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Tuning pegs or tuning machines are a crucial mechanism on any string instrument, banjos included, and sometimes you will need to replace them. This might be because they aren’t keeping your banjo in tune at all, or it might be because you want to upgrade your banjo’s old pegs with newer, more advanced, and accurate machines.
Regardless, the process of replacing banjo tuning pegs can be daunting for amateurs. For this reason, many people take their instruments to luthiers to get the job done. However, changing your own tuning machines isn’t too difficult for discerning musicians who know what they’re doing. And if you wanted to tune in for some useful banjo maintenance tips, you’ve picked the right place.
Suggested Tools for Replacing Banjo Tuning Pegs
To get started, you’ll need to have the following tools:
- Adjustable wrench
- Small screwdriver, Phillips or flathead as needed
- Small file
- Soldering gun
- Electric drill
How to Replace Banjo Tuning Pegs
Now that you have the necessary tools, it’s time to replace those banjo tuning pegs!
1) Select the Tuning Pegs You Want to Install
Before you replace the tuning pegs on your banjo, it’s essential to understand the differences between the different types of pegs available for you to choose from.
A Brief History
The earliest banjo tuning machines, much like the pegs on instruments in the violin family, were simple tapered dowels inserted into the headstock. When the dowel fits the hole perfectly, these tuners work fine, but over time the friction of movement causes wear, and these tuners grow to go out of tune more easily.
Similar tuners were developed in the early 20th century called Champion pegs—these work pretty much the same as the early friction tuners but feature a screw which holds the tuner in place, mitigating the effects of tuning wear and tear. They weren’t, though, much of an advancement over the earliest violin-style tuners.
Modern banjo players, however, live in something of a paradise of tuning peg choice. Today’s tuning machines take full advantage of modern advancements in mechanical engineering. Most modern banjos come equipped either with planetary tuning pegs or guitar-style geared pegs.
Planetary Tuning Pegs vs. Geared Pegs
In layman’s terms, the planetary gear system allows a system of gears a greater range of motion and fine-tuning while saving a lot of space. This is great for an instrument tuning system because it makes the ratio of tuning peg movement to pitch change quite lopsided in tuning peg movement’s favor—that is, with planetary tuners, you can move the tuning machine quite a bit while changing the pitch of the string very little.
This makes it much easier to finely tune your instrument and to keep it in tune. Planetary systems offer a lot of advantages over the older gear systems generally included on older banjos; the limits of these older systems are often what lead people to upgrade their banjo tuners.
Reputable brands like Five-Star Banjo Tuning Pegs and Bill Keith’s Planetary Tuning Pegs are great examples of modern planetary tuners with which to upgrade your banjo. Most high-end banjos made by world-famous instrument makers like Gibson will come with planetary tuning machines by default.
Conversely, banjo players can also choose to use geared, guitar-style tuning machines like this set from WD. Functionally, these tuners are much like the machines that come standard on guitars. These sorts of tuners are even better for fine-tuning than planetary tuners.
This fine-tuning ability comes at the cost of making re-tuning a bit lengthier of a process—if you want to use geared tuning machines, you’d better be packing a capo! Additionally, geared tuning machines don’t have the classic sort of look of planetary tuners, which closely resemble old-fashioned tuning pegs despite their modern perks. This might be important for aesthetics.
Regardless of the type of tuning machines you choose, it’s essential to make sure the pegs will fit your instrument. If they’re too large or too small, you’ll have to do additional work on your headstock like drilling, which increases the risk of doing severe damage to your instrument.
If you find that the pegs you purchased don’t fit, it might be worth either exchanging them or shelling out the cash to get the job done by a professional. The remainder of this guide will proceed with the assumption that the tuning pegs you wish to install fit your instrument and won’t cover additional maintenance like drilling.
2) Remove the Strings of Your Banjo
You can’t replace your tuning machines if there are still strings wound around them, so to start with, you’ll need to take off your banjo strings. (Replacing your tuning pegs is a great excuse to change your strings too if you’re up for it!)
One important thing to note when removing your banjo’s strings is that, unlike most modern guitars, a banjo has a floating bridge. This means that the bridge is not glued or otherwise affixed to the instrument; the strings hold it in place. For this reason, it’s a good idea to use a pencil to mark where the bridge is before you remove your strings so you can get it back in the right place once you reattach them.
Thankfully, removing your banjo strings is fairly self-explanatory, or at least easier than getting them back on. Loosen the strings until they can be removed without doing any damage to them or your instrument.
If you’re planning on using the same strings, keep track of them and remember which is which; if you are going to restring your banjo, you can cut the strings once they’ve been loosened to save a little time. Make sure you have your new strings on hand, of course.
Unlike on, for instance, an acoustic guitar, most of which feature small pegs that hold the strings in place below the bridge, a banjo has a tailpiece around which each string loops. Along with the loop, strings are held in place by tension.
Unlooping the banjo strings is fairly simple; just lift them out from around the tailpiece, making sure not to scratch the tailpiece or yank on it too much with the still-looped string.
3) Remove the Headstock Tuning Pegs
The exact steps you’ll take to remove your current headstock tuning pegs will vary depending on whether your instrument currently has geared tuners, planetary tuners, or some sort of other friction tuners.
Regardless, it’s likely you’ll need to use a small adjustable wrench (or otherwise a nonadjustable wrench that fits your tuning peg) to loosen a nut that goes around the post of the tuning peg and keeps it attached to the headstock.
For Removing Planetary or Other Friction Tuners
Beyond the nut around the tuning post, with planetary or other sorts of friction tuning pegs, it’s important to note that these sort of tuning pegs often have a small spike or screw that makes a mark in the wood of the instrument. This small spike/screw serves to keep the tuning machine secure in its position.
Removing a tuning peg with a small spike is as simple as pulling it out, though it’s worth taking note of where the hole the spike leaves is if you’ll be installing new planetary tuning pegs so that you can line up the spike in the new pegs.
If there’s a screw, you’ll need to use a small flathead or Phillips head screwdriver to remove it. After doing so, the tuning peg should slide out without any difficulty, assuming you loosened the nut on top of the tuning post.
For Removing Geared Tuning Pegs
Geared or guitar style tuning pegs will invariably have an additional screw that goes into the back of the headstock. As with the small screw in some friction tuners, you will need to use an appropriately sized Phillips or flathead screwdriver to remove these screws.
The tuners on my banjo have a casing on the back that covers up the gears. This will need to be removed to expose the gears and to be able to remove the tuning peg.
The tuning peg should easily pull out of the headstock at this point.
The front side of the banjo will have an insert that may or may not need to be removed. If you are replacing the same type of tuning peg, you may be able to leave it alone. Otherwise, it simply pulls out but it may be tight so you may have to help it out from the other side by using something to push it out.
4) Remove the Fifth String Tuning Peg
If you have a four-string banjo, you can ignore this step. Five-string banjos are famous for their unique fifth string, which is mounted not on the headstock with the other four strings but on the neck itself at the fifth fret.
This string is used as a drone or pedal point, and its clear, ringing sound contributes to the unique timbre of the banjo. It also brings some unique challenges to the process of upgrading your tuning pegs.
Unlike the other four tuning pegs, the fifth string tuning peg isn’t secured by a nut as this would require drilling straight through the whole neck of the instrument, damaging its structural integrity. Instead, fifth string tuning pegs are splined, tapered posts that rely on a snug fit or, at times, glue to stay in place.
If the fifth string tuning peg doesn’t use any glue, all you have to do to remove it is pull it out after removing any screws that might be present. (There may not be any.) It’s okay if you have to wiggle the peg around a bit, but if there isn’t any glue, you should be able to pull it out fairly easily. Just grab the peg firmly and pull straight out. You might want to use a rag around the peg to get a better grip on it. As a last-ditch tool, you can use plyers to give you an even tighter grip.
If the fifth string tuning peg doesn’t come out with some firm pulls from your hand or plyers, it’s likely to be glued in, in which case you will have to apply to heat to the peg to loosen the glue. We recommend doing so with a soldering gun. Make sure to remove the button (i.e., the wider part of the tuner you grab onto while tuning before applying heat, as these are often plastic and might melt.
If you don’t have a soldering gun on hand or don’t want to risk damaging your instrument, don’t hesitate to take your banjo to a professional if you need some extra hands for this step.
5) Install the Headstock Tuning Pegs
Congratulations, you’re halfway there! The process of installing your new tuning pegs will vary slightly if you’re installing planetary or geared tuning machines.
Planetary Tuning Pegs
Assuming your planetary tuning pegs fit your instrument, getting these in is a pretty straightforward process. The video below will show you the process of installing Planetary tuners.
Line up the spike hole from the previous tuning machines, if such a hole is present, with the spike on your new tuning pegs. (Note that this isn’t essential; having another hole isn’t going to hurt your instrument. It’s mostly for aesthetic reasons that you might want to avoid having multiple holes. If you don’t mind or even like the slightly road-worn look of having multiple tiny holes in the back of your headstock, don’t worry about it!)
Push the tuning peg through the hole and tighten the nut on top of the tuning stock. Repeat this process for the other four pegs.
Geared Tuning Pegs
As mentioned in step four, geared or guitar style tuning pegs will have an extra screw that you’ll need to install. If you are replacing geared pegs with another set of geared pegs, it’s worth trying to line up the holes the screws make.
If you are upgrading from planetary or old-fashioned friction tuners, you will need to drill new holes. As with the matter of applying heat to remove glued-in fifth string pegs, if this makes you uncomfortable, don’t feel ashamed about consulting a professional.
Push a peg into its hole and turn the screw slightly to make a tiny indent to use as a guide. Equip your drill with an appropriately sized bit and get drilling. You don’t need to go all the way through the headstock; remember, these screws are tiny. Just make the hole deep enough for the screw. Repeat this process for the other four pegs, then push the pegs in and screw in the screws with an appropriately sized screwdriver.
6) Install the Fifth String Tuning Peg
This process is actually the same for both geared and modern planetary tuners, as neither usually has any screws to insert. On both styles, however, there may well be a raised index point, one particular spline that sticks up higher than the others. This index point helps keep the tuning peg in place.
Push the tuning peg into the neck of your instrument. As with the screws when installing guitar-style tuning pegs in the headstock, take note of wear the raised spline marks your neck. Remove the peg and use your file to very carefully file down the inside of the hole to make a sort of canal into which the index point raised spline can sit. Filing it down like this will help guide it and prevent damage to the inside of the hole.
After filing down the inside of the hole, just push the fifth string tuning peg in. Give the tuner a few turns to make sure everything feels right. If it does, move on to the next step.
7) Restring Your Banjo
Congratulations, you’ve now successfully installed new tuning machines on your banjo! However, the process of restringing your instrument is a challenge in and of itself. If you’re a seasoned player who has restrung their banjo more times than they can count, you can probably skip this step. Less experienced players should stick around for some time-saving tips about banjo restringing.
Place your banjo on a flat surface. Hopefully, you remembered to mark on your instrument where the bridge is supposed to go, because the first step to restringing is to place the bridge in the correct position.
Next, start with one of the innermost strings, the low G or B strings in open-G tuning. We recommend starting with these because starting with one of these middle strings will help you get your bridge secured in place early in the tuning process, which gives you one less thing to worry about.
Loop the string around and pull it through the appropriate slot on the tailpiece and up over the bridge, making sure to keep it tight to hold the bridge in place and to keep the string from becoming unlooped. Pull the string up to the tailpiece, again, keeping it tight, and push the end of the string through the tuning peg hole.
Measure about three fingers worth of slack around the third fret—that is, place your hand perpendicular to the neck at this point and pull the string over your fingers, rather than pulling it tight directly over the neck. This will give you enough string to wind around the tuning post to keep your instrument in tune without giving you so much string that you risk overlapping the string with itself while tightening it with the tuning peg.
Wrap the string around the post, bring the end of the string underneath itself, then wrap it around the peg, bringing it back over in doing so. This under/over creates something of a lock, helping you keep the string in place and keep your instrument in tune. Tighten the string twisting the peg counterclockwise until it’s tight.
Repeat this process for the other four strings and cut the ends to a desirable length. It’s a good idea to stretch your strings after tuning but before playing. Run your hand up and down the length of each string, pulling at it slightly to detune, then re-tune.
If you followed this guide and didn’t run into any problems that required professional consultation, congratulations on a job well done. Have fun playing your instrument and enjoy your new tuning pegs!