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
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
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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