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Oct 11, 2021 - 8:13:32 AM
22 posts since 7/21/2011

Hello banjo pickers and maybe setup pickers too. With not a lot of setup experience I'm messing with my banjo doing setup using the article below. So I did the measurements at the nut and I have no clearance at the first fret per the directions below. "See article below"
I measured for relief and bridge height and they are good. Looks like action is too low at the nut. Is there any way to just raise action at nut, wouldn't that throw the other measurements off? Any suggestion would be greatly appreciated. Thank you




A Short Guide to Action and Truss Rod Adjustment
I saw a question about action height and truss rod adjustment in another thread and wrote up part of this as a response. /u/bbarlag suggested I put my advice in it's own post, so here it is. I've added some as well.
Action is one of the most important factors for instrument playability. It's a very personal thing but there is a range of "normal" setups that will work well for the average player. One clarification: there are two places we measure action:

ACTION AT THE NUT is the height of the strings above the 1st fret. There is a correct height here. It's not so much personal preference. Too low and the strings will buzz when played open. Too high and the strings will intonate incorrectly. ACTION AT THE NUT IS CORRECT WHEN THERE IS AN ~1/64" GAP BETWEEN THE 1ST FRET AND STRING WHEN THE STRING IS HELD DOWN BETWEEN THE 2ND AND 3RD FRETS. That's about the thickness of a business card or piece of cardstock. Essentially, it should be just small enough that it's there but barely visible. One trick to check is to capo at the 3rd fret so the the string is held down against the 2nd and tap the strings just above the 1st fret. If there is a gap, you'll hear a little click as the string contacts the fret. You want to hear the click but barely be able to see any gap.

ACTION AT THE BRIDGE is the height of the strings at the bridge. We generally measure this by checking the distance between the top of the 12th fret and the bottom of the strings. The rule of thumb is to set it just low enough so the strings don't buzz when you play normally. "NORMAL" ACTION HEIGHT IS ~1/8" BETWEEN THE TOP OF THE 12TH FRET AND THE STRINGS. That's a good starting point, but if you play hard, you'll likely want to set it higher and if you have a lighter touch you may be able to go lower.

Now you know how to check if your is correct. That's the easy part. Let's talk about how you adjust it. I won't address action at the nut in detail here because those adjustments require specialized files to do properly and are easy to screw up if you go too fast. I'll start with some common mistakes.

DO NOT adjust action with head tension. Yes it will have an affect, but head tension has a HUGE affect on tone and should only be adjusted to adjust the tone.

DO NOT adjust action with the truss rod. UNLESS your action is too high because of too much bow in the neck. It's there to control relief (neck bow) which is a very different issue. Abusing it can cause a whole mess of other trouble and screw up your setup in other ways. I'll talk about truss rod adjustment in a bit.

Aside from those, there's not a lot of ways to screw up action adjustment aside from general carelessness. Now let's talk about how to do it properly.

DO use the coordinator rods, but ONLY for fine adjustment. If you have two rods, don't touch the one closest to the head; it's there to keep the pot from deforming too much. The lower rod is the one you want. DO NOT adjust the nuts more than ~1/8" in either direction. That can warp and damage the pot. Ideally, the rods should be set neutral, but they're ok for little tweaks. If your banjo has a single rod, this warning is doubled I'd avoid more than ~16" of adjustment.

DO get a different bridge if your action is totally wrong. You can get bridges of all different heights. This is the best way to get your action into a ballpark range that'll be close enough to adjust with the coordinator rods. This will affect string clearance over the head however, so think about that before going this route. With bridge adjustments, remember that any change in height at the bridge will show half that change at the 12th fret. That is to say if you increase the height of your bridge by 1/8", the action above the 12th fret will increase by 1/16".

DO shim at the heel. You can slip in bits of thin, hard material, like wood veneers, thin metal, or cut up credit cards between the neck and the pot. To raise the action, put it at the end of the heel, away from the neck. To lower the action, put it at the base of the heel nearer to the fingerboard. DO NOT shim against the tension hoop, or if you have to, do it with the head at proper tension. The hoop needs to be able to move freely for the tensioners to work properly.

"But what about truss rods?" you may ask. "What makes them special?" The simple answer is this: THE PURPOSE OF AN ADJUSTABLE TRUSS ROD IS TO ADJUST THE CURVATURE/ BOW/ RELIEF IN THE NECK. When strings vibrate, they move more at the middle than at the ends (duh), and curve out to that point, like a sine wave (approximately). This means that a little bit of relief in the neck is good. It lets overall action be set lower without buzzing. The extent of this bow is dependant, like action at the bridge, on personal play style. If you play hard, you'll probably need more relief than a lighter player. "NORMAL" RELIEF IS ~1/32" BETWEEN THE STRINGS AND 7TH FRET WITH THE STRINGS ARE HELD DOWN AT THE 1ST FRET AND BODY JOINT. That's about the thickness of a credit card.

The easiest way to check this is:

Place a capo at the 1st fret

Hold down the strings at around the body joint. On most banjos this is ~22 fret.

With your free hand, try sliding your ID or credit card between the 7th fret and the strings. If it just fits you're relief is in a good ballpark range.

ALWAYS CHECK RELIEF WITH THE STRINGS AT FULL TENSION AND THE INSTRUMENT IN PLAYING POSITION.
Now that you know how to check neck relief, let's talk about adjusting it. Truss rods are either accessible under covers on the headstock or at the end of the heel. If it's the later, you'll need to remove the neck to adjust it, so unless you're serious about learning setup It's best to leave to a pro. Luckily, most banjos have headstock adjustment. The actual adjustment mechanism is normally either a acorn nut or a hex key socket. The sizes vary between manufacturers, so check that you have the right tools before starting.

For most rods. When looking down the length of the neck with the fingerboard up, TURN CLOCKWISE TO REDUCE RELIEF.

Likewise, TURN COUNTER CLOCKWISE TO AND INCREASE RELIEF.

It's really that simple, with a few caveats.

Go slowly. The full effect of a truss rod adjustment won't set in immediately. The wood will take a while to settle. Get it in the ball park, then give it a day and check again.

If you're taking out a lot of bow, do the rough adjustment with the strings slacked and gently pull the neck back to help it along. The truss rod is a lot better at holding a position than changing it, and using this method will mean it has to do less work leading to faster, larger adjustments.

If you feel unusual resistance when turning the wrench, STOP. A broken rod is a PIA repair. You don't want to deal with it. If you hit resistance but still need to adjust more, take it to a pro. If we mess up we know how to fix it and if it's our mistake we shouldn't charge you.

On that note, don't use a lot if leverage. It'll make it harder to gauge the resistance of the rod.

There's a lot more to say on these subject but I'll stop here. This info should be enough to get you started with adjusting your own instrument. If you think I missed anything, let me know and I'll edit it into my post. If you're ever unsure in the process, check with a reputable luthier.

_

Oct 11, 2021 - 9:55:32 AM
Players Union Member

TLG

USA

1601 posts since 10/11/2004

Hi Robert,
What banjo do you have ? It's going to make a difference.
The above guide is for an average banjo but not all !
Tom

Oct 11, 2021 - 10:06:40 AM

2058 posts since 2/4/2013
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quote:
Originally posted by bobbob4rd

So I did the measurements at the nut and I have no clearance at the first fret per the directions below. "See article below"


Besides there being no one size fits all I've seen a 1/64 inch measurement suggested at the first fret with no strings fretted. I checked a couple of mine and it's about 1/100th inch when fretted at the third. I've never checked this measurement before but then I'm no expert. As long as there's no buzzing and the action is ok I'm happy.

Oct 11, 2021 - 10:27:55 AM
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1649 posts since 2/9/2007

quote:
Originally posted by GrahamHawker
quote:
Originally posted by bobbob4rd

So I did the measurements at the nut and I have no clearance at the first fret per the directions below. "See article below"


Besides there being no one size fits all I've seen a 1/64 inch measurement suggested at the first fret with no strings fretted. I checked a couple of mine and it's about 1/100th inch when fretted at the third. I've never checked this measurement before but then I'm no expert. As long as there's no buzzing and the action is ok I'm happy.


yes.

1/64" is WAY too high-- 10x what it ought to be! If you hold the string down on the 2nd fret, the string should clear the 1st fret by maybe a couple of thousandths, just enough to see light under it, but close enough that you can't fit even the thinnest piece of paper in there. 

Oct 11, 2021 - 10:41:06 AM

9100 posts since 8/28/2013

Raising the string height at the nut will affect the other adjustments, but those effects will be so minimal as to be unnoticeable and basically meaningless. Nut slots can be filled with a superglue and baking soda mixture, then recut to a shallower depth.

However, I'd double check everything before mucking around with the nut. First thing would be to check for a buzz at the 1st fret when playing open strings. Measurements can tell a person a lot, but how the banjo actually responds is the ultimate test. Not all banjos are the same, and may take some deviation from the so-called "normal" in order to play their best.

Oct 11, 2021 - 11:43:06 AM

22 posts since 7/21/2011

I have a Don Reno tim davis model.

Oct 11, 2021 - 1:02:51 PM

252 posts since 8/25/2009

Full Disclosure: I've never needed to adjust the 1st fret action on any of my instruments, so this is completely hypothetical.

The first instrument I ever bought was a cheap guitar on which the owner had lowered the action (too much) by filing down the slots in the bridge. It wasn't worth having a luthier do it right, so I found a then-new thick, white glue (no longer available), applied it to the top of the bridge, and filed six slots in it, to an appropriate depth.

Most of my banjos have dowel sicks, so adjusting the co-rods is out of the question; I would need to go directly to the nut. I see three possibilities:

1) Shim the nut. A thin piece of card-stock (playing card might be good), a sliver of wood, bone, or plastic (old credit card) seems appropriate.

2) Filling in the slots with superglue and baking soda (as suggested above), and carefully recutting them (shallower). I understand welding torch cleaners are just the right size.

3) Turn the nut upside down (or get a new one) and cut a shallower set of slots (using welding torch cleaners). I had a luthier cut a wider set of slots on the other side of the nut for one of my banjos, and it worked just fine.

Oct 13, 2021 - 8:41:09 AM

22 posts since 7/21/2011

quote:
Originally posted by Half Barbaric Twanger

Full Disclosure: I've never needed to adjust the 1st fret action on any of my instruments, so this is completely hypothetical.

The first instrument I ever bought was a cheap guitar on which the owner had lowered the action (too much) by filing down the slots in the bridge. It wasn't worth having a luthier do it right, so I found a then-new thick, white glue (no longer available), applied it to the top of the bridge, and filed six slots in it, to an appropriate depth.

Most of my banjos have dowel sicks, so adjusting the co-rods is out of the question; I would need to go directly to the nut. I see three possibilities:

1) Shim the nut. A thin piece of card-stock (playing card might be good), a sliver of wood, bone, or plastic (old credit card) seems appropriate.

2) Filling in the slots with superglue and baking soda (as suggested above), and carefully recutting them (shallower). I understand welding torch cleaners are just the right size.

3) Turn the nut upside down (or get a new one) and cut a shallower set of slots (using welding torch cleaners). I had a luthier cut a wider set of slots on the other side of the nut for one of my banjos, and it worked just fine.


Is it hard to get the nut up to shim it with a piece of credit card?

Oct 14, 2021 - 6:13:07 AM

75142 posts since 5/9/2007

I maintain a clearance of .011" from top of 1st fret to the bottom of the strings regulated by depth of nut slots.
.015" relief at the 7th fret with strings capoed at 1st fret and fretted at 22nd fret using the 1st string as a straightedg

e and a .015" feeler gauge or banjo string to measure the clearance.

A quick raising of the nut can be accomplished with a piece of a .010" brass feeler gauge blade placed under the nut.

Edited by - steve davis on 10/14/2021 06:19:56

Oct 14, 2021 - 8:58:42 AM

252 posts since 8/25/2009

quote:
Originally posted by bobbob4rd
quote:
Originally posted by Half Barbaric Twanger

Full Disclosure: I've never needed to adjust the 1st fret action on any of my instruments, so this is completely hypothetical.

The first instrument I ever bought was a cheap guitar on which the owner had lowered the action (too much) by filing down the slots in the bridge. It wasn't worth having a luthier do it right, so I found a then-new thick, white glue (no longer available), applied it to the top of the bridge, and filed six slots in it, to an appropriate depth.

Most of my banjos have dowel sicks, so adjusting the co-rods is out of the question; I would need to go directly to the nut. I see three possibilities:

1) Shim the nut. A thin piece of card-stock (playing card might be good), a sliver of wood, bone, or plastic (old credit card) seems appropriate.

2) Filling in the slots with superglue and baking soda (as suggested above), and carefully recutting them (shallower). I understand welding torch cleaners are just the right size.

3) Turn the nut upside down (or get a new one) and cut a shallower set of slots (using welding torch cleaners). I had a luthier cut a wider set of slots on the other side of the nut for one of my banjos, and it worked just fine.


Is it hard to get the nut up to shim it with a piece of credit card?


That depends on how strongly the nut was glued down.  After taking the strings off, I would grasp it (carefully) with a small pair of pliers, and pull on it gently.  If that doesn't work, either go to step 2, or take it to a luthier.  You don't want to  damage the neck, or break the bridge off with half still in the slot.  Whenever I have needed it done, there has been no problem, but we live in an age of superglue sad.

Oct 14, 2021 - 11:24:44 AM

Alex Z

USA

4556 posts since 12/7/2006

"So I did the measurements at the nut and I have no clearance at the first fret per the directions below. "See article below"
I measured for relief and bridge height and they are good. Looks like action is too low at the nut."

Are you getting buzzes on the open strings but not when fretting on the 1st or 2nd frets?

If no buzzes, then the string height at the nut is OK.  If buzzes, then the height needs to come up a tiny bit.

 

(Also, 1/64" ove the first fret is about .016".  This would be a reasonable height IF the string were open --  not fretted between 2nd and 3rd fret.  Could be a typo there.)

Oct 14, 2021 - 11:44:50 AM

2784 posts since 4/16/2003

Is this a relatively new banjo?
Right out of Mr. Davis' shop?

I would think that he sends them out pretty well set up to begin with.
Assuming that to be true, then...
What, specifically, do you take exception to...?

Oct 15, 2021 - 6:18:02 AM
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9100 posts since 8/28/2013

If you do remove the nut (be sure you absolutely need to do it first, as suggested by Alex Z and others). only use a tiny bit of a gluesuch as Titebond when you re-install it. It doesn't take much of anything to hold the nut in place because string down pressure does most of the work. Make it easy in case someone needs to remove the nut in the future.

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