Maintaining Tenor Banjo questions?

  1. fingersbill
    Ok, I have a problem. How do I keep my banjo properly set up? I have never worked with a pot so I am not sure if it is functioning although it sounds ok. How do you know when to tighten the head?

  2. chrisblack
    To tighten the head, turn each nut approx 1/8 of a turn, going round in a circle. The bridge should not press the head down too far when the tension is good.

    Most of the advice I have been given on tenor for irish music is to have everything as tight as possible - both the head and the tailpiece.

    However, the best advice I could give though would be to check out the postings on - you'll get loads of good advice there.

  3. Jock
    Every now and then check all the nuts (quite a few on a banjo) that none have come loose. If any have, "a little nip up" should be all thats required.

    The pot assembly nuts will need "a little nip up" from time to time (once a year). If you nip one you need to do all the rest (unless it's just one thats come loose in which case a little nip past finger tight should be all thats required). It's also important not to go too mad on the tightening of these as this will change the sound, which may or may not be a good thing depending on what your trying to achieve, one mans maintenance is anothers tinkering. It could also lead to a damaged head or broken brackets, from over tightening.

    An 8th turn on each nut clockwise starting at 12 O`clock, then 6, then 3 then 9. Once you've taken up these 4 go to the next nut immediately to the right of the tightened nuts at 12, 6, 3 & 9 applying the same amount of torque (8th turn) to each. By going round clockwise 4 nuts, diametrically opposed, at a time you keep the tension even.

    If the banjo is sounding good then I'd just be checking that nothing is coming loose, if it ain't broke don't fix it. If the head is a little loose then take it up an 8th at a time over a few weeks. Be prepared to slack off (an 8th at a time) if you tension past a sweet spot or the brackets start pinging off.

    The trouble with banjo sites is that "quest for Eral's sound" mentality which pervades. After reading some posts on a few of these sites you almost feel the need to reach for a spanner Resist it, reach for a pick instead.
  4. mikeyes

    Setup for Irish tenor banjo is different from setup for a jazz banjo. In addition each banjo maker has a signature sound and each banjo is a little different. If you are unsure of what you are doing, consider taking your tenor banjo to an expert. Assuming you can find one which is not easy unless you live in NYC, San Francisco, or Longview, TX.

    A banjo is just an assemblage of parts but those parts have to go together in an optimal fashion. Once you have reached that place, theoretically you should be able to reproduce it.

    There is a lot to setting up a banjo but most of it is common sense. I have an article here that might help you figure out what to do. There are conflicting opinions as you can already see but many of them are just matters of opinion.

    The business of how you tighten the head, for instance, seems to have two schools of thought. Both are probably correct, but you have to make sure that your tension ring is parallel to the head before you start tightening. If you tighten equally either in the star fashion or around the rim you will achieve your purpose.

    Of course, there are those who say that uneven tension is a good thing. That's the thing about opinions, there are many of them.

    Setup involves a lot of things including head tension, type of strings, type of bridge, tailpiece, pick, type of head, etc. (Those are just the things you can change. Then there is the ring to rim fit, playability factors, etc. that are better left to a luthier.)

    Good luck on your quest. You probably can't do anything to immediately hurt your banjo.

    Mike Keyes
  5. fingersbill
    Thanks everybody!

    Bill Irvin
  6. bmac
    Another thing to mention is pot angle relative to the neck... On modern banjos there is no problem adjusting the pot angle as it can be done with an adjustable wrench. On old banjos with a wooden "dowel stick" connecting the neck to the tailpiece it can be a little more of a problem. But the adjustment is doable and in most cases the dowel stick can be straightened (unless it looks like a corkscrew). Even if it cannot be straightened it can be replaced. I have done it on four mandolin banjos and my tenor banjo (all of which were close to unplayable) and all have improved to very close to perfect so that action can be adjusted with bridge hight.

    If my instruments were valuable collector items I would think twice about doing this myself but since they are all meant to be players, not antiques, I am willing to make this adjustment.

  7. bmac
    Tuning problems with old-style ungeared tuners:

    My old tenor banjo has ungeared tuners and as such they are a nuisance to constantly be adjusting tuner tension with a screw driver, tuning, readjusting tension with screw driver, tuning again and again, etc, etc, etc.... It seemed if the tension screws were loose enough to tighten by hand then they were loose enough for the tuners to slip out of tune in short order.

    In frustration I borrowed my grand daughters' violin rosin and rubbed some on the tuner cones. I found that the rosin helped create additional friction between the cones and the wood. In that way I am able to tune the strings much easier and they don't seem to slip out of tune as easily as before and I can keep the tuner tension screws a bit looser than before. Now I can actually turn all the tuners by hand.

    This may be common knowledge among banjo players with old instruments, but just thought I'd mention it in case others are having difficulties tuning and keeping their old banjos in tune. It seems to work quite well as I can tune it and expect it to stay in tune much longer (without having to tighten the tension screw).

    My apologies if I just re-invented the wheel.

  8. bmac
    Building Bridges

    This may be so obvious it is not worth mentioning but as I work on banjo mandolins and my tenor banjo I often need another bridge of a different hight. I keep a package of ice-cream bar/popsicle sticks as handy as all purpose repair material and can make a bridge in just a few minutes using two sticks as a base and a third stick between them to adjust the hight of the bridge. It takes just a few minutes to build a bridge. Once I get my instrument(s) in proper adjustment I buy, or build a permanent bridge of the proper hight. I normally keep two or three of these home made bridges handy and one in my banjo case as an emergency spare. I also use these on mandolins though it takes a bit longer to fit one to an arched top mandolin.

  9. bmac
    Nut Replacement for Cheapskates:

    I have had to cut several nuts for my restoration projects and thought I'd mention that although nuts can be rather expensive if you need more than one it is possible to carefully cut the StuMac nut in half lengthwise and end up with two nuts for the price of one.. I think the secret is too avoid cutting the two nuts at a 90 degree angle but rather cut them at a slight diagonal so that each nut when cut is fairly close in shape to a finished nut. Then simply cut them to length and notch as needed. For cutting the nuts I use a very thin bladed model builders finishing hand saw so you lose very little nut material as sawdust. I have done this a few times and it has given me several free nuts.

  10. bmac
    Straightening Dowel Stick on Old Tenor Banjo:

    I thought I would mention how I straightened wooden dowel sticks on my old tenor banjo and my banjo mandolins).... If the dowel stick is bent it can ususally be straightened by steaming. My method is to remove neck and dowel stick from pot and then:

    I use varnish remover and steel wool to remove any finish on all sides of the dowel stick all starting at the end of the fret board and going to the end (or close to the end) of the dowel stick. A light sanding afterwards will make sure the pores are open to receive the steam.

    If there is any info stamped or burned into on the stick I avoid that area or treat it as gentle as I can so as not to damage the manufacturers information. Leaving that inch or so of the bottom side of the stick untouched won't effect the bending process much if at all.

    I use the largest lidded soup pot I have so that the dowel stick will be over boiling water as much as possible.

    I use a support of some sort under the head stock to hold the neck at more or less of a horizontal position and the dowel stick will rest on the edge of the big pot with the bare dowel stick hanging over the boiling water. When the pot lid is put on it obviously won't seal the pot. To hold the steam inside the pot I use aluminum foil to form a seal between the now tilting lid and the pot rim. I use quite a bit of foil around the dowel stick/neck joint and to prevent steam from having an effect on neck joint or the fret board glue. Obviously the only place you need hot steam is on the dowel stick itself. You want to keep the neck and fingerboard as cool and steam free as you can so as not to effect the finish or glue on the fretboard.

    Although the dowel stick has enough bend in it to effect playing it may not be so obvious just looking at it. I purchased a roughly 24 inch long and 3"X3" hardwood board which I use as a base to straigbten the dowel stick against, That way I can use my C clamps or other clamps to bend the dowel stick against once thouroughly steamed and really hot. In fact I have found that if I overstraighten the bend a little it ends up almost perfectly straignt once the C clamps are removed. In order to overstraighten it I use a couple of popsicle sticks taped to the center of the hard wood straightening board to create a counter bend when the dowel stick is clamped against the board. when removed the dowel stick should be very close to straight.

    The clamping should be done immediatly after removing from the steam as it is the hot wet wood which allows your straightening to become a permanent feature of the dowel stick.

    After straightening it should be allowed to dry for a few days before reinstalling it in the pot Though the first time I did it I was so itchy I installed the neck after only a couple of hours and it worked fine.

    If you fail the first time you can always do it again. Maybe try steaming longer.

  11. bmac
    Straighening Dowel Stick - Steaming Time

    I forgot to mention steaming time in the above post... The steaming I did was timed from the start of the rolling boil to one full hour. In retrospect I think I might have been better off to steam for an hour and a half before clamping the dowel stick into corrected shape on the hardwood board.

  12. bmac
    Skin Head installation

    I tend to be a traditionalist and have little interest in plastic heads. I have enjoyed installing skin heads, two on banjo mandolins and one on my tenor banjo. Two heads were goat skin and the third was calf skin. The skins came with clear instructions and there are a few sites on the internet showing head installation. If there is a tonal difference between goat and calf skin I am unaware of it. The only caution I would mention is that it helped in my case to have three hands. It just isn't rocket science and it is fun to learn how to maintain your instrument for optimum performance.

  13. bmac
    Talent is Real:

    I have found that I am probably the most talented tenor banjo person on this site!!!! Whenever I comment on my banjo or other banjos or banjo tunes my comments are so astute, so well informed and so profound that they end the conversation!!! What else is there to say after such profundity???... Nothing!!! I appreciate your awareness of this truth!

    No, I haven't done any technical demonstrations but I suspect that if I did the sight would automatically shut down. What would there be left to demonstrate or say???

    Hey come on folks!!! We are all in the same boat. I am new to the tenor banjo too and I would like to hear some differing thoughts. My comments are based on enthusiasm but very limited experience and are aimed at trying to stimulate other folks comments, 'cause thats how I learn. I feel I am doing monologues to myself.

  14. Jill McAuley
    Jill McAuley
    Bart, perhaps others aren't chiming in because they quite simply don't do stuff like straightening the dowel stick etc. Kudos to you for posting that information, but the rest of us aren't at fault for not joining the conversation - if someone is interested in tinkering and maintenance then they'll join the dialogue at some stage and if not they won't. The tenor banjo group is a small one and this is a mandolin site at the end of the day, so if it's detailed banjo talk that you're seeking then perhaps you'll get more joy starting threads like this over at the banjohangout site, where they have an area dedicated to discussions about maintenance and repair. Not trying to chase you away, just suggesting a venue where you may be less frustrated in your attempts to talk about maintenance.
  15. bmac

    I apologise if my last comment sounded arrogant and/or rude... But at least it did stimulate a response. Yours is the first comment on this maintenance thread (other than my own) since December 30 of last year.

    I function mostly in the Mandolin Cafe as my primary focus has been on the mandolin, more recently banjo mandolin and now tenor banjo (tuned GDAE). My interet is is primarily pre WW2 Blues. All of these instruments of course need maintenance and if I can't do it myself it simply won't get done. I assume there are others who of necessity (or enjoyment) do their own maintenance and restoration work and these are the folks I am interested in communicating with. And by the way... My comments on repair, etc are not meant to be the last word... They are techniques I have learned through personal experience and I would guess that there are better or more effective ways of making repairs or adjustments. If so, then I would like to hear how others make their repairs.

    The empasis on bluegrass at the Banjo Hangout is something I have little interest in or maybe my old reflexes are just not good enough and when I see what good 5 string banjos cost I lose interest real fast.

    Once again... Sorry if my comment offended anyone.

  16. mikeyes

    The BHO has a very active four string forum and an active builder's forum each of which would love to hear about your efforts. As Jill said, most of the readers here are more interested in tunes and comparing banjo techniques. The repair stuff is scary for most of us, especially with dowel stick banjos.

    As for the cost of tenor banjos, they have never been a better bargain than right now. Except for Gibsons, of course.

    UPDATE: Bart, I see you have already been to BHO, you need to expand on your ideas there. Mike

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