The bridge is one of the least expensive aspects of banjo set-up, yet can yield the most dramatic effect on your instrument's overall sound and volume. Since the bridge is the major 'coupling' device or interface between the strings' energy and the head, it isn't too far a stretch to see why it has such a big impact on the banjo's sound.
Bridges come in radically different configurations of shape, mass, wood type and type of 'feet.' In terms of shape, the traditional '3 legged' banjo bridge is still the majority favorite. When it comes to materials, the favored combination is for the body of the bridge to be made with maple, and ebony for the top. Spacing for the strings has two main versions: standard and 'Crowe' (a wider than standard string spacing derived from banjo player J.D Crowe). But players can conjure up their own 'custom' spacing to suit their own preferences.
The major impact on the banjos playability comes from choosing the proper bridge height for a banjo's set-up. Proper height is figured from the player's likes, which is achieved by altering the set up, i.e. head tension, tailpiece setting, neck angle, truss relief, etc. Bridges can be made in any size, but the standard ranges run between 1/2 inch to 1 inch in height. The increments for the various sizes generally run in 32nds of an inch. The most popular sizes are 5/8 inch and .656. In some banjo circles, the belief is that 'taller is better'. But my experience as a long-time professional player, builder and repairman is that this is really not the case. A taller bridge is not an automatic ticket to a louder, better sounding banjo. Most of the wor'ds greatest sounding banjos were made for a 5/8 bridge and sound amazing with that size. Not that a taller bridge can't work on your banjo... just use your ear when selecting a bridge, and not hype.
Bridges also come in two main forms: Standard top and "compensated top." The main purpose of a compensated top bridge is to 'sweeten' the instrument's tuning so that certain intervals are more in tune with others on the fingerboard. The real issue is that fretted instrument like banjo are 'tempered', which is something you can look up online. The layman's explanation is the banjo's scale (fingerboard and slots) is laid out imperfectly, so that chords and notes are more in a sweet harmony with each other. Let me state emphatically that we all hear musical intervals differently, therefore some banjos may need compensated bridges while others do not. This could be based on the particular instrument's variances in fret work, construction, etc, but more often than not it's how each player is perceiving the intonation and processing it internally, that causes each player to 'need' or want compensation. The majority of well-made banjos with proper fret work will not need compensation. But again, if you hear intervals in such a way that you perceive your banjo (really you) 'needs' a compensated bridge, and you hear an improvement, install one. The big majority of professional players do not use compensated bridges as they learn early on that the banjo's scale is tempered and their ears and hands learn to adjust to this fact. This doesn't negate the validity of compensated bridges being useful, just an observation from another professional player who noticed this long ago.
This brings up an important consideration when selecting a bridge, which is 'why' I need this bridge. All serious bridge makers will stand behind not only the quality of their bridge, but also the 'science' behind its various features. Most of the reputable builders have common sense marketing skills and do not fashion ''tales" and make fantastical claims about their bridges. But occasionally the marketing for some bridges crosses that line between reality and hype. It will not take someone long to figure out the differences in common sense "stand behind your product" marketing, and those fantastical, unrealistic claims. As you gain experience with bridges, you can be an informed buyer and not one who fills their banjo's accessory pocket full of every 'magic' bridge that comes along.
The real "$64,000 question" in choosing a bridge is this: "how do I know which one will sound the best on my banjo"? The real honest to goodness answer is this: try it and see. Makers will adhere to certain general guidelines such as choosing certain wood combinations, its grain compactness, mass, feet design, etc, to make a bridge that will sound great on as many banjos as possible. But here's the rub: no bridge maker, regardless of guidelines, can guarantee his/her bridge will sound 'great on every banjo'. (Well, they could but that would be ridiculous and a waste of breath.) All they can guarantee is that the bridge is well made/highest quality, made with exacting specs, using woods designed to give a range of response for that wood, etc and that they will stand behind it. The rest of finding the right bridge for your particular banjo, its set-up and your ear, is up to you. Unfortunately the only surefire way to know is to buy it and install it. Some bridge makers offer a try it before you buy it provision which is great. I can offer no better advice for your bridge search than to say again, 'try it and see'.
Price is also no indication of a bridge's tonal and volume production. The 'generic' bridge of choice for over 90 years has been the Grover company's offering. While these bridges are churned out by the thousands, you can occasional find one that suits your banjo perfectly. Earl Scruggs used a Grover bridge on many of those classic, revered recordings. By and large, I have found that about 10% of factory-made Grovers are really good bridges. They are usually better for very low end beginner banjos. The modern handmade bridges offered by well-known makers are superior in choice of wood, graduations/shaping, design, and this means a better-sounding bridge that resists breakage and warpage/sagging.
When searching for something that will make your banjo sound 'better', you should start with the easiest, most cost-effective modification to your banjos set-up: the bridge. Most hand built bridges run in the $20-40 range. This is a small price compared to tonerings, rims, flanges, etc. Bridges are also extremely easy to change out and experiment with. It doesn't require the banjo to be disassembled.
Thanks for reading part 5 of the set-up series...see you next installment. :)
Monday, August 18, 2014 @5:46:05 PM
Thank you very much for taking time to write this discussion on bridges. I'm very interested in this topic because I tried about a dozen different bridges on my banjo, trying to get a bright sound. Each bridge had a totally different sound, so I found myself swapping out strings to find the sweet spot sound for each bridge. Here's what I THINK I learned, but I'd like your opinion about it. I'm somewhat picky when it comes to sound... Not right or wrong and certainly not an expert, just picky. So I could be 'way off base in my conclusion.
I felt that the mass of the bridge had the largest effect on the sound. (I was trying for a bright sound.) The more mass, the more dulled the sound was. It seemed to me that nearly all compensated bridges have more mass than a straight bridge of equivalent height. The reason, I think, is that the compensated bridge is curved or stepped, and the feet have to generally be a bit wider or thicker to support the curve of the bridge. I measured (with a micrometer) the thickness of feet on various pairs of bridges that were the same height but one was compensated and one was not. Almost without exception, compensated bridges had thicker feet. And without exception, it sounded to me as if compensated bridges didn't give as bright a sound for the same string gauge. I ended up with a 1/2 inch compensated bridge and light strings.
You mentioned in your write-up that some banjo players feel that taller is better. But that would increase the mass of the bridge, yielding a dulled sound. Or maybe I should say, a more mellow sound. Anyway, the taller bridges weren't to my personal liking. But as you say, that's personal preference.
Monday, August 18, 2014 @7:25:36 PM
I found that violin makers do a lot of refining from the stock bridge, to te finished product, and I made a try with this technique in mind. I opened up a little this 5/8 standard Grover bridge... The look is good but the tonal variety now available to me is much greater. Wider openings, thinner legs...Useless wood removed...
Monday, August 18, 2014 @7:34:54 PM
I have found that you cannot make simplifications like " a thicker bridge will sound dull" or a "thinner bridge sounds trebly". You have to consider the woods density, grain orientation and how it simply reacts to your banjos set up and your playing technique. I have used bridges that were very think but had great clarity and treble,a dn by the same token, used bridges that were thinner than "normal" that had great bass response.
Sideshow Skip Says:
Monday, August 18, 2014 @10:45:41 PM
The Steve Davis bridge is miles ahead of anything else I've tried ( and I've tried many! ). It costs a bit more but the tone and clarity is crazy. Contact Steve through BHO
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 @12:40:38 AM
Thanks John, once again some great information.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 @1:42:00 AM
I suspect bridges wear out in the same way nuts do. And cause a duller sound or develop a buzzing.
Wonder if there's any standard guideline that suggests changing the bridge with "X" number of string changes.
Also curious about the more minute details of bridge anatomy. Such as, are the slots for the strings cut parallel the bridges foot (head)? Hmm, maybe slightly arched?
Would it improve the strings contact area if it were angle down toward the tailpiece? Thinking this would maximize energy transference.
Or perhaps a pyramid minimizing string contact would be best. Being counter intuitive to my surely flawed logic.
Mass vs height vs contact (head & string) vs material
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 @7:53:58 AM
I thought the bridge height should be set such that the strings are parallel with the neck, or more specifically at a consistent height above the frets. No?
Laurence Diehl Says:
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 @8:21:22 AM
Nice post John - I totally agree with the " try it and see" approach rather than make prior assumptions based on bridge weight, materials etc. The first thing I had to do when trying bridges was to tune my ears in to HOW the bridge affects the tone (as opposed to strings, head tension, tailpiece setting, tonering etc.) It's funny how often I would end up with the bridge I started out with...
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 @9:43:45 AM
Thanks for this. I notice you didn't talk much about weight. Does that have much difference, everything else being equal? And material: has anyone ever tried metal or glass?
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 @10:59:18 AM
I think it takes a very long time for a bridge to wear out. Mostly they continue to sound better when left on the banjo for a long time. The strings tend to "worm" their way into the wood, making perfectly gauged slots for themselves. But they keep gradually doing this, even in ebony, and eventually - we're talking years now - the strings are noticeably below the top of the bridge. Your 5/8 bridge isn't really 5/8 any more, and then it's time to think about changing it.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014 @9:09:41 AM
No matter how you consider it, the more wood there is in the makeup of the bridge, the more muted will be the sound coming from your banjo. After all, that's the purpose of a mute --- add some weight to the bridge, and the banjo is quieter. If you want a louder banjo, remove wood from the bridge. This is easily done with some sand paper, and maybe some careful work with a Dremel tool and sanding wheel. Also, a 'woody' bridge will reduce the higher frequencies --- less wood will help to emphasize the high frequencies coming from the banjo. A bridge I once saw on one of Don Reno's banjos had been reworked so that the edge supporting the strings was like the edge (or nearly so) of a knife.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014 @10:00:17 AM
To reply to Benthammers worn bridge I would say there is no need to replace a bridge just
because the strings are a bit too low just glue veneer to the feet, shape and sand height if
necessary. It is simple and quick with no expense. If you are worried about the tiny extra bit of mass just sand a bit of the top of the bridge.
As far as mass goes, my banjo is quite loud and the highs are just a bit annoying to my ear so I glued veneer to it until it sounded the way I liked it. To make gluing really easy so no clamping and slipping of parts I use crazy glue with a zap of accelerator . You don't even have to cut the veneer accurately as it can be cut and filed after it is glued.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014 @10:08:08 AM
Weight and "mass" are terms that generally mean the same thing, when talking it's affect on tone. I stay away from generalities and definitely away from absolute statements.
krHolmes, while you can make generalized set nets like those, I have not found that to be any kind of rule, when talking bridge size/thickness and tone. Sometimes a thicker bridge will sound fantastic on a particular banjo and have plenty of pop, while a thn Ridge will sound like crap on another banjo. This is wood we are talking about and not a man made substance.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014 @10:08:55 AM
Sorry about the typos..dang iPad and touch screen..ugghh.
Saturday, August 23, 2014 @9:04:32 PM
What about a bridge with a raised 5th string for clawhammer? I like mine because it keeps my thumb off the head..
Sunday, August 24, 2014 @10:06:09 AM
You can modify a bridge endlessly, to suit your right hand. Raising certain strings, lowering them etc, is not that difficult to do. all thats needed is some CA glue,rosewood/ebony dust and the proper slotting tool to do it.
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