Banjo Setup with Richie Dotson

I have been asked a lot of questions about banjo setup over the years.  Some questions are from professional musicians and other setup artists about my approach to a common setup topic like head tension or tailpiece adjustment.  There is usually a strong knowledge base attached to questions from this audience.  When a person who is just starting their journey down the path of banjo setup the questions are far more difficult to answer, mostly because the person asking the question isn’t always clear about what they are asking.  I get that… we were all there at some point.

If you own a banjo it would greatly benefit you to learn to do things like:
Change the Strings
Change out a bridge and set the intonation
Adjust the truss rod
Adjust the tension on your banjo head
Change your banjo head
Dismantle and reassemble your banjo

The above list may seem commonplace to some of us, but as you travel down the list they items may seem more and more daunting if not impossible.  I’m not advocating that with no experience with such things that you start tearing your banjo apart one piece at a time but I am encouraging you to learn on little thing at a time about how your banjo works as you go along so you aren’t intimidated by it.

I was the child who took EVERYTHING apart that I owned from my toys and radios to my banjo.  When I was in my early teens my father paid $550.00 cash for my first real banjo.  It was a Fender Leo Deluxe and it was miles ahead of my Savoy, aluminum unicast pot banjo with the rosewood bridge and the golden eagle adorned resonator.  Even though the Fender was a Japanese import it certainly held it’s own compared to some of the domestic offerings of the time.  When I learned that bridges and heads could be changed I was on it!

My dad walked into the living room from work one day to discover that I had taken my banjo completely apart.  I most definitely got “the look” but he also knew how I was and that given my track record, I’d most likely have it back together and playing by the end of the day… and I did.  After that, every time I raised enough money to buy a different banjo head I would take the banjo apart again.  After amassing several different heads, tailpieces, bridges (in different heights, mind you) I would take my banjo apart just to change something out.

I learned quite a bit about the banjo during those early years.  Looking back, I sure wish I had my 50 year old self guiding my 14 year old self but those experiences were invaluable and coupled with my natural curiosity and mechanical proclivity brought me to the place I’m standing today.  Even if you aren’t the odd child who did what I did you should still learn (at very least in theory) one thing at a time about your banjo that you can adjust or change because you will benefit from it.

Tone… or good tone, is in the ear of the listener and is largely objective.  Head brands, bridges, the gap at the tension hoop, tailpiece choice, tailpiece height, truss rod adjustment, string gauge, nut material, nut setup, nut contact, neck attachment points and tightness, neutrality of the coordinator rods… and the list goes on and on.  This isn’t to say that some aren’t more important or have more influence over tone, power and balance than others, but they are all important and they all work together.  knowing how to check each one and knowing what to look for, listen for and correct or adjust these is a matter of copious amounts of time and experience.

I will expand on this introductory page with a series of articles with photographs and videos as I am able.  This will hopefully open up some doors for you and create a positive environment in which you can start exploring banjo setup and a whole lot more.

Thank you for taking the time to read this  and I look forward to your next visit.  Keep checking back as I add material.

Richie Dotson

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