Perhaps you’ve recently taken up the banjo, or have found yourself a nylon-string banjo, having only played steel-string banjos. If your banjo has old-fashioned friction tuners, you might be wondering how they differ from machine tuners, and how to use them.
Banjo friction tuners, also known as friction pegs, use the friction of the peg against the wood of the banjo to increase string tension. Friction tuners were standard on older banjos. Steel-string banjos use machine or other tuners because the friction pegs cannot keep the string in tune.
Once you understand the principle behind using friction tuners, they are not that difficult to master. Read on if you want to learn more about friction tuners.
What Is A Banjo Friction Tuner?
In the 19th century, banjo friction pegs were the gold standard for tuning banjos. They were wooden dowels stuck in perfectly fitted holes. As banjos evolved into using steel strings instead of nylon, players realized that they would have to switch from wood friction pegs to mechanical tuners.
Friction tuners, also known as friction pegs, are still used by other stringed instruments, such as violins and cellos. However, most banjos today use machine tuners instead of friction pegs, unless they have nylon strings. Tuning a nylon-stringed banjo with friction pegs is a good option, especially when strung at low tension.
How Do Banjo Friction Tuners Work?
Tapered friction pegs worked quite well for tuning low tension, stretchy gut strings. They work by relying on friction between the metal parts (the peg) and the wood of the banjo peghead. The friction pegs tighten the central screw, which increases the tension on the string.
What To Do If The Friction Tuner Is Slipping And Sticking
- Slipping – when the friction pegs slip when tuned to pitch, lift the peg out and make sure there isn’t too much soap in the peg hole. If it is too lubricated, take a towel and wipe the peg-hole down to prevent continued slippage. If it is still slipping, add chalk.
- Sticking – If your friction pegs are sticking instead of slipping, add soap to the peg-hole to loosen the gears a bit. This process may take some finessing, as it’s easy to add too much soap, or likewise, to add too much chalk when slippage occurs.
How to Maintain Friction Tuners
If a banjo friction peg was properly fit, it should last for years before needing any serious maintenance. The peg will wear out over time and begin to give way and slip. Before replacing the friction peg all together, we recommend some good old reconditioning first.
Why recondition? Because things like temperature and humidity can alter the shape and size of wood. Reconditioning fixes this problem. Soap and chalk are easy-to-source reconditioning tools.
Put soap in the peg-hole by rubbing the peg against a dry bar of soap. Then place peg back in the peg-hole. Then add some chalk. If the wood in the peg-hole has warped at all and expanded, this should help fill in the gaps, without having to replace the peg itself just yet.
When To Get New Friction Tuners
There comes a time when no matter what you do, friction tuners slip and become less effective at keeping your banjo in tune. At this point, after you have taken steps to remedy the problem without any success, it may be time to change them out for new ones.
To do this, new peg-holes will need to be reamed, as new pegs will have to be fitted for new holes. Most violin or cello shops have the tools and mastered skills to accomplish this task. Of course, you can always take on the challenge yourself but it may be best to take it to a skilled banjo Luthier.
You may also decide to change the type of tuners your banjo uses altogether.
Comparing Different Types Of Banjo Tuners
Banjo tuners come in different styles, shapes, and sizes. Besides friction tuners, there are other types of tuners that are commonly seen on various types of banjos. Let’s look at some of the other types of banjo tuners available.
Tapered Friction Banjo Tuners
Friction pegs are typically made from hard materials, like bone or hardwoods such as rosewood or ebony. The first iteration of the tapered friction peg resembled closely that of a violin peg. These types of friction pegs are tapered to 5 degrees (inside and out), which is what enables a friction peg to work in the first place.
The peg holes that the peg fits into should be such an exact fit, that the slightest pressure will tug the strings. These pegs are crafted using tapered peg shapers, and the peg holes are made using a peg-hole reamer. When matched up exactly right, the peg stays in place and using the friction of the peg against the hole to create tension in order to tune.
As mentioned previously, friction tuners were made before the use of steel strings. They come from the era of “gut strings,” which tune under much lower tension levels. Friction pegs are not likely to hold a steel string at full pitch for very long, as they weren’t designed for such stiff material.
Champion Banjo Tuners
Champion pegs are friction pegs that use mechanical clamps to stay in place. They appeared on the scene around 1900. They are held in place by a screw in the bottom that helps to adjust tension levels. They do not excel in tuning better or worse than traditional tapered pegs, but they are significantly easier to fit (without having to be so exact.)
Unlike the traditional wooden friction dowel, the champion peg is still often used today to replace old pegs on vintage banjos. These can be purchased online at various online music stores.
Planetary Banjo Tuners
The planetary banjo tuner changed the game, making the changing of tension easy and smooth. Most well-manufactured and expensive banjos are likely to have planetary pegs for tuning. The planetary tuner is far more precise, thanks to its 4:1 ratio, which means one rotation of the peg is achieved by four rotations of the dowel.
One must be able to change the tune of a banjo quickly, so having an easy to use and lightning fast banjo tuner is paramount. Not only are planetary banjo tuners faster and more accurate, but they are also physically appealing and resemble the traditional wooden friction pegs of old.
Geared Banjo Tuners
The last type of banjo tuners resembles the kind of gears on guitars, that stick out from the sides of the head of the banjo. Geared banjo tuners are ideal for steel stringed banjos, except that it takes a lot longer to change keys. If the goal is to be in-tune fast, geared banjo tuners are great! If the goal is to be able to change keys quickly, then geared banjo tuners may not be the right fit.
The best thing about geared tuners is that even the cheapest of geared pegs will hold a decent tune (unlike planetary pegs that must be well-made, otherwise they’re somewhat useless.) Geared tuners can sometimes be a bit hard to turn, but they will not slip and slide as traditional dowels might. They’re also some of the least expensive tuners on the market.
Banjo friction tuners, also known as friction pegs, are somewhat a ‘thing of the past.’ They were historically used with nylon ‘gut strings’ prior to the use of steel strings. The reason friction pegs are very rare is because most Banjos sold today are steel string, and friction pegs just can’t hold a steady pitch for long when using friction pegs.
If you are using a nylon-stringed Banjo, there are easy ways to maintain your friction tuners yourself. When in doubt, consult a local violin or cello repair store. Banjo stores may not have the type of tools needed. However, since violins and cellos use similar types of friction tuners, they will be able to assist you. Or, if you’d like to make your own, check out the video below.
If you are using a steel-string banjo, it’s likely you won’t ever encounter, nor have to worry about using friction tuners, as the tuners you’re used to are likely geared pegs.