available means you do not have to play as hard, which means you could get by with a lower action on that particular banjo than on another. This means two banjos can have the same basic action, but one buzzes more than the other. Now there are some mechanical issues that can cause buzzing, like warped fingerboards, truss rod being out of adjustment, worn frets, sagging bridge, but let's save that for another blog post.

Ok, so how do we change the banjo's action? There are lots of ways to do that, so let me break them down for you:

  1. Change bridge sizes (lower bridge to lower the action, taller bridge to raise the action)
  2. Change head tension ( lower tension lets the string's down forces press the bridge down into the head, lowering the action. This also alters your tone and response, so it's not a recommended fix for action, in itself)
  3. Re-set the neck angle (the shallower the necks break angle to the banjo's pot assembly (round part of the banjo), the lower the action will be with, say, a standard-sized bridge, which is 5/8 inch. To change the neck's angle you will either have to remove wood from the 'heel' (section of neck that fits into the pot assembly), or use shims. Increasing the necks break angle raises the action.
  4. Change the truss rod settings (while the truss rod isn't designed as a primary action changing tool, it can have a dramatic affect on your action)
  5. Adjust the coordinator rods (rods that attach the neck to the pot assembly on a BG style banjo from the interior of the rim). I almost always try my best to dissuade people from making much, if any change with those rods as they can warp the post assembly's main component, which is the wood rim. A very small adjustment has a very small impact on action and is usually safe, but it takes a big adjustment of those rods to make a big change and that change is coming via the 'egging' of the rim...not a good thing. 
  6. Change string sizes (gauges). Different  string sizes impart a different load of down force on the bridge, truss rod/neck and can change your action slightly.

There are other things that can be done to change your action that involve 'tweaking' the set-up with things like tailpiece adjustment, but its usually a combination of things working together that change you action.

If you are inclined to tinker with your action, I advise you to go the easiest, least invasive way, which is to choose a slightly taller or lower bridge than you are currently using. 5/8 is accepted as 'standard' for most banjos, and I don't recommend you go down to the lower size, which is 1/2 inch, as it will get your action over the banjo head too low and the tone of your banjo suffers. If you need the action a tad lower than 5/8, you could opt to remove a small amount of the bridge's top portion and then re-groove it for the strings, or buy a custom-made one that is just under 5/8. If you are using a 5/8 and need a slightly higher action, then a .656 is just above that by a 32nd or so, and the sizes continue to increase to a whopping 1 inch!

The other adjustments I mention in numbers 2-6 are ones you should only attempt if you know how to do them precisely and/or have lots of experience before attempting them. The truss rod  adjustment can be done by anyone but just take time to read up on it here on BHO before you start turning the wrench with reckless abandon.

Besides making the banjo play like you want, an action change usually imparts a tonal change too. Generally speaking, the higher the action, the more rich and full the banjo is and you can play with more pressure, which also gives you a more solid tone. A low action generally means a tone that leans toward treble response and is one that you cannot play with enough force to get that solid tone. These are not absolutes, obviously, as some banjos seem to defy those statements by being able to have low actions but have that 'tone' and no buzzing issues. But those banjos are not the norm. 

Most hard-driving professional BG players, especially those who play mostly Scruggs style, want and need a higher action. To a beginner, some of these  pro players banjos seem to have ridiculously high action, compared to their beginner banjo. The typical beginner 'action' is low, to make it as easy as possible to play and not impede progress. Once the player improves, their hands get stronger and they pick with more confidence and learn how to 'pull tone' , as we say in the business.

One situation where you get the best of both worlds; low action and tons of sheer volume with little picking effort, is when using a banjo pickup system. The pick up is electrically amplifying the banjo, meaning you can play lightly, avoid high action needs and have lots of supplied volume. The downside of that is you lose some natural acoustic tone in the process.

Make sure your action is set for your current skill level and or preferences. Remember that when you get right down to it, the action is determined by what you like and need. 

Thanks for reading and I hope that these articles are helpful to your understanding of the processes involved in set-up. See you in the next installment!

11 comments on “Set-up: Part 2”

uncle D Says:
Monday, April 21, 2014 @10:57:48 AM

Good lesson. Lots of info presented so we can understand it.

cvandien Says:
Monday, April 21, 2014 @11:20:57 AM

Please tell me you are going to cover the bridge and how to set it! Thanks for putting in 'Plain English" that's easy to understand!

Banjophobic Says:
Monday, April 21, 2014 @12:16:00 PM

Thanks guys-appreciate the comments. Yes, I will eventually cover bridge placement too.

PaulRF Says:
Monday, April 21, 2014 @2:12:21 PM

Once again John, great advice. Thank you.

ironhead Says:
Monday, April 21, 2014 @3:00:20 PM

Great work John as per usual>

PaulB Says:
Monday, April 21, 2014 @3:02:12 PM

Thank you John your input is always helpful

juststarting Says:
Monday, April 21, 2014 @9:29:29 PM

What if the string doesn't buzz but sounds dead?

Banjophobic Says:
Tuesday, April 22, 2014 @9:41:05 AM

Dead sounding string could be the nut slot or bridge slot is crimping the string, or simply a bad string.

Laurence Diehl Says:
Tuesday, April 22, 2014 @10:24:57 AM

Usefull information John, and well presented. I thought I was being weird for preferring a medium/high action, but I guess not. I really hate the sound of buzzing frets.

c colborne Says:
Tuesday, April 22, 2014 @11:41:51 AM

very interestimgjohn thanks eddie fingers

Luvmoochine Says:
Tuesday, April 22, 2014 @1:40:01 PM

Seams like action height has some regional trends as well. I've noticed folks out west tend to like much lower action (and heavier strings) than what I got used to when I lived back east. Generally speaking of course, your results may vary.

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