By Michael Hofer
They dont require alot of work but there are a few things you need to know to properly maintain your banjo. Number one at all times is, keep it clean. Dirt and smudges are your biggest enemies. Before you pick up that instrument, make sure you havent just greased the tractor and forgot to wash your hands. Of course no matter how well you wash your hands, a small amount of oil will be put on the banjo and also the strings from your fingers. The greater cause for concern is on your strings. They dont vibrate like they need to when they become soiled. I use that word soiled and its not like youre going to have clods of dirt on the strings, but you can easily end up with small clumps. Im sure you can look at what the string manufacturers recommend on length of time to replace your strings, and its fairly often. (Ok heres one of those my opinion things again) I prefer to change my strings about every 20 playing hours. Actually I have noticed that after about 20 to 30 hours the strings will sound a bit muted when capoed, thats when I know its time to change them. Not everyone has the same idea, though as I know some pickers that change theirs about every 8 hours. Others even change theirs more often, every 2 or 3 hours. Yet others wont change them unless they break or rust through. One thing that is nice about Banjo strings is that they are relatively cheap, from 3.50 a set up to about 5.50 here in the midwest. Of all the instruments I play, they are the cheapest. I also picked up a little trick from an old guitar player, about extending string life. When you finish playing, get yourself a soft cloth such as a baby diaper, and wipe down the whole banjo, especially the strings. This helps to remove the oils you just placed on it, before the dust and dirt can accumulate. Simple as this sounds it really works great and helps to keep your banjo and strings in better condition. One other thing that will add life to your banjo and strings is to keep it in a good case when not in use. If dust and dirt cant get to it its better. I know alot of pickers like to show off their banjos, some even hang them on the wall but its better for them to be in a good case.
Now theres a number of string manufacturers out there, experiment to find the company you like best.
String sets also come in differant grades such as heavy, medium, and light. Again depending on
your banjo and the way you play, (some guys pick harder than others) experiment to find the strings
you like. I like the light strings myself, but some pickers say they break too easily but they work fine for me.
Another reason to restring one string at a time is, it helps to maintain a steady tension on the banjo neck.
By maintaining the tension on the neck, you wont have to retune as much, new strings do stretch a bit so
you will have to do some retuning, however, if you dont have to contend with the neck moving, it helps alot.
One other tip is when you wind your strings around the top pegs, make sure you wrap them properly.
When you tighten your pegs up, the top two strings (your first string D and second string B) should be pointing towards the floor, the bottom two (third string G and fourth string D )
towards the ceiling when holding the banjo as you would play on it. Now your short G string ( the fifth) make sure you have that feller trimmed and pointing so if you
slide your hand up or down the neck you wont poke into the string end. ( Yeah done that a few times, ouch. Hey my dad always told
me to learn from others mistakes, you cant live long enough to make them all yourself ! )
If you followed my advice in the paragraph above you shouldnt have a problem. However, heres a rule of thumb for placing the bridge in the right spot. The bridge should be placed so that the 12th fret is exactly halfway between the nut (thats the bridge at the top of the banjo neck) and the bridge on the head. You can check it with a ruler, or by playing a note, the pitch should be exactly one octave higher at the 12th fret. You may have to replace a bridge, they do wear out on occasion so learning how to place it is essential for you to learn.
Under normal use you shouldnt have to do anything to the head on your banjo but check the tension on it about once a year. If you notice your bridge sagging into the west it may need tightening. Most banjos come with a little wrench that looks like a skate key. Has ears on it, heres the rule of thumb for adjusting heads. You must first remove the resonator, if you have one. Be careful not to scratch it up. The brackets must be tightened evenly. So start by turning on a tension bracket about a quarter turn and then move to the next one 180 degrees across from it, then go to another 90 degrees and repeat. Then alternate to a new set of corners, the idea is not to pull down on just one spot of the head at a time, but rather pull down all around it at the same time. Kinda like putting the cylinder heads on your car. You use an alternating pattern to assure and even pull down. One big caution here DONT OVER TIGHTEN OR IT WILL BREAK !!! The head should be even, your bridge shouldnt be sagging and its tight enough. I have heard the old tales about "tuning" heads to pitch, some say A some say B, but Im not really sure how scientific that approach is. For myself, when the bridge isn't sagging and the head is strait, thats tight enough. If you break a head, you can replace them, but its not easy getting one most places dont stock them. So take care.
You should wax your banjos wood periodically with a good furniture wax. It helps protect the wood and any quality wax usually works.
There are other things you can learn to do with your banjo, but if you follow these few tips Ive given you, well you should be fine. As one picker told me, they dont eat much. So they arent that hard to take care of.
If you are setting up a banjo for the first time, or need more information, check out Bill Palmers Banjo set up page