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Set Up Part 4: Head tension

Posted by Banjophobic on Wednesday, June 11, 2014

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One of the most talked about set-up topics in the banjo world over the past decade would have to be 'head tension' in my opinion. More threads appear on the set-up forum about head tension than about any other fundamental set-up procedure. Head tension is vital to good tone and playability. How tight or loose the banjo head is will affect your banjo is a few ways, each one making a big impact on how the banjo plays and or its tone and volume. 

There is more than one way to adjust your banjo head: by hand, using a nut driver/wrench, or a drum dial.

How you set the head tension can be as simple as adjusting by hand, listening and looking for how level the head appears to be, when installed on the banjo, while tightening it. Some folks can hear and use a 'tap note', which is simply tapping the banjo head and listening for a vibration mode that is audible as a pitch, such as a 'G' note, for reference. The drum dial will give you the same tension readings as a tapped note procedure, but instead of hearing a tone for reference, it gives you a number, such as '89' (which is equated to pounds of tension). In the end it does not matter how you arrive at the 'best' tension for your banjo head, be it by hand or device, or what the tapped note is or the lbs reading on the device, as long as the banjo plays and sounds the best for you and your set-up.

Many times the 'devil is in the details' and folks get way too involved in static numbers, or tapped notes,etc, and fail to see that they are all just giving you an average range of tensions that sound good on most banjos. No two banjos are exactly alike in terms of set up, nor are two people's ears exactly the same. So, if you just use your ears, can or cant hear a tapped reference note, don't own or want to buy a drum dial, it is all good as long as the end result works for your banjo. 

How the head tension affects your tone and playability varies by set -up and you must take in all aspects of set-up and add them together to arrive at the optimal setting for each banjo. "How tight is too tight and how loose is too loose?" you might ask. The average tension for say, a flathead type bluegrass banjo has been recognized for decades to be (using tapped notes for identifying tension) somewhere between a G an A head tension note. But myself having set-up a few thousand banjos in my life, I can tell you that there are a plethora of banjos out there that sound amazing below and above those 'accepted' numbers. Drum dial settings may 'average' between 87-95 lbs of tension to arrive at the same tension that the tapped reference numbers represent, but again, many banjos fall outside those median tension numbers.

The head being too tightly tensioned for your banjo will have three main impacts on the instrument:

  1. bass response may be stifled or limited, and treble overtones become very noticeable
  2. your action is raised because the head is counteracting the string tensions down forces and the bridge is no longer causing 'head sag' in that area. and
  3. excessive head tension can actually warp and in extreme cases, break certain parts of your banjo, like the flange and tension hoop. 

The tension being too low will also have some impacts on your banjo:

  1. loss of tremble response, which is perceived as 'muddy' sounding and or the increase in bass overtones. There can also be reduced volume in some cases and or loss of 'cutting' ability (cant be hear well in ensemble situations) and
  2. lowered action due to the head being overdriven by string down forces.

Both too tight and too loose head tensions will affect playability because of the obvious impact it has on lowering the string 'action' over the fingerboard and head surface. It can also negatively impact playability simply because the player has to work too hard to get the tone they need, because of the tension is hindering the banjo's response.

Brands of heads also come into play, and there are many choices today. There is everything from artificial calfskin heads to clear mylar. Most bluegrass players use a white frosted mylar head, but some players have moved towards other types of head choices. Generally speaking, a thicker/heavier frosted head gives a mellower sound while a thinner/less frosted one gives a brighter tone. But again, nothing about set-up is set in stone, so the rule is try it and see.

Installing a new head and setting the right head tension for your banjo is a skill most players would like to learn. I recommend to most folks that even if they don't go so far as to learn to change out a banjo head themselves, they at least learn how to adjust the head and hear those tone differences, and see the playability impacts head tension imparts. This is important to know as banjo heads continue to 'settle' over time and that means occasional tweaking of tension to maintain the best sound. It will also help you recognize when your banjo head is having problems, which leads to it eventually failing. Failure can be sneaky and subtle over time, or dramatic and immediate. Knowing how to recognize it means getting it replaced before it leaves you 'stranded' without a new head. 

Thanks for reading the article and I hope it proves to be useful in understanding head tension in the overall set-up scheme. See you next article.



9 comments on “Set Up Part 4: Head tension”

donc Says:
Monday, June 16, 2014 @12:27:35 PM

Thanks for your advice John. I've been playing with various adjustments during the past few weeks and head tension was probably the most tricky. Steve Davis a BHO member has written a method which utilizes a 10 inch stick [or ruler] plus an American 25 cent piece. banjohangout.org/archive/222241.. Living in Canada meant I actually had to go to a bank and ask for an American quarter, which is a lot thinner than the Canadian quarter. It finally resulted in a close adjustment. It took a couple of fine tunings after that but now its good. Every time I adjust there seems to be a need to slightly adjust the tailpiece screw. Being serious about learning the banjo almost seems to require being a part time luthier.

beachsnake Says:
Monday, June 16, 2014 @3:19:51 PM

Is there any rule-of-thumb with regard to frequency of changing heads on a banjo. I play with a "clear" head(no frost). Thought being this would produce a sharper sound. Any comments?

Banjophobic Says:
Monday, June 16, 2014 @5:15:14 PM

No real rules for when to change a head. Sometimes heads can last for decades adn sometimes only a couple years. Clear heads do sound brighter, generally speaking but can sound great on some banjos, with the right set up. One thing to consider about unfrosted heads is that they are a slick surface and without the textured frosting, your bridge will have a tendency to slip around if bumped.

jonah4832 Says:
Tuesday, June 17, 2014 @4:51:46 AM

Hope John doesn't mind if I put my 2 cents in since he taught me this anyway. When you do make adjustment to the head give it a few day to let it settle, instead of syaing well that doesn't sounjd right and change it again and again. And he is right there is no one setting for every banjo. Thanks John for all you do here.

krholmes Says:
Wednesday, June 18, 2014 @2:43:04 PM

I used a drum dial to adjust the head "tension". With the drum dial, I adjusted the tension at approximately 6 equally (the best I could) spaced locations around the edge of the head, just off of the tension hoop. Under this measurement constraint, and with a measured tension of 87 around the rim of the head, my particular banjo head tunes to a G#. Also, with equal tension distributed around the head, I find that the banjo is much easier to be put in tune. I'm sure that that is because I've minimized the extraneous out-of-tune overtones that the banjo head used to exhibit. The banjo no sounds the best, to me, ever.

Trayfe Banjo Says:
Thursday, June 19, 2014 @9:50:39 AM

You mentioned "artificial" calfskin heads, are they different from "Renaissance " heads or "Fiberskyn" heads? There was an article in BNL a few years ago in which it was mentioned that the interviewee was discussing that he is developing artificial calfskin but have not seen any info about them since. Do have any info on these?

Banjophobic Says:
Thursday, June 19, 2014 @1:25:07 PM

Trayfe
Those were the types I mentioned before...they are kid of 'artificial calf' in the way they look and sound. Folks have experimented with taking real skin heads and treating them to make them weather proof, but the process usually ruins the sound. Hopefully someone will perfect a synthetic material that sounds and looks just like calfskin one day...but it hasn't happened yet.

krholmes Says:
Friday, June 20, 2014 @2:29:21 PM

With the mentioning of types of heads, I'll take a moment to relate this. When I was shopping for a banjo head in Elderly (Lansing, MI) some 30 years ago now, I was told that I could select from several different ones, including just the differences that could be obtained with differing thicknesses of the mylar itself. But the frosting scheme could differ. That is, banjo heads came with frosting on the outside (inside bare), frosting on the inside (outside bare), no frosting on either the outside or the inside surfaaces, or frosting on both inside and outside of the head surfaces. Obviously, a significant influence on the sound will beplaying with a given banjo with either the clear head (no frosting), or with frosting on both surfaces, not even considering head tension.

Tom Simurdak Says:
Monday, December 29, 2014 @10:07:59 AM

John, thanks for the info.. Is there a relationship between head tension and 12th fret harmonics? Could that be a clue to tensioning?

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