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7. Other Banjos

Posted by Rob MacKillop on Thursday, September 18, 2008

My day job at a university involves creating various music groups for staff and students to join. It's a great job, although somewhat stressful at times, and certainly keeps me on my toes with a variety of musical styles. We have everything from an Early Music Group to a Traditional Music Group, a large Jazz-Blues Band, and quite a few others. We were given a grant to buy some instruments (my favourite pasttime), and among the various things I ordered were two Goodtime banjos - a bluegrass and an Irish tenor.

I've never played either of these types before. I was amazed as to how loud, bright and IN YOUR FACE the bluegrass model was, certainly compared to the banjourine and nylon-strung Tradesman I have. I tried reading through some of Tony Trishka's book - how is it bluegrass players don't get their right hand fingers all knotted-up? Man, that's a complicated style!

The Irish tenor is comparatively straight-forward. Fiddle tuning, single-note plectrum technique. I figured out a couple of jigs and reels faily quickly. Once you get the tuning under your fingers, it's not too different from playing guitar with a  plectrum. I may be doing a disservice to the tradition here - I hope not. It sounded great, and I'll probably enjoy playing it for a while. Eventually I'll have to pass it on to a student...

Noticed a problem with my Tradesman - the second string is much deeper in the nut than the other strings, almost touching the fingerboard. It doesn't buzz, which is why I never noticed it at first, but it makes it difficult to do open-string (alternate string) pull-offs. There is almost nothing there to grip. This is a new technique with me, which, again, is why I never noticed it earlier. I can do the technique with some ease on the other strings, but hardly at all on the second. So, I emailed Marc at Zepp and they offered to send me a replacement nut, but it would need a luthier here to cut the grooves and set it up - which will cost me money. It should have been noticed before shipping...Maybe I can fill in the groove with something? Hmm...

8 comments on “7. Other Banjos”

Kester Says:
Thursday, September 18, 2008 @2:31:48 PM

The tenor banjo sure is addictive.  I need to work on  my speed then I would play better than I am doing now.  As for your new banjo, send it back.  I would.  After all, you want to keep it for years and years and be in love with it.  Those little gripes might drive you crazy or become more serious. 

Hunter Robertson Says:
Thursday, September 18, 2008 @10:19:26 PM

If you look around in the building and set-up section you'll find some stuff on filling the groove with baking soda and dropping in some superglue, then recutting. Hunter

twayneking Says:
Friday, September 19, 2008 @7:44:09 AM

Now, there's an idea.  I've got a friend with that problem. I'll tell him about it.

FiddlerFaddler Says:
Friday, September 19, 2008 @7:56:06 AM

Cyanoacrylate (superglue) will be easier to work with, but more brittle.  Epoxy will be harder to work with, and will take longer to set up, but not brittle at all.  There are some epoxies that set up in 5 minutes (you had better work fast!).  With an appropriate file you'll show the epoxy whose boss.

Rob MacKillop Says:
Friday, September 19, 2008 @8:30:38 AM

If they had checked it before shipping...

edavidt Says:
Friday, September 19, 2008 @11:52:05 PM


On several occasions, I have changed the kinds of strings that I use on my various banjos. In some cases, this meant building a nut groove back up.  For example, if I changed from a fairly large diameter classical guitar string (I use DAddario extra hard tension strings with great success on my Bart Reiter Grand Concert) to steel strings, the grooves in the nut are too large.  To build the nut groove back up, I use super glue, and it works fine.  See note below on how I do t his.

(In the last of years, I have settled on nylon strings on all of my banjos - so this has not been as much of a problem. Nylon strings are larger diameter and so the real task is making a larger nut groove.  See not below on this.  I am currently using the Daddarios on my Bart Reiter, and Nylguts on the Michael Ramsey, the Jason Mogi, and my own home made banjo.)

Also, since I retune a lot (I play in 6 or 7 different tunings), I tend to wear the nut groove down on the wound string (fourth string). So, on occasion, when I notice a slight buzzing on this string, every couple of years, I have to build this groove back up.

On very rare occasions, I have ended up having to replace a nut that has simply  been used up from changing to different size strings or retuning.  I make my own nuts from ebony scraps that I got from a bow maker. 

If you want to use superglue to build a nut groove back up, I would suggest  buying a cheap nut blank from local store and making nut powder by sanding. Mix the nut powder with a little superglue using a toothpick and put several layers in the groove.  Then, use a nut notch file of the proper width (to match the string width) to get the groove at the right depth.  This process is fairly easy, and makes a very crisp groove that results in a very nice ring.  Also, when filing teh nut groove, the file should be parallel to the peg head, not the fretboard. 

Nut notch files are relatively inexpensive, and can be had from Steward McDonald.  You can order a set, or individually.  If ordering individually, make sure you know the diameter of your string, and order the appropriate width file.

I have found for myself that playing a lot (for dances, busking, and concerts) of old time music can be somewhat wearing on a banjo.  This is especially true for me since I am constantly retuning.  So, there will be a bit if basic maintenance and care. Keeping the nut in proper adjustment is one of the mainttenance tasks. Similarly, cleaning the fretboard once a year also restores tone to the instrument.    See


for ideas on how to do this. I have used lighter fluid on my Bart Reiter with great success and no apparent harm.  Some folks use lemon oil.

Other tasks include taking a vacuum cleaner to the tone ring and around the tension hoop (dust settles in these small spaces), on very rare occasions, and adjusting head tension (I try not to do this unless it is apparent that the sound of my banjo has lost some ring to it).

Because I now am using nylon strings, I rarely have to change strings  as when I used metal strings.

Also, on rare occasions, I clean the metal hardware with a tarnish remover. 

It sounds like a fuss a lot, but really I don't.  I simply play a lot, and like to keep my banjos sounding their best.  I
I just noticed that my geared tuners on my Bart Reiter are not smooth.  I have had this banjo for about 18 years I think.  Maybe time for new tuners. Or perhaps they need some maintenance. I will have to research this.

Dave T. 

Rob MacKillop Says:
Saturday, September 20, 2008 @12:04:35 AM

Much appreciated, Dave! I'll do what you say. Zepp's store are sending me a replacement blank nut, but I might use that for sanding for powder. I'll have to buy nut notch files - not sure what sizes to get...


edavidt Says:
Saturday, September 20, 2008 @3:53:04 PM

You can find the string diamters usually on the envelopes that the strings are packed in.  Purchase nut files that match these, or only very slighly exceed these dimensions. 

Here is the tool I am referring to:


There may be a supplier on your side of the water that is easier to access.

Cheers.  Dave T. 

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