Warren from Thunder Bay Ontario, writes:
Dear Dr. Banjo. I have a Fender Delux 5 string and was wondering if changing the strings to either a different make or firmness would change the tone. I am looking for a crisper tone and am not sure if it is the strings, the banjo make, the skin or my playing. Any suggestions?
Everything you’ve named has a possible effect on the tone. For added crispness, the most straightforward changes are:
- Tightening the head. Go around the brackets one by one, tightening each a little at a time, then check to see how you like it. If you want more or less crispness, tighten or loosen to taste.
- Changing the strings. Strings on more than a few weeks have a good chance of sounding dead (especially if played a lot, or in humid climates).
- Lighter gauge strings generally have a clearer high end, though they can lack “stoutness”. Something to experiment with.
- The player can be a big factor (“It’s not the car, it’s the driver.” — Allen Shelton). This is a large subject, but picking a bit closer to the bridge will crisp up the playing. It can also kill the warm part of the sound, so adjust carefully. Same with picking angle and hand position. The best thing I can say about that in a short space: Play something easy at an easy tempo and try to concentrate on the *sound* only. Then try different positionings, style and angle of pick attack, etc. When it starts sounding better to you, stay with it and make it a habit!
- Banjo make is certainly a factor, but generally, if the player practices with clear intention to improve the sound, usually he or she can get pretty close to the intended sound on any good banjo. Setup and picking factors as discussed above will be most of the equation, with type of banjo affecting the ease of getting there.
Other setup factors include bridge material, shape, and thickness, tailpiece height, head thickness, and probably many more. Generally, thinness and tightness go with crispness. A big subject.
This is the kind of thing we work on a lot at my banjo camps. Hopefully you’ll be able to come sometime.
Best of luck with your sound!