Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Being relatively new to minstrel banjo, I was wondering how to go about adjusting the tension on a banjo head.  Mine seems to be rather flexible and lately I have noticed a buzzing when playing.  I am guessing this has to do with the humidity and the head needs to be adjusted once in a while to compensate.  How do you know for sure the head needs to be adjusted and how do you tell when the tension is right?  My banjo has rods around the pot that pull the ring down using small nuts a the end.  Any advice will be greatly appreciated.

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The rods around the pot are called "hooks".  First of all, I'd diagnose what is causing the buzzing.  Are the strings buzzing against the tension hoop?  

If so, or if the head needs to be tightened to get a better tone or more volume, take a banjo wrench (or any other wrench) and tighten the nuts at the bottom of the hooks 1/4 turn.  Do it for all the nuts around the rim to try and keep the tension even.  Keep repeating this until you are satisfied with the tension and the sound.  Different people have different preferences regarding head tension- there isn't a single "right" amount of tension.  Make sure to loosen the head back to where it is now before traveling to an area with less humidity (or before winter).  When the humidity lowers, the head will dry out and return to where it was before it went slack, and if you tighten it a lot now in high humidity, it will become too tight and tear when the humidity goes back down.  If you live in a place with very high humidity like I do (I'm from New Orleans), you may find it is not possible to keep the tension where you want it despite repeatedly tightening it.  In that case, I'd just loosen it and purchase a second banjo with a plastic head to use during the humid months; however, if you have central AC and don't play out, you should be able to get a skin head to tighten and hold fairly well.

As an alternative to tightening, you can use a hairdryer on low heat to dry the head.  Keep the hair dryer moving around the underside of the head and heat it for 30 seconds or so.  Make sure to keep the hair dryer on low heat and to keep it moving across the head- holding the dryer over one area may cause the head to tear.

I hope this helps!  Out of curiosity, what type of banjo are you playing (what head size, number of hooks)? 

I have often been asked why I am cooking my banjos when reenacting.  Holding the banjo above an open fire for a few seconds at a time can dry a damp head out.  Don't go too long.  You can actually watch the head tighten.

Watching George Wunderlich tighten a head I saw him use a woodworkers clamp on the rim to gently tighten the head.  You can then hand tighten the nuts.  This should be a gentle procedure.

That's interesting John... I have heard tell of Banjo Players Hoilding them over a Oil Lamp for the same reason.  Makes sense that Real Skin Head would Expand and Contract more than a Man Made Banjo Head.  Skin naturally does that with the weather.

John Masciale said:

I have often been asked why I am cooking my banjos when reenacting.  Holding the banjo above an open fire for a few seconds at a time can dry a damp head out.  Don't go too long.  You can actually watch the head tighten.

Thanks for the tips.  The strings are not touching the rim so that doesn't seem to be the source of the buszzing.  I will try tightening the head with a wrench, but hold off on the "cooking method" for awhile.  My banjo was bought second hand from a friend who told me it was made by a friend of his.  It has a 12.5 inch head with 6 hooks.  Attached is a picture.

Attachments:

You know where the strings are tied in little knots to the tailpiece holes?   Be sure to check that all the cut ends of the strings are nowhere near to touching the skinhead.  They can create a buzz through the vibration when playing.

  Tom,   When I was speaking To Terry Bell about assembling my Boucher Banjo Kit I remember him saying that the Placement of the Nut was the Most important thing and that if the strings were not perfectly lined up they would Buzz a Lot.  So I wonder if possibly the Nut on your Banjo may of moved or gotten loose? Just a thought. 

Please keep us posted of your solution to the problem.  Good Luck,  DanO'

Other sources of buzzing can be found at the nut or peg head.  Make sure you push the bottom of the string down towards the bottom of the peg.  And a very common problem is when you have a longish tail of the string sticking up through the peg hole.  If too long it can wander over to touch other strings resulting in a buzzing.  This is especially true of the drone string.

Well, I think my problem was caused by humidity.  I'd been playing on the balcony for awhile and the air was a little muggy.  When I quit and brought the banjo inside (to air conditioning) the head tightened up on its own.  I think I will see if I can find a wrench I can cary in my banjo case when I go to reenactments.  Then I can make adjustments because I know being out doors definately influences the banjo head tension.  Thanks again to everyone for the great tips.

That's Great Tom, Glad you resolved the problem.  as far as the Solution goes,  I have read that many Skin Head Banjos, in particular Tackhead Banjos are prone to this problem and to resolve it players carry several Bridges of different height to put more or less pressure down on the head.  I would be cautious about repeatedly tightening and loosenig the  j hooks, especially if they are made of  Brass or of other soft metal that may break over time from too much exertion.

   Good Luck

Tom Taggart said:

Well, I think my problem was caused by humidity.  I'd been playing on the balcony for awhile and the air was a little muggy.  When I quit and brought the banjo inside (to air conditioning) the head tightened up on its own.  I think I will see if I can find a wrench I can cary in my banjo case when I go to reenactments.  Then I can make adjustments because I know being out doors definately influences the banjo head tension.  Thanks again to everyone for the great tips.

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