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Basic Banjo Setup Fundamentals

Monday, March 27, 2023

Basic Banjo Setup Fundamentals (For Mastertone Style Banjos)

1. Head tension - Start with an A tuned head for maximum response. Adjust from there for personal preference.
2. Bridge - Try a 2.0 gram bridge for maximum response. Go slightly heavier if too crisp. Snuffy Smith New Generation and Sullivan Roasted are good all-around choices. There are others. Correct bridge placement is also crucial. Measure from the nut to the 12th fret and repeat that measurement from the 12th fret to the top of the bridge and add approximately 1/32nd and that should get you in the ballpark. Fine tune from there with harmonics and such.
3. Tailpiece - Presto (no screw) with not too much downward pressure approx 1/4"+ off the head. Let your banjo "breathe". Experiment where yours sounds the best by adjusting the TP up or down. Loosen the strings before adjusting. Don't let a Presto TP rest on the top of the stretcher band. Always leave a gap. Gently bump the back of the TP after adjusting to make sure it's seated properly. 
4. Strings - Try light gauge strings. 9.5-22-13-10-9.5 You might be surprised at how much richer and vibrant the tone can be with lighter gauge strings. More precise and responsive with easier fingering too. You may also find you can lighten up with your right hand.
5. Truss Rod - It's surprising how much slight adjustments to the truss rod can affect the overall tone. A much overlooked setup fundamental. You need a slight forward bow or relief in the neck to allow the strings to vibrate properly. Not too much though or it will cause intonation problems. Tiny adjustments at a time. If you need a lot of bow to keep the strings from buzzing try a higher bridge instead. 2-way truss rods are usually clock-wise to straighten/counter-clockwise to relieve. Single truss rods only straighten one way. 
6. Coordinator Rods - Firmly tighten on the neck side without crushing the wood. Tailpiece side should be just over hand tight. Neutral. There is some wiggle room with this though. Some banjos may need a bit more tweaking but remember anytime you tighten beyond neutral you are warping the rim. Never a good solution long term. 
7- Tone Ring Fit - Probably the most arguable setup opinion of them all. Some say tight, some say slip fit, some say loose. I can only relay my experiences. I've had all kinds of different fitment scenarios and to be honest, it's the last thing to try after all other setup options have been exhausted because it's difficult to do and permanent once you alter the rim. If it sounds good to you as is leave it alone because that's really all that matters. If it doesn't then it's usually due to being overly tight and/or the ring is not seating properly on the top of the rim. That's more important from my experience than how loose it is. Take a little off at a time if that's the case. Use a feeler gauge to check proper seating. If the fit is loose, I've never had great results shimming between the skirt and the rim to tighten it up. It tends to dampen the tone from my experience. I have had sloppy fits that sound great once all the other setup procedures have been done. It's one of those things where as long as you have a decent quality tone ring properly seated on top of the rim a loose fit usually works out quite well. Overly tight usually doesn't. 

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