Banjo head tuning…

Banjo head tuning…

How does one check that the drum-like head on banjo type instruments is ‘tuned’ to an optimum? And how does one adjust it if necc?

Re: Banjo head tuning…

I usually place a ruler across the center of the head and then check the gap between the bottom of the ruler and the head, at the bridge, using a coin as a gauge. What I am doing is checking the head deflection at the bridge, which is an indicator of the tension. I use a US quarter, which is close to 0.070" thickness, tightening the tension hooks gradually until the coin just fits under the ruler while touching the head. I try to make sure that the tension hoop is sitting level on the rim the whole time. For a banjo with an 11" head diameter, this amount of deflection seems to be a good starting point for the head tension. Once the gap is set, if I am not happy with the tone, I find it best to make very small adjustments at the tension hooks while listening to the resulting tone changes. (This is done with the banjo strung up to normal string tension).
This procedure has a name. It’s often called the "Steve Davis Head Tension Method". If you do an internet search on that title I’m sure you will find the detailed steps.
One reason I like this method of setting the head tension is because I use a natural calf skin head and am always anxious about breaking it, either directly by tightening the hooks too much, or by setting the tension very high and then having a drop in humidity dry the head and cause it to split. This is not so much of a concern if you have a plastic head installed. But with the .070" deflection I am satisfied with the tone and no head splitting, so far at least.
There are other ways to set head tension, e.g. using a drum dial, or tapping the head and listening for a certain note, etc. I have tried these, but prefer the simplicity of the ruler/coin approach.

Re: Banjo head tuning…

Interesting approach, Graham, I’ll have to try it. I use a Drum Dial, as he had mentioned. The Drum Dial is a fairly sensitive instrument that has a spring loaded plunger that measures how far it can push into the head. I usually set 11" banjos up so that the head is somewhere between 89 and 91 on the drum dial, when measured out close to the tone ring. The nice thing about the Drum Dial is that you can check the tension all the way around the head, and if you have it even all the way around, the head isn’t being torqued or pulled unevenly, which allows it to resonate better. (On 12" banjos, I usually have it at 92-93 out by the tone ring).

But every banjo is different, and there are a lot of differences between the different head materials. So I start with a setting of 89, and then I make little adjustments until I like the sound… (using the Drum Dial to make sure that it’s even, once I’ve found the tension I like).

Re: Banjo head tuning…

Thank you chaps!

Re: Banjo head tuning…

The best set-ups I’ve ever done used the method Reverend describes above.