Dave from Surrey, England writes:

Dear Pete,

During the latter part of last year, I purchased a copy of your video “Beginning Bluegrass Banjo”.The problem I have is replicating the sound that you get with your banjo on the video.

I have spent a lot of time (and money) on different strings, bridges, picks, tailpieces and heads, and even used a protractor to set up bridge angles, but I cannot get that sound. In the video, you recommend GHS strings – I have tried those too, but still cannot get that crisp ringing sound that you have.I would appreciate any information that you could give me to replicate that lovely sound.

Please could you let me have the following information about the banjo that you play in the video? I would like to know:

    • make and year of instrument.
    • make and thickness of banjo head.
    • what bridge you use.
    • what strings you use.
    • what tailpiece you use.

My banjo is a Gibson Mastertone Earl Scruggs standard, which I bought last year from Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island, NY .If it means changing my instrument to get the sound as in your video, I would be happy to do so.

Dear Dave,

It’s flattering to be asked such a question in such a thoughtful way. There is a lot to say about banjo sound, and it’s one of the reasons the book Masters of the Five String Banjo is so thick! You can get a pretty thorough idea of my opinions and choices re banjo tone by reading the interview with me in the book. Both the interview and the video tape you have are from 1985, so that should work nicely. The banjo I used from 1966-1988 is a Gibson RB-1 from the early 30s. I used a standard Remo head, GHS strings (10, 12, 16, 24, 10), Price tailpiece and custom, pretty thin bridge. Although in 1988 I got a different “main banjo”, my tonal taste and the concepts behind getting good tone are the same.

In 1988 I got a new Gibson Granada and started using it as my main banjo. I put a thicker-than-normal head on it, 11 thousandths, made by Ludwig. I had a bridge made of 11/16″ height, shaped very similarly to a standard Gibson bridge (made by Grover). I still use the same gauge GHS strings, and the tailpiece is a standard Gibson Presto style tailpiece.

Tone starts with a clear idea of what you want to hear, and it happens when the picker works hard to get it. Most of the result is thanks to the right hand. Developing a strong but sensitive touch is critical. Factors like: just how hard to hit, and how far from the bridge, and with what picking motion, are hard to describe exactly, but are guided by the picker’s idea of what sounds best. You just have to experiment. After a while, experimentation leads to forming habits in getting the sound that pleases you the best.

At my intermediate and advanced banjo camps we work a lot on tone. Most people would get better tone if they just dug in a little harder, but that doesn’t mean louder is simply better– it has to be controlled and stay sweet. But digging in more tends to project a bigger tone, and then it can be modified to less volume by altering the touch. It takes time, but it’s worth it!

Good luck getting your best tone, and I hope to help you with it in person some time. (I will be performing at the end of June in England at the A-1 Festival in Peterborough).

Pete Wernick