Banjo FAQ's

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Scott Zimmerma, master luthier and stringed instrument manufacturing consultane now residing in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan.

The main group of FAQ's is mainly culled from Scott's responses to threads on the acutab-list banjo discussion listserver and BanjoHangout. There will be more added as time goes on.

Scott is a regular contributor to the Banjo Newsletter. This monthly magazine is essential to the 5 string banjo player of any skill level. Over the years, it has been the single most comprehensive source of banjo information and tablature, and all back issues are available.

If you are not familiar with the names of the parts of a banjo, click here. There is no resonator on back of this banjo. It may or may not be present on yours.

Acoustic string instruments are particularly prone to major damage from the environment in the winter months and Scott has written a thorough article on instrument care in winter. There is also a short entry on winter care below.

Q. - What is all the excitement about "prewar instruments", which seems to apply to Gibsons in particular. Is there a difference in quaiity that suddenly occured in 1945? Do these banjos have a different sound, or better workmanship, or ?

Although there are people much more qualified to answer this question, and it is a question that needs more than one opinion, I will touch a few points.          

A frame of reference is necessary first. Remember that bluegrass didn't happen until the late 40's. These prewar banjos were not designed with that in mind. Also keep in mind that the banjo was a dying instrument in the late 30's. All makers were scrambling to invent something to snare the ever shrinking customer base.

Now I also feel that industrial America was different before the war. The competition among the instrument makers at that time made them strive for a good product. This is opposed to the Gibson philosophy of the 50's to 70's (and that of Fender of the late 60's to 70's) which put priority on profit margins with little or no concern for the product going in the case. Every chance that a "bean counter" could find to make the banjo cheaper was taken. And the instruments SUFFERED. At Gibson, this continued until little more than 10 years ago, when priority was again shifted to doing a good job and producing an instrument that the customer wanted.

Now as to the instruments themselves: just as today there were jewels and there were lemons!! From my experience with prewar banjos, Martin guitars and the Loar mandolins, I can roughly break them down as follows. 20% I would sell the farm for. 50% I think are nice instruments that play and sound good but are severely overpriced. And the remaining 30% are junk I have seen banjos mandolins and guitars that were genuine prewar, that could not hold their own against the best Asian production instruments.

I think people are not showing the best use of their "gray matter" when they shell out $20,000+ for an instrument BECAUSE its made during this "golden age". When it is almost a given point that close to 50% of the instrument was made within the last 25 years!!! I mean especially the neck, and who knows how much of the hardware.

However that 20% of the instruments to sell the farm for are worth studying. Specifically, yes they do haven superb workmanship. And yes they do sound different. I feel its the combination of quality parts, great craftsmanship and the effect of the years on the wood and the "marriage" of the parts for such a long time. While this is something that can be heard, and tested. It still is no where near fully understood. Mind you, there is NO magic involved!!! Just unanswered questions. I do know of at least 3 cases where this is being researched and you will be seeing banjos and banjo parts on the market very soon that have attempted to address this quality of "age" in modern new parts.

For the money, you can buy a quality brand new banjo with any of the prewar copy tonerings (Huber, JLS, McPeake) and from day one you will have a banjo that can outperform the player in most cases!

As a final comment, it is almost universally acknowledged that today we are in the middle of the greatest "golden age" of musical instrument making in the history of man. The level of technology has come together with a great resurgence in the desire for perfection in craftsmanship. I am very happy and proud to be a small part of that.

Q. - Are we in the golden age of banjos? Do we really have to wait 30 to 40 years to find out if today's instruments are the equals of the prewar ones?

To add a bit more to this point, I am not limiting myself to the topic of banjos. I am speaking of all stringed instruments.

And I strongly agree with the elite in the field of building that thinks this and I feel there is NO doubt that this holds true for banjos as well. If you look at the craftsmanship being turned out today by those pushing the envelope there can be no doubt. Part of the facts of life of "pushing the envelope" is that not everything is a raging success.           

The target isn't and should NOT be to simply copy what was done. There is no purpose to that. The rule of nature is that the universe is not static and anything that tries to be can't survive.

The excercise to reproduce the prewar "anything" should not be someone's life goal!! You should take the examples and lessons (bad and good) and learn from them. Then apply this to the subject at hand, whether it's mandolins or banjos or ?         

You can find untold examples of this in our music.

Bill Monroe was surely not trying to reproduce anything in the development of the music. Earl was pushing the envelope from day one. Ralph Stanley acknowledges Earl's place in the music, but has his own unique flavor of playing. Tony Rice and Clarence were not satisfied to just play like Lester, etc, etc. And all I have mentioned are the people we look up to. It is no different with the instruments. Look what the Stealth is doing! Look at Stelling's place.

I have the deepest reverence for the prewar's. I try and achieve this level as a goal. But I also look for every opportunity to surpass them at every turn.

The idea of waiting for 30 or 40 years to see the results will be impossible. Who thinks our perception of these ideals will be the same?? Look at the history of all the banjo makers!

As with anything, I don't see the merit in over analyzing a point to death. Just enjoy the fruits of age and be happy.

Q. - But doesn't everyone know that prewar instruments are and always will be the best?

What it comes down to is that IF you can justify the layout of a second mortgage to purchase an instrument such as we are talking about, there is no one who should stand in your way!

For a couple of you who seemed to feel some negative thought in my comments, I think you must first reread them and NOT read into them what is NOT there.        

I do not feel it is a LIFE goal to reproduce what has been done! I did NOT say it shouldn't be a goal!! As I said, I strive for the prewar parameters when I build, but I do not limit myself to them.

You must understand my point of view. I was the sole craftsman that built the first exact copies of the Fender vintage series guitars, when I was the senior builder at Fender. These were EXACT reproductions of the most famous guitars in the world. YES they were electric! However I learned what is necessary to do this kind of detailed copying. And I have evolved years PAST that landmark goal!

I think striving to understand what made those prewars sound and perform the way they do is also a worthwhile goal!! I am part of that research at this time also!!! I just can't talk about it.

The only thing I take notice of is the comment by someone on the list:

"The below assertion that 'The excercise to reproduce the prewar *anything* should not be someone's life goal!!' seems to assume that..."

Please DONT assume! If I feel something, I will do everything possible to express it lucidly. Assumptions are at least 95% wrong!

However, I do feel this next to be the absolute truth in a nutshell!


I think it is likely that over time, the greater excitement will focus on the style and skill of the artist's music rather than the instrument he uses. After all, I am a participant in several hobbies where there is a quest for technology solutions to an artform. Golf has chased tennis into the "high technology" realm, where golfers can now enjoy paying $500 for a single club, a titanium Big 'oh my god' Smasher....when a few years ago they could buy a whole set of woods for less than that. The golfers pay for that dribble, in hopes that it will make them better golfers... when, of course, it won't.

As I wrote to someone recently,

I feel you now own two world class banjos.......spend your time learning to play the bejeezez out of them!

Q. - How will our instruments sound in 50 years (instruments made today, high quality instruments with the prewar dimensions and specifications)? Do you think there will be a noticeable difference? Do we have the wood required?

There are thousands of builders worldwide building every type of instrument. These builders have more information at their fingertips than the best masters of old. The old world style of the "guilds" which controlled the flow of knowlege is gone, and people are focusing their creative forces on the elevation of the craft.

We have the advances of the technological community at our disposal. This has given us better adhesives, paint, machinery to duplicate down to .001" endlessly.

For banjos, we have the best selection of tone rings available to us now, better than ever before. The EXACT duplication of the prewar formula is childs play today. The Huber, JLS and McPEAKE rings are ALL FAITHFUL and EXACT copys of real prewar rings. There are differences in these, just as there are differences in original prewar Gibson rings. Now the difference is consistent and a matter of choice, rather than wnat you happened to get with an instrument in the 20's and 30's. This is wonderful!

An acoustic instrument has uncounted variables that effect the tone and power. WE DON'T have the ability to use the same wood. The wood used on the prewar instruments was old growth timber from forests unchanged since the last ice age. Our modern greed has seen that go. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a variable we can't duplicate in quantity. The supplies of old wood are very limited. In 50 years we may easily see that we needed to not worry about this point.

Taking all these points into consideration, I feel quite strongly that the instruments being built today, whether banjos, guitars or others will do no less than equal the fabled prewars, and most likely will outlast and out perform them. Don't forget that during the next 50 years and more, the quantity of the real prewars will be dwindling down constantly, and fewer and fewer will be all original (of the VERY few that still are now).

As Bill Stokes pointed out, the woods will stablize over these decades, the metal parts of the banjos will settle into a symbiotic relationship with the wood, and the vibrations will flow with less resistance. So there will be changes. Some will age better than others, just like some people age better than others.

I'll repeat something I have said before, that is important. Not all those fabled prewar instruments are worth owning!! I have seen prewar Martins, a few signed LOAR mandolins and too many in fact MASTERTONES that couldn't hold their own against the best JAPANESE instruments! I know where to find some of each of these within a two hour drive from my house.

Hope this stirs your thoughts.

Q. How do I care for a banjo in a northern winter?

There are two worst enemies of musical instruments, heat and dryness. Both separately or combined these account for most all instrument damage you are likely to see, with the exception of accidents.

To sum as short as possible.

Banjos are the least susceptable of acoustic instruments, because they don't have a delicate body. They DO however have a very long and thin neck!!

The accepted world standard for instruments is an environment of 40% humidity. Higher doesn't have serious side effects, lower can be a disaster.

Specifically for banjos, I would worry about a warped neck, especially if it's a beautiful piece of curly maple. This wood is quite unstable at times, and severe conditions can send it "south". Dry or wet heats are both dangerous. Remember its wet heat that bends guitar sides to shape!

Other possible conditions would be frets popping up due to the fretboard drying out. Or fret ends turning into saw blades because the fretboard has shrunk so much. In the factory I work at we can see frets exposed as much as 1/16" on each side at this time of year! But 1/32" is an everyday thing!

Keep the banjo in the case!!!! Keep the case AWAY from the heater!! And keep the case away from a window or outside wall in the dead of winter.

If you go from extremes in the winter (outside to inside or inside to outside, let the case sit for 20 minutes to acclimate to the new environment, before opening the lid.       

There is MUCH more to this subject, but these are the most serious concerns.         

Q. - Do you all think it would affect the sound of my banjo if I put a clearcoat on the inside of the resonator? I have a clear head and I would like to show off the grain a bit better.

This can and WILL alter the performance of your banjo. Whether it helps or hurts totally depends on the sound you like and the sound your banjo is now putting out. For reference, old and current Gibson Mastertones have a minimal amount of coloring sprayed to the inside of the resonator, and really not much else. (The '70s Mastertones had more finish on the inside.)

This technique is sometimes used to tailor the sound of a banjo. Depending on the surface, you can brighten the sound or dull the sound.

A thicker coating of finish will tend to be MUCH more reflective than you started with. This should be expected to increase volume to begin with, sometimes dramatically. However it doesn't stop there.

A gloss coat may brighten the sound somewhat. This can be used effectively to give a little boost in volume and brightness to a mushy sounding banjo. I don't know if it would be recommended on an archtop or Stelling though. By scuffing the finish with sandpaper or maybe steel wool, you can sometimes take the sharpness out of a too bright banjo.

As out list member Mike has at the end of his posts, "You won't know, till you find out"

Q. - Is there really a difference in the sound produced by the different head types? What about head tension?

There is a DEFINITE and obvious difference in the sound produced by clear and frosted heads! This was the reason for the variety in the first place. The visual aspect was the side effect rather than the reason. Remember that companies whose main lines are heads for drums make all banjo heads.

Clear heads will be rather loud and very sharp or bright sounding.

From there you can go to the new Remo heads which are a step in the right direction in that they are a little bassier and have a bit more "body" to the tone.

When you step into a real frosted head like a 5 Star, Showcase, or Snuffied Remo, you get the true advantages of the frosted design, this being a much deeper, bassier and rich sound.


NOW to talk a little about the subject of tension again (actually a lot).         

From the comments yesterday (on acutab-list - ed.) I think it good to ask everybody to put away your bat wings, voodoo talismans, and torque wrenches and such and concentrate on the subject!! Dave Schenkman wrote:

"The best way to tell when a head is tightened enough is when it sounds best to you. The heads on my personal banjos are all tightened differently; in each case the determining factor is where the tone is best."

PLEASE read this as many times as necessary
to let in sink in. This is the honest and total truth!

The only way to determine what tension is best for YOUR banjo is to adjust it YOURself. This has absolutely NOTHING to do with note tuning or foot pounds on a gizmo wrench!!!! And this is one of the best learning experiences that every banjo player should undertake. It takes no special tools or knowledge at all. If you can do a forward roll, you can adjust your head. And just like a forward roll, the more you do it, the better you will get.

Ready, set, here we go:

To save space here, we will assume you are adjusting the head already on your banjo, and not go through the whole process of replacing an old one with a new one.

  • First check that the stretcher band is absolutely even all the way around the banjo. Nothing is more important. If the stretcher band is uneven, you need to either loosen the over tight hooks or tighten the loose ones. Do this one at a time and keep at it until the metal band is within 1/32 inch of being even all around. Sometimes it helps to push on the head to let everything even out. This is especially true when backing off the hooks. This can be the most difficult process of all, and it is mandatory.

  • Now with your thumb, press down on the head by the bridge. With reasonably firm pressure the head should not depress more than about 2mm (3/32"). If the banjo is unstrung, this could be as much as 1/8". If the head sinks more than that, tighten each hook by 1/4 turn of the wrench. Do each hook in order, NOT jumping from one side of the pot to the other. If you need to make it tighter still, go around the whole pot in order again, watching to turn the wrench 1/4 turn only. When you get the desired 3/32" depression in the head, its time to tune and play. You are only checking the tone and volume at this point. Listen and remember. Now, go back to the hooks. Again tighten only 1/4 turn each, all around the pot. Now tune and play. And notice the difference. Occasionally check that your stretcher band is remaining flat.

  • Going like this you will easily begin to hear the tone and power changing (growing at first). Keep repeating this process of 1/4 turns and checking. At some point you will notice that the sound didn't get better when you adjusted the hooks. It got worse. This will either be less bass, too much treble, or something like the power seeming choked off, etc.

  • You just found the perfect adjustment for YOUR banjo!!!! Now BACK off all the hooks by 1/4 turn to the last adjustment that sounded good and you are DONE. Let the banjo stabilize for a day or two. Playing it will help settle things in place. You can help this by firmly pushing on the head all over to flex out the last undesired adjustment, and your head is there. Now you can concentrate on the tailpiece, bridge, the strings, the tone ring......

  • Now is also the time to get out your torque wrench gizmo. Check the inch pound measurement you have reached and write it down. Now when you change the head on THAT banjo, you can easily reproduce that sound. But ONLY if using the same style head!!

  • If you have 5 banjos you need to do this whole process on each banjo, even if they are all Gibson Mastertones, they may all be different! Now is the time to check what note the head produces, and again this is for future reference only.

It's Saturday, and I hope a few of you try this procedure this weekend. You will have grown a lot as a player by doing this.

Email to Scott at scott@sugiguitars.com
Surface mail to Scott Zimmerman, Stringed Instrument Technologies Ltd., 2-5-37 Shonicho, Matsumoto, Nagano, 390-0828 Japan, tel and fax 81-263-28-5080,

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