Hi everyone. Both a new member of the forum, and I've arrived armed with a "new" banjo too.

I'm a complete newcomer to the banjo, and recently got myself this late 19th century (or sometime between 1880 and 1905 from what I can discern) 7-string zither banjo by Howard's in Manchester.

I'm not necessarily looking to restrict myself to specific banjo music on it, as I want to be freer than that, which is why this forum appealed. I don't want to be just rattling out rolls at breakneck speed, that's not the forte of these instruments anyway from what I can glean. As I really ought to have some "structure" to my learning, I considered stringing this in gDADGAD tuning, and have ordered a mixture of strings from Clifford Essex (a 7 string banjo set, and a classic guitar set) and Eagle Music (steel loop end 1st, 2nd, and 7th) to play around with. I think the slower pace (typically) of DADGAD fingerstyle guitar should work well on this, and I have a couple of books on the way to work from.As I get a better appreciation of the instrument, I may well change tack in terms of tuning and what I want to play on it.

I've also bought a replacement vellum, but to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure it needs it. But what do I know? I've currently got the pot stripped down to clean it out, and clean up the metalwork a little. I'm not intending polishing, or removing all of its acquired character, just doing a little "housekeeping" before I fit the new strings. I'm planning on putting the original velum back on, and keeping the new one as a spare, just in case I do the head a mischief in my initial experimentation.

I look forward to learning from you all, and if there's anything in what I've said so far that soiunds abysmally wrong, please don't be shy in letting me know.

Cheers

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Vellum fully dry and trimmed, but tension ring still sitting high when taut (3 to 4mm). I think I need to slacken it all off, re-wet it with a wet towel, and retension to stretch it a little more. If I can get it down to 2mm all round, I think that'll be a more sensible amount for nipping up the slack as it beds in.

If that's wrong, now's your chance to stop me, folks (I plan on doing it tomorrow).

 A high tension ring is not unusual when a new vellum has been mounted. It lowers itself over time. I suggest giving it time to settle in.  Unless.... did you wet the vellum with a wet towel last time?  That's not going to do the job. It needs to be soaked overnight. 

Aimless Wanderer said:

Vellum fully dry and trimmed, but tension ring still sitting high when taut (3 to 4mm). I think I need to slacken it all off, re-wet it with a wet towel, and retension to stretch it a little more. If I can get it down to 2mm all round, I think that'll be a more sensible amount for nipping up the slack as it beds in.

If that's wrong, now's your chance to stop me, folks (I plan on doing it tomorrow).

No Jody, I soaked it properly before fitting it, but I should have taken the tension ring down a bit further before it dried. I then lifted it out to finish drying in the captive areas, and trim off the skirt, but putting it back the tension ring is a little too high, and will likely foul on high fretted strings - probably anything above the 12th. However, now it's trimmed, I can't fully soak it again. The best I can do now, is sit a wet towel on it for a while while it's in position (but under reduced tension) to try and soften it up, while not letting it escape off the flesh hoop.

How much additional adjustment would you expect as a new vellum settles in?

I also owe a few people an apology I think. I got the scale length totally wrong. It's not 27.1/2" at all! It's 26"!!! How the heck I managed to measure to the 13th fret from the nut instead of the 12th, I have no idea.

Must have been a bad brain day! It happens too often, sadly.

A tension hoop over time will go down as far it is possible to go. But "over time" can mean decades.  

26 inches? That's on the short side. Not longish after all.



Aimless Wanderer said:

No Jody, I soaked it properly before fitting it, but I should have taken the tension ring down a bit further before it dried. I then lifted it out to finish drying in the captive areas, and trim off the skirt, but putting it back the tension ring is a little too high, and will likely foul on high fretted strings - probably anything above the 12th. However, now it's trimmed, I can't fully soak it again. The best I can do now, is sit a wet towel on it for a while while it's in position (but under reduced tension) to try and soften it up, while not letting it escape off the flesh hoop.

How much additional adjustment would you expect as a new vellum settles in?

I also owe a few people an apology I think. I got the scale length totally wrong. It's not 27.1/2" at all! It's 26"!!! How the heck I managed to measure to the 13th fret from the nut instead of the 12th, I have no idea.

Must have been a bad brain day! It happens too often, sadly.

"A tension hoop over time will go down as far it is possible to go. But "over time" can mean decades"

OK. I'll string it up, bring it all to tension, and see if it gives much in the first week or so. If It's still fouling on higher frets after that, I might have to revisit the idea of wetting it.

"26 inches? That's on the short side. Not longish after all."

Yes, I made a complete fool of myself there, Jody. How I measured that wrong, is beyond me. The frets do feel wider than my acoustic guitar though, so 27.5" didn't feel wrong. Maybe a false perception due to it sitting so differently to a guitar. Who knows?

Cheers

I've followed Jody's advice, and strung it up as it stands, and am currently coaxing it into tune, whilst discovering the joys of tuning an instrument with a floating bridge mounted on a flexible surface. The bass strings sound fine in DAD, so I'll be sticking to my plan of gDADGAD tuning. If I want to play classic banjo tunes, all I need to do is tune the high A up to B, and ignore the two lower bass strings.

This is the first time it's been set up here with the supplied bridge, and action is higher than I'm used to, but below the 5mm common on classic banjo at the 12th fret. All in all, the plan seems to be coming together.

Four  thoughts:

If the bridge is sitting on a flexible surface, then the vellum is too loose.

If the bridge has been "mounted", that suggests it has been affixed. That's worrisome. 

If the action seems high then the strings are too thick. The proper gauges are so narrow that at pitch the tension is very low. Nothing near the tension of the strings on a guitar or mandolin.

For playing classic banjo music the lower D and A are likely to cause sonic mud. Unplayed lower strings produce upper partials (overtones) and they color the sound of the fingered higher strings.  If this is a muddy concept try tuning a guitar to a tuning you normally use. Play a scale or simple phrase on the upper strings. Now tune one or both of the bass strings to something else. The same passage will sound different. Now put the bass strings out of tune.  Make sure the trebles are still in tune. Play the same scale or passage. It will sound dreadful.


Aimless Wanderer said:

I've followed Jody's advice, and strung it up as it stands, and am currently coaxing it into tune, whilst discovering the joys of tuning an instrument with a floating bridge mounted on a flexible surface. The bass strings sound fine in DAD, so I'll be sticking to my plan of gDADGAD tuning. If I want to play classic banjo tunes, all I need to do is tune the high A up to B, and ignore the two lower bass strings.

This is the first time it's been set up here with the supplied bridge, and action is higher than I'm used to, but below the 5mm common on classic banjo at the 12th fret. All in all, the plan seems to be coming together.
Probably poor phrasing on my part, Jody. As regard your four points...

1) I just put a 6" rule on the head to get an idea of the deflection, and the bridge has deflected the head downwards about 3mm at the feet. I don't know if that's high or low. I didn't want to tension it too much, and make it go bang. Remember there is a little more "weight" on this bridge, as there's 7 strings running over it, so it may be likely to sink a little more than normal.

2) Sited, rather than mounted, might have been a better choice of words. The bridge is still loose, and just held by string and vellum tension. One thing I noticed while tuning, was the bridge skipping to centre itself according to string tension, which kept mucking up the intonation. I've not quite got the sweet spot yet for being both central and at the right angle to get true intonation on strings 1 and 6.

3) The height is 5mm or slightly under, which I believe is in keeping with classic banjo, but slightly higher than I am used to. I wouldn't say it's a major problem, just unfamiliar. String tension is certainly low. Two of the strings are as per the Clifford Essex set, at the tuning they were intended to be. The rest of the strings are of comparable tension.

4) I do understand and take your point on the sympathetic nature of the strings. So far, I haven't noticed any real detriment, but I'll keep an ear out for it. The three steel strings (1,2 and 7) sound very banjo-ish, and I've not noticed any intruding sloppiness behind the sound from the bass strings. The three wound bass strings sound almost guitar-ish, with a slight hint of banjo (which I quite like), and the plain nylon third string sounds somewhere between the two. The strings are still settling in and it needs tuning again, but so far all sounds well to my ears, including the very noticable difference in voice, tone or texture (whatever the correct term is) over the three string types.

All good news. And yes, differences in timbre due to 3 string types is the essence of zither-banjo.

Excellent! Thanks again, Jody.

I'd put the zither-banjo aside for a few days, to give everything a chance to settle in, while I focussed my attention on another acquisition. I came back to it today, and the new head had relaxed quite a bit as Jody predicted, so I tightened that up, and started retuning it. I worked from low to high in tone, and everything was going great, till I got to the first string.

C... C#.... nearly D.... TWOING!! I thought, "how can I have broke it, there's very little tension on these?", but when I went to see where it had broke... it wasn't there! No string on the tuner or on the tailpiece!?!? Eventually I realised what had happened. I hadn't taken enough turns on the machine head, the string had slipped, and launched itself behind the armchair. Quite impressive actually! So now I'm waiting for a replacement string, having cut the last one too short... and yes, I ordered spares this time. All part of the learning curve.

I had a similar thing happen to me at a recording session in the early 1970s. I was using one of those old elastic capos. I was midway through the song I was recording when there was a SPROING (similar to a TWOING but more capo-esque) and then a BANG and then the capo wasn't there and my open strings were in a different key than I was. The capo had come loose, the elastic functioned as a slingshot (which catapulted ITSELF!)  and the capo hit a wall.  The engineer dealt with it by employing a fadeout before the noisy event.

Aimless Wanderer said:

I'd put the zither-banjo aside for a few days, to give everything a chance to settle in, while I focussed my attention on another acquisition. I came back to it today, and the new head had relaxed quite a bit as Jody predicted, so I tightened that up, and started retuning it. I worked from low to high in tone, and everything was going great, till I got to the first string.

C... C#.... nearly D.... TWOING!! I thought, "how can I have broke it, there's very little tension on these?", but when I went to see where it had broke... it wasn't there! No string on the tuner or on the tailpiece!?!? Eventually I realised what had happened. I hadn't taken enough turns on the machine head, the string had slipped, and launched itself behind the armchair. Quite impressive actually! So now I'm waiting for a replacement string, having cut the last one too short... and yes, I ordered spares this time. All part of the learning curve.

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