If I tune my Wilmshurst zither banjo to a 440 Hz using a tuning fork, I get the well known problem of the 1st string being at odds with the other strings. No amount of tweaking resolves this and inevitably leads to a jumble of tones.

However, when I use my 'Eardley's Patent' pitch pipe, the problem doesn't occur and the chords are satisfactory in all positions on the neck. The pitch pipe dates from the second half of the nineteenth century and is set to the high 'Philharmonic' pitch approximating a 454 Hz.

I had set the higher pitch in 2019 and played it regularly until earlier this year. When I changed back to my ordinary banjo, I tuned the zb down to 'roughly' a 440 Hz and put it away in the case. Yesterday, I got it out and once again, failed with the tuning fork and succeeded with the pipe. 

Apart from the fact that it is in tune with itself, the instrument also seems to me to be transformed in respect of the clarity of tone, response and volume. In spite of my (still) very limited ability, it really 'sings'.

I would appreciate any thoughts as to why this is.

Kind regards, Ian.

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The first string being at odds with the other strings may be a well-known problem somewhere but I never heard of it, unless you mean the E at the 2nd fret being sharp. This will be the case on all strings. Because C is a common banjo key early zither-banjos had a split second fret.

Changes of tone quality  gotten by changes of tension are normal on all string instruments. The tighter the string the tighter the tone so to speak. Loosening the tension lowers the pitch and can open the sound. I see one potential culprit in the 1st string being different  ( if difference in pitch is what you mean).  The bridge is slightly tilted so that the 1st string is longer than the others. This will cause some frets to intone flat.

What do you actually mean when you say you failed with the tuning fork? What exactly was the failure please?

Hi Jody,

I've re-read the post this morning and realise that it is far from clear. 

I did mean the E at the 2nd fret being sharp. I can see that the bridge does look tilted, but it is actually straight and the intonation on all the strings is correct at the 12th fret. 

To say that I failed with the tuning fork was incorrect and misleading. I was referring to getting the banjo in tune and as always, I succeeded and would have adjusted the fine tuning on the first string, as and when necessary. The Wilmshurst doesn't have the split fret. However, when I used the pitch pipes I found that the issue with the 2nd fret did not arise and no adjustments were required.

I'm familiar with the sound quality of instruments changing with higher or lower tunings. My fiddles are all set to what I hear as their individual 'sweet spot', except my working instrument that has to be at a=440 Hz. To my ears, the change in this zb when set to the higher pitch is astonishing. I can see that this could simply be a coincidence and moreover, that it is purely subjective. What really puzzles me is why tuning each string with the pitch pipes, eliminates the sharpened E at the 2nd fret.

There are 2 possibilities I can think of. One or both or neither may be true.

1) The first string may be of a gauge lighter than ideal for the scale length. All strings when tuned lower and lower will get floppier and floppier and at a certain point will give a uncertain wobbly pitch. Also perhaps  the string is old and worn and unreliable.

2) It is possible that the designer/manufacturer  of the  pitch pipe(s) had a different idea of "in tune" than you do when you use a fork. Perhaps the pipe puts the open 1st string slightly lower in relation to the other strings than you do when tuning by ear using a single pitch reference with the fork,


IAN SALTER said:

Hi Jody,

I've re-read the post this morning and realise that it is far from clear. 

I did mean the E at the 2nd fret being sharp. I can see that the bridge does look tilted, but it is actually straight and the intonation on all the strings is correct at the 12th fret. 

To say that I failed with the tuning fork was incorrect and misleading. I was referring to getting the banjo in tune and as always, I succeeded and would have adjusted the fine tuning on the first string, as and when necessary. The Wilmshurst doesn't have the split fret. However, when I used the pitch pipes I found that the issue with the 2nd fret did not arise and no adjustments were required.

I'm familiar with the sound quality of instruments changing with higher or lower tunings. My fiddles are all set to what I hear as their individual 'sweet spot', except my working instrument that has to be at a=440 Hz. To my ears, the change in this zb when set to the higher pitch is astonishing. I can see that this could simply be a coincidence and moreover, that it is purely subjective. What really puzzles me is why tuning each string with the pitch pipes, eliminates the sharpened E at the 2nd fret.

I would say that the comparison of tuning standard (pitch pipe vs fork) is the issue. Pitch pipes are notoriously variable, both in the pitch setting method (esp. for the Eardley's Patent pipe) and their sensitivity to how hard you blow. Since the Eardley is a variable pitch pipe, it could easily be producing a slightly flat/sharp pitch which accidently agrees with your Wilmshurst's needs.

A fork, OTOH, is a fixed pitch. Settings based on a fixed pitch require a good bit of "sweetening" (altering individual strings' pitch to achieve a harmonious overall sound). Adjusting the 1st to give better tone on the 2nd fret requires it to be "off" slightly for the open string pitch. As Jody says, the pipe may already be doing that (though I don't think it is purposely done).

I would love to find an Eardley Patent pipe. I have a small collection of vintage banjo-specific pipes. Years ago, I compared pitch pipes vs tuning forks on an electronic standard. The two tuning forks (one modern, one from 1916) registered a dead solid 440. The pitch pipes were all over the map, difficult to blow spot on and some were quite badly off pitch.

Jody, maybe not your first suggestion. The scale length is 26 3/8" and I'm fairly sure its a plain steel, loop ended, 0.008" gauge 1st string, new in 2020. 

Your second idea and Marc's observations make a lot of sense. Apparently, the patent for this pitch pipe was submitted in 1862 and it was used until the early 1900s. As any amount of wear would alter the indicated pitch, I feel very fortunate that it just happens to suit this banjo and alleviates the need to hunt for the sweet spot. I will have try it on my 19th century guitar and mandoline.

Thank you both for your input.

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