Tips for intermediate bluegrass banjo players


     Do you suffer from that scratchy thumb pick noise? I have tried innumerable ways over many years to rid my picking of that scratching sound from the thumbpick and after much trial and error, I think I have arrived at a solution: Keep a stick of lip balm in your case and rub a tiny bit into the blade of the pick as needed to immediately eliminate the scratchy sound. Of course, it helps if the strings are also rubbed clean and free of oxidation and debris. This little trick will work on the metal finger picks also. It lubricates and speeds the attack of the picks on the strings and the fix can last for almost an hour of picking. It works!

  Ben's Personal Tab Collection::One Hundred Essential Bluegrass Banjo Solos    not for beginners)

    Are you having trouble getting a decent tone from your banjo lately, and yet you are not sure what the culprit is? Have you considered whether the head has gone bad and needs replacement? Many experienced players will agree that occasionally a head that is old, say 5 or 10 years, can lose it’s optimal sonic properties. It can sound glassy, perhaps missing some low and mid-range  frequencies necessary for good, wholesome tone. Of course, not all heads will go bad and perhaps more than half continue to sound just fine even after 10 or more years. But I have had several die on me, making an otherwise nice banjo sound terrible, and a simple replacement brings the banjo back to life and solves what seemed to be a mysterious tone problem. Keep in mind that it can sometimes take the head a few months to settle in and sound optimal. Any of the major banjo dealers can recommend which type to get. Next month: The $64,000 question: How tight to make the head.


     Last month’s tip suggested that an old head that has gone bad can be the culprit for bad banjo tone, and therefore one should consider replacing a head on a sour sounding instrument. Most Mastertone-style banjos will do well with a “medium crown” head.  You will not have to remove the neck in order to replace the head. Take off the old head by loosening the bracket hook nuts with the wrench that came with the banjo, and remove the tension hoop and old head. With the new head on and the hoop in place, tighten the hook nuts gradually around the pot in a staggered pattern so the head gets pulled down evenly all around on the tone ring. Remember that the new head will need time to settle in, so you should wait a day or two and retighten it one or two more times, turning the nuts about one eighth of a turn each time. You can check it a week later, then a month or two later and then one or two times a year after that. How tight should it be? Recently there has been the availability of gadgets like drum dials and torque wrenches, and much talk about “tuning the head” to a particular pitch. I think I have a pretty good ear but darn it, after playing for 40 years I still can’t hear the pitch when you tap on a banjo head and so I have never been able to “tune” the head. I believe that many experienced players still tighten the head the old fashioned way: by feel, and listening for their preferred banjo tone. IMHO, this is still the best way to do it. You can also develop a feel for how loose or tight a head is by pushing down on the head near the bridge. The tighter the head is, the brighter the tone. Obviously, too much tightening will split the head, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to develop a feel for the proper torque on the wrench. My personal preference is for a very bright sound, so I make it pretty tight. Remember, a replacement head can take a few months to settle in, so be patient and good tone will be restored.


      Want to increase the life of your stings? Dirty, oxidized strings can be almost impossible to tune, and careful routine cleaning will help keep them tunable and will easily double or triple their useful life. At the end of every jam or practice session or set, rub down the entire surface of each string individually with a dry chamois cloth. (You can get a chamois cloth in any auto parts store. It is a very soft leather and used to buff car finishes. It is also good for cleaning and buffing the wood finish of your musical instruments.) Surround the entire string with the chamois and rub up and down the full length of the string a few times, cleaning off the grime. (Just cleaning the outward-facing side of the string by rubbing along the face of the fingerboard is not sufficient) Take a look at what’s left in the chamois. The black oxidation and dirt, if left on the string, can kill its brightness after just one sweaty picking session. After cleaning, keep the banjo stored dry in the case until next time. Cleaning this way will extend the life of your strings many times over..

  Ben's Personal Tab Collection::One Hundred Essential Bluegrass Banjo Solos    not for beginners)

     Here’s a tip about bridges: I buy the inexpensive kind, a few at a time(about three bucks apiece with the usual maple bottom and ebony top) and experiment with them till I find one that sounds good. I find that the desired tone usually has little to do with the price or advertised special features. I still have almost every bridge I’ve ever used, about 15 or 20, and switch around between all of them(bridges generally don’t “go bad”.) Sometimes they come from the store a little too thick, causing a bit of a muffled tone, so I sand them down gradually, decreasing the thickness and height as needed. I like them thin in order to increase the brightness of tone but not too thin that they lose their stability. 

Students new to the banjo are unfamiliar with how to position the bridge. In short, there are three methods: 1. fret a string at the twelfth fret. This should be the exact octave pitch to the pitch of the string when played open. If the fretted pitch sounds sharp compared to the octave of the open string, move the bridge towards the tailpiece; if the fretted pitch sounds flat compared to the octave of the open string, move the bridge away from the tailpiece.  2. Measure the distance from the nut to the twelfth fret. This distance should be the same as the distance from that fret to the bridge. 3. Play the harmonic at the twelfth fret(the harmonic is the tone generated when picking the string while lightly touching the string with the flesh of your finger. A bell-like tone will be generated.) The harmonic at the twelfth fret is the octave of the open string pitch. It should match the fretted tone of the string at the twelfth fret. If the fretted pitch sounds sharp compared to the harmonic, move the bridge towards the tailpiece; if the fretted pitch sounds flat compared to the harmonic, move the bridge away from the tailpiece. 

     I have noticed that banjo students usually are unfamiliar with adjusting their banjos. Any good banjo repairperson can certainly can do this for you  on occasion, but  most experienced players are able to do their own basic set up  While I can't get into the details here, and the subject of banjo set up could fill a book, I can briefly set out the sequence of maneuvers for mechanically inclined beginners to start with: 1. Tighten head 2. Make sure the neck is tightened strongly to the rim. 3. Truss rod adjustment to straighten the neck. 4. Choose a bridge with height that allows best action. 6. Put on new strings tuned up to pitch. 5. start picking.



    Having trouble tuning your banjo? The culprit may be that the tuners are not turning smoothly. Try a few drops of machine oil in the various moving parts of the tuner and work it in by rotating the tuner several revolutions. You can take off the tuner's buttons to   get a little better access. Another possible cause for difficulty with tuning is that the strings may be sticking in the slots. The solution may be that the slots also need lubrication. Take the string out of the slot, put a pencil point in the slot and turn it so some graphite dust gets in the slot. This will make the strings slide and stretch more easily.


Five or six years ago I had my main bluegrass banjo entirely refretted. At the time the luthier and I discussed the possibility of using guitar frets instead of standard banjo frets. Having now used guitar frets for about 5 years, I can now strongly recommend this modality for the following two reasons:

First, because they are a little wider, they tend to “catch” your fingers less than the thinner banjo frets and therefore they play a lot smoother and faster as you move up and down the neck. I have found this to be a very noticeable advantage. (Incidently, there is no alteration in the intonation.) Second, because of their mass, they last a lot longer, at least twice as long as banjo frets, before any attention is needed to dress or replace them.

Have any other pickers had this experience?


     For those readers that are new to banjo set-up, here are some basic maneuvers that have a generally predictable effect on tone: For a more plunky, fat, bass-y, tubby sound, do the following: loosen the head, use heavier gauge strings, adjust to higher action, and use a thicker bridge. For a crisper, snappier, thinner tone, do the following: tighten the head, use lighter stings, lower action and a thinner bridge.


Ben's Personal Tab Collection::One Hundred Essential Bluegrass Banjo Solos 


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