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How to get the Best From Your 1880’s – 1910’s Banjo and Polymer Strings through Bridge Design

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I touched on several key aspects of bridge design that are essential to polymer strings sounding their best in my previous blog entry. I will sum them up briefly here as they are all points that are useful on old Polymer strung banjos too.

  • A two footed bridge is essential to a full focused and loud sounding banjo.

  • A good way to class bridges is by weight. A bridge for polymer strings should weigh less than 1.0 grams.

  • A harder wood on the tip on a bridge is not essential.

A few other choices can help coax the best from an antique banjo

Wood Type

Maple bridges are a good choice of wood for modern banjos, however a softwood bridge will sound well on these early banjos, making them louder and giving a more “Bell-like” tone than maple. This is, I believe, why these banjos were built with very thin pot walls, they were designed to have the softwood bridge installed. I have had great results with Douglas Fir, although other softwoods may be used too.

To Cap it All

I said last time that a dense wood cap such as rosewood or Ebony was unnecessary with polymer strings. This is true with an old banjo too, but if you are buying a bespoke softwood bridge, and you do not wish to re-cut the string slots on an item that costs $20+, they will last longer if it has a very thin cap of Rosewood, as the softwood is so much softer than maple.  If you make your own bridge (which is very rewarding) this is unnecessary as you will have the tools and materials already to hand.

Grain Density

Alas, nothing to do with whiskey. Many bespoke bridge makers use very densely grained maple to make bridges as it is supposed to create a better sounding tone.

With my homemade Douglas fir bridges, I feel I can detect a fuller tone in the mid-range of the notes when using timber with dense, fine grain lines. However banjos of the 1880’s to 1910’s were always described as being piercing and bell like in tone, and I believe that a very slightly more authentic tone can be found with very broad grained softwood, adding what I can only describe as “texture” or “Bite” to treble tones and to slides too.

This is purely my opinion on this latter point and would be very pleased to correspond with players or bridge makers on this matter, whether to agree or disagree, I would like to hear your opinions, on any points I have raised in these articles.

 Also if any collectors of period banjo bridges from the banjos I discuss in this article wish to contact me with any points they feel I have missed or downright disagree with, I would be very grateful for any assistance they can give. I would love to learn from those who have seen the real thing.

 

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Playing Since: 2009
Experience Level: Novice

Bufo Bill has made 1 recent addition to Banjo Hangout 

Occupation: Nerdy-nerdy Dork-dork.

Gender: Male
Age: 39

My Instruments:
My collection is down to three. They are my 1880's English-Made Fretless, "Bullroarer" a Dan Knowles Piccolo Gourd Banjo, and I have a Vega Little Wonder; a vintage 1912/13 pot with an A scale neck by Wyatt Fawley, which I bought on the hangout and has nylon strings. I also have a homemade cigar box guitar with a 5 string banjo neck and a pickup off an old Stratocaster.

Favorite Bands/Musicians:
too many to choose. I like all music styles to some extent.
Banjo-wise my hero is R.D. Lunceford, and I also love the Red-headed Fiddlers recordings on County Records. I am a fan of Rpeek's Youtube videos. George Stoneman on Clawhammer Banjo 1 is pretty much sounding how I want to sound. Any newbies should check out the Rocket Science Banjo e book by the hangout's Oldwoodchuckb - his advice on the basic stroke will set you up well for a life of banjo playing. I'm not much of a player but pretty much everything I do right is down to the books and videos of Woodchuck and Richard Peek
Further afield, the Tony Palmer DVD of Fairport Convention actually made me dance around my living room today. RIP DAVE SWARBRICK.

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Created 6/26/2011
Last Visit 12/10/2019

Born, wasted 29 years, began playing banjo at that point. Still no good at playing, but I can zone out of all the complaints while I'm playing now. Drop in to the Polymer Strings group that I run for loads of links, advice and other info.

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