One thing that new banjo players often find intimidating is setting up the banjo’s action. Of course, this isn’t a setup only for the banjo but any stringed instrument. Fortunately, it’s a fairly straightforward process that can be done in very little time.
The banjo’s action is the distance between the strings and frets. The action should be low enough to make playing easy, but not so low that the strings buzz against the frets when played. Action can be set up by adjusting the neck angle, bridge height or by adjusting the truss rod.
As one of the most important aspects of a banjo setup, action can have a huge impact on the instrument’s playability. It’s generally the first place to begin when looking to improve the sound and performance of a banjo. Nearly any new banjo will require a little bit of adjusting to obtain the right amount of action for the individual player. Each player’s needs will be different depending on the type and style of music they play.
A banjo’s action is influenced by a number of factors, most of which you can adjust yourself. We’ll look at these different factors in more detail further down in the article.
The Importance of Action
The ideal banjo action is largely a matter of preference, so the setup can vary from player to player. However, the general consensus is that there needs to be a balance between playability and sound.
If a banjo’s action is too high, meaning that the strings are too far away from the frets, it will require a lot more force to press the strings down onto the frets properly. Having to press harder on the strings is tiring and painful, especially for beginners who haven’t developed a lot of finger strength yet.
On the other hand, if the action’s too low, pushing the strings against one fret will cause them to vibrate against the lower frets when played, creating an annoying buzzing sound.
Keep in mind that getting the balance just right is going to take some trial and error, especially if you’re new to this. Keep at it, and eventually, it’ll become second nature.
High Action vs Low Action
Before getting into the details of how the proper action is achieved, let’s look at why someone might prefer a different amount of action than someone else. While there are common measurements for what the action of a banjo should be, those are just starting points. These measurements are based on the most common action heights that should get the job done for most people. However, these preferences might change as you develop experience with the banjo.
There are a few reasons that someone might prefer and different action height that someone else.
- Different style of music
- Different style of playing
- Preference of how it feels
The action will need to be different for someone playing the banjo softly with their fingertips vs someone who is frailing on the banjo or fingerpicking with metal fingerpicks. When you strike the strings hard, the strings will vibrate more so they will need a higher action so that they do not touch any part of the banjo while vibrating. Someone who doesn’t strike the strings as hard will not need as high of an action to achieve this. This is all relative to the player and will come over time as you learn your style and get a feel for the action you prefer.
How to Set Up Banjo Action
While a banjo’s action setup varies according to preference, a very general rule of thumb is that there should be about 1/8″ (3.175mm) gap between the strings and the 12th fret. Again, this can vary depending on preference as well as banjo type and model, but it should give you an idea of whether you’re in the ballpark. I personally like mine to be just a little less than that but you may find that 1/8″ or even higher works better for you.
Action is affected by several factors, which means that there are a number of ways to adjust it. The more you know about how the different components work, the better able you’ll be to decide on the best course of action.
Although many of these can be altered by a beginner, remember to use the “less is more” approach when making adjustments. Make little tweaks and see how they work out, rather trying to make huge changes all at once.
Below are the factors that most directly affect a banjo’s action and how to adjust them.
As you probably know, stringed instruments such as the banjo have a piece called the bridge, which goes in between the strings and the body of the instrument. In the case of the banjo, they go between the strings and the banjo head. In addition to influencing the action, the bridge has a lot to do with an instrument’s tone.
The standard height on a banjo’s bridge is 5/8″ (15.875mm), although other heights are available. The higher the bridge, the further away the strings are going to sit from the frets.
If your action is too low, replacing the bridge with a higher one will raise it.
If the action is too high, sanding down the bridge’s feet is an option. Make sure to sand both feet evenly, and only a little at a time. You can always sand it down more, but there’s not much you can do if you take too much off.
Before adjusting or replacing the bridge, always remember to loosen the strings to relieve tension, rather than trying to force it to move.
The Truss Rod
The truss rod is a metal rod that goes through the neck of most banjos as well as other stringed instruments. When adjusted, it causes the neck to either straighten or to bow slightly inward.
It’s important to note that many banjo players recommend leaving truss rod adjustments to professionals or someone experienced with banjo setup. That being said, here are the basics.
The more bowed the neck is, the further from the strings the frets will be. So, action can be increased by increasing the bow because the frets will be bowing away from the strings. Alternately, the action can be lowered by straightening the neck, which will bring the frets closer to the strings.
In most banjos, the truss rod can be adjusted by removing the cover on the top of the peghead and tightening the nut to decrease the neck bow or loosening the nut to increase it.
Remember to stick with small changes, turning the nut just a little bit at a time – no more than a quarter turn at a time.
If the truss rod isn’t accessible from the peghead, then the only way to get to it is by completely removing the neck from the pot. If this is the case with your banjo, it’s a good idea to let a professional handle it. Some banjos may not even have a truss rod. This is often the case in cheaper banjos or banjos that are designed without them. If your banjo doesn’t have a truss rod, there won’t be anything you can do for a bowing neck. The best solution in this case is to use a lighter gauge string so that there is not as much tension on the neck.
Coordinator Rods and Dowel Sticks
If you look at the back of your banjo, you’ll see a wooden dowel stick, a metal coordinator rod, or two metal coordinator rods running from the rim of the pot through the center and into the neck.
The main purpose of these rods (or sticks) is to connect the neck to the body of the banjo, which is called the pot. Coordinator rods (also called rim rods) can also be used to adjust the banjo’s action by changing the neck angle.
A Note About Resonators
There are two main types of banjos:
- Open back
If you turn your banjo over and see a solid “bowl” rather than the inside of the banjo, that means you have a resonator. The resonator’s job is to amplify the banjo’s sound and is popular with bluegrass players.
Before adjusting your banjo’s rods, you’ll need to remove your resonator if you have one, which is as simple as unscrewing the bolts holding it on and screwing it back on when you’ve completed your adjustments.
Coordinator Rod Banjos
Adjusting the action on a coordinator rod banjo is simple compared to banjos with a dowel stick.
It does bear repeating, however, that it’s important to make small adjustments and see how they feel, rather than going all out. The nuts usually shouldn’t be turned more than a half turn at any one time.
Single Coordinator Rod
If your banjo has a single coordinator rod:
Use a small Allen wrench or other small tool that fits into the hole along the side of the rod to turn the rod into the neck, making sure it’s tight. Holding the Allen wrench in the side hole to keep the rod in place, use a wrench (usually a 1/2″ or you can use an adjustable wrench) to loosen or tighten the nuts on the end of the rod
To raise the action: loosen the outside nut and tighten the inside nut
To lower the action: loosen the inside nut and tighten the outside nut
Dual Coordinator Rods
If your banjo has dual coordinator rods, you’ll see that only one rod (the outermost one) goes all the way through to the outside of the pot. This rod is there for added stability and doesn’t get adjusted.
The process for adjusting dual rods is very similar to the one for single rods:
- Using an Allen wrench in the hole on the side of the rods, make sure they’re tightly screwed into the neck
- Release tension on the shorter inner rod by loosening the nut on the end while holding the rod in place with the Allen wrench
- Adjust the nuts on the end of the longer outer rod by holding it in place with the Allen wrench and loosening or tightening the nuts on the end. Just like with single rod banjos:
– To raise the action: loosen the outside nut and tighten the inside nut
– To lower the action: loosen the inside nut and tighten the outside nut
- Retighten the nut on the inner rod
Dowel Stick Banjos
Banjos with dowel sticks are more difficult to adjust than those with coordinator rods because the dowel itself isn’t adjustable.
Because adjusting the neck angle on a banjo with a dowel stick can be more involved, it’s usually recommended that an expert handle any adjustments needed. They’ll likely do one of two things:
- Insert very thin shims in between the neck and pot. Inserting shims towards the front will reduce the action. Inserting them near the back will increase the action.
- File the heel where the neck and body meet and adjust the neck angle that way. Since this will be a permanent change, only someone with experience should attempt this.
Banjo action should always be set up or adjusted after the correct head tension is achieved. Adjusting the head tension will affect how high the bridge sits, and will, therefore, affect your action.
The tighter the head, the higher the bridge will sit, and the higher your banjo’s action will be. A head with less tension is going to allow the bridge to sink in a bit, resulting in lower action.
That being said, head tension is one of the major components of a banjo’s tone, so it shouldn’t be adjusted for the sake of increasing or decreasing the instrument’s action alone.
How Do I Know What to Adjust?
Thanks to the internet, there is an endless supply of instructions for adjusting every aspect of your banjo’s setup, and opinions on which elements should and should not be tampered with.
Unfortunately, reaching an agreement between so many contributors is nearly impossible. For every post telling you what to change and how, there’s a dozen telling you that that’s the last thing you want to do.
Do your research and follow the advice of someone who seems to know what they’re talking about, whether that’s an online resource or a professional in your local instrument shop.
Start small as you’re learning and pay attention to how the adjustments you make effect, not only the action but the other elements, such as tone and sound quality.
Once you get past the learning curve, you’ll be glad you stuck with it and are able to maintain your banjo yourself.
What Can Go Wrong?
Hopefully, you’re starting to get an idea of how easily the action on a banjo can be set up, even for beginners.
Even so, it can be scary when you’re new to an instrument and want to learn to maintain it yourself but are afraid of doing irreparable damage.
Here are the most common warnings given about each aspect of adjusting a banjo’s action:
The bridge is a good place to start for beginners because it’s the safest adjustment to make.
However, replacing or altering the bridge will also affect the banjo’s sound. If you adjust the bridge, but the neck angle’s not optimal, then the action will only be where you want it on some frets but not others. As mentioned earlier, if you adjust the bridge by sanding the feet, you may sand too much off resulting in too low of action. In this case, the only thing to do is to purchase a new bridge which isn’t a big deal since the cost of a banjo bridge is minimal.
The truss rod changes the relief on the banjo’s neck, not the neck angle itself. Over adjusting can cause the neck to warp. It could also cause it to break if you are not careful. You should always perform minor adjustments when adjusting the truss rod. If it feels difficult to turn, it might be time to stop and consult with a banjo or other stringed instrument expert.
Adjusting the coordinator rods directly impacts the angle of the neck, which is why many players advise using them to adjust your action.
But some players warn against adjusting the rods too much, as doing so can result in a misshapen pot.
Shims are commonly recommended for those with traditional-style banjos, which have dowel sticks instead of coordinator rods.
Using shims is a fine art. Because it directly impacts the way the banjo neck rests against the pot, it can have a drastic effect on the banjo’s sound quality.
Filing or cutting down the heel of the banjo is another way to adjust banjo without coordinator rods. Because this is a more drastic step which can’t be undone, I would recommend enlisting the help of an expert for this.
How Often Will I Need to Set Up My Action?
In theory, you should only have to set up your banjo’s action when you first get the banjo.
Once set up properly, it shouldn’t change unless you make other adjustments which in turn accept the action.
The three main changes that may result in having to readjust your banjo’s action are:
- Head tension
- Bridge position or replacement
- String replacement
If you’re unhappy with your banjo’s sound and decide to adjust the head tension, this will cause the bridge to sit either higher or lower than it was previously. This will either raise or lower the instrument’s action, as the bridge sitting higher will push the strings further from the frets, and the bridge sitting lower will allow them to sit closer.
Bridge Placement or Position
Banjos have floating bridges, or bridges that aren’t glued down. This means that over time, the placement may need adjusting, which will affect the way the strings sit.
The bridge has a lot to do with an instrument’s tone and volume, and you may decide to replace yours in order to get another sound quality. Doing so will obviously have an effect on the banjo’s action.
For easier placement in the future, you should make a mark on your banjo head once you have the bridge into the perfect position. This way, you won’t have to measure again. The next time you change strings, simply line the bridge up with the mark and you the bridge will be in the exact location it was before the string change.
Depending on your playing style and the kind of music you favor, you may opt to change your strings for a different gauge or material.
Because different strings move differently, the action setup that you had before changing the strings may no longer be optimal for the new ones.
For example, if you typically favor a lower action setup but change to lighter strings, the new strings may have more give than the ones you’re used to, and end up buzzing against the lower frets as you play.
If you always use the same strings or string gauges, as well as the same bridge placement, your action on your banjo should remain the same between string replacements. Just make sure that you have marked the location where your bridge will go so that it always ends up in the same place.
If you’re finding the process of banjo action setup overwhelming, don’t stress about it. There are all kinds of resources available nowadays:
- Banjo sellers: where did you get your banjo from? There’s a good chance that whoever sold it to you also has setup guides. If you purchased it at a local music store, they may offer to do this for you.
- Professional luthiers: luthiers, who repair stringed instruments, make it their job to know everything there is to know about instrument setup and repair. They can be an invaluable resource if you want to learn more, or if you just want them to take care of it for you.
- Online banjo forums: there are countless forums online where people ask and answer questions, from beginner basics to more advanced levels.
- Online videos: There is also an unlimited supply of videos online of people showing you proper ways to manage and service your banjo. These videos are easy to find, helpful, and free.
Once you gain more experience and have gone through the setup process, you will understand better and be more comfortable making the adjustments yourself. You’ll also understand better how the action of the instrument either helps or hinders the playability and sound of the instrument.
Final Thoughts About Action Setup
Action has a high impact on playability, so it’s important to get it right. Fortunately, setting it up is much easier than most beginners realize.
Every player has their preferred method of adjusting the action:
- Bridge alteration or adjustment
- Truss rod adjustment
- Coordinator Rod adjustment
- Heel filing
I always look to bridge alteration and adjustment as well as coordinator rod adjustment when I need to adjust the action on my banjo. The truss rod is something that I don’t touch very often and is usually only something that needs adjusting when you first purchase the instrument. Unless you are taking your banjo in and out of extreme climates and different humidity levels, the truss rod shouldn’t need to be adjusted often.
No matter which method you use, it’s important to keep in mind that small adjustments are key. You’re much less likely to cause damage by making small tweaks than by trying to make a huge change in one go.
If you’re not sure which method is best, or you’re not confident that you’re doing it right, get help. There’s nothing wrong with calling a professional to take over or getting the advice of someone more experienced. If you have purchased an expensive banjo, I wouldn’t suggest taking on any challenging aspect of adjusting the action unless you are experienced in doing so. If you are a beginner, take it to a professional and have them do the adjustments for you rather than taking the chance of damaging something.