(or "The Tenor Banjo That Plays Irish Trad
(or "The Tenor Banjo That A Musician Uses to
Irish Trad Music")
by Bill Black
Updated (sort of) March 2015
Comments, additions, etc. to: firstname.lastname@example.org
While the information contained on the following pages is designed
to make life a little easier for novice Irish traditional banjo
players, it does not pretend to be exhaustive. This publication
consists primarily of ideas that came to mind in response to
queries I had come across in various areas of the Internet. As
such, it might qualify more for a "FAQ" designation than anything
I welcome the comments and criticisms of the musical community,
and will update this material from time to time as worthwhile
suggestions are received.
Thanks to Bob Lusk and Mike Keyes for their input!
I. BANJO TYPES
Banjos come in different shapes and sizes, and are used for
different types of music. Five-string banjos are popular with
bluegrass and old-time players, tenor banjos were the stringed
backup instrument of choice in the early recording days and remain
popular in Dixieland groups, plectrum (= long necked 4 string)
banjos were also backup instruments, tuned mostly C-G-B-D; there
are fretless banjos, and banjo-mandolins, and banjo ukuleles, and
lovely little eight-string tenors called banjoloons (I own the
The banjo of choice for most musicians wishing to use the
instrument for playing Irish traditional music is the tenor banjo.
Tenor banjos come in many shapes and sizes; the most common neck
sizes are either 17- or 19-fret. A tenor banjo can be open-backed
or equipped with a resonator.
The tenor banjo in Irish traditional music is normally played
strictly as a melody instrument; chording is very rare but can be
effective if not overdone. The Irish tenor banjo is most often
tuned to G-D-A-E (bass to treble), one octave below the
corresponding notes on the fiddle or mandolin. You may encounter
other tunings, but the G-D-A-E arrangement is most popular because
it enables the banjo player to play any tunes that a fiddler or
accordion player would be able to play. I'll refer to the G-D-A-E
tuning henceforth as "Irish tuning".
Note that for solo purposes, the original tenor tuning of C-G-D-A
(= up a 4th from G-D-A-E) may be used; Mick Moloney and Gerry
O'Connor both use this tuning from time to time. The higher
pitches of the strings result in a distinctly brighter sound, but
the disadvantage in session playing is the limitation on the notes
in the low end. (I'll refer to C-G-D-A as the "standard" tuning.)
If you have the opportunity to try both tunings, you should take
it and determine which is most suitable to your tastes and style
of playing. Keep in mind, however, that using standard tuning may
require you to make some changes in the way you play certain tunes
("Martin Wynne's #1" or "#2" reels, for example, or "The Bush on
the Hill" jig) that call for notes not playable on your
instrument. It's no big deal because flute and whistle players do
it all the time, but you may not like the jumpy and unnatural
effect of moving between octaves.
I personally prefer the Irish tuning because I like the power of
the heavier strings, but it remains a matter of taste. It should
be pointed out, however, that the fingerings for the two tunings
are totally different - that is, you can't put your finger on the
same string or fret in one tuning and expect to produce the same
note as you would in the other tuning. That's important to keep in
mind: since switching between tunings will quite likely become
harder as your proficiency in a particular tuning increases, you
should decide fairly early in your musical career which tuning
you'll be spending the most time on.
II. BANJO ANATOMY
Here's a list (in no particular order) of the essential bits
and pieces that are found on almost every banjo. I apologize in
advance for jumping around a bit, but trust me - it all makes
This is a long section, so I've included an alphabetical index
in case you want to go directly to a particular topic:
The long piece that supports the strings and the fingerboard;
attached at its lower end to the pot. The peghead that holds the
tuning pegs is at the top, separated from the neck by a slotted
piece of bone or plastic called a nut.
Banjo necks are usually slightly tapered (= they're narrower at
the nut than at the last fret). I'm not sure what if any practical
value this tapering is supposed to have, although in bringing the
strings closer together it may seem to make fingering a little
easier on the "busier" frets between 1 and 7.
The strip of lighter-colored material than runs up the side of the
neck alongside the fingerboard is called binding. Its
purpose is decorative only, although some binding also has
positioning dots that can help you locate a fret. Not all banjos
are fitted with binding.
This is the shaped piece, usually of ebony or rosewood, that
is glued atop the neck and holds the frets (and decorative inlay
The thin metal strips, usually slightly rounded, that cross the
fingerboard in various locations. Tenor banjos have 17 or 19 of
As on other instruments of this type, banjo frets are irregularly
spaced to accommodate the even-tempered scale (we won't go there).
The purpose of the fret is to "stop" the vibrating action of the
string, and thus produce a pitch or musical sound. Most frets
perform this feat admirably, but older banjos may suffer from
frets that are either worn or loose.
An easy way to detect problems that might be too small to see is
by running your fingernail along the fret side to side. If the
nail catches on something, you've got a groove or worn spot. And
if the fret moves in its slot in response to a wee bit of thumb
pressure, it's going to need replacement sooner than later.
Fret issues start small but before they can work into a terminal
condition, the quality of sound produced by your instrument will
be noticeably affected. Fret replacements or adjustments should be
handled by a pro.
Pot or Rim
The round piece attached to the bottom of the neck. It supports
the head. Can be made of solid wood or laminate, and can be
flat-top or arch-top depending on whether the banjo is equipped
with a tone-ring (of which more later).
Pots are frequently "out of round" on older banjos, which won't
mean anything until you try to replace a head (gory details to
Pot diameters vary widely (ditto); the "standard" diameter is
eleven inches. Consider yourself fortunate if your banjo is that
If you hold a (good) banjo up sideways, you'll note that the pot
and the neck are slightly angled with regards to one another. This
neck angle helps maintain the proper string height and allows the
pulling force of the strings to be counteracted. The neck can be
reset if need be, but this is normally a job best left to a pro.
The metal piece at the bottom of the banjo that holds the strings
in place. Can be plain or fancy (some are adjustable). Usually
seated on the tension hoop. Secured to the rim by various
ingenious means that depend on the make of the banjo. Adjustable
tailpieces permit the player to make significant changes in the
string height (above the fingerboard - this distance is also
referred to as "the action"), and can be well worth the few
additional bucks they cost.
Head or Skin
The "membrane" that's stretched across the rim and is responsible
for the banjo's sound production. Can be made of plastic (Mylar)
or calfskin; the decision as to which material you should use
depends on the sound you want to reproduce. I think most of
today's players (except as always for a few die-hards, none of
them Irish as far as I know) prefer the plastic heads for their
weather-resistant qualities, their availability, and their general
Details on tightening or replacing heads can be found in the Banjo
Maintenance section below. WARNING: replacing a head, especially
on an older banjo whose pot may be out of round (i.e., not exactly
circular), can be a gut-wrenching and ultimately unsuccesful
... Or not. Details for an emergency head replacement are below (click here to jump down).
The metal ring that sits on top of the rim and keeps the head
fitted firmly in place. May be notched or grooved; no appreciable
difference in what the banjo sounds like either way. A grooved
tension hoop will fit any banjo, while the notches in a notched
hoop will have to match the number of bracket hooks that your
banjo requires - see next entry.
The round metal hooks that exert the downward pressure on the
tension hoop to ensure that the head stays tight. The number of
hooks varies from banjo to banjo; generally the cheaper the banjo,
the fewer the hooks. The most I've ever seen on one banjo is 28.
The hooks, which are threaded at the bottom, are normally held in
place by means of bracket shoes (the L-shaped pieces that
are bolted to the rim - that's the purpose of those bolts that you
see around the inside of the rim).
Once the hook is in place, a nut is tightened to pull the hook
downward. The hook in turn pulls down the tension hoop, which in
turn acts upon the head ... the short version of all this: to
tighten the head, you tighten the nuts. Particulars of this
routine procedure are provided in the Maintenance section of this
document. Click here if you want to jump
You should note that there are some types of banjo that have a
different arrangement for maintaining the pressure on the head
involving what is referred to as "top tension". In this setup, the
bracket hooks pass through the rim, and are threaded into, not
through, the bracket shoes below. The hooks tighten from the hoop
down - unfortunately you need a special tool to manage this
properly, since the square tops of the hooks are not easy to
maneuver with any kind of normal wrench (and if your banjo has a
hoop that includes a built-in armrest, it's even harder to get at
the tops of the hooks because they're almost countersunk into that
part of the hoop).
I was given a tightening tool by a kindly repair person a number
of years ago, but I have no idea where you'd locate one these
days. (And a recent query to the banjo user group on the Internet
didn't help either.) STOP PRESS: I have been advised that this
"mystery tool" is nothing more exotic than a wrench for tightening
drum heads, which means it should be available at any drum supply
source or large music store.
These are two systems for keeping the pot attached securely to the
neck. They are readily visible when you turn your banjo face down.
The dowel stick is a solid piece of wood that is either
glued to or bolted to the neck and bolted to the inside of the
rim, while the coordinator rods are thin metal rods that
perform the same function (and have the added virtue of being
adjustable so that the neck angle can be changed). Most dowel
sticks have a brace arrangement at the end closest to the neck
that allows for a degree of flexibility in adjusting the neck
Perhaps this is the place to mention that serious adjustments to a
banjo's neck angle should be left to a professional. This is
particularly true if the string action suddenly changes on its own
- it could be a symptom of a bigger problem that you really
shouldn't be dealing with on your own.
The piece of wood - usually maple, occasionally with a layer of
ebony on top - that holds the strings away from the surface of the
head as they cross between the tailpiece and the fingerboard. The
bridge is responsible for transferring the string vibrations to
the head, so bridge configuration (and there are several) has a
profound effect on a banjo's sound.
Like the nut at the top of the fingerboard, the bridge is slotted
to keep the strings evenly spaced as they cross. The height of the
bridge has a direct relationship to the action: normally the
higher the bridge, the higher the action. A bridge height can be
reduced for a more comfortable feel (see the section on
maintenance below), and also because excessive distance between
the string and the fingerboard can lead to intonation problems (=
the note you expect to hear just doesn't sound right, you can't
play scales that sound any good, etc.).
The placement of the bridge on the head (i.e., its position along
the diameter running between the end of the neck and the
tailpiece) is very important to the proper intonation of the
Click here to go directly to the discussion of
The thin piece of bone or bone-like material between the
fingerboard and the peghead. It is slotted to allow the strings to
be seated securely as they cross towards the tuning pegs. On
better banjos it is glued to the top of the fingerboard.
This is a shallow bowl-shaped piece - usually but not always of
wood - that is attached to the back of the rim on some banjos to
enhance the sound. Resonators come in all shapes and sizes - most
are slightly curved, some are flat, some are "fitted" into the rim
while others are held in place by screws, etc. etc. Five-string
banjos, and some vintage tenor banjos, were never equipped with
resonators, but with the use of a stock resonator from a catalog
and the appropriate hardware, almost any banjo can be provided
Resonators are removable and can be used at the player's
discretion. I like them for session playing, but if your banjo is
equipped with one and you or (more likely) your fellow musicians
find the sound overwhelming, stick a sock or a washcloth into the
resonator area and the sound will be deadened. A patent mute or
"tone enhancer", available from the supply houses, is more
effective (and a lot more sanitary).
The other option, of course, is to remove the resonator entirely,
a procedure which usually consists of no more than removing a
screw or two (make sure you don't lose the screws).
The metal rim that runs between the side of the pot and the inner
edge of the resonator is called a flange. It may be a solid piece
(if the resonator is original equipment), or it may be composed of
individual pieces that attach to the bracket hooks. The flange
serves two purposes - first, functional: it supports the hardware
that actually attaches the resonator to the pot, and second,
cosmetic: it covers the space between the pot and the edge of the
resonator that would otherwise be visible. (On some banjos - some
models of Vega, for example - where the resonator attaches from
the back by means of a screw and bracket arrangement to the dowel
stick, the flange serves only the cosmetic purpose.)
Besides cleaning the crud off the flange occasionally, there's
normally not much to concern you about this particular item.
Tuning pegs or tuners
These are the four machines mounted on the peghead that keep the
tension on the strings and enable you to tune them properly. As
you will note, they are inserted upwards through the peghead;
better models are normally anchored in place by means of a
threaded sleeve. The post is the piece on the upper surface of the
peghead that the strings wrap around and through. The string
tension is adjusted by turning the part of the tuner projecting
below the peghead. This motion is then transferred to the post and
the string attached to it.
There are two main types of tuners: the older direct-action friction
tuners and the more popular geared tuners.
Geared tuners - of which planetaries are a sub-species -
enable more precise tuning and eliminate the slippage factor that
occurs with most friction tuners. If you're very lucky in your
choice of banjo, the original friction tuners may work for a
while, but in my experience even the best of them will eventually
have problems dealing with the heavier gauge strings required by
Irish tuning. (The problems will probably take longer to manifest
themselves if you stay with standard tuning, but arrive they
My recommendation is to remove the friction pegs and replace them
with a good set of planetary tuners as soon as possible after
you're sure that it's going to be long-term relationship between
you and your banjo. (Keep the friction pegs somewhere in case you
decide to sell the banjo to a someone who wants them.)
Since the tuners are one of the elements of a banjo that can
actually cause pain and suffering to a player, there are more
details on this subject a little later on. Click
here to jump down.
These are various configurations of metal rim that are fitted
between the top of the rim and the head, and their purpose - as
the name implies - is to enhance the tone. Not all banjos have
The engineers who designed these gizmos really let their
imaginations run wild - some of them have holes, some were fitted
with ball bearings, some are rolled brass, et cetera et cetera.
The tone ring normally sits happily in place doing its job without
much fanfare; the only time you are likely to have any contact
with it is if you have to replace the head for any reason.
However it's important to know if your banjo is equipped with a
tone ring, and if so what type, before you order any heads, since
these come in different heights depending on whether or not they
will have to be fitted over a tone ring. The parts catalogs that
you'll be likely to order from have diagrams that help you through
this little confusion (and if the diagrams don't help, a friendly
customer service rep will).
An optional metal piece that extends out slightly over the head
from the 7 to 9 o'clock position. There are several designs,
usually involving the armrest being secured to a couple of bracket
hooks. As the name implies, it's for resting your picking arm on -
certainly not essential, but an extra that many players like. If
your yoke doesn't have an armrest, you can order one from a
catalog if you're so inclined.
Though technically not a banjo "part", I'll mention the inlay in
passing - that's the decoration on the fingerboard and on the
peghead. It's usually done in mother-of-pearl or abalone on older
Some banjos are quite ornate, some are very plain. Inlay doesn't
affect a banjo's sound but it may affect its price. If you're
lucky enough to have inlay work on your banjo, check it
occasionally as you wipe down the fingerboard. That way you can
catch broken or loose pieces that can be repaired or replaced.
(Catalogs stock a number of these replacement pieces.)
III. WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT STRINGS (& PICKS)
Once you have decided on the banjo of your dreams, you'll have to
decide how you want to string it. As mentioned earlier, the two
most common tunings for a tenor banjo are G-D-A-E and C-G-D-A,
bass to treble (i.e., away from you if you hold the neck in your
I'll repeat what I mentioned earlier: the GDAE tuning is the best
way to go for Irish music. It enables you to play each and every
note that a fiddler or box player can play; the heavier gauge
strings make ornamentations easier; the deeper sound will allow
you to "hold your own" even in the most accordion-heavy of
sessions; it's the natural tuning for a music whose primary keys
are D, G, A minor and major, and E minor.
The CGDA tuning has a long and respectable history in jazz and
popular music - find an old piece of 1920-era sheet music and
first thing you'll notice is the banjo chord fingerings over the
(B) CHOOSING STRINGS
 Packaged Sets
But where CGDA tuning is very well adapted to chords in flat keys,
it is not suited to Irish trad banjo playing, based as it is on
single string playing in non-flat keys. And the idea of having a
banjo able to play in exactly the same scale range as a fiddle or
accordion (i.e., G below the staff to B or C above the staff) make
the use of CGDA tuning a non-starter.
You can't safely tune CGDA strings up to GDAE without snapping
some of them (never a fun experience). Nor can you tune them down
to GDAE without having them feel like linguini.
Some folks - and you know who you are! - keep the CGDA strings on
and capo on the second fret, producing DAEB'. I guess this works
OK if you're not going to be playing any tunes that go lower than
D, but why bother? With the treble-y sound that results from this
tuning, you might as well be playing a ukulele (and - as Seinfeld
once said in another context - there's nothing wrong with that!)
The practical point of all this is to warn novice Irish trad
players against spending a lot of money on packaged sets of tenor
banjo strings. These sets are likely to be CGDA unless they
specify "Irish" or "Celtic" somewhere on the label. Over the years
string makers have picked up on this, and GDAE sets are easy
enough to find online (if not necessarily in your local music
store). Typing "Irish tenor banjo strings" in your search engine
of choice will take you to any number of places where you can buy
But let's say that you're stuck with twenty sets of CGDA strings
that Aunt Minnie gave you after Uncle Bert passed away. Of course
you can't possibly dump them and break Aunt Minnie's heart, so
what you - the good nephew or niece who plays Irish trad banjo -
can do with Uncle Bert's legacy is the following:
- discard the A string; it's too thin to help and Aunt Minnie
- use Uncle Bert's C, G, and D strings as your third, second, and
first strings respectively. If they're not 78 years old, they
should be able to stand being tuned up a step to D, A, and E.
- add a G ~.040 fourth string from some other source. Voila: GDAE
tuning (and a happy Aunt Minnie)!
By the way: the bright lads and lassies out there - I was once one
of you! - who know that mandolins are also tuned GDAE might figure
that buying a set of mandolin strings is an easy fix to all this.
After all, it's the same tuning, even the smallest music stores
stock mandolin sets, and hey - you get two sets for the price of
one. Can't miss, right?
Clever but wrong: while the notes are the same, they're an octave
apart. Mandolin strings are made for mandolin scale lengths, and
can't be adapted for use on a one-octave-lower tenor banjo
(presuming that they would even reach from the banjo tailpiece to
the peghead, which they probably wouldn't, even on a short-neck
But here's a variation on that idea which will work:
GHS, John Pearse, and other companies also manufacture octave
mandolin sets that are available from catalogs or online. These
are intended for GDAE tuning, so it's no coincidence that the
string gauges of these sets come very very close to the gauges I
mention above (.012 - .020 - .032 - .040 or thereabouts), meaning
that octave mandolin strings are perfect for use as banjo strings
Take into account the fact that they are all loop-ended (even the
heavier gauges), and the fact that you're basically getting eight
strings for the price of four (well, more or less!), and you can
begin to understand why I have a few packages of these babies in
my string drawer (naturally they also work fine at the task for
which the makers intended them, i.e. stringing octave mandolins).
 Guitar Strings: Yes, No, Maybe?
For most of my banjo playing career, the world of banjo strings
has been a CGDA world, and as a result I had no option but to
purchase and use guitar strings of the appropriate gauges to
produce the feel and sound that I wanted. There was generally no
problem with this, since even the smallest neighborhood music shop
generally keeps a few loose strings around, so that it was usually
not necessary to buy whole sets of guitar strings to get the right
Although this method of securing a supply of strings to fit your
banjo may be obsolete in today's Internet world, there still may
be times - emergencies mostly - when you'll have no choice but to
purchase and use guitar strings on your banjo. This is perfectly
OK, nothing to be ashamed of, but there are a few things you
should keep in mind - one is the string gauge and the other is the
string end. Stay tuned!
 String Gauges
Whether you're buying your strings in packages or individually,
it's good to know a little about the diameter of the strings
you'll be using. This dimension is referred to as the string
My personal choice of string gauges for GDAE Irish tuning
are as follows:
E = .012 to .014
A = .020 to .022 (wound)
D = .030 to .032;
G = .042 to .045.
The matter of preferred gauges has a subjective element - how does
the string actually feel as you play it? - which is why I
emphasize the word "personal" in this discussion. Some players
like the heavier gauges, some like the lighter. You won't know
which one you like until you try them. But my advice to you would
be not to stray too far up or down from the gauges suggested
Nickel wound or phosphor bronze I find work equally well, although
I prefer the bright sound of the bronze. I have not tried the
so-called "polyweb" or "nanoweb" strings, nor am I likely to until
the prices come down a heck of a lot (like 80 percent or so).
Silk-and-steel will work in a pinch as well, but their inherent
softness doesn't provide max punch for a banjo.
 Loop Ends vs Ball Ends
You probably have noticed that instrument strings come in two
types, depending on how they are intended to attach to a
There are strings that have loops at the end - usually to secure
the string to an external tailpiece such as the one used on
banjoes - and strings that have small brass "balls" at the end,
which are intended for use on saddle-and-pin instruments such as
While a banjo player can utilize guitar strings in an emergency,
the primary difficulty with using such strings - which are all
ball-end and not loop-end - is that most vintage banjo tailpieces
are designed to accommodate only loop ends.
Yes, the little ball can be removed from its restraining loop - by
means of hammer, chisel, vise, pliers or vise-grip, patience, a
steady hand, and a hell of a lot of luck (there might be easier
ways to accomplish this onerous task, but I never ran across one,
although I haven't really checked into the use of lasers). And
after all this, you might find that the now-empty loop is too
small to do any good! (Or - equally likely - that you've actually
broken the loop in your efforts to remove the ball.)
By the time you get finished with this foolishness, you wondered
why the heck you didn't just get a new tailpiece for a few bucks,
one that could handle ball-end as well as loop-end. But maybe
you're a purist who doesn't want to change anything on your banjo
To make a long story short: if your banjo tailpiece can deal with
ball-end strings, then guitar strings are perfectly suitable for
use as banjo strings. If not, make sure you have a few tools
around to get that pesky ball out of the loop (needless to say,
you do this thing before you put the strings in your case!)
If, after all this, you're still interested in experimenting with
individual strings, I'd recommend that if you have the option (= a
reliable source and plenty of disposable income), you should
string with the heavier gauges first. If they feel a little tough
to work with, move to the lighter gauges. Again, it's a matter of
feel, and only you know what feels best to you, so feel free to
experiment. You shouldn't stray too far from the suggested gauges,
however, since strings that vary too much up or down from these
gauges might be difficult to tune.
(C) ATTACHING STRINGS
Once you have selected your strings, getting them on the banjo is
a relatively simple procedure - that is, once you've done it a few
times. Here's the way I do it (standing end is the one that
attaches to the tailpiece, running end is the end that goes around
the tuning pegs):
 Start at the bottom of the banjo and secure the standing end
to the tailpiece. Loop ends should fit easily around the hooks. On
an elderly banjo, a tailpiece hook may be broken or missing, in
which case it's OK to double up (two loops to one hook).
If you're stuck using ball-end strings, the ball should be
securely caught under one or between two of the tailpiece hooks
(some newer tailpieces, not all, even have holes or little knobby
things to accommodate ball-end strings).
Note that with the E and A strings, you might be able to get away
with creating a loop-end from a ball-end by taking the running end
through the hole in the ball. Exact result will depend on how much
"binding" there is near the ball. Result won't be perfect but it
has been known to work in an emergency.
 If you have an adjustable tailpiece, it has an extension that
goes over the lower edge of the head a couple inches towards the
bridge. Thread the running end through whatever holes or notches
there are, and be a little careful here - forcing the string over
a rough edge may shorten its life.
Here's a trick for you folks that own capos - once you have the
standing end properly secured to the tailpiece (you can test this
by giving the standing end a slight tug) and before you start to
work the running end through the pegs, clamp the capo somewhere
around the eighth fret to keep tension on the lower part of the
string. This in turn will keep the standing end in place. That way
you can concentrate on getting the running end taken care of
without having to worry about the standing end coming loose. Once
there's sufficient tension on the string to indicate that the
string is secured at both ends, the capo can come off.
 Don't worry about the bridge for the time being - it doesn't
even have to be on the banjo during the initial stringing process.
 Wrap the running end around the appropriate tuning peg a few
times from the inside (i.e. clockwise for the A and E strings,
counter-clockwise for the G and D strings), then insert it through
the tuner hole (making sure that the coiled part is below the
hole, or else the whole thing will unravel). Ideally you should be
able to remove most of the slack from the string by this wrapping
procedure, especially with the lighter strings.
Some players dispense with the preliminary coiling and put the
running end immediately through the tuner hole. This doesn't
affect the sound but it doesn't leave you with any string to work
with in the event of a break.
 If you're not using the capo trick suggested above: before you
start to tighten, give the bottom part of the string (i.e., the
part over the head) a slight tug to ensure that it's still hooked
onto the tailpiece. Nothing is more frustrating that twisting the
bejayzus out of a tuning peg only to discover that the string
isn't properly secured to the tailpiece - talk about wasted
 Once you're satisfied that the string is secure on the
tailpiece, and you've removed as much slack as you can, you can
start to tighten the tuning peg. You can be as cautious as you
like, but it generally takes a number of healthy turns before the
string approaches its proper tension. Since you'll probably be
tightening with your left hand, you can check the string tension
by keeping your right hand thumb on the string somewhere in the
vicinity of the nut (which can also serve to minimize slack -
remember, slack is your enemy because it might sneak the loop or
ball off the tailpiece!)
Remember: don't tighten all the way until after any bridge
repositioning has taken place.
 Once you're happy with the bridge position and you have a
working tension on the strings, you can start to think about
Some players prefer to let the new strings stretch awhile before
starting the tuning procedure - a good idea but not always
practical for on-the-fly string changes (e.g. five minutes into a
two-hour gig). Some people - the ones with the digital tuners -
set the initial tuning about a half-step higher than normal and
then let the strings gradually ease downwards into concert pitch.
One last item before we move on: a lot of players prefer to keep
the excess string (i.e., the length of string that was first to
pass through the hole in the tuning peg and is now just kind of
hanging around the peghead) on their instrument, usually but not
always wrapped in a coil of some sort. I personally don't like
this idea - I view the loose pieces of string as potentially
dangerous to the eyes (and I wear glasses!) If the idea is to keep
some slack handy in case of a string break, my feeling is that it
would probably be better to keep a few spare strings handy and pop
a fresh one on as necessary, rather than count on using the slack
end of the damaged string.
(D) CORRECT PLACEMENT of the BRIDGE
I won't go into this topic here since it's treated in detail later
in this document. Click here to jump
directly to that discussion.
For now just note that due to the physical laws having to do with
vibration of strings, care must be taken to place the bridge in
exactly the right position on the head, or else you won't stand a
chance of getting the strings to tune properly. (If you're really
hot to know more about the mathematics of all this, consult the
Harvard Dictionary of Music and prepare to have your head spinning
(E) ISSUES WITH STRINGING AN OLDER BANJO
Since the chances are excellent that you'll be working with an
older banjo, here are a few items relevant to stringing them that
should be remembered:
 As I mentioned earlier, the friction tuning pegs found on most
older banjos are at best tired and at worst useless, especially
when they're forced to deal with the heavier-gauge strings of the
Irish tuning. Unless your yoke is a fifteen-thousand-dollar museum
piece, my recommendation would be to get the friction pegs
replaced by good planetary gear pegs as soon as possible.
Replacement units are available from Stewart McDonald and other
catalogs, and the procedure is so simple that even I can do it
(biggest deal may involve enlarging the peg hole to 3/8" to
accommodate the new pegs). If you're too busy maintaining your
stock portfolio to fool around with drills, your local music shop
will be glad to assist.
Fast-breaking news story dept.:
A fellow banjo person who was kind enough to read through the
first draft of this whatever-it-is tells me that "reproduction"
geared tuners are now available that don't require drilling (and
hence would be perfect for the fifteen-thousand-dollar museum
piece referred to above).
You can save the old pegs for sentimental value if you have a lot
of room in your hope chest, but I'll bet dollars to doughnuts you
never give them another thought once you've got the new ones on.
(The old pegs are worth saving too if the banjo is an expensive
one that might have resale value as a collector's item.)
 Another important thing to remember when re-stringing an older
banjo is the likelihood that the string slots on the bridge and
the nut will have to be enlarged to accommodate the heavier-gauge
strings you'll probably be using. (This problem won't arise if you
insist on using standard CGDA tenor strings.)
A fine-toothed saw and a small round file can be good investments
for this purpose. The idea is to enlarge the respective slots just
enough so that the new heavier strings sit comfortably in them
("comfortably" in this case meaning that a minimum amount of
string should be above the plane of the nut or the bridge).
Ending a discussion of strings with a brief mention of picks
(plectrums to some of you, plectra to us classical
scholars) seems like a good idea, so here goes:
Use whatever size and gauge makes you happy. (And remember if you
use the same pick for a long period of time, it will probably get
a little raggedy along the working edges, a situation that an
emery board or metal nail file can deal with nicely.)
I use nylon picks home-made by the late Jimmy Kelly of Boston (God
rest his kind soul) that are far and away the best banjo picks
I've ever come across. Undoubtedly you have made (or will be
making) your own choice, so go with it and stay happy!
IV. BANJO MAINTENANCE
In general, banjos (like lop-eared rabbits) need lots of love but
(unlike lop-eared rabbits) a minimum of care and feeding. Here are
a few items you'll have to attend to from time to time to keep
your banjo happy and hard-working.
(A) TIGHTENING the HEAD
All banjo heads need tightening from time to time - that's a fact
of banjo life, nothing to be ashamed of.
To perform this task, you will need a bracket wrench (a small
t-shaped tool that serves no other purpose than to tighten banjo
bracket nuts). I have used nut drivers and small box wrenches on
occasion, but these tools may scratch the surface of the nut, so a
bracket wrench would be a good investment. Make sure however that
it fits the nuts that go with your hooks - as with most banjo
parts, the nuts (annoyingly) come in various sizes. 1/4" and 3/8"
seem to be the most common.
Since even a plastic head can be sensitive to rough handling, the
tightening procedure should be performed carefully.
 Don't over-tighten the nuts. (If you hear squeaking, that
horrible sound that indicates you're in danger of stripping the
thread, stop immediately.) Tighten them until you're satisfied
with the feel - I know that's very subjective, but you'll
understand what I mean the first time you try it.
When you've tightened them all, go back and give one final
thumb-nudge just to make sure.
 To avoid damaging the head, you should partially tighten two
or three nuts, then go across the banjo and do the same to their
opposite numbers, back and forth until they're all finger
tightened. If the banjo head were a clock, you'd start off
tightening 1,2,3, then do 7,8,9, then back to 4,5,6, then finally
10,11,12 (the order isn't important). That way the pressure on the
head is balanced. (The final tightening need not follow this
As with most human endeavors, there are alternate ways of
accomplishing this goal (for example, tightening the nuts
sequentially instead of in the "star" pattern recommended above -
however this method requires a fairly close monitoring of how the
tension hoop is "balancing" on the head).
(B) REPLACING the HEAD
It may happen that you're faced with the necessity of replacing a
head on your usual banjo or on some little treasure that you've
picked up at a flea market (I'm still talking banjos here, guys).
There are more pleasant tasks than this, believe me, but you still
should know how to do it in case of an emergency.
 What Material?
Banjo heads, especially the 11" standard size, are available in
different materials, each of which produces a different sound:
real skin is "dark", fiberskin is "soft", frosted plastic is
"bright", mylar is "brassy". (All very subjective but you get the
idea.) The same banjo will - not surprisingly - sound totally
different depending on which head material is used.
If you've been playing a banjo with a particular type of head and
you love the sound, it's no-brainer time: replace the old head
with a new one of the same type. If however you have no particular
commitment one way or another and just want to get something on
the banjo so you can play it, my own recommendation would be
frosted plastic for a nice "middle" sound.
The "real calf-skin" vs. "phony everything else" debate has a long
and distinguished pedigree dating to Neolithic times, but in the
end it comes down to personal taste and - equally important -
convenience. I regard real skin players like I regard funeral home
directors - I respect what they do but wouldn't want to be one.
Know what I'm sayin'?
Step two in the replacement planning process is the determination
of the exact - and I mean exact, to 1/16 of an inch - diameter of
the pot. I have never figured out why any banjo maker would think
his product would be improved by the presence of a 10-9/16" pot
(as opposed to the 11" standard), but enough of them did to make
it a problem. (I'm not even sure why 11" is the standard!)
The recommended way to approach this is to take four or five
measurements at different locations across the pot's diameter,
then test your arithmetic skills to come up with an average. Of
course you'll have to measure across the bottom of the pot, which
means that if your banjo is equipped with a resonator, now's the
time to remove it.
If you're lucky and your yoke is in good shape, the measurements
will be consistent no matter where you take them. The sad fact,
however, is that pots do go "out of round" over the years. Even if
it looks OK to your eye, you'll know you have a problem as soon as
you try to put on the head you were so sure was the correct size.
The idea of averaging measurements may succeed, or the pot may be
so out of round that no off-the-shelf head will fit it correctly.
That's the banjo equivalent of a terminal disease, and the only
fix - if you want to keep the banjo - is to buy a new pot, since
even a professional banjo technician would probably not be able to
I'll go into more detail about replacing the pot later on. Click here if you're in a hurry!
 Off with the Old ...
From henceforth we'll operate on the presumption that you have a
new head that will fit snugly on the pot (and that, in ordering
the new head, you finally figured out what all that mumbo-jumbo
about high and low crowns was all about). But first we have to get
the old head off.
The basic procedure is fairly simple and involves loosening the
bracket hooks and removing them from the tension hoop so that you
can work it free of the rim, after which you can remove the old
If the existing head is already defective in some way, you don't
have to worry too much about rotation during the loosening
procedure. If it's still usable, you'd want to be a little more
careful while removing it, which would be a good reason for
employing the "clock" procedure mentioned above.
Also note that you don't have to remove the hooks from the banjo -
you can leave them dangling in their bracket shoes while you work
on the top, but they have a tendency to get in the way sometimes
(and make annoying jingly noises while they're doing so).
Occasionally the pot and the neck are so tightly joined that the
tension hoop or the head won't come off until a space can be made
for removing them. This could be accomplished simply (for example,
by loosening up the brace on the dowel stick), or it may involve
having to loosen the end-bolt, which requires removing the
tailpiece, etc. etc.You won't know until you actually start the
procedure, so just say a Hail Mary (or whatever works in your
belief system) and hope for the best.
If the pot and the neck are still too close to remove the head
easily, you might have to slack off on the coordinator rods or
loosen the bolt on the outside of the pot that holds the dowel
stick in place. Either of these actions should result in
additional space being created between the pot and the neck. If
that doesn't seem to be happening, congratulations - the procedure
has just become complicated enough for you to think of taking the
whole thing to a competent technician who will expect to be paid
for doing the job correctly.
But let's say you lucked out and were able to separate the neck
and the pot enough to feel confident that the old head will come
off. It will probably take a few gentle but determined taps at
spots around the bottom of the head to convince it to relax its
grasp. Since the bottom rim of the head is narrow, using a
slot-head screwdriver to deliver the upward pressure may work
better than tapping directly with a hammer (remember to wrap the
screw-driver head in a piece of cloth to avoid damaging the
surface of the pot).
 ... And On with the New!
Now you're ready to fit the new head on. If you've measured right
and are very very lucky, the new head will nestle snugly onto the
top of the pot and live there happily ever after. You might want
to rub a little vaseline (K-Y jelly works too, I hear) around the
upper lip of the pot to help the new head slide on more easily.
If there's a lot of resistance, you might try tapping lightly on
the rim of the head while it's in position over the pot. (You've
got to be careful with this to avoid separating the "fabric" of
the head from the metal rim.) Here again the "clock" procedure
should help - pressure at 1 followed by pressure at 7, then 11 and
4, etc etc, to ensure that the stubborn head will eventually be
properly seated evenly around the pot.
Whacking away vigorously can only damage the head, so be gentle -
and prepare to back off if it doesn't seem to be working
Once the head is in place, you can replace the tension hoop -
carefully, so as to avoid pulling too much on the seam on the head
where the plastic joins the metal rim. No need to fit anything too
snugly at this point, because the tightening of the bracket hooks
will eventually take care of all that. If there's a quarter-inch
or less between the bottom of the tension hoop and the rim of the
head, you're in good shape.
Again, if you've measured right, the tension hoop should go on
with a minimum of difficulty. But - as mentioned - things can go
wrong, especially with older banjos whose various parts may have
changed shape over the years (not unlike ourselves). Sometimes
rocking the hoop gently from side to side on the head will aid the
fitting process. Hammer taps are dangerous but you might try a few
gentle ones to see if they help. Another trick is to try mounting
the head and the hoop on the pot together, rather than as separate
pieces (I'm not sure why this works, but it does).
(By the way, when you're replacing the tension hoop, MAKE SURE the
large notch goes flush up against the neck or else you'll have
problems with strings touching the hoop and creating a really
interesting noise. Once the main notch is lined up, the other
notches will be more or less where they're supposed to be, but
don't worry about it - they'll move into correct position once the
tightening process begins.)
As soon as the tension hoop is seated snugly on the head - and
you'll be able to tell by seeing how much if any space there is
between the bottom of the hoop and the metal rim of the head - you
can start putting the hooks back, again utilizing the rotation
method to balance the pressure. No need for heavy wrenching at
this point - finger tight is adequate to keep the hooks firmly
seated in their notches or grooves. Once all the hooks are on, you
can begin the (careful) wrench tightening, and you're well on the
way to a successful head replacement! If you've done it correctly,
and if the Banjo Force is with you, you shouldn't have to do it
again for a long time.
 Replacing the Pot
You start out intending to replace a head only to discover that
your pot is so badly out of round that no head will fit it.
But you love the rest of your banjo so much that you decide to
replace the damaged pot with a new one.
You have two alternatives: google "custom banjo parts" and see if
one of the 168,000 returns can make a custom pot with the exact
dimensions of your old one, or ...
Get an off-the-shelf pot from StewMac or one of the other
suppliers. The raw wood will need to have a finish applied, but
otherwise it will be ready to go.
So far so good. But there's a sticky part to all this ...
... namely: the off-the-shelf models are all 11" diameter, and you
can't replace a (e.g.) 10-9/16" original-equipment (OE) pot with
an off-the-shelf 11" model without replacing the OE tension hoop
and OE dowel stick (or coordinator rods). All the OE pot
accessories would be off by 7/16".
Fortunately 11" tension hoops and rods are readily available, and
the dowel stick can always be shimmed out to accommodate the new
pot. But nothing in BanjoWorld comes cheap, so you'd really have
to do a "cost benefit analysis" to see if the value of keeping the
banjo would be worth replacing all that gear (plus labor if you
weren't ready to do it yourself).
(C) PLACING & ADJUSTING THE BRIDGE
The bridge exists in a three-dimensional relationship to a banjo:
its "vertical" position (distance between the top and the bottom
of the rim), its "height" (distance from the top of the bridge to
the sirface of the banjo head), and its "horizontal" position
(relative to the distance between the sides of the rim).
The vertical component can be visualized in terms of "north" and
"south" ("north" being the side of the rim closest to the neck),
while the horizontal component can be viewed as "east" and "west".
Because of the way a banjo produces its sound, the correct
placement of the bridge in all three dimensions is crucial to
achieving a good in-tune sound.
 Vertical Position
The correct vertical positioning of the bridge on the head is not
accidental. It is done according to mathematical rules that date
back to the days of Pythagoras (remember him?), rules which have
to do with harmonics and overtones produced by a vibrating string.
The mathematics need not concern us, but it should be noted that a
misplaced bridge - even by an eighth of an inch either way - can
cause intonation problems that can drive a player crazy. Doing the
placement correctly will help avoid that difficulty.
Despite the complicated math, the rule for placement is an easy
one: the bridge should be placed at a distance from the 12th fret
equal to the distance from the nut to the 12th fret. For example:
if your banjo measures 11" from the nut to the 12th fret, then the
bridge should be positioned on the head 11" from the 12th fret.
To put it mathematically: if A - B is the distance from the nut to
the 12th fret, and B - C is the distance from the 12th fret to the
bridge, then best tuning is achieved when A - B = B - C.
If you've placed the bridge correctly, the note you hear when you
press the string at the 12th fret should be exactly an octave
higher than the sound of the open string. (You might want to use a
tuner for this test if your ear isn't used to working that high.)
A similar test calls for a harmonic on the 12th fret, if you can
handle harmonics (= string lightly touched but not pressed to
fingerboard, producing a bell-like tone).
For whatever reason - degree of tension on the head, string wear,
sunspots - you might find that moving the bridge very slightly
away from the mathematically-correct location - in either
direction - provides a more accurate tuning. Don't be afraid to
experiment - if you get too lost, you can always re-measure and
start at the nut-to-12th fret reference point again.
Once you get the bridge settled, you can use a pencil to make a
small reference mark so that you find the "sweet spot" again in
case you have to move the bridge for any reason.
Note that factors normal in the life of a banjo - being played,
being removed and returned to the case, being bounced around in
the back of your car- can also result in small changes in the
position of the bridge. If you notice any kind of difficulty in
achieving good tuning, check the bridge placement and adjust
Some folks - not yours truly, but what do I know? - will swear on
a stack of interdenominational Bibles that angling the bridge one
way or another will produce a positive effect on intonation. I've
run across this mostly from five-string types, but if you want to
experiment with this on your tenor, be my guest (and if your banjo
life is more full as a result, please let me the details of what
you did and what result you achieved).
 Horizontal Position
Since the bridge will be held in place by the tension of the
strings as they cross its top, there is likely to be little or no
adjustment necessary in the bridge's horizontal position. If the
strings are slightly off-kilter as they run down the fingerboard
to the tailpiece - caused by the fact that the tailpiece is
off-center in relation to the centerline of the fingerboard, not
an uncommon condition in older banjoes - the bridge can be moved
slightly to correct this. No measuring is necessary.
 Bridge Height
The height of the bridge controls:
- how high the strings lie above the head
- the angle of strings to fingerboard
These dimensions are important because of the effect they have on
the intonation of the string, which could be defined as the
ability of the string to produce the proper pitch in both open and
Bridges are usually made of maple and are pretty sturdy, but
occasionally there will be an accident and one will snap. Or
you'll need a new one for the proverbial flea-market special
you've just picked up whose original bridge disappeared years ago.
In either case, you can obtain a bridge easily enough from one of
the catalogs, but it may need some adjusting to feel exactly
We discussed the best placement of the bridge on the head, but
bridge height - how far the top of the bridge is from the surface
of the head - is a consideration as well.
Off-the-shelf bridges come in two heights, 5/8" and 1/2". If you
get a 5/8" bridge and it's too high, you can go down to the 1/2";
conversely, if the 1/2" is too low, you can move up to the 5/8".
The problem arises when the ideal bridge height is somewhere
between the two, or is lower than 1/2" (it will rarely if ever be
higher than 5/8").
I find that the easiest way of lowering a bridge is by rubbing the
bridge's supporting "feet" back and forth across a piece of medium
sandpaper secured on a table top or other flat surface until the
new lowered height is achieved. This method works more slowly than
others, and is better suited to minor adjustments, but has the
benefit of helping to ensure that you don't reduce the height to
the point where the bridge is useless. If you're skilled in the
use of sanding machines or shop tools like the Dremel, you may be
able to speed the sanding process considerably, but the last few
milli-microns (or whatever they are) should still be done by hand.
Another player recommended using a "microplane" a/k/a/ metal
fingernail file, available in the (blushes slightly) "beauty"
section of your local CVS, Walgreen's, Brooks, Sainsbury,
Carrefour, etc etc. (also good for removing the annoyingly sharp
corners of the bridge, or - let's face it - for making your
fingernails look pretty).
Note too that a bridge can also be raised, using shims of some
thin but durable material (balsa wood is good; label tape from a
Dymo embossing machine, an old credit card, etc. work in a pinch)
attached to the bridge pedestals with Elmer's glue or whatever
your adhesive of choice might be.
Shimming is best thought of as an emergency procedure, since it
interposes another layer or layers of material between the bridge
and the head and will thereby affect the sound to some extent, but
it works - and sounds a heck of a lot better than the strings
buzzing against the frets because the action's too low. (And it's
quicker than doing a total neck resetting, which you'll probably
(D) ENLARGING STRING SLOTS ON NUTS AND BRIDGES
As I have already mentioned, the conversion of a banjo whose life
has been spent in CGDA tuning to GDAE tuning involves widening
the"slots" (grooves where the strings sit) to accommodate the
heavier string gauges. These slots are on the nut (= the thin bone
or bone-like piece between the fingerboard and the peghead) and
If your banjo is a high-quality instrument, this job is probably
best left to a professional, who will be equipped with the saws,
files, etc. to do the job correctly. If you have a yard-sale
special whose past and future are of equal unconcern to you, you
can get the job done yourself using a small round file, a
single-edged razor blade or an Exacto knife, and a few emery
boards to clean out the slot after you've widened it.
The goal is to create a rounded groove in which the string can sit
comfortably (= top of string will be at same level as top of nut
or bridge). The slot should not be so wide as to allow the string
to "rattle" as it's vibrating.
Since the slot-widening process in one learned mainly though trial
and error, having a few scrap nuts or bridges around to practice
on would be very handy. Even better is finding a friendly luthier
who will let you watch as he does the job, although he's quite
likely to be using tools that you don't own (and will probably
I guess the easiest way to sum up this situation is to say that if
you possess the interest and skill in doing something like this,
give it a shot, otherwise let a pro take care of it. (If worse
absolutely comes to worse, you can have the nut and bridge
replaced - the parts themselves aren't that costly).
(E) GOOD TO HAVE HANDY
The following is a list of the tools and accessories that I find
handiest for routine banjo maintenance. There's nothing listed
below that you can't find either from a catalog, online, or at
your local hardware store.
Convenient (but not necessary) for tightening the nuts on the
bracket hooks. Come in different sizes (1/4" for Gibsons, 9/32"
for Vegas, 5/16" for most other manufacturers), so make sure you
know what size nuts you have (on your banjo, that is). Box
wrenches, crescent wrenches, and nut drivers will also serve this
purpose. (Speaking of box wrenches, you'll want a 3/8" for
tightening the nuts on the sleeves of machine tuning heads.)
Small slot-head screwdriver
Can't go wrong here! (I've never run across a Phillips head screw
anywhere on a vintage banjo, by the way.) Shorter is better than
longer, and a thinner slot head is preferable. Remember you're not
rebuilding a 1978 Yugo with this tool.
Trillions ... no, zillions of uses. You'll learn to love
them very quickly.
Necessary for trimming string tops and quick removal of old
strings. Doesn't have to be huge unless you're intending to use it
for ball-removal purposes as described above.
Sandpaper (medium and fine grade)
Mainly for adjusting bridge heights as described above, also for
tidying up heads. I also keep a few emery boards around for slot
work (and for smoothing off the edges of picks when they get
hacked up). Remember that whatever you do with the medium grade
sandpaper should be finished up with the fine grade.
Steel wool (fine grade)
Handy for various purposes. Some steel wool comes with a light
coating of oil already on it - avoid that if you can because there
are times (e.g., cleaning the head) when you don't want the oil.
A set of woodworker's files will always come in handy. A tapered
round file is especially useful for shaping and enlarging string
slots in nuts and on bridges. Available from catalog houses.
I find a small paintbrush (1" width is plenty) handy for tidying
up after using steel wool, sandpaper, etc. and for general crud
I have a couple of small C-clamps and a few of those spring clamps
around, and they seem adequate for any repair need I ever had.
I use mine primarily for holding bridges that I'm sanding down or
re-slotting. Also good for maintaining any local pressure, for
example on a neck where a fret needs some help with reseating
(some folks use glue for this job - I don't). If you're working on
a fine piece, remember to cushion the job so that the metal vise
jaws don't damage the wood.
Toothbrush, medium or hard bristle (new or used)
For general cleaning of head, fingerboard, etc. Good for removing
accumulated crud (a/k/a/ "tartar") from around frets.
Rubber- or plastic-headed hammer
Handy for helping change the minds of any pieces that may not wish
to relocate, e.g. a head tight on a rim, a bracket hook stuck in a
shoe, etc. Of course a metal-headed hammer will also serve the
same purpose, but there's a good chance that it will damage the
surface of whatever you're working on unless you're prepared to
cover it in something.
I use this for general tidying-up of wooden surfaces. There are
other liquids out there that will do the same job.
I find one of these very handy for putting a shine on a banjo's
brightwork. Available pretty much anywhere. There are other
polishing cloths around too that serve the same purpose.
A small can of this will come in handy. I avoid sprays like WD40
because they're hard to control in an instrument context (even if
you can find that little red straw that always gets lost).
Elmer's or any white glue is fine for routine repairs. Look at it
this way - any job that requires a stronger adhesive (like
replacing a fingerboard) you probably don't want to do on your own
I like Murphy's Oil Soap and not only because of the name. Good
for removing really meaningful grime from your favorite
Which leads us to ...
V. CLEANING the BANJO
Does a clean banjo play any better than a scuzzy one? Actually
it does, particularly where the strings and the fingerboard are
concerned. Here are some tips for keeping your yoke looking and
(A) The STRINGS
Like anything else that's in contact with the real world, a banjo
can accumulate a certain amount of crud with regular use.
The first place that most people notice the grunge is on the
strings, which spend their working lives being pushed around by
sweaty greasy yucky fingers. To make your strings happier and give
them a longer working life, you should make a habit of wiping down
the strings after each session of playing. Nothing fancy, just a
piece of soft cloth or paper towel, not moistened. Make sure you
get underneath the strings too (you'll be surprised how much
otherwise invisible crud you'll remove). There are also some kits
on the market (e.g., FastFret) that will help clean and lubricate
Some players swear by rubbing alcohol for de-gunking strings,
which is OK as long as it stays on the strings but not OK if too
much of it gets on the fingerboard. Same holds true for
silicone-based material. Problems of this nature can be minimized
by sparing use of the liquid (i.e., no need to drench the cloth),
and also by protecting the fingerboard with a paper towel or
additional cloth as you work on the strings.
It's also effective to rub the strings down lightly with steel
wool; again, the fingerboard should be protected.
Whichever method you decide to use, however, the basic idea of
wiping down the strings (like backing up a hard drive, or flossing
your teeth) remains valuable even if we don't do it as often as we
(B) The FINGERBOARD
Naturally the same glop that adheres so annoyingly to the strings
can be found on the fingerboard as well, especially behind the
frets.There are various cleaning products around that will help
remove it (some folks advise against using any silicone-based
products on a fingerboard - I'm not sure of the reason). If it's
really tenacious, you can rub gently with a piece of very fine
steel wool until the gunk disappears. The steel wool can be used
dry, but you can put a drop of light furniture polish or light
mineral oil on it to brighten up the fingerboard as you clean it
(remember to wipe off any excess liquid that may remain).
Be careful of using steel wool around any inlays that may be loose
- you don't want to break the inlay by catching it on a piece of
wool fiber. (It's not hard to reset the loose inlay piece using
Elmer's glue - just remember to wipe off the excess glue once the
piece is back where it should be. You can clamp it lightly into
place - with a piece of thin wood or cloth between the clamp and
the inlay - and should be good to go within a few hours.)
Another player recommends using naphtha to keep fingerboards
gunk-free. When I expressed horror at the idea of working with
naphtha in the relatively confined space that is my workshop, he
reminded me that I didn't necessarily need a 55-gallon drum of the
stuff - cigarette lighter fuel is naphtha and a few-ounce can of
it is pretty manageable (but ventilation is still something to
keep in mind). According to him, the stuff de-greases and de-gunks
very well and will not affect a finish. I haven't tried it yet but
it certainly sounds reasonable.
(C) The BRIGHTWORK
The bright metal on a banjo (tension hoop, hooks, tailpiece,
flange pieces, armrest, etc.) should be cleaned every so often to
preserve it from rust and corrosion and to ensure that the banjo
looks its best.
There are different methods of accomplishing this: some players
use gun-cleaning cloths or metal-polishing cloths, both of which
have the virtue of being pre-moistened and easy to work with.
Preparations like Brasso will also work, but can be messy. If
there's obvious gunk on the metal (like drops of Guinness, for
example), a gentle rub of some fine steel wool can usually loosen
the offending material without damaging the surface.
(D) The HEAD
Considering what it goes through in the course of its musical
life, it's not unreasonable to expect a banjo head of either type,
plastic or skin, to get a little grimy from time to time. Light
dirt should come off with a damp cloth, but believe it or not, one
of the best ways of cleaning more determined grime from a banjo
head is toothbrush and toothpaste! Don't use a lot of water and
don't worry much about flossing first (joke) - put a dab of
toothpaste on the brush and go after bad old Mr. Dirt. Use a
circular motion, and wipe off with a damp cloth when you're
For more serious grime, you may want to rub the affected area of
the head gently with a piece of fine steel wool or fine sandpaper.
You can also use these materials to smooth out the surface of the
head near the bridge - if you play like I do and support your
right hand with the little finger resting on the head, you may
have had the experience of playing on a new frosted head and
having friction burn all the skin off your little finger (I
actually shed blood on another guy's banjo one time without
Usually two or three minutes' work with the sandpaper or steel
wool will smooth the surface nicely. Your little finger will be
forever grateful. (But keep a few band-aids in your banjo case
Over the course of years a head will usually acquire a bare spot
where fingers have rested or picks have scraped. These bare spots
don't seem to affect the sound, so I usually don't bother with
them (in fact they look kind of salty, "been there done that",
like travel stickers on your luggage - but that's my personal
(E) The WOODWORK
If your banjo gets dull-looking, you might try wiping it with a
cloth or a small paint-brush lightly dipped in lemon oil (don't
apply the oil directly to the banjo). This should brighten the
wood finish noticeably. If the surface is really grimy, you could
try an application of a cleaner like Murphy's Oil Soap - that and
a little elbow grease should suffice; if not, you can always try a
light rubbing with a piece of fine steel wool (this is not
recommended for any area where the finish is important).
Remember always to remove any excess oil or soap from the banjo
when you're finished. (Having a roll of trusty paper towels near
your work area is also highly recommended.)
The following is a very brief list of resources that may be of
assistance to a banjo player, primarily in the area of parts and
I originally created this "helpful hints" website in 1998 or
so. In the intervening years, the Internet - and search engines
like Google - have made the job of locating various supply
houses, repair facilities, and so forth much easier. (A Google
search on "banjo" listed 21,800,000 hits, so the information is
Listed below is a sample of the resources that I have had occasion
to use over the years; it is by no means a complete list, but
rather a point of departure:
(A) SUPPLIERS - DEALERS
Stewart Macdonald [www.stewmac.com, 800.848.2273]
Good all-purpose catalog for banjos and other string instruments.
Selection has been reduced over the years, and you're starting to
see cheesy parts made in China (bracket hooks, for example). But
still an excellent resource, especially for tools. Disclaimer: you
don't really need 93.2% of the stuff they carry, but it's fun to
look at.(Ohio somewhere)
Elderly Instruments [www.elderly.com, 517.372.7890]
Excellent selection of parts (especially weird-sized heads) plus
strings, instruments, books, etc. Printed catalog available.
Music Emporium [www.themusicemporium.com, 617.860.0049]
For instruments, repairs, general expertise (owner's personal
banjo collection is to die for). Nice folks to deal with as well.
Located in the Boston area.
Jim Boyce [www.schoonerflagpoles.com/jcboyceguitar.html;
A first-class luthier (and personal friend) here in the Falmouth
Mass. area. Jim built my banjoloon (8-string tenor banjo) and
handles all aspects of instrument building and repair. Also stocks
other types of string instruments.
Sandy's Music [www.sandysmusic.com, 617.491.2812]
Good all-purpose acoustic music shop in the Boston area. Not
afraid to handle banjos. I haven't dealt with them directly but I
know they come highly recommended.
Bernunzio Vintage Instruments [www.bernunzio.com, 585.473.6140]
When you're ready to move up in quality. These folks buy, sell,
trade and consign vintage guitars, banjos, mandolins, ukuleles and
other stringed instruments. I sold a bunch of banjos to them nine
years ago and was impressed by their straight dealing. Located
in lovely Rochester, NY.
Bulk string suppliers
Web search should reveal loads of them out there - I had some
listed in an earlier edition of this page but that info was
(B) INTERNET SITES RELATING TO BANJOES
There are probably lots more waiting to be revealed by a web
search, but you can start with these:
This is one of the oldest banjo user groups on the Internet. It's
oriented more towards non-Irish playing styles, but occasionally a
valuable discussion will get going. You can view the latest
material by going to Google, clicking on "Groups", and typing in
alt.banjo in the selection box. You have to join the group to post
Frank Nordberg's Irish banjo site.
Mel Bay site; occasionally has an Irish banjo tutorial running but
always has something "Celtic"-related courtesy of Mike Keyes.
A source of "occasional banjo wisdom"; also tunes
All things banjolic (my adjective - ©) and occasional ITM content;
heavy on building and maintaining banjos
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