The next segment of this set up series involves the banjo's "tailpiece". This is almost always a metal device, but can be made from wood or bone/ivory, the main purpose being to secure the strings to the banjo at the pot assembly end, and to alter tone. There is a wide variety of tailpieces available but I will concentrate on the 'bluegrass' versions, sold under various trade names. For bluegrass banjos the most popular makers/styles would be the 'Presto', 'Waverly' and' Kershner' styles and a few others that have style names, like' Ottinger', and 'Nashville',etc. These tailpiece designs have been around for many decades and are considered 'standard' designs by most Bluegrass players. Most tailpieces are either direct copies of those standard model tailpieces or hybrids of them.
Today there is a widening selection of tailpieces that have new shapes and designs like Fults, Ome,Price and Sterner, to name a few, but they are really designed with a nod to the older tailpieces, and they all serve the same basic function, which is to secure the strings, provide some tonal changes and action adjustments. Let's look at those three basic functions in more detail, one by one:
Any Tailpiece must have one main feature and that is the ability to withstand string pull/pressure and stay stable under load. Some tailpieces offer more stability than others, by design, while some are more affected by how the tailpiece is adjusted in the set up process, in terms of how stable they are. Presto tailpieces for instance, have been the go to tailpiece for Scruggs type tone than about all other styles of tailpieces combined. This isnt to say that you can 'only' get a Scruggs style tone from just the Presto, but that styleof tailpiece is a contributor to this type of banjo tone, in my experiences with banjos, both as a set-up/repairman and professional player. But the one oft mentioned negative about the Presto is how 'unstable' or 'flimsy' it is. The ability of a Presto to be both stable and secure, if well made, is as good as any other tailpiece once properly installed and set up for the banjo. Other styles of tailpieces like Kersner and Waverly as as likely to break as the Presto, if not installed properly. Improperly adjusted tailpieces, I have found over the years, accounts for about 90% of structural failures. Really old vintage ones can break because of metal fatigue and just the ravages of time. So old tailpieces need extra 'tlc' when installed on banjos. I also find that unstable unstable tailpieces are usually so because of improper set-up. As I mentioned earlier, you can use any of these tailpieces and arrive at a great sounding BG banjo tone. It is all in matching components and tension...AKA 'set-up".
There are differences in tailpieces, tone wise , beyond how they are installed and that relates to the type of materials used in its construction. metals difference in response, verses wood and bone. The overall length and mass of the tailpiece can have a big impact on tone and volume. A generalization about his is that the thicker/heavier and longer the tailpiece is, the more it imparts an 'edge' to the tone, usually in the metallic/trebly frequencies. Lighter and shorter ones tend to lean toward a more spacious, richer sound with less metallic overtones and more open bass response. Of course these are not 'rules' just generalization. If a particular tailpiece sounds great on your banjo, nothing else matters..use it. Volume can also be affected in the same way as tone, but again, you have to match the tailpiece to the banjo, string gages, and set-up, to find out what is ideal for you and your banjo.
There are lots of thoughts abounding on forums about string break angle, which basically just refers to what angles the string leave the end of the tailpiece and reach the notches in the bridge. After working on literally a few thousand banjos in my time, if find no real evidence that string break angle "X" is universally great for all banjos. I have heard banjos that sounded incredible with only 7-8 degrees of angle and other banjos with the 'perfect' angle of "X" degrees ...which sounded like ,well,crapola. In layman terms, you should just find the string angle at the TP that puts enough down force on the bridge to keep it in place (which is another main function of any angle adjustments on the tailpiece) and gives you the tone you like. Other than that, numbers mean nothing.Changing the tailpieces settings can also alter tone, so experiment with it to find that happy median setting for your banjos set up and your ears. Some are not only adjustable from end to end, but side to side, which offers greater flexibility in your experiments. Many newer tailpieces like the "Fults" have 'tonepins", which are pins made from various materials like bone,wood,etc that attempt to alter the tailpiece's tone by infusing some specific overtones.
Arriving at your best set up involves getting the playing action where you like it ( string height over the neck,head). Your tailpiece can have an impact on your action simply by its ability to affect 'down force' and balancing it against the heads 'restoring force'. The strings are placing a load on the bridge, which is exhibited by a down force. In other words the strings are trying to drive the bridge down into the head, causing it to sag under this load. As the load increases, the head will sag more, which lowers the string height over the neck and head itself. The head is pushing upwards against that downwards pressure. The tailpiece can add more down force by being adjusted a certain way, or it can remove that extra force and allow the head to 'restore' itself more towards a level setting. Part of an overall set up is trying to achieve a kind of equilibrium between head tension, tailpiece setting,neck angle,neck relief,and string gage. You tailpiece has an impact and that impact can be very small, or very large, depending on how the other things mentioned are adjusted as a whole.For instance a very loose head, but heavy strings, in conjunction with a heavy tailpiece that is cranked down, will almost always lower your action and significantly alter tone and playability. But a tight head and lighter string will be much less affected by that same tailpiece and its adjustment, usually meaning the action stays higher.
Just remember that one component of your banjo has a contribution to make, but its the overall set up and how everything works together that is most important.
My main advice is to read up on these various types of tailpieces, read reviews of them, ask experienced players what they think,etc and then just make a decision to try one. Over time you will find that you might gravitate towards one style over the others or you may eventually use them all. As long as the banjo sounds and plays great with it,and is stable, it doesn't really matter what kind you use.
Thanks for reading I look forward to another installment in the series next month. Ciao!
Wednesday, October 8, 2014 @4:59:13 AM
nice read thanks for the info
Wednesday, October 8, 2014 @9:13:36 AM
Hey John, Great article. I've been surprised in the past to hear both sides from very high profile players concerning the adjustment bolt on a Presto. As I see in your photos you seem to be a fan of the Pesto at least on your Prewar. On your setups do you use the bolt, which to me seems to be able to lower the front end some and add a little stability or do you toss it and bend down the front when you want a little more pressure? I don't have an opinion on the matter but am curious as to what a setup man of you stature thinks on the subject. Thanks
Wednesday, October 8, 2014 @9:28:14 AM
I always toss that little screw. it doesn't really do much for the overall functionality of the Presto, in my view. But if you like keeping it there, that is fine. The issue with the screw, for me, is the way most prestos are overly cranked down by the player. The screw adds extra stress to that 90 degree bend area, which is where prestos fail. I usually give the Prestos one good bend and that is it. Too many bending cycles causes metal fatigue and shortens the tailpieces lifespan. Once you get the Presto set correctly, without overly stressing it, it is as stable and good sounding tailpiece as any available.
All the hype about them being 'flimsy' is not really true. They are lighter than some other types of tailpieces, but they are not 'flimsy'. Heck, I have a box of broken heavy tailpieces like Kershners and Odes, so being thick and heavily built is no guarantee of it not breaking. Once you get the presto set up for the banjo, it provides decades of good service. All my banjos have a Presto but you can also get an excellent tone and stability from any of the well known tailpieces. For me, the Prestos give that classic Scruggs type tone better than any, but that can be viewed as subjective reasoning I guess.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014 @1:00:47 PM
Very interesting, thànks for that, I shall be reading your previous gems of set up info .. And look forward to more in the future..
Thursday, October 9, 2014 @8:48:44 AM
As always, your articles are very enlightening. It is so helpful having this topic covered by someone who knows banjo set-up and has done so many.
Thank you for your time, energy & knowledge,
Thursday, October 30, 2014 @2:42:20 PM
Keep imparting that precious knowledge, do you have an ebook? Casey
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