This guest post is brought to us by Betty Fisher, who takes lessons from Casey and regularly attends the Tip Jar Jams.

So it’s New Year’s Eve and I am picking up my banjo for the first time in more days than I care to admit. (Sorry Casey and Murphy. You can kick me later.)

I had gone through my repertoire and have now capoed up to A. I don’t know what happened but somehow things got badly out of tune and I seriously over cranked the first string and it snapped. Scared the bejeebers out of me! (Couple of bad words flew.) So now I knew I had to re-string it. I had bought new strings on the advice of Murphy after the last jam that I attended. She told me if I was the least bit mechanically inclined, I could do it on my own. I am mechanically inclined. Having been a previous surgical nurse, there were many occasions when I had to get a malfunctioning piece of equipment working again in the middle of surgery while a surgeon stomped his feet and yelled, “Just fix it!” Also there is a very embarrassing story (for my husband) about a broken washing machine that he couldn’t fix, but I did in about 5 minutes….but I digress.

...continue reading

Red Henry

Folks, I'm writing this from Nashville, Tennessee. Murphy and I are over here for a few days to visit with Casey and her brand-new son, Dalton Whitfield Henry.

Of course this means that Murphy and I are having a great time seeing Casey and the baby. But it also means that nobody's at home right now, sending out DVDs! But keep on placing your orders, because I should be back at work on Monday, sending them out. Till them, play a tune for little Dalton.


Murphy Henry

Oh, goody, oh, goody I can hear some of you saying. Finally a blog about something mechanical! As many of you know, I don’t get too excited about the fascinating-to-some world of banjo parts: tone rings, rims, stretcher bands, bridges, tail pieces, head tension, strings, and, yes, picks. I don’t like to tinker with my banjo. I find something I like, often by accident, and I stick with it. (Okay, I did move to light gauge strings because I read that J.D. Crowe used light gauge.)

Furthermore (and here’s the lecture!) I’ve often found that students often tinker with their banjos in lieu of practicing. Note: changing your bridge will not cure all your banjo-picking ills. Nor will changing your picks. Or strings. Still and yet, I know that tinkering is fun for some of you and I certainly don’t begrudge you that enjoyment. After you practice!

Having said all that, someone gave me a thumb pick the other day that I really like. On the pick is the word "COOL” and below that “Beta-medium.” It’s clear plastic, tinted light yellow (maybe even amber?) and it gives an excellent tone when I play. Equally important, it feels good on my thumb. It fits perfectly—good and tight—with no reshaping required. (As you might imagine, I’m not big on having to reshape a thumb pick. Been there, done that. Find it a pain.) In fact, it reminds me a lot of the clear Dobro thumb picks I still use. The initial fit is a bit smoother, though, and the tip is not as pointed. The Dobro picks always took some wearing down to feel exactly right. (And, yes, I did occasionally rouse myself to round the tip off with a file.)

In the Olden Days I used to use the old, tortoise-shell-colored National thumb picks. In fact, when we first visited Winchester I thought finding a cache of those very thumb picks was one of the “signs” that we should move here. I bought them all, but, alas, over the years the plastic turned brittle and the ones I was holding in reserve all broke when I put them on. Very sad. And while the new Nationals looked much the same they were made out of a softer plastic and I didn’t like the tone they gave. I tried Golden Gate for a while (good, hard plastic but a little too tight on my thumb) before moving on to the Dobro brand. And now I find myself liking these “Cool” picks.

Several of my students are using them and they also seem to like them just fine. I have heard these students say that these picks are supposed to be “microwavable” to get the perfect fit, but I’ve not heard any reports of this actually happening.

I’m sure you can Google these picks and find out more about them, but I thought I’d give you my up-close-and-personal report. As always, we welcome your comments!

Casey Henry

A couple weeks ago Red blogged about types of banjo heads. About that same time I got this question from a student:

All the coating is worn off mine in the place you would expect...I notice that about every banjo player I go to see has a nice clean new looking banjo head. Other than appearance, is there any reason I should strongly consider putting a new head on? Also, in your very valued opinion, is there a significant difference between brands? Are there some I should use, and just as importantly, some I should avoid? In a related banjo head wear typically something that decreases as a players skills increase? --Jeff in Iowa

Those are all good questions. How a head looks has absolutely nothing to do with how it sounds (with respect to wear anyway). Heads naturally get worn over the course of playing on them for many years. I think the head on my old Gibson has been on there longer than I've been alive. You may want it to look clean and new, but other than that, there's no reason to change it. However, if you notice that your banjo has suddenly, drastically started sounding different---for no obvious reason---that may be an indication that there is a crack in the head. Often heads crack along the outer edge where you can't see it. In that case you definitely want to change it. That crack isn't getting any smaller!

There is a difference between brands, but it's mostly a personal preference. Some are made out of different material, some are slightly thicker, or thinner, or have thicker frosting, and all those factors will contribute to how it sounds. But there are no absolute right or wrongs here. You just have to try them and see if you like how they sound on your banjo. (Red wrote about some of those differences in his post.)

Regarding head wear and skill level: the two are not related. Your head gets worn as a result of how much you move your right hand. If you keep it very still---fingers always anchored in exactly the same place---you'll only get one little spot of wear. If you move around a lot, you'll naturally get a larger worn area. You'll also get less wear if you change banjos a lot. If you just own one and always play it, then it will wear faster. (Also, if you wash your hands a lot, your head will stay cleaner...) None of those factors have anything to do with skill level.

I hope this has cleared up some of your banjo head questions. Remember the most important thing is not to tinker with your banjo but to play it!!

Red Henry

We recently received a question from a student, asking about the head on his banjo. In this case, the banjo had had a clear head on it before he bought it, but has a white head on it now. He asked whether this affected the sound.

Well, there's no one answer. Banjo heads are like bridges or strings: Some banjos (or banjo players) sound best with one kind, some with another. But there are a few guidelines which we can glean from experience:

1. Sometimes, the clear heads are thicker than the white ones. This means that they may have a fuller sound (or, to put it another way, they may not give as much clarity on some banjos). Some banjos like one kind of head best, some like another.

2. As I recall, the Stewart-MacDonald 5-Star heads may be a bit thinner than the Remo Weather-King heads. This means, again, that a banjo might give more fullness and volume with the thicker head, but might obtain more high end and clarity with the thinner one. Does this all sound confusing? That's because it is. Every banjo is different!

3. Some banjos really like the heavier, textured, imitation-leather heads. Those heads go best on banjos that have plenty of volume and high end already, and have plenty of power to make the heavier heads sound good.

4. Some bluegrass pickers may want to experiment with real skin heads. A friend sent me a good-quality old skin head once, and I installed it on my pre-war Gibson banjo. I immediately saw why some older banjo players swear by skin heads! But I also understood why other players swear AT them. The good news is that putting a skin head on a a high-quality banjo may give you a more powerful sound, with more volume and dry tone, than any other kind of head. The bad news is that this is not true for all banjos, and even when it is, you probably need to adjust the head tension EVERY DAY to make sure the banjo will sound its best. There were good reasons why banjo players in the 1950s were really glad that plastic heads became available!

If you know as much about banjo heads now as you did before you read this, then you're doing well. The bottom line is that you have to try different heads out on every banjo to see which kind it likes best. You can also go on the Banjo Hangout and find people who will talk about banjo heads until the cows come home. But don't even think of changing the head until you have the strings, bridge, and head tension already adjusted to sound their best! -- and that is all another chapter.


Red Henry

Well, how often should you change them? I hear this question pretty frequently. The answer is, that it's up to you. How helpful is that?

Well, the reason is that everybody's strings need changing at different times. Some reasons are because (1) there are so many kinds of strings and they age differently; (2) people all play differently and their strings wear out (or corrode) faster or slower as a result; and (3) in different parts of the country (or the world) strings are just going to need changing more often.

So, what do you look for in deciding whether to change them? One thing can be obvious: buildup of corrosion or gunk on the string. This really happens a lot in warm, humid climates. If the buildup can't be removed with a little steel wool, then it'd definitely time to change strings! (When I was starting out, this happened on my mandolin strings every few days.)

Another sign is when the strings get hard to tune. Often it's because they're not sliding smoothly through the string-nut (that's the little white thing with slots at the bottom of the peghead). If you put on new strings, and when you're at it, put a little graphite -- pencil-lead dust will do-- in the bottoms of the little nut-slots, then the tuning should get a lot better.

Another sign of elderly strings might be that they don't play in tune. If you're pretty sure that your bridge is in the right place, but your banjo is still "noting out" more than usual up the neck, then new strings might be what you need.

One more sign of old strings may not be as obvious. If the instrument (banjo or otherwise) just doesn't sound right, the strings may have gotten too old to sound good at all. When does this happen? Well, this is the most extreme case of old strings, since it may take several months or a year for the strings to get this old.

Some players take extreme steps to keep new strings on their instruments, especially if they break a lot of strings. Back when we were playing a lot of festivals, I used to change the strings on both mandolins and both guitars every morning before we played our first set. That was a lot of work, but it helped keep the string-breakage to a minimum. Others take a different approach. I've heard that Bill Monroe changed his mandolin strings once a year, at New Year's, and from then on just changed them as they broke (which they did, pretty often).

Now, this all applies to the fretted instruments. Fiddle strings seem to fall into a different category. I've known fiddle players who changed their strings every few months, but as for myself, if the fiddle gets new strings every five years, that's a lot. I suspect that the strings on my fiddle now have been on it for longer than that!

So the answer to the question is, that it's up to you yourself to decide when to change strings. There are a lot of reasons for changing them (better tone, volume, and tuning), and there are plenty of reasons for just leaving them on there (less hassle with awkward work, and less risk of getting your banjo or mandolin bridge out of place in the string-changing process, among other things). But if you go in for a lesson and your teacher takes one look at your strings and turns as green as they are, then it's time.

Red Henry

Red Henry

As many of you know, I make one-piece maple mandolin bridges, and we offer them on our website. A week or two ago I mentioned that for bluegrass mandolins, I was thinking of going back to an older model I used a few years ago, which featured "wings" on the ends of the bridge. This bridge-type might deliver a few percent less volume than my standard design, but is has advantages in the low end richness, sweetness, and sustain it produces:

Well, I have made the change. For bluegrass mandolins, I'll be offering this 6-hole winged bridge. For other bridges, to go on oval-hole and round-hole mandolins, my regular 11-hole and 6-hole designs will continue to sound great; the wings don't seem to matter as much on those kinds of mandolins.

Interested? If you have any questions, drop me a line at .

Red Henry

Red Henry

Maple mandolin bridges are still catching on, though slowly. So far I've sold almost 700 of them myself. Over the last 7 or 8 years I've gone through a few different models of the bridges, and I'm considering making another change.

For the last four years or so, my standard bridge has been an 11-hole model, which seems to give the best overall response-- combination of tone and volume-- on the majority of mandolins. I decided on this maple-bridge type after trying 30 or so designs in about 25 different woods. Here's a pic:

But lately I've been thinking about the winged bridges I made at first, which often gave the richest and bassiest tone, deeply desired by many bluegrass mandolin pickers because quite a few bluegrass mandolins don't have much bass. The volume it gave, however, was a few percent less than with other bridge designs.

But I've found now that a slightly-modified version of those old winged bridges will give both (1) the rich tone most bluegrass players want and (2) almost as much volume as an 11-hole bridge. I have made several of these bridges, and really like the sound. This would be a mandolin bridge specifically for Bluegrass:

--so if there is some demand for it, I may produce this modified winged design for use on bluegrass mandolins. How about it, bluegrass mandolin players? Is enhancing your mandolin's low end as important for you as it is for others? I may put these bridges into production. Let me know.


Casey Henry

Casey Henry

As I sit here staring at my blank computer screen trying to figure out what to blog about, something of necessity banjo related, something that will be interesting to you, as opposed to blogging about the amazing roasted cauliflower I made last night for supper, I hit upon the subject of tone rings. Now, tone rings are not very interesting to me. I don’t really care about banjos in a technical way – when peopple start talking about switching parts and trying to get that pre-war sound my eyes immediately glaze over. But people don’t believe me even when I tell them this in so many words. I don’t care what a banjo IS – the wood, the metal, the strings, the picks – I only care if I like the way it sounds or not. And I’m not interested in trying to improve the sound. Once I have a sound that is satisfactory to me, I’m done. I’ll play it for the rest of my life.

I tell you all this so that when I tell you that yesterday I played a banjo that had a tone ring that I a.) noticed and b.) fell in love with, you’ll realize how amazing the experience has to be to get past my very high level of not caring about banjo parts.

Steve Huber has been working on a new tone ring. He said his original ring was “the” ring, but apparently it wasn’t. This new ring is “the” ring. And I had absoultely no interest in trying it out, because I don’t care. But yesterday a friend of mine put his banjo in my hands and said “pick something on it,” and I did, because it would have been rude not to. And holy. Crap. It was freakin awesome. I don’t think I’d ever played that banjo before, so I have no basis for comparison, but I could have played it for a long time. (Actually, I couldn’t have because my next student was standing there, waiting for me to be done.) It had one of Steve’s prototype rings in it and those thirty seconds that I played it were enough to have me considering which banjo of mine I might be able to put one of those rings in. And that hasn’t happened in the eleven years since I got a Huber ring put in my style 11.

So I just wanted to share. I don’t think the rings are on the market yet, and I’m sure they will be expensive, but they may quite possibly be worth it.

Red Henry

Red Henry

Now, this little blog isn't about banjo picks, so rest easy that there won't be any battles started about those. There are as many opinions about banjo picks as there are banjo players!

But today's story is about FLATPICKS. We sometimes take them for granted, but not everyone knows what they are. Once a lady had seen our ad for the "Flatpicking Guitar DVD", and called us to ask, "What does 'flat picking' mean?" Well, we did our best to explain, but if you don't know what a flatpick is, then this won't mean much to you.

I have a particular, favorite kind of flatpick. These were made of a particular kind of plastic by just a few companies (such as Gibson), and they're no longer made. Well, I had hoarded about a dozen of these picks, and I used or lost less than one a year, thinking they were a lifetime supply. Then, about a year ago, I put them in a safe place.

Well, you know what that means. I lost them. They were so safe that I couldn't remember where I'd put them. I looked in every great "safe place" I could think of. I only had two of the picks that I hadn't put away, and I thought maybe those two would have to be my lifetime supply...

That is, until two days ago. The picks were on a shelf in in plain sight, and fell off when I put something else on that shelf. There they were, my favorite plastic. Good grief.

The moral of all this (if one exists) applies not just to flatpicks but also to banjo thumbpicks, and is in three parts:

(1) Don't get attached to just one kind of plastic for your picks;

(2) Use lots of different kinds of picks, like Bill Monroe did, so that your fingers are used to variety and can adapt to other kinds of plastic; AND--

(3) When you put your picks in a safe place, Don't put them in too safe a place. Put them in a place you can find again!

Everybody pick purty--