Banjo Head Tension: You Can Do It
Over the past decade and more, I have enjoyed talking to you all about how to make your banjo sound louder or softer, brighter or warmer, plunky or sparkling, or…you name it!
The beauty of all of this is that we CAN alter the sound of our banjos without even adding anything new. What joy! Given today’s “throw away” mentality, the banjo is a staple. It is rather like when we’re cooking with chicken in our kitchens, all you have to do is add a bit of herbs or a different sauce and voila…a whole new world opens up to our palette. OK…no herbs for the banjos but you get the idea!
Many novice banjo players are hesitant to adjust their banjos in any way. I spoke to one owner who had his banjo for 3 years and had never tightened the head. We hope this article will help you gain the confidence to work on your banjo head tension and find joy and power in the knowledge that YOU CAN DO IT!
BASICS OF HEAD TENSION:
The banjo head typically has a firm tension. For those of you with experience and a great ear, factory recommendations are to tighten it between G and G# on our frosted top heads. What this means is that when you "thump" or "tap" the head, the note you hear is between G and G#. In our setup department, our craftsmen can hear it and they tighten the head by sound. My ears are not that well trained so for those of you who are like me, the G/G# thightness means that the banjo head should give just a little to gentle pressure from our hand and the bridge should definitely look like it is sitting on a flat surface as opposed to resting “down in the valley.” This gives your banjo a bright, sparkling, ringing tone that is what most (but not ALL) people think of when it comes to the sound of a banjo.
The banjo head is held in place by a tension hoop which sits around the perimeter of the banjo head, and anywhere from 16-24 brackets/j-hooks around the edge, held in place by hex nuts at their base. These hooks and nuts are the “tension producers.” When you tighten the hex nut, the hook pulls down on the tension hoop, tightening the head. It is very important, when adjusting your head tension, that you keep the tension even. You can check this by looking at top edge where the head and tension hoop meet. The top edge of the tension hoop and the top edge of the head should be even, regardless of how tight/lose you are going to make it. One side should not be higher than the other or you will have uneven sound vibration.
LOOSENING THE HEAD TENSION:
If you loosen the head tension, your head will not vibrate as readily nor transmit as much energy to the rest of the post assembly (rim, tone ring, head, hooks/nuts, tailpiece, armrest, maybe resonator and flange). This reduction in tension results in a warmer, less bright, plunkier sound. HOW MUCH it changes depends on how much you loosen the head. Do not let the bridge “sink” into the middle of the head. When the bridge sinks, the strings come closer to the frets and you can get buzzing when you play. You may not be able to adjust this out with your coordinator rods. Beyond loosening the head, there are other methods to mute the banjo further. Frailing or Clawhammer style players know these other tricks very well. They realize if you muffle the sound of the head, you create a banjo that is not only less loud but gives you a warm, deep tone with sustain. I have heard of players using foam blocks in the pot assembly, a rolled up rag, a mute on the bridge, and even an old CD with a coating of bubble wrap … you name it.
TIGHTENING THE HEAD TENSION:
If you want to go to the opposite tonal spectrum, tightening the head above G#, say to A, where it is rock hard to the touch. You get a really super bright sound with good note distinction but bass response. You don’t want to go beyond A as the head will be so stiff that it cannot vibrate readily. You will generally hear a sound that is less full, is sharper, or what some people refer to as “tinny.” Tightening the head that can be achieved with a good t-wrench (visit our online store for different sizes) and some patience. Just remember if you are tightening the head to go 1/8 turn on those hex nuts at a time to prevent “popping” or breaking the banjo head.
Check out our maintenance manuals for more good information on head tightening...
WHERE DO YOU GO FROM HERE?
Further sound changes can be achieved by changing the TYPE of banjo head to say a Kevlar or a Renaissance, clear, or flashy prism head.
Read more about these different heads...
Head tension is only one of the elements of banjo setup that can help you change or get the most out of your banjo. The information in this article can be used on ANY banjo from our Goodtime banjo through to the dynamic Banjosaurus! This brief article is just the basics on head tension. I’ll bet you all have some great tips on this topic…send them to us so we can share them with your fellow banjos players!
SEND US YOUR COMMENTS/SUGGESTIONS:
“Tips and Tools” will try to suggest ways to help you enjoy your banjo playing even more. I will draw on the questions you have asked me over time but I would love NEW suggestions from you. Email us at email@example.com with anything you would like me to address regarding the banjo.