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Have you thought about doing a speed neck? Here is a “tweak” you might like!

The most common

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..

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Banjo bridge placement is a common problem. Let’s solve the mystery.

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, and the octave note 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.

Using harmonics

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!

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Tips on choosing a string gauge for your instrument

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.