Fretless Mountain Banjo Care
and Feeding
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There are some obvious and some not so obvious differences between the present day bluegrass banjo you are probably familiar with and its fretless mountain ancestor.

The first clue comes from the designation "fretless". Historically, the idea of a five string banjo is believed to have been conjured up around 1840. These original instruments were all fretless and it was not until the 1880's that fretted models became commercially available. Even then, many Southern Appalachian musicians found that little pieces of wire stuck into their smooth hardwood fingerboards inhibited their playing styles and chose to ignore this modern contrivance until well after the turn of the century.

Learning to play a fretless banjo is initially a bit more challenging than playing a fretted model. However, the mystery of exactly where to place your fingers can be easily solved by borrowing a technique from beginning fiddle players. Locate the appropriate positions and mark them with a thin strip of tape applied to the fingerboard across the full width of the neck. Once your fingers and ears become trained, the tape is easily removed. Another helpful hint is to be aware of any outstanding physical characteristics on the neck (for example-a dark spot in the grain or the position of the fifth string tuning peg) that can be used as permanent points of reference.

The tuners are tapered wooden pegs in a tapered hole, similar to the setup on a fiddle. The amount of pressure required to turn the peg can be adjusted by varying how far the peg is pushed into the hole. Ideally, you want the peg loose enough to turn but tight enough not to slip once it is set. If you are accustomed to modern geared tuners, the basic wooden ones will seem harsh because their 1:1 ratio requires a much more delicate touch than the 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of geared tuners. I've had the most success using what I call "back up tuning" where I initially loosen the tuning peg ¼ to ½ turn and slowly bring it back up to the desired pitch. The more the tuning pegs are used, the smoother they will become. They are coated with "peg dope" that can be had inexpensively at your local music store. I would lightly redope the pegs whenever the strings are changed.

The neck of your mountain banjo is carved from well-seasoned hardwood. Unlike many modern banjos, it does not contain any type of steel reinforcing rod. For this reason, it is suggested that you avoid leaving your mountain banjo tuned in any key (like "A") that produces exaggerated amounts of stress (string tension) on the neck. Retuning to the key of "G" before putting your banjo away for extended periods of time will keep the stress on the neck to a minimum. Tuning in the key of "C" is even better.

The banjo is strung with what are commonly known as "light gauge" strings (1st - .095, 2nd - .011, 3rd - .012, 4th - .020 wound, and 5th - .095). When you replace strings, it is not necessary to have these exact sizes; however, it is suggested that you do specify "light gauge". Some discerning musicians feel heavier gauge strings produce a more old-timey sound. Lighter gauge strings are easier to play, less likely to buzz, and exert less pressure on the neck. If you want to go for an old-time sound and don't mind sacrificing some volume, try experimenting with nylon guitar strings or even just nylon fishing line. Regardless of your selection, if you change the diameter of a string, you must adjust the slots in the nut and bridge to match.

A groundhog hide banjo head is an extremely durable item which, when combined with easy availability, contributed to its popularity in the mountains. There are reports of original groundhog head banjos, over 50 years old, that continue to give good service. The main drawback to any instrument with any natural hide head (this also includes older styles of drums) is the effect of humidity on the tightness of the head. The higher the humidity, the more moisture the hide will absorb and the duller the tone will become. This condition is much more of a concern to a bluegrass picker than an old-time clawhammer player, who in all probability prefers a more plunky sound.

Owners of drums and bracketed banjos have a mechanical means to re-tension their heads in order to compensate for excess moisture in the air. The mountain banjo was obviously designed and perfected by individuals who would rather spend their time making music than tinkering with their instruments.

If you notice that the head has developed some extra sag due to high humidity, relax the strings while the head is still damp and let it recover in a low humidity environment like air conditioning. If you forget to loosen the strings while the head is extremely damp, it will not recover its original position when it drys. This will affect things like string height, tone and volume.

For long-term storage or shipping, the bridge should rest on the wooden hoop. This is accomplished by grasping the ends of the bridge with the thumb and middle finger, applying a slight upward pressure (lift) and sliding the bridge toward the peghead.

I hope that this bit of information will answer some questions as well as provide you with some technical and historical background on your new instrument. If I can be of any further assistance, please feel free to contact me. And thanks for pickin' a Noteworthy Instrument!

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