Proper banjo set-up must be done in stages so that repetition of steps done out of sequence is eliminated. If you follow the below listed checks, and do adjustments as necessary, going from the truss rod to the tailpiece setting, you will not have to repeat any adjustments that may have been thrown off by doing them in the wrong sequence.

Step #1 – Always start by checking the bow in the neck.

Neck bow is the amount of curvature away from the strings and is necessary to prevent buzzing due to insufficient string clearance above the frets. Adjustment is made by tightening or loosening the truss rod nut found under an access cover on the top side of the peghead. Turning the nut clockwise tightens it and flattens the neck (decreases neck bow). Turning the nut counterclockwise loosens it and increases neck bow. The desired amount of bow is equal to somewhere between 1/64″ and 1/32″, or about the thickness of a heavy gauge fourth string. This distance is measured from the top of the 7th fret to a straight line going between the tops of the 1st and 22nd frets. That straight line can be a straight edge long enough to go that distance  (from the 1st to 22nd fret). If you do not have a straight edge, hold down one of the strings at the 1st and 22nd frets to form that straight line.

Step #2 – Checking head tension.

Heads will need tightening on a new banjo more often then on a seasoned one. Because of seasonal changes, a head on an older banjo may even need to be loosened. Before you adjust your string height, make sure your head is at the desired tension. Tap-tune it to a pitch somewhere between a G or a B, depending on whether you like a mellow or a bright tone, then go on to checking your bridge position.

Step #3 – Checking bridge position.

Once you are assured of the truss rod adjustment and head tension being right, you can check your bridge position and make any necessary adjustments before you check the string height or action. Try to position your bridge with the strings tuned to pitch as the top of the bridge will move slightly as you tighten the strings. Be sure to brace the bridge with your fingers across all three feet if you have to move it forward or backward to the desired distance of 13 3/16″ from the 12th fret, measured from center of fret to center of bridge. Make sure the bridge is parallel to the frets and that the feet are flat on the head.

Step #4 – Checking string height.

Normal string height, or action, is about 1/8″ above the 12th fret and 9/64″ above the 22nd fret as measured from the top of each fret to the center of the strings. To modify string height entails manipulation of the rim rods which are the two rods traversing the center of the rim. These rods secure the neck to the rim and must always be snug at the neck end prior to any adjustment at the opposite end where the 1/2″ nuts are. Two holes in the middle of each rod facilitate turning the rods onto or off of the neck hanger bolts, or enable you to prevent the rods from turning when tightening or loosening the adjusting nuts. To lower the action, loosen the inner nut on the lower rod and tighten the outer nut. To raise the action, loosen the outer nut and tighten the inner nut.

Step #5 – Tailpiece adjustment.

The Stelling “pivot-pin” tailpiece can be adjusted up, down. left, right, or in and out simply by turning the large thumb screw (for up/down adjustments) or the first and fifth string retaining screws (pivot pins) in or out as necessary (for sideways and in/out adjustments). String tension holds the tailpiece in position in the drilled holes provided in the tension hoop. Therefore, when the strings are slackened, the tailpiece falls off. For the same reason, the tailpiece moves up and down according to head tension. So, if you tighten your head over and over and never adjust the large thumb screw on the tailpiece, it will eventually end up pressing against the head which will have a dampening effect on tone and volume. I recommend a slight downward pressure on the strings or about 1/4″ clearance from the head. The pivot pins can be moved in out to alter the tone slightly. The factory setting is usually quite satisfactory and will not change if left alone.

If you have gone through all the above steps in order, you should now be ready to fine tune the strings to proper pitch. I have a tuning system that works very well for me as long as I can get at least the fifth string tuned to a G. Tune all strings as close to pitch by your usual method and then fine tune all strings to a fretted G as follows: 1st at 5th fret; 2nd at 8th fret; 3rd at 12th fret; 4th at 17th; 5th open. As you change tension on one the others may change slightly. Two or three sequences usually gets the strings as close to a perfect G as is possible.

Another tip: When changing strings, remove and replace one string at a time. That will minimize bridge movement and keep tension on the neck. The above set-up procedure should be performed any time your banjo seems out-of-sorts in any way, and at least twice a year during the change of seasons (from summer to winter and vice-versa).

Standard Set-up Chart

Before any of these adjustments are made, the banjo should be tuned to standard pitch with your preferred gauge of strings.

1) Neck bow .028″ + or – .006″
2) Head tension Medium (6 1/2 inch pounds or tuned to an A)
3) Bridge position 13 3/16″ from 12th fret measured center to center and parallel
4) String height 1/8″ above 12th fret; 9/64″ above 22nd fret
5) Tailpiece Parallel to head or under slight tension; 1 5/8″ to 1 3/4″ from bridge
6) Tuning Standard G

Maintenance Tips

Keeping that new banjo looking like new involves polishing the nickel-plated metal parts with Simichrome Polish®. It’s available in 50 gram tubes. The finished wood should be kept like new with Glyde-Cote®.

A more complete and illustrated Field Service Manual is available from Stelling Banjo Works, Ltd.

Good picking from Stelling Banjo Works!