Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

When I made the jump from mandolin to tenor banjo many years ago, I got a short scale tenor banjo. I am perfectly content with this size ( I am roughly the same dimensions as a Keebler Elf myself so the scale is perfect) However, over the past few years or so, I have been suffering from "the grass is greener" syndrome wanting a new full size banjo. For those of you who have made the switch from 17 to 19 frets, what are the best things about it for you? Tone? Ease of triplets? Any regrets making the switch/stretch up?

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Hey JNE,

I found the switch difficult at first, but rewarding in the long run. It has helped me develop a better way of holding my hand. Much looser and relaxed. And I’m not afraid to move my hand to reach the B or C.

You should definitely break the habit (if you have it) of anchoring your left hand on the knuckle of the first finger, and pivoting on it. If you do that, you’ll soon end up bruising that knuckle trying to reach the higher notes.

The good news is that moving to 19 fret also helped me get comfortable switching scale lengths, and I don’t have any problem going from mandolin to banjo to long-scale bouzouki.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Oh, and it’s pretty rare, IMO to find a 17 fret banjo that sounds as good as a 19 fret. Talking to Chuck at Ome, he has always refused to build 17 fret banjos, because they just don’t sound as good.

BTW, that Orpheum still has your name on it πŸ˜‰

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Ha, well I just went the other way, from 19 to 17. delighted, can just stretch for the highB.. lovely old Weyman. So as far as I am concerned….

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

I play a 19 fret - started on 19 actually. I have played other people’s 17 frets but find it too small - probably just a habit thing. You can get more notes out of the 19 frets which is particularly useful for tunes like "The Mason’s Apron" - or anything that you can move up the neck. Also, if you feel that way inclined, it is easier to capo up as well.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Reverend - I may be impulsive when it comes to betting on baseball, but with something like this, it takes me forever to make a decision. How’s that old joke go? "I used to be indecisive, but now, um, I’m not so sure…"

Anyway I’ve begun selling off some of my old instruments, so if that Orpheum is still around in a few months, I might give youse a call.

Incidentally, I played my buddy’s 19 fret May Bell last night and had no trouble hitting the B on Musical Priest in stride - so really I guess I’m just looking for validation from other banjo loonies that spending more money on an instrument that I don’t really need will actually be worth it. Oy - it’s quite sad that I come to a place like this looking for validation isn’t it? πŸ˜‰

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

I started on a 17 fret and moved to a 19 after one year. I had the advantage of having very long fingers so 19 frets wasn’t a problem for me. I personally think, of the vintage banjos, 19 frets win hands down for tone but, David Boyle has made a nice 17 fret banjo and Tom Cussen’s aren’t bad. Having said that, I prefer vintage banjos anyway.

I’d say its worth making the step up. Forgive me if this is a bad deterent but a few months ago I was playing my 17 fret in a local session (my 19 fret was under repair). A female banjo player came up to me and asked:

"Is this you normal banjo Paddy?"
-"No, I started out on this one and havn’t sold it. My other one needs repairing."

She replied-

"Oh, yes. It does seem more ‘feminine’ alright!"

So, just a small point. ;)

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

I have a 17 fret, sounds great, the only trouble I have is the G string never quite seems right, I understand this is a problem associated with 17 fretters. I’ve played a good few 19 fretters, but none have been comparable to my 17 fret, so I can’t comment on the tonal advantages or disadvantages, just that I find mine easier in general

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Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Perfect for indecisive folks, my Weyman is 18 frets. I think some old Gibsons are like that, too. I also have a 19 fret Ludwig and I don’t find there’s much difference in the stretch.

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Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Sean, I gather a heavier string might help with the G.perhaps?……

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

JNE,
Why did you move up?
Does it (19 fret) seriously make a difference in sound? I never knew that….

I have a 19, but capo the second…
I’d say that’ll make a few folk cringe - but I’ve done that for a good while now. IT just suits my banjo.

I’m actually sending mine into get it set up this week - I’ve never done this before, if I get it back sounding much better, I’ll be delighted.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Jig,
I’ve done that before - but that made the rest of the strings respond badly.Tuning, ratting issues…I tried to change the others up too, but then they were a little too hard to play….
I haven’t a rashers about my banjo. Its true.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Hugo - I haven’t switched yet - I’m still on my 17 fret. I’m just after soliciting opinions from those who have switched. In regards to the tweaky G string - based on the good Reverend Pete’s recommendation, I have invested a few bucks in a Snuffy Smith bridge which I’m told helps correct that problem. I hope to have it soon and will post the results here for all other curious short scale players.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

I play a short neck D’Oole and use guitar strings. They are 11, 16, plain and 32, 40 wound. I’m very happy with the tone.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Hugo - What tuning is you banjo then? CGDA on fret 2 is DAEB which seems most likely but I don’t know how you could play on fret 2 of GDAE tuning (effectively AEBF#) which changing the whole fingering completely.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

If your 17 fret banjo sounds well. then keep it. If it does not, buy another 17 fret banjo.
I own a 19 fret banjo and I love it. But if I was to get new banjo for ITM I would buy a 17 fret no doubt about it.
About tone, I think it is a matter of quality of the banjo not the number of frets. Why make playing more complicated, stick to your 17 fret.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Hi Paddy, hope you are well.
I tune FCGD Then Capo the second - Making it GDAE.
Sending 3 of them into Baldoyle ind. Estate on Thursday - No that place?
S

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Oh right, that’s handy alright. I’ve heard of that place before. Is it northside?

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Yes. Unless you are thinking of the Baldoyle on the Southside, that doesn’t exist.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Hey Jusa,

What is different about a Snuffy Smith bridge?

When I google I get a zillion hits to guys selling the things, but I can’t make out what distinguishes them from the run of the mill banjo bridge. I’d be interested in this as I recently adjusted my bridge angle radicaly in an attempt to improve G string intonation (below).

I play a 17 fretter from Tommy Cussans that I love. I was given a 19 fretter, also from TC but a more expensive model, as a big surprise present a couple of years back. I like both, the 19 fretter has a great bass sound but feels a little weak, on balance at least, on the e-string. I’m not sure if the bassiness is _entirely _ down to the extra length though I do think part of the different sound is due to it being a different model. The tone is good on both, although I think better on the 19 freter, but I like the contast in sounds. My playing is better on the 17 fretter, possibly partly due to familiarity, but if I play the longer scale for a couple of days (or hours) then switch back the 17 fretter seems so much easier to play.I generally have the smaller scale lying about the house outside the case and for session playing. I dig out the 19 fretter for occasional work outs and take it to ceilis, primarily so that my wife doesn’t think I don’t value her present (it is a little bit too showily decorated for me to feel comfortable with it down the pub, I like to sink into the background).

On the G string problems. LIke Sean, I’ve never been happy with down the years playing on the G. Open G, A & B fine. C/C# though, they never felt right, never seemed quite in tune. I always put it down to technique, (and still place much of the blame there).

However, recently investing in one of those new fangled vibration tuner thingies (I know that is a can of worms, but it makes much easier initail tuning of a mandolin in a noisey pub) I checked intonation up the kneck it was clear to me that there was a problem with set up. The 12th fret E and A were spot on and D fine. G however was considerable out at this position, and working back not quite right at the 5th (hah, not just slopy technique). I found I had to place my bridge at a surprisingly sharp angle to have the 12 fret of the G in tune with open. I made this adjustment a few weeks back now & I’m much happier with playing on the G as a reult. My bridge position does look noticeably odd to my eyes, but the banjo tuning I’m sure is much better. Might be an underlying set up problem with my banjo, but it might be worthwhile checking out the bridge postion on your own machine, Sean.

Apols for rambling on so long - Chris

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

"kneck"? the others I can ignore.

- Chris

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

The question about the difference between a Snuffy Smith bridge and all the others is a good one. I have tried about 30 different bridges on several different banjos, including about 20 bridges of different woods made by our own Mike Keyes, but the Snuffy is all around the best sounding bridge of them all. In looking at the bridge, I can’t tell you what the difference is, other than the fact that the bridge leans back toward the tailpiece a bit. Other than that, it is simply a well made bridge.

You have to take a lot of things into account when dealing with intonation problems on the G string. String gauge, the gauge of the core of the wrapped string, string tension, and action height all come into play, and on several of my vintage banjos, I ended up with the bass end of the bridge slanted back. My Ome has a radiused fingerboard, and originally came with a radiused Snuffy Smith bridge. I had some intonation issues with that, and went to a flat Snuffy bridge (for playability reasons). But the flat bridge actually worked out the intonation issues as well - strange!

I highly recommend using a string tension calculator to figure out the best gauges for you banjo. If you can get the tension to be similar on all four of the strings, that can help! I use Dan M’s java applet at http://www.pacificsites.net/~dog/StringTensionApplet.html.

And you might also look at your neck angle setup. If your action is high, you’ll only exaggerate the intonation differences, because you’re bending the strings too far to get to the frets.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

This thread has morphed from a 17 fret vs. 19 fret dialogue to one on setup. While I have some opinions on the different fret lengths, they are just opinions with no real data to back them up other than the fact that many more high end banjos were made with 19 frets (for reasons not related very much to ITM) so many more 19 fret banjos sound better.

With setup, however, there are reproduceable differences that you can hear and feel in your banjo. The easiest things you can do to your banjo to change the sound is to tweak the head tension and change the bridge. From my experience, very few Irish tenor players know much about setup nor do they even try various head tensions.

I grant you that for a beginner tightening the tension bolts is daunting. What if the banjo head explodes (what if my head explodes?) Will I hurt the banjo? How do I know if I am doing the right thing? etc.

I can say two things about almost every banjo that is played in ITM: They are not tuned optimally, and they all have a signature sound.

17 fret banjos do sound different from 19 fret banjos of the same make. The difference is in the length/mass of the neck which by definition is different. The ensuing sound may or may not be pleasant, but that is an issue of taste. 17 fret banjos are easier to play if you use mandolin fingering, but they have a tendency to be harder to intonate and they are not as bright or complex in sound. Individual instruments may vary, I know mine do.

Once a banjo leaves the factory, no matter how well setup they are (and usually they don’t have the best bridge or strings on them) the brand new head will continue to stretch. When the final owner gets it six to twelve months later, the head will have changed noticably and the tension will have loosened up considerably. Unless your dealer is nice enough to do another setup for you, you will have to do it yourself.

Mostly this means tightening the head in small increments until your ear tells you that the sound is the best the banjo can produce. Then you can mess with bridges, strings, tailpieces, and picks. If you are really not satisfied, then the long journey of changing heads begins. At some point you have to give in to the reality that the number of permutations in a banjo probably runs to 85 to the 42nd power and you won’t have time to try them all.

The reason that people like Snuffy bridges (and I count myself as one) is that they are well made, consistent as a wooden object can be, and are made of the finest materiels. There are other good bridge makers out there (visit http://www.banjosessions.org for more on that) whose products are equally well made. Each banjo has a slightly different set of needs, so like Pete said, you will have to try out a few before you find the best one. There is no one best bridge for a class of banjos.

Each maker imbues a special sound to their banjos. The older jazz musicians can tell a Vega from a B&D in about two microseconds. Most of the time banjos are pleasing to the ear (I am assuming you are all banjo players) and the issues of richness of tone and complexity are more important than signature sound.

In the bluegrass world millions of words are wasted on arguing over which component will make your banjo sound like Earl Scrugg’s banjo. We don’t have that issue here but having a crisp G string, an equal sound over the range of strings, and a clear sound is important. In general, these are issues of setup.

I have entry level Slingerlands that sound great because they have the right head, the right head tension, the right bridge, and the right tailpiece. I have heard expensive banjos that sound terrible because they are not set up well. But I have rarely heard a banjo that I didn’t like once it was setup well, even the cheapest banjos out there.

As long as you can hear the G string and it is playable, any banjo can do. I do have banjos I like better than others, in fact I have one that is superior to almost every banjo I have heard, but that is (again) in the realm of the subjective, you may not agree.

So the issues of which banjos are better often comes down to the ear of the beholder. As long as the banjo is intact and playable, most banjos can be made to sound good. Each banjo has some inherent limitation (volume, richness of tone, comfort - my Leedy hurts to play at times because of the weird resonator digging into my leg, signature sound) but they all have their wonderful qualities, too.

Not that a fiddle player would ever agree :grin:

Mike Keyes
Http://www.mikekeyes.com
http://www.banjosessions.com

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

I began on 17 frets (1973), moved to 19 (1998), back to 17 (2000) then (finally I think) back to 19 (2005).

The longer scale of the 19f gives better sound overall. 4th string intonation problems on 17f can largely be overcome by good technique and sensible stringing, but in the final analysis, the longer leaner strings (tension for tension) of 19f sound better, whilst top B can be mastered by good technique, even by one as digitally challenged as I am.

If you do identical setups on matching 17f and 19f examples of any given tenor banjo model you will quickly understand the effects and limitations of 17 frets. You also will quickly learn that optimum setups for the two patterns are usually very different.

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Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Great posts one and all - you’ve given me quite a bit to think about.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Well I manage all my leaps on the banjo high D,E,etc. but with some tunes say sleepy maggie and others that switch between the high and mid B, at top speed, I just find it easier if I dont have to shift position, I tend to play in first position mind .The thing is for me banjo is not my first instrument, so I simply dont have as much time to devote to it.

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Thanks Rev & Mike for your helpful posts.

For what it is worth I don’t think it is the high b stretch as such that makes me prefer playing my 17 fret. I mostly use "guitar " style fingering and tend to shift my home postion up 1 fret by default when I go to the e-string on many tunes, so that my index "home" is over the g. Perversely in certain tunes this makes the F(#) more of a nuisance than the high b. I think my preference is largely through familiarity.

Anyone know what bridges Tom Cussen uses on his banjos? I can’t find this info on his website.

Cheers - Chris

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

Jig- tried that, I have very heavy strings on, can’t remember off hand. .046 sound about right? I dunno!

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Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

well mike keyes has a lot to say about set up. perhaps try some of his advice…..

Re: Switching from a 17 fret banjo to a 19 fret banjo - any regrets?

I play a 17 fret 1914 Vega Whyte Laydie with 10 3/4 inch head, this banjo will hold it’s own against ANY 19 fret tenor.

People shouldn’t generalise too much about instruments.

Dave H