Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Got my Calkins gourd banjo today, and love it. Seems very well-made, with good-quality parts, and despite the nylon strings (they should maybe have been nylgut at least) it sounds great.

I was doing a lot of teaching today, so only managed an hour’s playing before it got too late to play (this thing is surprisingly loud). I suppose it was getting used to the temperature and humidity of a hot and rainy day in Edinburgh, but after half an hour or so the action seemed to drop as, I'm assuming, the skin expanded. Notes on the first string up to around the fifth 'fret' position started buzzing very slightly. I pushed the bridge closer to the fingerboard to raise the action, and the problem disappeared. I've never experienced this with my other banjos (including a fretless SS Stewart) and wonder if it is normal?

Of course, all my finger placements became contracted, but for the repertoire I am currently playing on it (all first-position Briggs) there is no real problem. It only took a few moments to adjust. But it left me wondering about gourd banjo practice. I saw a video of Bob Carlin playing a gourd where the bridge was almost on the edge of the skin, just before the end of the fretboard (near the scoop). I wonder if he had the same problem. Is this something gourd players get used to - a bit like being forced to use a capo - and do you have to change the bridge placement often?

I suppose a higher bridge would solve the problem? Maybe a few bridges of different heights? I would find it hard to believe the gourd banjo is at fault, as it seems to be a first-class instrument, and astonishingly good value.

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Yes, either move the bridge or work with a couple different bridge heights. The heads are usually tensioned by hand stretching, so they sag madly when the humidity gets high. If you have a heater or a fire, usually giving a bit of a roast will do the trick.

I played a 4-string gourdy a few years ago in the dead of winter during a rainstorm. The head sagged enough I think you could have used it as a porridge bowl. The owner (Dan Knowles, a fine luthier from Tennessee) simply slid a very tall bridge on it and handed it back to me. What an unusual sound!
I play frequently on a gourd banjo I got from Jeff Menzies many years ago. I did make a slightly taller bridge but I haven't found a need to use any but this one. One thing I do is tip the bridge over each time when I'm done playing. I think Jeff recommended this and I think its common practice in banjo playing but on my other banjos the bridges are tacked in place with glue. Anyway, this seems to keep the feet of the bridge from forming a depression in the head. It's a small difference but it I notice it if I forget and put it away with the bridge raised in position. Overall though, I use heat (sunlight, electric lamp, fire, etc.) to dry the head if its sagging much at all from being damp. I've never liked moving the bridge to compensate, and prefer to keep the scale length the same on all my fretless banjos.

This is just the way I deal with the head tension issues, everyone does what makes sense for them. I hope you enjoy the sound of your new instrument, they aren't real loud but I find the tone of a gourd to be very complex and intriguing.

Dave Culgan
Thanks for your comments, guys. It sounded very beautiful tonight, very mellow. Compared to my SS Stewart, though, the strings are much closer together, which makes stroke playing feel quite different to me. I guess you just get used to adapting each time you pick up an instrument.

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