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Set Up Part 5: Bridge

Monday, August 11, 2014 @9:29:55 AM

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. 

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. 


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. 

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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