On this page I will attempt to document the setup of my two primary banjos (the Deering “Golden Era” that I play with Monroe Crossing, and the Nechville “Nuvo Graphite” that I use for my solo banjo work). If you have a setup question which is not currently answered on this page, feel free to contact me, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.
If you’re interested in learning more about banjo setup, I’d highly recommend Tom Nechville’s book The Dynamics of Banjo Sound. You can order it from his web site.
Nechville Nuvo Grapite
I use my Nechville mostly for solo banjo material. For this reason, I have it set up with a considerably warmer tone, and more sustain, than is practical for bluegrass music.
Since I use a lot of lower-pitched tunings for my solo work, I have fairly heavy strings on this instrument. I recorded my solo banjo CD with gauges of 10-11-13-26-10. When I recorded Carol of the Bells for my e-mail list, I put on a slightly lighter 4th string, since a 26 gauge string doesn’t have a lot of sustain when tensioned all the way up to a C (let alone the D that it would “normally” be tuned to).
I have a Sampson bridge made from Koa and Purpleheart (rather than the usual Maple/Ebony combination of most banjo bridges). I credit this bridge with being a major factor in my solo instrument’s fairly unique tone. Incidentally, I’m also a big fan of Rick Sampson’s Native American flutes – which he builds from the same exotic woods that he uses for his banjo bridges. I’ve played one of his flutes in a number of the music sketches on my YouTube channel, and I recently acquired another one for use in my next recording project.
Head tension is not something I’ve ever been particularly precise about. I tend to make adjustments on an intuitive basis, if the instrument sounds as if such adjustments are needed. The only thing I can specifically say is that I have the head on my solo instrument considerably looser than the head on my bluegrass banjo.
Deering Golden Era
I use this instrument for my job as the banjo player with Monroe Crossing. Accordingly, I have it set up with a far edgier/brighter tone than my Nechville. I also have to reduce the sustain and increase the volume in order for the instrument to sit properly in the band’s mix.
I think the strings I’ve been using are made by GHS (I purchased a bulk quantity from a local music store a couple years ago, and I don’t remember the brand without looking at a set, which isn’t possible at the time of writing). I do know that the product number for the set is PF140, and the gauges are 9 1/2-11-12-20-9 1/2.
For a bridge, I use one of Tom Nechville’s Enterprise bridges, on which I used a belt-sander to remove as much material as seem structurally safe.
Again, I can’t provide any precise information regarding head tension, but my Nechville is toward the loose end of the spectrum, and my Deering is toward the tight end of said spectrum.