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1 April 2015

Highwayman Banjo - How to fit a banjo neck

Sorry for my first aborted attempt at this morning's post. Damn a slow internet connection and damn Google for sticking Close buttons on top of the Publish button. You can guess the rest.

I don't have a great deal to reveal in terms of action, but I do have a lot of thinking going on. Time to reveal what I've been thinking about...

I'd promised that I wouldn't do any more work on my Highwayman Banjo build yesterday and I just couldn't help myself. I guess that makes me a big fat liar!


The short video above shows you that I've temporarily strung the banjo to get a little tune out of it. Wahay! What I was really interested in though, was knowing whether I'd got that bloody neck fitted right. Read on, because I think I'm making progress here.

(In case you don't recognise the tuning, I only ever play "Dead Hand" on the banjo.)

First, let me tell you how I managed to get my Highwayman Banjo playable despite having only done so much on the build.

You can see here that I dug out my "clam-shell" banjo tail-piece. I need to fit this properly, but for now while I try to understand where and how it needs to be fitted, you can see that I've simply hung it over the back of the banjo head. There is a small lip that currently fits under the rim which is holding the tail in place using string tension alone.

The only other thing to call out on the tail-piece is that it is a bit fiddly to fit the strings with the sprung top, but this is mainly because it's loose. I did have the top string snap on me, so I may also have a rough edge somewhere to deal with too.

Next I fashioned a makeshift nut out of a plastic uke nut. I didn't worry too much about string positioning and worked on the basis of the action needing to be about fret-height. It's hard to tell without the 5th string in place, but actually, things felt pretty good in terms of spacing on that little sound check video. 

The bridge is a stock one I just happen to have in my box of tricks. See here that the head has bubbled a little on the edges over the tone ring. I wonder if a once over with a hair-drier would tighten that a bit? To be honest, I'm not that bothered about it; The head is taut and that is all that matters. 

I'm trying to show you here how the fretboard is ever so slightly lower than the head of the body. If you remember, I'd tried to start out with these level. I guess my measuring wasn't as good as I thought it was. It doesn't seem to have made a difference... yet.

Here's a Mark 2 of my original plans to fit the neck that matches closer what I think I'm going to end up doing.

With my Mark 1 I worried about vertical and horizontal play in the neck. What I hadn't considered (and I only saw it once I'd fitted the neck on the Highwayman) was that there is another kind of play possible and this is rotational: the neck can actually spin on the bolt. Aha! Lesson learnt!

To fit the strings for my sound check, I first tightened the bolt, which closed the 2 degree gap between the neck and body. I then fitted the strings and realised that the action was unplayable... The strings were touching the fretboard. Once the strings had been fitted though, they were applying a tension to the neck, pulling it forwards. I could then loosen the bolt to allow the neck to move forward until I got the action I was looking for. It didn't take much adjustment at all. Wow!

What I think I will do once I've got things where they need to be is to add a small screw at the point where the neck actually touches the body. This isn't to apply any further pressure to hold the neck onto the body (thought it will do this too), but instead to prevent the neck from rotating on the bolt. I've seen a dowel used in this way on banjo-uke necks and now I know why.

So everything is still obviously very rough: I haven't rounded the neck or even considered how I'm going to get that 5th string in place. This is where I need to go next.

Even so, I'm really excited about the sound of the Highwayman as a Tenor. I have La Bella No 17 strings fitted and it has a lovely mellow sound. It's a little quieter than my vintage Windsor Whirle, but it's showing real promise at the moment!

No banjo building for the foreseeable future, but when I do, it will be to shape the neck. Until next time...

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