Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Question about care and Feeding of an early banjo


  I  was wondering how the people in the early days of banjo managed to be able to play the instrument more than a few rare days out of each year.  I built a banjo recently that has a  calfskin head on it , Its been finished several weeks now but it is totally unplayable due to the humidity problem here in oklahoma.


  The ONLY way I've been able to play it has been to give it a shot from a hair dryer for a couple of minutes. This works for short perriods only. I don't dare try to play it outdoors.


  I know there must be a way to cope with this.  I just need to learn what to do.


  Would someone (anyone) please tell me what to do and also what did the people do in the days before dehumidifiers and plastic heads??


  As you may be able to tell, my frustration level is just about maxed out



  R H



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I live in Illinois, and have played my calfskin banjos in 40-100 degree weather, with varying levels of humidity.  It can be done.  30 degree weather is getting too cold for me to keep my fingers "loose".


1.  Have a couple of very high bridges.  These can be really useful when the head is acting like a sponge. 

2.  Move the bridge back closer to the tailpiece.  This will exert more force on the head, and will also help.

3.  Make sure you have a nice fire near by.  People have laughed about me burning my banjos, but in reality by heating the head above a fire, I get excellent sound out of my banjos.

4.  Use two different banjos.  I'm not sure why this works, but it seems to.  Switching back and forth seeme to keep the sound coming better from both,  

Here is a remedy I recently got from Bob Smakula of W.V.  - Dry the head thoroughly. With the head off the banjo coat the front and back completely with Thompson's Water Seal. let it dry for 48 hours. Maybe put another coat, wait another 48 hours then reinstall the head.   Bob said he used "Scotchguard" in the past but when that product became water-based he switched to Thompson's Water Seal which is solvent-based.  I have no first-hand knowledge of how effective this is on the skinhead or if there is any downside (staining, shrinking) - I have yet to try it.  I do have a gallon of Thompson's Water Seal but I bought a spray can for easy and even application.   I'm planning to try it on a couple of skin head banjos soon.
I'm curious if this would affect the life of the head?  It seems to me that the solvent drying would make the head more brittle.  Probably no worse than holding the head over a fire?

Ron, you are not the only one frustrated with a too damp banjo head. I've been gigging with these issues for 20 years and have had some very tough performances when its decided to rain and the humidity was already at 90%. My only reliable solution for these outdoor performances has been the heat of a fire. If not a campfire, which is not always handy, then from a small charcoal brazier I bring along. Very inconvenient, and somewhat dangerous, but also very effective. I strive for a bright banjo sound in my performances and by keeping this heat source nearbye I can warm a banjo head in seconds. How long it will stay dry depends on the weather but even just out of the rain I get through a song. Did I mention its not real convenient & a fire hazard. Lately I tried applying a silicone based water repellant formulated for shoes and other leather goods to the 12" head on one banjo and was happy with the results. No change to the physical properties of the head except that it was noticably slower to absorb moisture. I've had to replace more banjo heads from rotting out under my sweaty arm than from the effects of heat. When indoors I try and find a dry place in the room to leave my banjos. I've used electric lamps and have a stand with one attached behind the head, pretty low wattage, not a CFL :) Your mileage will vary. Good luck, Dave Culgan

Just as a follow up to this I'll tellyou I scrapped the hide head and never looked back.

I put a yellowstone "Nomex" head on it and it now stays at the correct tension.

I built a "mountain banjo" (Frank Proffit) style and used a yellowstone head on that too

and my frustration with weather related problems has gone.

Now If I can just get the left hand positions frustration taken care of...lol



Gotta face it ...there is a saturation point where an instrument will not sound good. Like thin ice....beware. I would always prefer a gut and skin situation. Sometimes, it is better just to use an instrument with synthetics...and as I say that, it depends upon the nature and profile of the gig. I want to know the number for my particular instrument, so I can be prepared. The sound so different at different humidity levels. Sometimes, it is even good as it "fills up"....there is a beautiful tubby sound. But, you need to be really in touch with it. This stuff makes playing the instruments all the more fascinating. Perhaps someday, makers will rate their particualr instrument..."This instrument is rated at 67% RH".

Frank Converse said he had an extra one on stage while playing for a dance contest to "guard against a broken string."

I watched Mike Seeger pull a taller bridge out of his pocket between tunes during one concert with his big gourd banjo, he put it on to replace his shorter bridge, he said the head was sagging too much.  I liked that and remember it well.


I performed last weekend at Duke Homestead outdoors and it rained on and off all day--sometimes in buckets.  Had I not brought along an extra banjo with a synthetic head I wouldn't have been able to play at all.  However, between downpours the sun came out and I propped up my skinhead instrument to face the sun and dry out.  It doesn't take long to make it playable again..  So I was able to have interludes when I could play the skinhead instrument, which I generally prefer to anything else.  Also, inside in air conditioning and all winter long the natural heads play just fine.  Don't give up on skin--just give yourself an alternative if you can.

Be careful though when propping a damp skinhead in the sun- I had a friend do this with her antique banjo- leaned it on a humid day against a tree in the pleasant breezy sun during our outdoor gig lunch break, and.... BANG!! -after 20 minutes it split right down the middle and scared the life out of everyone, like a gunshot.  That wonderful old skinhead had been on that spunover pot banjo for at least 70 years if not over a hundred.  I think it was the original head.  So do be careful...

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