Banjo FAQ's - p.3

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Q. - Some of the Gibson banjos in the 1950's had wide, guitar size frets. What's the story on different fret sizes?

Whether the change to wider frets is an improvement in playability and sound depends totally on what you are looking for!! I can tell you what you can expect, so that YOU can judge whether its for you or not.

First, realize that the tendency to say "wider is better" or "narrower is better" goes with the warning. There is a LIMIT to the logic!!! If you like narrow, no, needles are not the best, and if you like wider, railroad tracks WONT cut it!!

That said, going to slightly wider frets will really "beef up" the tone you get. More solid is the best way to describe it. Kind of like the effect of picking harder without doing it. Or heavier picks. By slightly wider, I mean stop when you reach about 2mm wide. Those Jim Dunlop 6100 frets the hard rockers use that are 3 mm wide are NOT going to cut it on a banjo neck!(g). even 0.1 mm change can be noticed by some people. Usually slightly wider will also be slightly higher; even with the same width, new frets will be higher that old frets. There is a difference in playability!! You must be prepared for this and understand a VERY important point.

Higher frets play EASIER, yes, EASIER. let me explain, because this can really open doors for you.

Low frets are extremely hard to play and get a clean distinct note from. This is because the string breaking angle over the fret is very low closer to flat on low or old frets. This means you must increase the pressure on your fingers to compensate for this and get the notes clean. You do this naturally and gradually as your frets wear out, without noticing it because it happens so slowly.

On an acoustic guitar this is like the saddle being too low and the strings buzzing because there is little angle from the bridge top to the top of the saddle.

NOW comes the secret!!

With high frets, you DON'T even need to press the strings hard to the fretboard to get a clean crisp note with great separation. The rock and rollers discovered this years ago. That is the reason for the scalloped fretboards that the speed demon pickers use. You just need enough finger pressure to get a clean note and that's all. In this case if you strive for a light touch, your fingers will be more relaxed, and you can play faster, cleaner and more effortless all at the same time. This works because the breaking angle is more severe as the string passes over the high fret, and this means less pressure is needed to achieve a clean note.

It takes a little concentrated effort at first to force your brain to accept this. But it is true and does work for everybody.

Like I said the head bangers discovered it long ago. With a scalloped fretboard, you never even touch the fretboard with your fingers!!!! You fret into air. Learning where to stop when the note sounds clean and going no further, After the learning curve is achieved, it clean and fast!!

If you insist on not adapting, higher frets will be a disaster. Its like anything else, put on a new head or tone ring and you will likely need to relocate the "sweet spot". Insist on playing as you always have and you miss the point of the improvement.

On the other extreme, the original Mastertones were fretted with very thin frets like mandolin fret wire. Remember this was ten to fifteen years before bluegrass was to be and the sound and styles were different. The thin wire gives a thinner less distinct sound. More delicate, maybe? It can fool you into making logic of low frets equals easy playing, but if you want easy playing and clean SOLID sound this will not be as easy to achieve. Unless you have vices for hands! And some people do! And yes the intonation is of course unaffected if the fret slots were on the mark to begin with.

Hope this has sparked a few interests.

Q. - It seems that hard stainless steel frets would not wear out nearly as fast as nickel alloy. What works?

There are some facts that need to be understood.

  • First, and most basic. Fretwire MUST be softer than the strings or the frets will chew through the strings in short order. Most at risk would be the thin first and fifth string as well as the windings on the fourth.
  • DON'T be dazzled by the simple term "stainless steel", and don't forget the banjo players holy grail, "bell bronze". Neither of these are on the periodic table of elements, which means they are man mixed alloys. Stainless steel can be any hardness imagined. If its soft enough to be compatible with strings it may be identical to the nickel silver frets on the Rockwell hardness scale, in which case there is no real benefit.
  • Fret wire requires GREAT precision to make, tolerances within a couple .001". Fretwire is made by extruding wire through a series of HIGHLY precision made dies. This is the only way to guarantee consistent high tolerances required. These dies would cost a few $10,000 to make. And the machinery would cost more than your house!
  • Don't think that this hasn't been thought of before. Jim Dunlop makes the best fretwire currently available. And they are not sleeping. There are many points to be considered, not just fret wear. The best compromise between wear, tone, workability, and manufacture is 18% nickel silver. This insures a fret that can be installed with little difficulty, doesn't eat strings, or damage the instrument and doesn't need more costly tooling to manufacture.
  • I can guarantee that NO WHERE is there any concern for the lowly repairman loosing work if harder frets are used.
  • Harder fretwire may change the tone of your instrument. For all those who like the currently popular deep, bassy Scruggs, Crowe, Jim Mills type of sound, you are going in the opposite direction with stainless steel frets!
Please understand that I have been in instrument R&D for 20 years, so I would NEVER say "never" without trying first! I am in no way saying this isn't a good or valid idea, but I want people to understand there is WAY more to this question than simple how your frets wear!! This is an OLD idea, and there are numerous good reasons why its not done.

Some of the most advanced research being done today is focusing on the quality of neck stiffness and its direct effect on power and tone of the instrument. Stiffer being louder and clearer sounding. On this point the stainless would be a plus. But handmade would be so inconsistent in dimension that it could cause real headaches. If the tang of the fret or the barbs are not EXACTLY the same dimension every time, you don't want it anywhere near your instrument.

However, if someone makes stainless steel fretwire available, sign me up as the first person who wants to try them!

By the way Don Randle brought up a great point about annealing! The more your frets are hammered when installed the harder they get ( Realize I'm talking very minute changes here!). This is also why some 18% fretwire is softer than others. If the core wire is large diameter, the pressure on the wire going through the dies is greater and the end result is a somewhat harder fret, as opposed to the exact same machine running a smaller diameter wire!

There is a whole lot more to this topic......

Q. - I'd like to do the refret job on my Stelling. It looks simple enough, just remove and replace them. What do I need to be aware of?

As most of you know I am highly in favor of people getting to know their instrument and learning the proper adjustments and also doing minor repair. However I do NOT in any instance recommend doing refret work by anybody with less than years of experience!!!!

This one point is what builders and repairmen spend literally years learning. It has so many fine exact points that can make or ruin an instrument. You should realistically do a dozen or so "yard sale specials" before you consider taking on even a high grade student instrument. A Stelling refret is wayyyyy down the road!

Here are some thngs to consider in refret work.

I will stop here without covering the critical leveling, sanding and polishing of the frets. And the fact that its not uncommon to replace the nut at the same time because the new frets are taller than the slots.

Again, I am highly in favor of musicians doing work and learning their instrument. Fretwork needs to be left to the experts. Pay the $150 to $200 or more it costs to get a good job, and be happy you don't have to do it!

If you are really interested in this, buy the book from Stew Mac especially about fretting, read the whole thing. You should be so overwhelmed you will understand why its not a hobbist job.

Q. - Do you have any information on the special tone ring in the Gibson JD Crowe RB75?

The tone ring in the Gibson RB75 JD Crowe signature model is lighter on JD'S insistance.

This tone ring was developed by Bill Sullivan and JD and there is a contract that forbids these tonerings from being made available to anyone accept on JD's banjos from Gibson. The exception is of course getting one second hand.

I spoke to Bill when they first came out and he explained the situation to me.

These banjos are very suseptable to set up. I have heard two that I did not like! They sounded like firecracker going off. NOT that I dont like this quality! But it aint what JD is all about.

Then somebody from this list who has one of these explained the fact that a "loose" set up" REALLY brings out the JD in these banjos. The difference was like night and day. Keep this in mind if you hear one that is like an arch top in sound. Its just the set up.

Q. - Please explain about air versus kiln drying wood for instruments.

It was offered that everything being equal and both processes done correctly that both air and kiln drying are acceptable for instruments. It was also noted that modern kiln drying is very advanced. Both these comments are correct, and I will expand on this.

Yes, it's true that both air and kiln dry woods are acceptable if both are done correctly. However the KEY word is CORRECTLY. You cannot assume that a piece of wood has been dried correctly just because its been drying for 5 or 10 years!! Each species of wood has critical maximum thickness dimensions that must be cut to insure that all the water can naturally exit the wood. You must also stack the wood correctly for air circulation and seal the end grains to avoid cracking, and much more.

This is an extremely complex process. The idea that air drying is best or even good is one of the biggest fairytales and grossly wrong myths that exist in instrument building. It is not a question of maybe, its a hard, cold fact not open to myth or legend that proper kiln drying is the ONLY way to get the highest standards out of a piece of wood! The idea that kiln drying in any way has a negative effect is voodoo.

There are noted exceptions and guidelines.

First, you must take into account that each and every species of wood is treated differently. Each species has its own " best " method of drying. Generally soft woods like spruce can have excellent results if PROPERLY air seasoned. Hard woods like maple and walnut (especially curly and figured woods) MUST in no uncertain terms be kiln dried!!!! On the other hand, some hard woods (ebony is one) MUST only be air dried.


The grain structure of spruces and pines makes it easier to get uniform moisture loss in the wood. Uneven moisture loss is the prime danger!

The term case hardening was mentioned. This is the main reason air drying is not good. When the surface of the wood looses moisture, the cells collapse. This in effect seals the inside. This makes it impossible for all the water inside the wood to escape. As the surface gets dryer and water is trying to move out in all directions incredible tension forms inside the wood. It builds over time until the wood is cut. Have you ever cut a piece of wood on a table saw and watch to your amazement it is not straight or actually curls as it exits the blade. This is from the internal forces of poorly seasoned wood releasing when the inside is exposed. Different stresses have been contained in different pieces of the board.

Air drying will only allow the wood to dry as far as its "equilibrium moisture content". This is different for each species and changes as the humidity changes, but is around 14 to 20% for most woods.

NO one, I mean NO one would want to build an instrument with wood this wet!!!! Even the mass production factories (Gibson, Fender, Martin, etc.) insist on kiln dried wood at between 6 to 9 percent: never less or more. This is for stability in the finished instrument. A piece of wood left for 100 years and only air dried will not and cannot get any dryer than its equilibrium moisture content. Only kiln drying can do this, and can do it in such a way as to leave no internal stresses in the wood! This is why its crazy to think that kiln drying can have a negative effect on tone etc. It is the other way around if at all.

For woods like curly maple where each of those curls is a hard and contrasting soft material, the stability attained by these low (below 10%) moisture levels is the difference between life or death for the instrument.

I feel sure almost no one reading this understands what is going on here in kiln drying.. If you have pictured in your mind the image of a kiln that fires clay etc, you are totally wrong. The instrument factory I work at has 6 wood kilns. They are each big enough to pull in flatbed rail cars!! The wood is carefully stacked. And the HEAT is NOT turned on!!!!

First the large air tight iron doors are sealed. Then the humidity is brought up to 100% over a number of DAYS. When the wood has reached fiber saturation, the moisture is sloooowly reduced and heat raised . This process is different for each species and is controlled by very advanced computer programs that monitor the progress 24 hours a day. For hard maple the process takes 6 weeks or so!! This is the only way to stabilize woods like flame maple and burl walnut to be acceptable for instrument necks.

Going back to air drying for a minute, The idea of extended YEARS of air drying is also a huge myth perpetuated by people who don't know the facts and are just repeating the myths as related to them. Spruce for example will reach is maximum possible dry state in 9 months if proper care is taken (and you are not living in a rain forest). It wont get any dryer unless the humidity is reduced.

This topic has had volumes written about it and I don't have space to go further. Let me say this: Nothing I have said is MY opinion. The information I related about various factories and processes is the way things are done. The technical information is taken directly out of the book The Encyclopedia of Wood ( Wood as an Engineering Material), printed by the Forest Products Laboratory of the US Government These are the guys that set the certification standards and stamp the woods. It has been reprinted by Oak Tree press of London, Sydney, and New York.

This book lists ALL the technical data such as moisture contents, kiln dry and air dry standards, benefits and drawbacks of each process, and more information than you ever thought people ever knew about each species of wood used. It removes the voodoo and myth from working with wood and places it on sound verifiable scientific footings with detailed scientific reliable fact. I highly recommend it to everybody. It isn't the most exciting reading though!(g)

Also recommended but much less technical is the book Understanding Wood by Dr. R. Bruce Hoadley. He has a Ph.D. in wood technology from Yale. He too will clear the myths out in a easier to read style, but the results are the same. His version is just much less detailed.

For those who want to KNOW, the answers are not found in voodoo.

Q. - How do you rate block pots vs. a three ply rim?

I consider the block construction wood rims to be one of two choices to use for the professional level banjo. They do offer a difference in response to some extent but they are not better or worse than the traditional three ply wood rim: just different. Don't try and make it a black or white distinction, it ain't so.

To my knowlege Stelling did not stop using the block design for any reason due to inferior sound performance or durability. I have never heard anybody say this. (My understanding is the decision was economic - the block pots he was getting were not cheap. They were first class, with little extra touches like put together with Dupont green AMR epoxy and also dowelled between the layers. -ed.)

The block pots are in no way less stable than three ply rims and as far as basic design it should be possible to make a case that they may be more stable if anything. I have never seen a Stelling or Wildwood with seam seperations and I have repaired every brand there is with three ply rims that have developed seam seperations. Remember this three ply rim is under stress due to bending the wood and using the glue to hold it together. Bill Stokes has commented that the lake logs wood is loosing 40% (!) due to rejects because this particular wood is very stiff and doesnt like to bend. Block pots are cut from wedges of solid wood and are at rest under no stress. They can be altered by orienting the grain in any direction you choose.

Block pots are also easier to make. (if you dont't add the extras. -ed.) If you have ever seen the bending forms jigs and clamping necessary to glue up a three ply rim you would not think it is easy. Block pots are simply cut on the saw, sanded smooth and glued up using a strap clamp.

So why aren't they popular? The simple reason is they violate a most important rule in banjos: Earl didn't play one.

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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