Here’s a little tip for open back banjo players who are not real keen on using the kinds of inexpensive straps that use a metal or plastic clip hook on the ends. The metal hooks can scratch the banjo and the plastic hooks are weak. The better and usually quite a bit more expensive straps will usually have a leather tab on the end that you wrap around a banjo bracket or hook, double it back on itself and use a couple of “Chicago screws” to attach. These are fine if you want to step up, but even then some folks don’t like keeping the strap on the banjo all the time. Whether it’s the crummy strap hooks you don’t like or the Chicago screws that are time-consuming to attach, D’Addario has a neat little piece that you can use to attach virtually any strap to and remove it easily, any time you like.
I’m talking about the Planet Waves (D’Addario) acoustic strap quick release. It has two parts, one stays looped into a banjo bracket, the other is attached to the strap of your choice. It will lengthen the strap a bit, but it’s easy to quickly attach and release. If you want one on both ends of the strap you’d need two. It’s only $5.95 and although it is intended for guitars and works beautifully on them, other creative applications are perfectly legal! You can see it here: https://beyondguitars.com/product/planet-waves-acoustic-strap-quick-release-daddario-dgs15/
The story of two banjos
Today I finished a banjo rebuild that was years in the making. I posted some pictures of the necks a few weeks ago. One bare, one getting a Tung oil treatment. This banjo was in pretty rough shape with loose and worn frets and binding and pretty scratched up. Obviously it had been used a lot. Today I learned why. Because it’s the good ones that get played! I finally got to play it- and proves this out. It’s a very interesting Rich and Taylor JD Crowe model from 1992, and no serial number.
The story begins in 1992 when Greg Rich, (the very well reputed and well known banjo designer and builder) had recently pulled the Gibson banjo division back from slumping quality single-handedly. He was hired to help them make great banjos again. The “Rich era” Gibsons bring top dollar as they are known for being some of the best Gibson banjos since the epic prewar banjos. After accomplishing this feat, Gibson and he parted ways. The next venture for him was a partnership with the skilled guitar and banjo craftsman Mark Taylor. His father is usually mentioned when talking about Mark, but Mark grew up with a top notch luthier and resonator guitar builder- his dad, Tut Taylor. However in all fairness, Mark’s skills and abilities are known independently of his father’s legacy as he continued building quality Crafters of Tennessee banjos later on.
The new partnership would become known as “Rich and Taylor banjo company”. With The abilities both of these men had, they were sure to produce some outstanding banjos. Rich and Taylor banjos are, in every sense, Gibson copies, and if you think about it, with Greg RIch having redesigned the Gibson banjo line, These could in fact, be called “Greg Rich era Gibson copies”. The designer of the best GIbson banjos since the prewar days was now using his own name on a banjo. What could be better?
I have two Rich and Taylor banjos, and they both were made in the first two weeks of the Rich and Taylor company’s history. I learned this from Mark Taylor who told me about my first acquisition, the JD Crowe model prototype you see below on the left. This was the banjo that as far as Mark knows, was the first one that bore the new company’s name. He said he had made it at his home before they had their shop set up. It was actually a custom build that Greg RIch had promised years prior to the professional player Dennis Caplinger of California. He promised Dennis: “I’ll build you a real banjo” according to Dennis. Before presenting it to him, Greg and Mark took it with them to a show in Texas to demonstrate their work. After all it was their only finished banjo. This is where JD Crowe played it, liked it and ordered another just like it. What was a custom build for Dennis Caplinger, instantly became the JD Crowe signature model prototype banjo, after which all of the others were modeled. Dennis Caplinger also told me a lot about the banjo and its interesting history. (Note that this banjo does not bear the signature block inlay because it became a JD Crowe model after it was made). The only other Rich and Taylor prototype banjo that I know of in existence is rumored to belong to Ron Block (of Allison Krauss and Union Station). Now, about the second banjo I have, below on the right- One of the very first production JD Crowe models made. The story I got is that Greg Rich himself desired this banjo and pulled it out of the first batch set for delivery, and it became his personal banjo for years. It was made to be delivered to a store, but never made it. Apparently with the condition it was in when I acquired it he played it a lot! I have not confirmed the story of this banjo with Greg RIch yet, but I hope to. This story would also explain why it has no serial number on the label, if perhaps, he pulled it out of the batch before the numbers were assigned. Another clue about both of these banjos is their unique headstock badge. Mark Taylor told me that the badges these banjos carry are exceedingly rare. It sports the names Rich & Taylor in script, a kind of a scroll inlay. He said that after the first batch went out the Taylor Guitar company of California complained about their use of the name Taylor. Instead of putting up an argument, the badge was changed to simply, R & T. This is the compromise you see on all of their later banjos. He said that if a banjo sports the original headstock badge, it was made in only about the first two weeks they were in production. The Caplinger banjo was pre-production,
After a few short years the two men parted ways and the company was no more. Today their vintage banjos from the early 1990s are known to be equal in virtually every way to the Greg Rich era Gibson banjos. They share every notable feature; Designer, Greg Rich. Materials, Three ply rock maple rim, Kulesh spin cast and machined tone rings, high grade mahogany, nickel plated brass hoop, pot metal flange, and beautifully executed with skill and precision. The “Greg Rich era Rich and Taylor” I just finished- (I would have rather left in un-restored condition but it wasn’t playable). To repair it, it needed a lot of work and I just didn’t get to it for a couple of years. Now that I can actually play it, I’m amazed at the tone, and it’s one of the loudest mahogany banjos I’ve ever played. And now, it represents an interesting story of a short-lived company that for a brief time- made history building some of the best American banjos of the 20th century.
wood finish for a stringed instrument has to be lacquer. It’s been used for centuries, and it produces a durable, beautiful finish that’s elegant and smooth to the touch. It’s very protective and is flexible enough for a stringed instrument’s requirements.
Glossy lacquer has been the preferred type. The old fashioned lacquer we’re most familiar with is nitrocellulose lacquer. It is a marvelous finish to work with, I love it- and I use it all the time. it gives an absolutely beautiful luster to the wood and is durable and smooth.
Modern day factory based instrument manufacturers often use a newer, UV-cured polyurethane finish that is very tough and looks beautiful. It has the added advantage to the builders for being a very fast cure using ultra violet lamps. The boutique, and custom hand-made instrument makers don’t use this, but stick to nitrocellulose lacquers which are fairly fast air-dry to touch, but still require a lengthy settling in period to prevent what we call “printing”, or leaving your fingerprints pressed into the finish if you’re not patient with it. I like to give it two weeks.
There are players however who prefer something different, and that is to have absolutely no finish at all, on the instrument’s neck. Commonly called a “speed neck”. Banjos, guitars, fiddles and other stringed instruments are now (rather commonly today) offered as either standard or a custom feature on a new instrument. But if it’s not manufactured with it, any instrument can be modified this way; If your instrument has a finish already on the neck, you can simply remove the finish and sand to a smooth bare wood surface. That’s it, you’re done.
Why would someone want to do this? After all, a very smooth, glossy “wet look” lacquer finish is more attractive, and it protects the wood from oils and moisture as well as wear. The problem is, it tends to be a bit “grabby” on the hands. It’s like a kid trying to slide down a dry pool slide.. they get stuck to the slide! The smooth surface has so much direct, flat contact with the skin, it actually adds friction- and friction is what slows your hands down. Friction is how the brakes on your car work. The surface of the brake pads pressed against the steel brake rotor has incredible stopping power. So reducing the friction between your hand and the back of the neck will allow the player to more quickly and easily move his/her hand up and down to reach the frets to play.
I have heard some people say they don’t notice a difference and others say that it makes a huge difference. It is definitely a personal choice. I have given my personal banjo a speed neck job that I really like. For me, it does noticeably reduce friction. On my banjo it started as a solution to a problem. The early 1990s era finish was failing and coming off. Applying new finish over it would only add to the problem. So I did a “speed neck” job on it and it eliminated all of the problems!
Since then I’ve perfected my favorite method of doing a speed neck modification, and it doesn’t matter what type of wood. I like the smoothness of playing a speed neck, but leaving the wood completely bare also has the problem of irregular staining and darkening of the wood and it has a certain roughness, especially with the open grain structure of mahogany. I found a middle ground that for me, is absolutely perfect. And you can do it too- (or pay money for me to do it for you).. either way I think you’ll like it.
I wanted a minimalist finish that is not like lacquer, and I found it in Tung oil, or China wood oil. This is a very old natural wood treatment, a special oil extracted from the nut of the Tung tree. It’s a volatile oil, which means it will evaporate, unlike mineral oil for instance that will sit there as a liquid nearly forever. When it dries, it leaves a very beautiful, fairly durable, and completely natural conditioning on the wood. It does not smell or react like (horrible) Linseed oil, it will not darken with age. It seemed like the way to go for me. I’m glad I did.
Below I have a photograph I took just today from the work bench. My special, vintage Rich and Taylor JD Crowe prototype banjo is on the right. A nearly identical, rare vintage Rich and Taylor JD Crowe #1 production banjo is on the left. This neck on the left is a great example right now because I’m refinishing it, and at this moment in time the old finish is GONE.. bare to the world- so you can really see the contrast of bare wood vs. Tung oil finished!
Observe the neck on the right, the remaining lacquer finish is barely visible at the bottom margin of the picture, and is also seen where it was left at the top, at a line just below the headstock. This is the line between “bare” and lacquered wood. The lacquered finish has an orange-ish color, and the entire mid section of the neck is treated with the marvelous Tung oil. Right now I’m giving it a couple of Tung oil coats after about 7 years with the first treatment. It does require a little touch up like this now and then, but it lasts pretty well. 7 years in my case when I began feeling the grain again.
The Rich and Taylor neck on the left is being restored. I purchased this banjo as it has an interesting history, it was once owned by a pretty famous guy in the banjo world, and I’m checking with him on this story before I post his name. But let’s just say this banjo was well used. The finish had pretty much given up the ghost. It was badly chipped and cracked and the frets were worn out- It had all the signs of being on the road on tour- but the wood is excellent, and it just needed some help. So right now, you’re essentially looking at a standard “speed neck”, that is, completely bare naked to the world mahogany. For me, I actually don’t like the feel of that bare wood. It always feels too dry for me and it bugs me.
You can see that the Tung oil has added some color, some sheen and some protection to the neck. It also feels very slick. My hands slide over it much faster than the industry standard lacquered finish. And I love it this way. I would recommend this treatment every time!
The drawbacks to Tung oil: It is very slow to dry. You must let each coat sit on the wood wet for about 20 minutes, and wipe off any remaining oil. I usually like to add several coats, at least five or six. Each coat must dry for 24 hours before adding another, in just the same way as the first. So 6 coats of Tung oil takes a minimum of 6 days! And that’s just the application of the product. Add time for removing the old finish (if you’re starting from scratch) There’s the clean up and the space you need to let it dry in peace. After the last application, I like to wait at least a week, preferably two weeks before playing that banjo again. So you must be patient. It is not for anyone wanting instant gratification!
The advantages: It is rather thick, it wipes on very easily without a lot of dripping, it does drip a little. It is not hard on the skin if you touch it. It has a very pleasing odor, it smells very organic. The smell reminds me of cut hay or something nutty or leathery. It is after all extracted from tree nuts. It adds beauty to the wood naturally, darkening it to a very pleasing tone. It prevents the intrusion of skin oil and moisture from your hands. It’s not as durable as lacquer, as you can see I’m re-coating mine after about 7 years- but 7 years to me is still pretty darned good for a finish that has all the advantages it does. It is not a heavy coating. It still feels largely like bare wood, only better.
My plan for the neck on the left: to restore it to the original lacquered finish, using good old fashioned nitrocellulose lacquer, over the orange-like colored stain originally used by Rich and Taylor. Hey I like tradition. But with a speed neck you never say never- I can always change my mind later- You can do it at any time. Just remove the finish and you’re done- But for me, It’s the Tung oil finish all the way! Okay gotta go now.. back into the shop to mix some stain..
The worst things you can do to your guitar-
Without overstating the negative, there are some sneaky enemies to your guitar that you might not have thought about. Sure, crushing it, throwing it off a cliff.. but realistically a little neglect can really mess up a guitar.
Believe it or not humid air is not usually permanently damaging to a guitar. Too much moisture is not particularly good, but overly DRY air can completely destroy it. If you live in climate that is dry (below 30% humidity) at least part of the year, it’s a good idea to keep the guitar in its case, and place a guitar humidifier in there too. Wood is porous and absorbs water. In fact a cellulose sponge is actually made from wood. As the wood shrinks from over-dry conditions, you can only imagine.. the fibers begin to pull away from each other, and from the glues that hold the guitar together. Binding material, pick guards can all become loose, buckled, cracked and broken. If it reaches a critically dry stage, the wood will actually begin to split apart and wrench itself loose from the other parts of the guitar. Basically the guitar will destroy itself. Dry air is considered to be one of the most destructive environments to keep the guitar in, period. I’ve seen guitars kept in overly humid environments become warped and unplayable, looking awful with the top bulging up and the bridge too high. Then the same guitar after it’s had a chance to dry properly fall right back into place and be perfectly fine. Remember, the winter is often the worst time of year, when the moisture in the air outdoors is frozen right out of it and the heat is on. Guitar humidifiers are inexpensive and super simple to use. They contain some type of absorbant material like a clay compound or a piece of spongy material inside. SImply moisten, put it back into its ventilated cover and keep it- and your guitar in the case latched up when you’re not playing it! The ideal moisture level is about 45% RH. Check out my web store I’ve got several types of humidifiers listed there.
A lot of folks have seen wood being bent for furniture construction using steam- and the wood will become flexible as the fibers are coaxed into letting their firm grip loose from one another. The builder forms the wood into its new shape and clamps it until it cools. But it’s not the water that’s actually allowing this to happen, it’s the heat. Steam is an efficient way to deliver heat without the risk of burning, but it’s really only the heat making the wood pliable. The same results are obtained with heating elements and special ovens that heat wood to a temperature of about 150 to 170 degrees F. Wood can be bent into many shapes far from their natural shape so keep your guitars banjos and mandolins OUT OF THE HOT CAR and definitely not in the trunk of a car in the summer time. You never know what kinds of twists, bends and ruin your instrument will be in when you see it next. Remember too, that a steel string guitar has a good 75-80 pounds pull on it from the strings that can persuade the guitar to bend if too hot. And a note to vintage instrument owners: Hide glue is the old glue made from horse and cattle hides and hooves. They used to use it a lot. Some luthiers still use it. It is essentially pure collagen. It’s a hot glue that’s melted in a heated pot and applied hot. It will soften and let go anytime, anywhere, if it gets hot again. Don’t let it.
3. Direct sunlight
Even if the sunlight doesn’t dry the wood too much nor heat the wood to the point it can bend, it can still destroy the finish on a nice instrument. If you keep it out in the open and the sun comes in to strike it, over time the finish can crack, check and discolor. And the wood itself will become discolored from the UV rays. A little playing outdoors is fine, you want to enjoy playing outside but limit its exposure during the long hours you’re not playing it.
4. physical damage
In keeping with all of the other pitfalls, a couple of kids rough housing can fall and crush a guitar. Anything falling, flying or running can destroy your instrument. A heavy banjo will almost certainly break its headstock off if it falls over while on a stand, this is very, very common. All of these things can be mitigated simply by keeping your instrument in its case. This is where it’s safest!
“When do my strings need to be changed”? I get this asked of me quite often.
Because there are a lot of variables with regard to string life it’s something you need to check out yourself. I can’t say two months, a year, or any fixed time but there are easy things you can check that just takes a second. Generally keep in mind that the more often you play, the shorter its calendar life will be. If you play every day for an hour, two, three?… it could be just a week or two. Pro musicians go through strings pretty frequently. But if you just pick it up once in a while, a month or two, maybe more, maybe less. The following tips will help you judge when the strings are getting old.
The enemies of steel instrument strings are primarily chemical attack, physical wear, and metal fatigue.
When you play your guitar, banjo or mandolin your fingers impart a couple of different chemical elements that can attack the metal causing them to corrode. Primarily salt and the acids in your skin. This is why you should keep a clean cloth in your case and simply wipe the strings down all along their length after each session. Wiping it down right away will help remove the chemicals before their compounds have evaporated. Once the salts and acids are left to dry it would require some kind of liquid emulsifier to remove them. Basically, soaps or detergents. But you really don’t want to apply these chemicals to your neck because soaps and detergents are not good for the wood. So a soft cotton cloth is best used right after each time you play.
Checking for corrosion: Often the plain strings will feel rough as you slide a finger along it. The wound strings may not feel rough, but the usual bronze nickel or silver wrap wire will be discolored. You’ll be able to notice this discoloration by comparing the color of the strings where you don’t touch them. This would be between the nut to the tuning peg. If the strings are really very old even this area can become corroded, so if this area doesn’t look shiny it’s likely time to set yourself up with a new set.
To feel for roughness it’s pretty easy to tell. The string should feel very smooth along its length. Pinch the string between your fingers and slide your fingers from near the nut down toward the bridge and back. You will be able to feel the corrosion. Sometimes it’s so bad that you will almost cut your skin. Change the strings!
Wear can cause a roughness also, and corrosion accelerates wear. You may notice by looking very closely with young eyes (I have to use a magnifier). You can actually see thin areas of the string right at the string to fret contact point. Usually you’ll see the most wear and corrosion from the second through fifth frets.
Metal fatigue can’t really be seen but you might notice your instrument not sounding like it used to, or that the strings generally start breaking. If you break a string from normal playing and you question their age, get some new strings.
When changing your strings it’s usually recommended that you don’t change them all at one time. This is because a set of guitar strings exert a constant 75 to 80 pound pull between their mounting points at the bridge and the tuner. The pull does bend the neck, it always does. You will really notice how tuning one string up, especially when changing a string, or when one string has been de-tuned for any reason. Tightening up one string seems to make all the others go flat, or below the correct pitch. This is because when tuning the string up to pitch, the pull on the neck increases, bending the neck forward and shortening the distance from the nut to the saddle. This is normal, to some degree. However a loose guitar neck or an improperly adjusted banjo may allow the neck to pitch forward and back excessively. For most installations or re-tunings I take an average of three passes before I feel the strings are tuned. Each adjustment of any string will affect the others in the opposite way.
The reccomendation is to not take more than half the strings off when changing them. I haven’t always followed this rule but I do admit it’s the way to do it. When you remove a couple of strings take a good look at the fretboard (fingerboard) and it should have a uniform appearance across the wood. A fretboard that’s wearing badly will begin to show what I call “trenching” between the strings. This is caused by fingernails that are too long. Your fingernails may not be quite as hard as ebony or rosewwod but they grow back. The wood never does. So this wear is cumulative. Be sure to keep your fretting hand’s fingernails trimmed short to prevent this.
Something else you may notice is the color of the wood is different in the same way as the trenching. But instead or along with the trenching, the color is just.. different. Striped in a way. This is evidence that the wooden fretboard is way too dry. The best treatment for dry wood is lemon oil. I’ve done this a long time, and I’ve asked a lot of questions but by far, lemon oil is the most recommended treatment for dry wood. You can find this at every home improvement store, every hardware store. I just use regular furniture lemon oil. This is not like a furniture wax that contains lemon oil, don’t use that. It’s a simple bottle of yellow oil that you can dump a little bit onto a rag and then wipe along the fretboard until it looks moist. I like to wait a little while, allowing the oil more time to penetrate, perhaps ten minutes or so, then wipe it off. Like the other chemicals you don’t want it to dry before wiping it off, so don’t wait for hours, like overnight. In this case more is not better. However if the wood looks dry right away it’s likely absorbed the lemon oil like a sponge and you should apply more. After a few minutes use a dry rag or even a paper towel- they work great- and wipe down the moist oil. I haven’t found lemon oil to be deleterious to the strings. In fact it has a mild solvent action that sometimes help remove sticky residues but cannot harm the wood. It’s great stuff. But.. BE CAREFUL with your rags. You might not have heard of spontaneous combustion, but lemon oil will oxidize while on the rag, and the rags can actually burst into flames if they sit in a pile or trash can. So don’t pile oily rags together and walk away. I not only put them right into the outdoor trash can, but I’ll soak them in water before doing that. WIthin the week the trash will be picked up and taken away. Just be careful, and if you ever use linseed oil, remember it is highly self-igniting, so treat Linseed oily rags with great care also.
Oiling the fretboard can help prevent the worst thing that can happen to your guitar, outside of being stepped on by an elephant; I’ll write about that soon.
Your new strings will sound very bright and sparkly when you first put them on and tune them up. I will tune an instrument with three passes. You also may notice they go out of tune, or flat quite a lot so my first two string tuning passes are not finely tuned, but I am trying to apply the tension evenly before the third, and final tune up.
New strings are somewhat “stretchy”, and will tighten only so much before yielding to the stress. Once they are stretched they seem to hold the stretch, even after loosening. They will tune right back up and not stretch again. I am not sure if if you would call this simply “work hardening”, a trait of most metals where they get harder and more brittle the more it is worked, But whatever the actual cause, the strings will settle in over time, and a few tune-ups. Some guitarists will “pre-stretch” their strings. It’s easy to do. Once you have tuned up your instrument use your thumb and forefinger on a string to push out with your thumb and in with your finger in a twisting sort of way to pull an extra bit on the string. Don’t go crazy, just a gentle stretch should do, but you will notice that this will flatten the string right away. Only about two of those gestures and the string is stretched, and it should hold its tuning. The over-bright sound of new strings will mellow out after playing it just a few times. In my opinion this may be due in part to the work hardening of the metal along with contaminants from your hands.
As an experiment I have cleaned used strings in an ultrasonic cleaner and re-installed them on a guitar. This restored a great deal of their “new string brightness”.. But of course it can’t do anything for damage from wear and corrosion.
That’s about it for now. I will touch on other instrument care issues soon!
Have a great day and keep on pickin!
Dave Bloxham, Beyond Guitars
I’m in California, but I sell all over the world. As a small business owner I know it’s an important to pay attention to what’s happening in the musical instruments business locally and from all corners- manufacturers, distributors, customers, even the shipping companies. And I’ve always kept a small but conspicuous presence on E-bay and Reverb so there are several things to pay attention to. Lately things have been changing and it’s forced me to make some people very unhappy, including myself!
It’s practically every day now- I get a request from someone overseas for a quote on shipping to them for an instrument. I specialize in American Folk, Bluegrass and Blues guitars, banjos, mandolins and resonator guitars (Dobros) that are often not easy to find outside of the United States, and in better times I had a small- but welcome piece of the international market. Recently I’ve refused requests from the UK, Australia, Venezuela, Italy, Germany and Japan for guitars and banjos, and just today another request for a Blueridge guitar to be shipped to Hong Kong. Typically this is my horrible response:
“I’m sorry but due to the international restrictions on wood, mother of pearl and other natural materials I am not able to ship overseas. The duty agents are known to confiscate instruments from cargo shipments, Fedex, Mail, and even from passenger plane checked baggage. The only exception seems to be carry-on baggage. I hear that they are holding them indefinitely, and if they ever release the instrument they may levy fees and penalty fines on both the sender and the receiver. E-bay won’t allow me to post a guitar in their international shipping program, If you fly with an instrument check with the authorities first. Unfortunately I cannot ship it to you, but thank you for asking”.
So That’s it. I don’t like it one bit, it’s cutting out the rest of planet earth from my business! I have tried to find a work-around, every bit of information I get only re-confirms the restriction. Recently a person had asked me about sending a banjo to the UK. I got on the phone to Kentucky, and Eric Sullivan offered to make a banjo for us using only synthetic inlays, doing away with mother of pearl, as they are getting prettier and higher in quality and don’t affect tone. Deering banjos has begun making a very small number of special banjos from oak, and they are really good. To me these seem like possible ways to open the world to our products again, but I talked to the US fish and wildlife service and international shipping brokers. They all tell me I’d still need an export license (costly) and pay a fee with every shipment (costly again), plus shoulder the remaining risk if I’ve made a mistake- it can still come back to bite.. All in all, it’s just not practical to even try no matter what wood it is. If the border agent doesn’t recognize oak or any kind of wood, they can hold it. The extra fees alone are deal killers. So it’s all off the table, for now. I can only presume it will get worse, not better. On the flip side, wood imported into the United States has also been under tighter and tighter scrutiny by border and trade agents. You may be familiar with the wood confiscation at the Gibson factory a few years ago. Domestic builders may find the most commonly used woods which are of course imported such as Mahogany, Rosewood and Ebony becoming scarce, unavailable, or even illegal. So far, the supply on these has not be shut off completely but they are watching.
The Conventionof International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) met last year to establish a new restriction on all wood of the Rosewood species groups, requiring wood shipments to have the proper documentation defining their origin. This has also been extended to some Bubinga wood species and Kosso. You might not be familiar with these names but they represent variations and alternatives to traditional rosewood varieties that have been heavily exploited in the past. These include the already banned species of Rosewood of the genus Dalbergia nigra known as Rio, Bahia, or Brazilian Rosewood. This wood has been nearly completely banned from importation with rare exception. I do understand, and it is true- there has been over-cutting of these woods in the past, and it is imperative that they be protected before they are gone. It’s frustrating however when you know that mismanagement and the complete lack of oversight in the past has led to this situation today, and instead of restrictions and regulation, we are faced with a total stoppage.
It’s not all bad news, Back sides and neck wood affect tone, but the most important component is the guitar’s top. Adirondack spruce, a superior tonewood used extensively for guitar tops prior to WWII is available again, after about 70 or more years without it. It really helps a guitar attain that vintage prewar guitar tone more than any other factor I can think of. Plus, some other light woods that are not rare do very well for the tops, such as cedar.
Composite guitars, primarily carbon fiber are not wood, so are exempt. Unfortunately the best ones are very expensive and they sound okay, but not quite like a wooden guitar. To my ear they don’t have the depth and the fine overtones wood gives us. Likely, they will be improved but not many people I know are excited yet about having a carbon fiber guitar. It’s probably something we’ll look into because it’s a new technology. It may be the only guitar I’d be able to export! There is still the neck to consider. I’ve held a composite neck; they weight about 4 times as much as mahogany which surprised me, knowing it’s supposed to be lightweight, but I think it contains a large amount of resin. Most of the composite guitars retain a wooden neck. One thing the composite guitars are, is durable! If you want a wooden guitar, Even in the United States, you might want to put it on your “better sooner than later” list.
At the online store: I thought I’d mention our free shipping feature on the shopping cart had a glitch- and it was failing to cut the shipping charges for a $200.00 (or more) invoice. That is fixed. Now it oddly gives the customer the choice to pay for shipping, or choose free shipping. Please choose free shipping, of course! I don’t know why it does this. Life is strange. We just added a slew of new instruction books and more will be arriving soon. Books ship at a reduced rate. Also a new order of Deering banjo straps is in and are of very high quality, US made, and quite popular. I’ll be posting a banjo strap installation page on the site soon for added convenience.
I want to welcome my new subscribers! we haven’t been doing this long but we are happy that a huge number of new subscribers from all over the world signed up in the last 5 weeks, by the order of 50 to 90 new subscribers every day! Most seem to be in the US but it surprises me how many of you are from Germany and the UK. I know today’s article was not what you wanted to hear. I’ve got a new newsletter in the works and I’ll be sending that out to all subscribers soon. If you’d like me to write about something don’t hesitate to let me know. Subjects I’m working on:
Banjo tone tuning-
what’s new on the workbench-
My new experience as the banjo teacher turned student-
and I’m hammering out some special offers. I’m just as excited as you, to find out what that will be.
Banjo bridge placement.. What’s the mystery? Does a player really need to know this?
Banjos differ from guitars in a number of ways, but one issue guitarists just don’t have is bridge placement. This is because the guitar’s bridge is the support for what is known as the “saddle”. To me, the terms always seemed to be backwards. The banjo’s bridge is what the strings ride on, and on guitars the bridge has a slot for the saddle to sit into and it’s the saddle which the strings ride on. I came to have to just accept what seems to be a conflict of terms, but so be it. A guitar’s saddle is equivalent to the banjo’s bridge. What is really different however is that the saddle of a guitar is fixed, and the bridge of a banjo is moveable. That is, you can place it just about anywhere. The same is true for a number of floating bridge instruments, such as the violin, the mandolin, the cello and bass and many others.Probably the true ancestor of the guitar is the lute. IT has a fixed saddle, and you might notice the term for a guitar repairman is the “luthier”, or lute-maker. It is the knowledge and craftsmanship of the luthier that is required to place the guitar’s bridge and saddle in the exact correct location, since it’s impossible for the player to move it. The banjo bridge is different, and it’s important for the player to know how to find the correct location for the banjo bridge since simply changing strings or the head will often disturb the bridge location. Mandolins also have floating bridges. The descriptions I give here are about banjo bridges, but the mandolin bridge placement procedure is exactly the same.
What happens if my bridge is not in the “correct” spot?
If your banjo bridge is not located correctly, you may be able to tune the banjo to the right notes to start with; but as soon as you begin to fret the strings the game changes and it might sound out of tune. Fretting a string on a particular fret, you would naturally expect to get a different note than played “open”. But this note may be higher or lower in pitch (sharp or flat) than what you would expect to hear. The reason for this is that the frets are placed in very specific places along the length of the string. Yes, the STRING.. And string length has to do with bridge placement. If it’s off, your fretted notes will be out of tune even if the banjo is tuned correctly.
I want to put the bridge over the “sweet spot” of the banjo head. How do I do this?
I have been asked about this. You might have heard the term “sweet spot” when talking about banjo heads. It is true, where the bridge is placed can affect tone. The tone or timbre, is not as critical as pitch. What is of absolute importance is for the instrument to play on the right pitches with each fret used. Otherwise everything sounds, well, pretty bad. So the answer to that question is generally no, the only possibility being that if you are lucky enough for the correct spot to actually be on the “sweet spot” you’ve done it. But the player has no control over this. There is truly only one spot for the bridge and that’s based on pitch.
How do I know if the bridge is too close to the tailpiece or too close to the neck?
The Tailpiece of a banjo is the metal device at the base of the banjo head that anchors the strings. The tailpiece has small hooks or pegs over which the string’s loop is on, holding the string. If the bridge is placed too close to the tailpiece the banjo will sound “flat” that is, the fretted notes will be too low. Conversely if it’s placed too close to the neck joint the fretted notes will be too low, or “flat”.
It’s pretty important for every player to understand why, so I’ll explain this and use some illustrations to help me out.
Death, Taxes, and imperfect intonation.
Intonation is the term used for what we’re talking about here. That is, how all the strings are tuned across the width of the fretboard, string to string, and also how that translates to different chord positions. When you play a stringed instrument you move your (presumably) left hand up and down the neck using different frets on the fretboard. All of the strings are all made differently- Using different gauge wire, and the fourth string is a “wound” string, so their characteristics are all slightly different from one another when they are fretted. It actually begins to get way more complicated than players need to understand, so just keep in mind the strings each behave in very slightly different ways when fretted so keeping each one of them in perfect tune no matter where you fret the strings could be considered virtually impossible. We simply have to do the best we can and accept this reality. It’s easy to become obsessed about it when you realize that not every string is in perfect tune with all the others when you’re playing. Inventions like compensated bridges are available to help out, and I’ll speak about them later- but for now just realize that it’s a fact, like death and taxes. What is the perfect bridge placement for one string may not be perfect for the one next to it and so on, across the fretboard. Using different inversions of chords (same chord, different chord shape somewhere else on the fretboard) makes it even more complicated. It’s not a problem for audiences as long as we set the bridge the best possible way.
Notes, octaves and string length
Okay so here we go.. understanding this is the key to remembering it. That’s the case for me anyway. We are going to find the middle of the strings. Not the physical middle you could measure with a tape measure, but the acoustic middle. What I mean by the “acoustic” middle is going to be very, very near the actual mid point of the string between the nut and the bridge; that is, the free, vibrating part of the string between the nut and the bridge. Half of the string’s original length will produce a note an octave higher than the open (non- fretted) string’s note. So if you tune the third string to a G-note, the fretted mid point would produce a “G” note, an octave higher. In practice, we can actually sense the math with our ears. We perceive the octave to be different, yet in a way, the same note.
Musicians use a standardized fixed frequency of 440 cycles per second (Hz) as their base tuning note, which represents an A note. Everyone in the orchestra tunes to 440 Hz. It is known as “Concert A”. Based on this standardized note, our clip-on tuners, desktop tuners and phone apps also use 440 Hz as the referenced “A” note for tuning up. They usually use the notation “A 440”. Even though the banjo doesn’t use A for any string, it’s still the reference point- So if “A” is defined as 440 Hz, the others are standardized as well.
The music of the western hemisphere is based on scales. Every major scale has 8 notes, and the octave is the 8th note in the scale, doubling the frequency. For instance you can find a concert A at 440 Hz as I mentioned, and the next octave up, “A” will produce a frequency of 880 Hz, exactly double, To double the frequency of a string, you fret it at the 12th fret. Your ear can actually recognize the similarity of these frequencies. Because of how the human ear perceives sound, there are some notes which are not absolutely perfect multiples of the last and they must be adjusted slightly. These slightly adjusted notes are in what is called a “tempered scale”, which I won’t expand on but it just means some notes have to be adjusted just a bit to be perceived as “in tune”. Nevertheless the general idea holds true. The key things to remember: cutting a string’s length in half will double the frequency, and will be an octave higher in pitch than the previous length. For an A note, it will go from 440 to 880 Hz and all notes work this way.
What we’re looking for is the acoustic “middle” of the string to place the bridge. Why the middle? I want to adjust the end of the string?
We need to calibrate our string length by moving the bridge. This will let us place the center of the string over the octave fret, #12. it’s easy to find the acoustic center point, and we use our ears- or an electronic tuner to do it. Here’s the idea behind it:
Moving the bridge relative to the fixed end (nut) will move the string’s mid-point relative to the nut also. It moves by half that distance we moved the bridge. Imagine taking a piece of cotton string and measuring out a length of 20 inches. Fold it in half, and you’ll see the middle of the string will be at ten inches. If we increase the length of the string to 21 inches, the middle of the string will now be at 10-1/2 inches from the end. The mid-point divides the length into two equal parts. The extra inch is divided equally between the left half and the right half. So the mid-point is now half that distance further from the fixed end, or nut. It’s much like marking the middle of a relaxed rubber band, measuring this from one end then stretching the band. The mark will move away from the fixed end- half the distance you’ve pulled it. This is the whole key to understanding bridge placement. They key to remember here is that moving the bridge moves the middle point of the string also, by half the amount we move the bridge.
The 12th fret needs to be exactly at the mid-point of the string. And if our string is too long, the mid-point (on the string) will be past the 12th fret. This in essence puts the 12th fret short of the mid-point, and it will sound flat. If, however, we shorten the string more than we should (move the bridge toward the neck) the fret will be past the mid-point of the string, andthe octavenote we want to hear will sound sharp. What we are doing by locating the bridge then, is carefully locating the mid-point of the string to be right on top of the 12th fret, where it must be- to sound right.
What about all the other frets? I’m just aiming to tune the string on the 12th fret?
Yes you’re just moving the middle of the string to the 12th fret. All the other frets on your instrument are cut into the fretboard by the maker. They used an algorithm to place the fret cuts when the instrument was made. There is nothing we can do to change it, and it seems that they get it right.
My bridge has a tilt to it. (or) My strings have a strange buzzing sound..
Most banjo bridges have a tilt built into them. This is intentional, and the bridge should tilt toward the tailpiece. This is to keep the free vibrating part of the string in contact with the very edge of the bridge closest to the neck. If it’s put on backwards, the edge the string stops against is on the far side of the bridge’s width and it can buzz against this part of the bridge since it’s vibrating over the bridge wood. So if there’s a tilt, put it tilting away from the neck. Keep in mind too, that if- when you tune the banjo it buzzes, try tilting the bridge toward the tailpiece and it can often eliminate the noise. But look at your bridge on a flat surface. Odds are you’ll see it’s already tilting a little bit.
The exact method we use to find the right spot
As I’ve explained, for the bridge to be in the right spot, is wherever it has to be to place the acoustic mid-point of the string right on the 12th fret. It’s like shooting a target from a distance, where we are down at the bridge aiming to put the center of the string in that spot. Think of the rubber band with the mark in the middle. We have to stretch and relax the rubber band from just one end, to get it over that spot. The method is pretty straightforward and we utilize a very interesting phenomenon called harmonics, or “chiming” the string to aid us in finding the point.
Next we’ll be putting our adjustment theory into action.
You’ll be scooting the bridge up and down a little on the head. Be careful, because some bridges are pretty thin and can snap. If you’re careful it likely won’t. In all my life I’ve broken one, and it was a bridge I sanded down to be very thin as an experiment. The bridge can also fall over, and with all that string tension pushing down on them so hard they fall- no, they SLAM over and sound like a gun going off. If you have a straight bridge tipping over probably won’t break it in spite of the huge noise it makes. But relaxing the strings a bit might be needed. Use both hands, squeeze the bridge between the thumb and finger and stabilize it, moving it just a little bit at at time. Try to keep it from slamming over on its side and try to keep if from bending too much. They will bend before they break. So keep an eye on it and straighten it if it starts to bend. And if it seems really difficult, go ahead and loosen the strings somewhat. You do not have to loosen them all the way.
To begin, you should string up the instrument with the bridge in the closest correct approximation you can put it. Normally on a standard banjo it’s somewhere around 4 inches from the bottom of the rim, or the same distance your banjo has from the nut to the 12th fret, the bridge should also be from the 12th fret. For most banjos that’s about 15.5 inches. So just put the bridge up there, be sure the tilt is downward, away from the neck, then tune up the instrument. You’ll need to play a “harmonic” on one string at a time starting with the first string. To do this, place your finger very gently- just touching, but not depressing the string right over the 12th fret. Pick the string and you’ll get a pretty sounding bell-like tone that is an octave above the tuned string note. What you’re doing is forcing the string to vibrate on each side of the center, while the center is almost still. This is the harmonic center of the string, and it will automatically snap to this harmonic even if your finger is a little off of the exact point. This is why it works so well, this note is the natural harmonic point of the string and it is prohibited by the laws of physics to chime incorrectly. Next press the string onto the fretboard at the 12th fret. Compare that note with the harmonic note. Try to hear the pitch change, if it does. You can use an electronic tuner to help out if you can’t tell by ear alone. If the note sharpens when fretted, the center of the string is behind the 12th fret and you need to move the bridge a little bit toward the tailpiece. If it’s flat, the center of the string is past the fret and you need to move the bridge (and the center of the string) back up toward the nut. Do this until the two notes are the same. Do this also with the fourth string and try to move only that end of the bridge, since you know the first string is already good. Then see if the second and third strings are accurate, too. Because of tempering and imperfect intonation you may have to compromise just a little, leaving one a tiny bit sharp and another a tiny bit flat. Just do the best you can. Once the strings ring a harmonic on the same note as fretting on the 12th fret, the bridge is placed.
A quick note:
Most people will tell you that you have to re-tune the banjo every time you move the bridge. I don’t do this. I just continue to compare the notes, whatever they are- Maybe it’s a little flat or sharp, I match the harmonic note and the fretted note and continue adjusting the bridge. Whether the string is tuned back to the original starting note is up to you and it might make it easier for you. It won’t really make any difference if you do or if you don’t re-tune. In other words, The two notes should be the same, even if they are not tuned correctly to standard pitch. You will re-tune when you’re done anyway.
My bridge doesn’t look straight, it’s angled!
Go back over this process at least twice. Moving one end always moves the other a little. Have you noticed that the bridge ended up looking crooked? Here’s another one of those “live with it” notions. It probably won’t be perfectly straight. Guitars of all types have slanted saddles to compensate for intonation differences. You might end up with a bridge in a similar position. Remember we’re just looking for the best compromise between sharp and flat on each string. I’ll often end up with a bridge that looks a bit crooked. Sometimes on a different banjo, or with a different string brand, it will look straight. Let the pitch be your guide and don’t pay any attention to that odd bridge angle. It’s okay.. And not entirely unexpected. I’ll always sight down the string from the tailpiece to see if the bridge is centered left and right also. The third string should come straight out of the tailpiece and straight down the center of the frets.
How Compensated bridges don’t work.. and they do work.. and the problems of intonation
Compensated bridges are one way of attempting to fix the whole angled bridge/intonation/tempered scale problem. I’ve seen many designs from half moon shaped bridges, stair stepped bridges, other odd looking types.. They actually are effective at reducing intonation problems. None of them cure it completely. This is because of the various chord inversions possible, with the tonic note on any given string it’s like trying to nail jello to the wall. But they can, and do help. We have the Golden Gate compensated bridges from Saga and I like them not only for the compensation factor but they also have a very good timbre. I recall the Shubb company many years ago used to have one like that, perhaps Saga bought it from them.. I don’t know, but they do seem to help out. Then there’s the moon bridge. I’ve tried it. It seems to be an improvement too. In essence, they really do the same t hing A curve, or a stair step, the third string is longer than the others. Interestingly both of these bridges seem to have a big effect on one banjo and not seem to do anything to the next. It’s something worth experimenting with if you want to, as long as you never expect things to be perfect. Guitar builders have worked on this problem for ages. Many have individual saddle adjustment devices used to apply a contact point that is adjustable for each string. This is a great idea, you can see many electric guitars with them. They use a screw and bracket to adjust the string length, and there’s at least one, likely more you can purchase for use on an acoustic guitar. To me it’s such a minor thing the slant the guitar luthier built into the bridge when he put the guitar together is okay with me. (But I’m just an old banjo picker and accustomed to imperfection).
That’s about it!
I do hope my concepts have helped you to further understand what we’re trying to do here to put the bridge in the right place. If you have any questions of comments please post them here and we can talk more about it. But most of all, keep on pickin!
We recommend that every player should try out a few different string gauges to find the right gauge for their instrument. There are many variables to consider including scale length, body size and depth, wood species type, and each player’s preferred style and sound. Nobody can judge this better than the player, in spite of what anyone else is saying about it.
Avoid the controversy about string gauges
by experiencing the strings for yourself. (These concepts are valid for all stringed instruments not just guitars). Consider the general ideas behind string gauges:
The sizes can be confusing. There is usually no “heavy” gauge set available for most instruments. Typically you’ll find medium, light and extra light, but there is no standard. Each manufacturer interprets their string set parameters differently. But consider light is usually in the middle, with extra light and medium the lightest and heaviest, respectively.
Always consider the manufacturer’s recommendations. Certain builders have a string gauge in mind which considers the particular tone and construction of their banjos. Goodtime banjos by Deering recommend using light strings on all Goodtime series banjos. The set contains 10, 11, 13, 21 10 gauge strings. Staying close to this gauge is recommended for these particular banjos, no matter what brand you choose.
Heavier gauges are harder to fret, bend and choke, so if you’re experiencing sore fingers you might like to use a lighter string. For a child, sometimes it’s necessary to use a special set of nylon strings made for a standard guitar. We carry these for this reason as they are the easiest to fret of all the types of strings. But as a rule, heavier strings will take more picking/ strumming power to work, too.. so they are considered generally more difficult to play., but they are also considered to be superior to very light strings for tone and power.
Even though lighter strings are definitely easier to play because they fret, bend and choke more easily and are easier on the fingertips, They don’t retain tone well or stay in tune as well, especially if played hard. They have a greater tendency to give you “fret buzz” because their vibration amplitude is so great. This means they vibrate in a larger path (With “more swing to the string” they can bump into frets). To take advantage of their benefits, most new players begin with a light or extra light gauge set until their strength and skill level improves, and upgrade to a heavier string set later. The tone of a very light set will be best when not played too hard.
Shorter scale lengths such as a 12th fret neck joint guitar vs. a 14th fret joint guitar will naturally need less tension to tune, so will bend and choke more easily, This can enable you to use a little heavier string. This is an advantage to a shorter scale length instrument. However a longer one has more frets, a definite range advantage. You can attain the same tension as a shorter necked instrument with lighter strings and the advantages and disadvantages of this as explained above.
Another trait of heavier strings is they have more mass so can vibrate the instrument more, resulting in a louder sound. If you want to play loud try heavier strings.
Lighter strings have less mass and are usually preferred for softer playing as they are not capable of the volume a heavier string produces.
younger players and ladies who might not have very strong hands will often benefit from a lighter gauge string set, they are easier to fret.
Tone tone tone.. every guage just sounds a little different. You have to try them to know what you like. Many casual or intermediate players stick with light gauge as these sets compromise, and share the advantages of both lighter and heavier strings.
If it all seems too confusing, get a light and a medium guage set and try them out. For new players, standard (light) strings work well in most situations.