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A buzzing banjo is not necessarily a reason to sound the alarms. This is a common problem that happens throughout the life of any stringed instrument. Many times, this frustrating problem can be cured with the replacement of worn parts or minor adjustments to pieces that are slightly out of position.
Here you will find instructions for how to find the source of the buzzing noise in your banjo. Most of these should be pretty quick fixes with just involving a few quick turns of a nut or screw.
Why Is My Banjo Buzzing?
Dealing with a weird buzzing noise when you play your banjo is certainly a frustrating problem. Here is a checklist of possible causes that you can go through, which you should be able to diagnose the problem without having to waste much time.
10 reasons your banjo buzzes:
- The frets need to be replaced
- The nut slot is too wide
- Banjo neck has bowed
- Bridge adjustments are needed
- Action is set too high
- Action is set too low
- The strings may need to be replaced
- The tailpiece is too loose
- Armrest needs to be readjusted
- Tuning pegs need to be tightened or adjusted
1) The Frets Need To Be Replaced
The frets are the metal bands along the board of the banjo that are responsible for determining the pitch, depending upon how the instrument is played. Replacement of these parts is a routine activity and may have to occur often if the instrument is played particularly hard.
Frets are typically made of one of two metals. You will most often find that the frets are made out of a nickel-silver alloy. Alternatively, they are composed of stainless steel, which is much more durable.
Popular replacement options for frets include:
- Nickel Silver Alloy: Jescar Nickel-Silver Medium Gauge
- Stainless Steel: Jescar Stainless Steel
2) The Nut Slot Is Too Wide
Buzzing noises could be the result of the nut slot depth. In some cases, you may need to buy a new nut altogether. There is a simple diagnostic test that you can perform to see whether this is the problem.
In this test you will see if you need a new nut:
- Press each string at the third fret
- Check for 0.001″ clearance between the top of the 2nd fret and the bottom of each of the strings
- If there is no clearance, a new nut may be needed to take care of a buzzing noise
- In the alternative, you can try a DIY repair by shimming the bottom of the nut using a small file or similar tool
- If there is more than 0.001″ clearance, then the slots need to be cut to the correct depth
The source for this test can be found here.
One potential quick fix for a nut slot that is too deep involves the use of superglue and a toothpick. Apply one drop of super glue into the nut slot that you suspect of being too deep. Distribute the super glue evenly using the toothpick. If you let the superglue dry overnight, you may notice that the slot has been raised just enough to take care of the buzzing noise.
It may require some additional sanding with a thin file in order to get it to the perfect depth.
3) Humidity Has Caused The Banjo Neck To Move
Excessive humidity or extreme temperatures can be detrimental to the health of a stringed instrument. While some humidity is good, too much can cause problems such as the neck to bow. This movement can result in a characteristic buzzing sound when the instrument is being played. If you have been playing in hot and humid conditions, you may need to make an adjustment to the truss rod of the banjo.
You will notice a buzzing noise when you fret a string, but not when you play it open down at the head of the banjo. You can tell whether the truss rod is set too high or too low by looking horizontally at the neck to look for a characteristic bowing. Look at the helpful video below for further guidance on adjustments, as also described below.
- Back bow: the neck takes on the shape of an upside-down “u,” this means that the truss rod has been tightened too far. This effect will be most pronounced near the frets furthest from the head
- Excessive Natural Bow: the curvature of the neck resembles more of a “u” shape indicating a truss rod that is too loose
Start by finding a truss rod wrench that fits your specific banjo. Then locate the truss rod nut. This may be at the top of the banjo or the head. Be sure to consult your owner’s manual to find the location of the truss rod nut. You should make adjustments in quarter-turn increments before testing out the effect on the sound of the banjo.
4) Bridge Placement Is Causing Buzzing Noises
If you are unhappy with the way that your banjo sounds, the bridge is always another good spot to check for adjustments. Having the bridge located along the “sweet spot” will make a big difference when it comes to acoustics. This is one of the simplest adjustments you can make on a banjo because of a floating attachment in which the bridge is held by the tension of the strings.
One method for adjusting the bridge involves marking bridge placement with a pencil. The mark is made on the banjo head so that you will know where to place your bridge in the event that it has moved. It’s common to see pencil marks on banjo heads so don’t be afraid to make a little mark for future reference.
If you suspect that you have to readjust your bridge, here is how to do it:
- Measure the distance from the front of the nut to the 12th fret wire.
- Place the bridge the same distance from the fret as the distance that you just measured.
- In other words, the distance from the front of the nut to the bridge will double the distance from the nut to the 12th fret.
If you never marked the location of the bridge before, use this as an opportunity to mark this spot as the proper location after first checking the sound. Nothing fancy is required, just a standard #2 pencil will do the trick.
You may also want to upgrade your bridge to a better one if you have not already done this. Try a compensated bridge since these are designed to improve the intonation of the banjo.
5) Action Is Set Too High
The action of a banjo can also be referred to as the normal string height. It is the height of the string off of the fretboard. If you look downwards along the fretboard, you should be able to measure an action height of approximately 1/8″ above the 12th fret and 9/64” above the 22nd fret. This measurement is taken from the top of each fret to the center string. Of course, this measurement may be different for each type of player, and not every player will like the action at the same height. Personally, I like mine a little lower than this. Read more about how to setup the action on your banjo.
You can easily make these measurements using a steel rule. The adjustment instructions will depend upon which type of banjo you have. The string height will usually be adjustable using some variation of minor adjustments.
I use this steel ruler which has a variety of different measurements on it and is great for use on any stringed instrument.
6) Action Is Set Too Low
Poor acoustics can also be the result of a string height or action being too low. In this case, the center string will be closer than 1/8″ above the top of the 12th fret. Adjustments are usually simple to make and may be achieved by slightly adjusting the truss rod or the coordinator rods.
You will basically do the exact opposite of what you would have done to lower the action or string height. If you are adjusting the coordinator rods to raise the action height, you will loosen the outer nut and tighten the inner nut. You should only make slight adjustments and check the height of the strings after each adjustment. The following video will help to understand how to adjust the action on a banjo.
As always, be sure to check with your manufacturer to see the instructions for making these types of adjustments. Not every banjo will have this same system in place. The steps to make these adjustments may be very different on your banjo, but the principle is the same.
It’s also important to note that the way you play your banjo will determine the action that you should go with. If you play hard and loud, your action will need to be higher than it would if you have more of a soft touch. I normally play with a soft touch so I prefer my action to be as low as possible.
7) You May Need To Replace Your Strings
A persistent buzzing sound from your banjo may be a sign that you need to change out the strings on your banjo. The benefits of a simple string change can be numerous: it can improve tone quality, right and left finger response, and make the banjo look and feel better.
Changing strings is usually an easy place to start when trying to improve the sound of your banjo, especially if it is a cheap banjo that has may have quality issues. You can find replacement strings online quite easily. I prefer D’Addario Phosphor Bronze 5-string Banjo Strings like the ones pictured below.
Here is how you add new strings to your banjo:
- Change only one string at a time to save yourself from having to make a bunch of tedious adjustments later on
- Insert each new string through the tailpiece. Do so by inserting the looped end of the string onto the tailpiece. If the loop doesn’t fit the tailpiece, stick a pencil into the center of the loop to enlarge the loop
- Bend the loop of the string to fit the contour of the tailpiece if needed
- Run the string across the tailpiece and under the bar in the front of the tailpiece
- The string will attach to a tuning peg and can then be tightened up to the proper pitch.
- The most difficult part of this is the correct positioning of the movable bridge which was discussed earlier.
- Once the strings are on and tuned up to pitch, you’ll want to stretch them a bit and then re-tune. You may need to do this a few times to get the strings to a point of staying in tune regularly.
Old or worn-out strings may be the cause of the buzzing noise in your banjo. The replacement of banjo strings should be the last resort option, as most of the other possible solutions discussed here do not necessarily require the purchase of new materials. If you have exhausted all other efforts, then that may be a sign that it’s time to get new banjo strings.
8) Tailpiece Needs To Be Tightened
Tailpiece adjustments may be necessary to get rid of a buzzing noise in the banjo. This is pretty simple as far as instrument adjustments go. Adjustments to the tailpiece have been shown to enhance the tone of the banjo. There has even been research performed at Caltech that has confirmed this. You can read more about here if you are interested.
The tailpiece of the banjo can be adjusted via the manipulation of a screw typically located on the back of the part. The screw changes the angle of the tailpiece. Adjusting the screw so that the tailpiece is closer to the banjo head will yield a brighter tone with a higher pitch. If you are going for the opposite effect, then you will loosen the screw so that the tailpiece is located farther from the banjo head.
9) Armrest Needs To Be Readjusted
The armrest is not immediately obvious as the source of a buzzing noise in a banjo. However, the positioning of the armrest can have an impact on the tone of the banjo. This happens when arm movement is restricted so much so that the arm is no longer resting on the banjo head itself.
If the player’s arm is not resting on the banjo head, then the banjo head will not be moved in a way that is conducive to producing the desired sounds. This is a very simple fix that does not require you to mess with the more critical components of the instrument.
You will be able to choose from a wide array of different armrest types. You are encouraged to explore your options and commit to a style that works best for you. It will typically be the case that the armrest has been designed to be matched with the number of tension hooks on the banjo. Tension hooks may also be referred to as “brackets.”
Popular banjo armrests include:
- BQLZR Single Leg Banjo Armrest. This armrest has a chrome finish
- Toogoo Banjo Armrest. This alloy armrest is suitable for a bracket with two apart rim hooks
- Exceart Banjo Armrest Single Arm. Suitable for brackets with two separate rim hooks. Has a gold-colored mirror decoration design. A great option for those looking to restore vintage banjos
10) Tuning Pegs Need Tightening
Tuning pegs may not be something that comes to mind when you imagine your banjo buzzing. However, I can tell you from experience that they do buzz and you may have a difficult time figuring out where it comes from. This will also depend on the type of tuning pegs you have and whether or not they can be tightened.
I recently purchased a new banjo and had this exact issue with it. At first, I looked the banjo over trying to figure out where the buzzing was coming from. I had made all of the other adjustments as mentioned in this article but the buzzing was still there. It wasn’t an obvious buzzing that could easily be discovered. I finally realized that the tuning pegs were loosely installed at the factory so they needed to be tightened. This was easy to accomplish on my banjo by tightening the Phillips head screws on the end of the tuning pegs.
After tightening, the buzzing was gone and the banjo sounded and played as it should. If you have a buzzing that you can’t determine where it’s coming from, hold down on the tuning pegs and see if the buzzing goes away. If it does, you know that something needs tightening.
All stringed instruments are likely to buzz at various times throughout their life. This is usually not a big deal and can be fixed with a few minor adjustments. The adjustments outlined above is usually all it will take to stop the buzzing on your banjo.
If you aren’t able to fix the buzzing yourself, you may need to seek the help of a professional. These types of issues are simple to fix for a banjo expert. An expert isn’t usually needed in these cases though, especially once you gain experience and understand your banjo and what exactly is making it buzz.