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Set Up Part 5: Bridge

Monday, August 11, 2014

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.

Height

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. 

Standard vs Compensated

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. 

Why?

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'.

Pricing

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. 

It's Easy--Try It!

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. :)

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I will have been playing banjo for 40 years as of December 2014..gulp, and performing professionally for over 25 years now. I also have over 25 years as a session player and teacher. My band experience covers over (gulp) 50 groups, more than likely. Some of the bands Ive played with include Wyatt Rice and Santa Cruz, Johnny and Jeanette Williams Band, Arnie Solomon Band,The Shady Grove Band,Allegheny Moon, NOTA, Chuck and the Waggin Ears, Rain Check and too many others to name. I also play resonator guitar, transitioning with many bands as a resophonic player, and or banjoist. My musical 'schooling' was playing for Friday and Saturday night dances, playing and jamming at fiddlers conventions, jamming at Festivals, local jam sessions and eventually playing in semi-pro bands and then full time touring. My touring experience covers the North American continent and Europe, playing all major festivals and venues. Im guessing my total gig total is over 5000 at this point. Whew, I am glad to get all that stuff out of the way..lol. This part of the State of North Carolina is 'ground zero' for great music and musicians and I have been blessed to to have been born and raised here. Im also an avid 'contributor' ...that sounds self promoting...I prefer avid 'poster', on the Banjo Hangout. I enjoy helping up and coming pickers, learning new things from others here, listening to the great music being posted here, collaborating with my musical cohorts here, and just being in the midst of such a great banjo website! I try to give back when I can and my "lick Of The Week" video lessons here on the site is one small way to do that I hope. I'm also a long time Luthier/repairman and occasional instrument builder. My dad, Wallace Boulding, was a life long luthier and passed the trade on to me. The name of my shop is "NoteAble Repair and is located in beautiful Mount Airy NC. Most of all, I want to thank God for what talents I have and thanks to Earl Scruggs too. He IS the banjo man. All bluegrass banjoists owe Earl a huge debt of gratitude for his genius and his music. Thanks Earl !

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