I keep hearing that skin-head banjos (and also nylon strings) are weather sensitive.  I haven't noticed this living in a temperate English climate but I wonder if playing outdoors in Autumnal weather will mean constant re-tuning.  I have a few outdoor events coming up (I have another banjo which I don't play very much which is steel strung with an Amber Elite head.  I am toying with the idea of setting it up with nylon strings)...any thoughts?  Thanks. 

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Well first of all, Elite heads and nylon strings are usually a good sounding combo so why not?  Autumn weather outdoors should be no problem for your skin-headed banjo (s).  Most vellum bursting incidents I have witnessed have taken place indoors where either air-conditioning or dry heating  have tightened the head beyond endurance. The sound of an exploding banjo vellum is comparable to a pistol shot. I have witnessed this happen on stage 3 times. One time it was my own banjo. It was on a stand on a stage. I left it there after the sound check and another band was on stage sound-checking when it happened. It was quite the event. (The band was Hot Rize).   The usual problem with skin heads (natural vellums) is that that in very humid weather the head goes slack, so slack that the bridge sinks and sometimes the strings don't clear the frets, and if they do the sound is mushy. So the thing to do is tighten the head down. Well and good. But then there is  a sudden rainstorm and all the moisture goes out of the air. This happens a lot on the east coast of the USA. When the moisture leaves the air it also leaves the air surrounding the banjo. The head dries up real quick and bursts. Sometimes it just goes ker-flop, especially if it tears where the vellum touches a tone ring or flesh hoop. A small rip occurs and it spreads. But if one is lucky it happens right in the middle of the head, near the bridge. Then there is an explosion followed by the  merriment and hilarity that follows the shock in the short moment when everyone thinks a gun has been fired.

Oh gosh, that 'vellum bursting incident' sounds like a real shocker!  Occasionally, I have an incident where the bridge suddenly falls over (mostly on my temperamental banjeaurine) and I almost jump out of my skin. 

So, I should be all right in the tepid English climate - it sounds like humidity is the problem and sudden changes in temperature.  Thanks, Jody.  (I might still experiment with the other banjo, just out of curiosity) 

Hi Carrie, one of the tricks some of the early banjo players (and drummers) used was to fit a low wattage light bulb below the vellum to stop it from absorbing too much moisture in the humid atmospheres of dance halls and clubs. The bulb was then plugged into the mains via a suitable length of electrical cable. I've seen a few of these early banjos with the electrical fittings still in place attached to the perch pole. I don't know how many players came to an untimely end but it isn't something I'd fancy doing....Steve.

Steve, I had such a banjo when I was 16. It was a Ludwig tenor. It had not *one* bulb fitted but at least half a dozen and each was a different color. And when plugged in they flashed on and off. But I don't know if this was for display or because the contraption was broken. The wire was frayed. The second time I tried plugging it in the whole shebang caught fire. This was alarming but also fun.  I was a teenager, remember. 

Carrie, sudden loss of humidity causes the drying and bursting. I wouldn't think that sudden changes of temperature would cause a vellum to burst. But it does cause wood to crack so maybe you are right.

Yes, the falling bridge sound is very loud and shocking. I was 14 the first time I witnessed it. I was playing mandolin on stage in a bluegrass band and our banjo player was taking a solo when it happened. BANG!  I don't think any  of us jumped but when you're 14 everything (and nothing) is surprising. As far as we knew, instruments were supposed to explode when they got near a microphone.  I can't remember if we finished the song or not.

I find that the standard cylinder footed zither-banjo bridges are unstable and are prone to these explosive Fall and Bang incidents. I can't get them to remain upright for even 3 minutes. So I don't use them. But I wonder how zither-banjo players in the past managed to use them. I use very light gauge strings so it's not extra pressure causing it.


Steve Harrison said:

Hi Carrie, one of the tricks some of the early banjo players (and drummers) used was to fit a low wattage light bulb below the vellum to stop it from absorbing too much moisture in the humid atmospheres of dance halls and clubs. The bulb was then plugged into the mains via a suitable length of electrical cable. I've seen a few of these early banjos with the electrical fittings still in place attached to the perch pole. I don't know how many players came to an untimely end but it isn't something I'd fancy doing....Steve.

I was at a banjo concert in 1993 when the banjo bridge of one of the players on the stage went down with a tremendous bang, someone in the audience shouted, "A sign from God!". Van Eps fitted a light bulb in some of his banjos to warm the vellum up in adverse weather conditions. How to fit flashing coloured lights inside a banjo was explained in a banjo mag a long time ago, I may have a copy which I will share if I can find it.

'A sign from God' how funny.  Well, I have never ever heard of the light-bulb remedy.  What with exploding vellums, shattered glass and slamming bridges (plus hecklers) we banjo player's must have 'thick skins' (pardon the pun). 

Bad surprise when opening the case of my Windsor Premier .   Strangely , the banjo was still in tune &  could play perfectly .  and more..... i don 't need a music stand anymore

Ha ha....this is a greater innovation than the lightbulb!!

I found one of the B.M.G. articles about banjo heaters. The other one, which has gone missing was about installing flashing lights and involved running bare wires under the fingerboard, in contact with the frets, the current also passed through the wire strings (plectrum banjo show offs, obviously) and a host of coloured light bulbs were illuminated beneath the vellum as the player's fingers pressed the strings against the frets. Sounds very dangerous to me, but the plans for the heater shown below, seem, with the benefit of modern insulation to be quite safe, if you are thinking of installing light bulbs I would recommend getting an electrician to do the job.



Richard William Ineson said:

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