Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

How does one keep their instrument in shape during the humid months?!?

I played afore an audience 'tother arternoon.
De sun war so hot de banjo could not stay in tune.
I tried to sing ob Uncle Ned and den Old Joe,
but de strings kept kickin' up a'hind and a'foe

When it's humid and hot, my banjo does not play well at all. The strings become too soft and pliable, and keep falling out of the bridge, not to mention it just sounds lousy. How does one avoid this?

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3 beers and popscicle sticks :p

Tighten head a smidge maybe, taller bridge, tune up to A. Also nylgut strings and a synthetic head maybe? I've also slid the bridge closer to the neck. Not too humid over here but moist ocean air does about the same thing.

If you are using real gut strings, they do get 'spongey' and absorb humidity. then Nylgut strings will help.

Chris means by popsicle sticks:  cut a popsicle stick (the large ones are wider if you have a big banjo head) so it is 1/2 or 3/4" longer than your bridge. Loosen the strings enough so you can slip the stick underneath the feet of the bridge.  This eliminates the dimples in the humid skin that allow the bridge to push way lower into the skin. Be sure to sand the popsicle stick smooth so no jagged edge will cut the skin.

Lost of us keep a taller bridge on hand as well.  If the skin is sagging the taller bridge will not raise your action, it'll just make it more normal again.

If your finger can push into the skin and it has a LOT of give, then yeah tighten your head a turn or so.  Be careful not to over tighten- especially remember to relax it back to prior tension if you go into air conditioning for a while. 

Keep your banjo in its case when not playing to minimize large humidity/temperature fluctuations.

Some people treat both sides of their skin with art fixative or Aquanet hairspray to help protect from damp sogginess.  Use like two very light coatings, drying between, not a heavy spraying.  Mask off banjo rim with heavy paper and electric tape while applying. Only apply when the skin is dry and at optimal tension.

Using a craft (popsicle) stick as a shim under the bridge is a great idea. Going to try that. Thanks for meantioning it.

Terry Bell sprayed the heads of the two tack head banjos he made for me. He used Aquanet and it works fine. It has to be heavy humidity before I need to worry about having to make adjustments or not play my banjo at all.

I like the popsicle trick as a shim...will keep that in mind.

Strumelia said:

If you are using real gut strings, they do get 'spongey' and absorb humidity. then Nylgut strings will help.

Chris means by popsicle sticks:  cut a popsicle stick (the large ones are wider if you have a big banjo head) so it is 1/2 or 3/4" longer than your bridge. Loosen the strings enough so you can slip the stick underneath the feet of the bridge.  This eliminates the dimples in the humid skin that allow the bridge to push way lower into the skin. Be sure to sand the popsicle stick smooth so no jagged edge will cut the skin.

Lost of us keep a taller bridge on hand as well.  If the skin is sagging the taller bridge will not raise your action, it'll just make it more normal again.

If your finger can push into the skin and it has a LOT of give, then yeah tighten your head a turn or so.  Be careful not to over tighten- especially remember to relax it back to prior tension if you go into air conditioning for a while. 

Keep your banjo in its case when not playing to minimize large humidity/temperature fluctuations.

Some people treat both sides of their skin with art fixative or Aquanet hairspray to help protect from damp sogginess.  Use like two very light coatings, drying between, not a heavy spraying.  Mask off banjo rim with heavy paper and electric tape while applying. Only apply when the skin is dry and at optimal tension.

1) Do not play in direct sunlight. Must be in the shade. Take a big umbrella if you have to.

2) Let your banjos get used to the atmosphere at least 45 minutes before your set. Don’t leave them in the cases. 

3) The more you tune, the less time it takes. Make small adjustments constantly during the set. 

4) Tune, tune, tune, for 30 minutes before your set. If you take a break between sets for 15 minutes, tune again before you start the next set. 

5) Unless the head is tacked, keep tensioning the head before you start and check it again between sets. Be careful when you go home if you have air conditioning in your abode. The head may get overly tight and rip. Figure out a quick repeatable method for checking the tension. Having a straight edge (like a wooden ruler) that you lay across the head will show you a gap between the bottom edge and the area around the bridge. Visually memorize the distance when the tension is where you like the sound. If the gap is too great, the head has sagged a bit and you should tighten. If the gap is too small the head is tightening and you should loosen it a bit. 

6) Whiskey: the more you drink, the better it sounds! (Kidding)

Twenty years ago I was playing a Summer gig at an outdoor informal event.  My friend and I were both playing banjos.  We were both pretty inexperienced. Her banjo was an old Buckbee with what appeared to be original skin head. The brackets were rusted in place and would not move, but the banjo usually played well.

It was fairly hot and very humid, and her banjo head was sagging, making it hard to play. During our lunch break she leaned it against a tree, with the banjo facing the sun. Fifteen minutes later everyone jumped at what sounded like a loud rifle shot right near us. It was the poor banjo... head completely split in half.  Lesson learned.

Tom Berghan said:

1) Do not play in direct sunlight. Must be in the shade. Take a big umbrella if you have to.

I recall a night at AEBG when it just gushed a horrible rain. It disabled all banjos for several hours. They were grounded, just like wet wasps. These early banjos are certainly magic under good conditions, but otherwise a total PITA. I guess that is why they evolved. If someone came back from the dead, I imagine they would think "Good old days...HA HA. You know how many bad gigs I had?"

Yes, I remember everyone taking turns in drying their banjo heads out over an incandescent light bulb in one corner of the barn.

I've been pretty tempted to put a Renaissance head on my minstrel banjo for all of these reasons. 

Timothy Twiss said:

I recall a night at AEBG when it just gushed a horrible rain. It disabled all banjos for several hours. They were grounded, just like wet wasps.

I had one on my Hartel and it was fine, but what fun was playing alone?? haha. Better to suffer together. I tell you this, if I were ever booking serious gigs with money involved, I would work with a synthetic head......at least have it on standby.

Keeping the real deal on hand is what's given me pause; I've got several 'tubs' but only one with bracket hardware (the rest are tackheads.)   If I ever get around to building my own tub I'll definitely be putting a synthetic head on it, so I can have the best of both worlds.

Oh man, back the truck up to think of the lutenists in those dark castles in Europe. I'm sure a few lost their heads from an ill tuned performance in front of a king.

I play two to four gigs of every month, skin heads & gut strings but 98% are indoors, with conditioned air (heat in winter / AC in summer) and my regimen is detailed above and it works very well. The same steps will work outside too but the frequency of each step will need to increase. The most difficult environment is out-of-doors - totally uncontrolled so it’s a much bigger challenge. One thing that can help if you are playing at a festival on an outside stage is to use a couple of banjos (at least two) and have a friend act as your “banjo-tech”’ tuning and tensioning the banjo while you are playing, then handing you a fresh banjo every few tunes on your set list. That’s a kind of rock star approach but it totally works. 

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