Banjo Setup File #4

The mass of the bridge is extremely important for proper banjo tone production, and this is a primary purpose of proper banjo setup. A heavy bridge will mute the instrument. I routinely remove excess wood from Grover bridges with a Dremel Mototool. This will increase the volume and brighten the sound.

This crucial difference was brought home to me very graphically on January 3, 1997, when I went to Bella Vista, Arkansas to purchase a banjo from Janet Davis. She had 7 professional quality banjos that were witihin the same price range. After playing all seven of them and listening to Janet playing them, I narrowed them down to two instruments, an Earl Scruggs model and an RB-4 reissue. The RB-4 had more "crack, " the Earl Scruggs more sustain, but somewhat better bass. It was a tough decision. Then we noticed that the RB-4 had a Snuffy Smith bridge, and the Scruggs a Grover bridge. The Grover bridge is heavier than the Smith. We put a Smith bridge on the Scruggs model, and it gave it the "crack" of the RB-4, while maintaining most of the bass response it originally had. This shows the extreme importance of the correct bridge.

I do not usually find it necessary to alter these bridges by removing any wood from them.

If you are using a bridge that is reasonably light weight, or it is one that you have found usually works well, and you find that the sound of one or more of your strings is muted or otherwise "off," check the grooves where the strings rest. If these grooves are too tight--that is, if they are very deep and they pinch the string, the string will not vibrate properly, and the sound will die off rapidly. Also, make sure that the groove runs at an angle, so that the side of the groove that faces the fingerboard is higher than the side facing the tailpiece. Otherwise, the string may buzz or be muted.

Other things being equal, a higher bridge generally produces a louder sound than a lower bridge.

Curtis McPeake gave us a really good tip on bridge selection at the 1998 Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) convention in Nashville, during the Banjo Newsletter banjo workshop. You can generally judge the density of a bridge by looking at the end of it. The more lines in the wood, when you look at the end of the bridge, the denser it will be. These lines are the annual growth rings of the tree. A denser brige is harder and transmits more treble. A less dense bridge gives you a mellower sound. The bridge is crucial to the sound of the banjo, and it should be of a density that suits your playing and your style.

Positioning the Bridge

The bridge on a banjo is not permanently attached to the head, so it is possible for a bridge to move out of position. Theoretically, the bridge should be the same distance from the 12th fret that the 12th fret is from the nut. However, in real life, it doesn't work that way.

Positioning the bridge is a little more complex than measuring the distance from the nut to the bridge and multiplying by 2. Use the ruler to put the bridge in the approximate correct point. Next, touch the first string lightly, right above the 12th fret with your left index finger, and pluck the string with your right hand--using a thumb pick or a flat pick. You should hear a high pitched note, called a "harmonic." The harmonic at the 12th fret should have exactly the same pitch as the note you get when you fret that string at the 12th fret. Repeat this process with the fourth string. This will probably give you the best compromise for the correct position of the bridge

If the harmonic has a higher pitch than the fretted note, the overall length of the string is too great, so you need to move the bridge away from the tailpiece. If the harmonic has a lower pitch than the fretted note, you need to move the bridge toward the tailpiece.

You can also do this with an electronic tuner by tuning the open note so that it registers as being exactly in tune with the tuner, then fretting the string at the 12th fret and checking it against the tuner. If the fretted string is flat, then the overall length of the string is too great, so you need to move the bridge away from the tailpiece. If the fretted note is sharp, then the overall length of the string is less than it should be, so you would move the bridge toward the tailpiece.

Remedial Bridges

Another way of radically altering the sound of your banjo

Recently, in fact within 48 hours of one another, I received two different bridges that serve similar purposes. One was a special bridge from Richie Dotson.

Richie made some bridges for my fretless banjo. When he shipped the bridges to me, he also shipped a special bridge made of mahogany with an ebony strip at the top. I wasn't sure how this bridge would sound. It really brightened the sound of my banjo, making it quite a bit more penetrating. These are excellent bridges. You can e-mail Richie Dotson at

The EMERSON "Power Bridge"

Approaching a Stelling sound on a Gibson banjo

The other bridge that I received was a bridge from Kelly Emerson. Kelly is the son of Bill Emerson, who is a remarkable banjo player. Bill's "Banjo Jamboree" is one of the fastest banjo instrumentals I have ever heard.

I was on an auction site and saw these banjo bridges advertised, so I e-mailed Kelly about them and he sent one to me to try out. I thought the claims he made might have been a little excessive--until I tried it. This is a really fine bridge!

It is made of cherry wood--no ebony top--it doesn't need one. This bridge really kicks up the volume of a banjo, with particular emphasis on the treble end. However, you don't sacrifice any bass for it. I have tried this on several banjos and I found it quite interesting. Unlike most bridges that simply make a clacking sound when they are dropped, these bridges have a definite pitch. They go "clink" when dropped onto a hard surface.

I found that my Scruggs model had more bite and volume when I used this bridge on it. If your banjo needs a boost, try one. You can order them from Kelly Emerson at Banjo

The EMERSON "Power Bridge 2"

Modifying the sound of the original Power Bridge

Some people might have found the sound of the original Power Bridge a bit too "Stelling-like." Well, Kelly has solved that problem, if it is, indeed, a problem. His new Power Bridge 2 is a maple and ebony bridge on the model of the original Power Bridge. He sent me one to try out, and this is what I have found. It has the punch and bite of the original Power Bridge, but with more of the bass that one expects from a Gibson type banjo. It has plenty of power and there is a nice palette of tone available from it. I really like this bridge. It is available from Kelly Emerson at Banjo

The Mike Smith "Kat Eyz" Bridges

A completey new bridge design

If you are on the banjo lists, undoubtedly you have heard about Mike Smith's new bridges. These bridges have one of the few truly original designs in the past 30 years or so, others being the Moon bridge, the Emerson Power Bridge, the Nechville Enterprise bridge and the Sampson bridge. MIke's design virtually eliminates sagging. But that really isn't what bridges are all about. Bridges are about sound, and Mike's bridges provide that quite well. He sent me three different bridges to try. One was made of "gunstock maple" cut from an old roughed-out gunstock, topped with ebony. This bridge was similar to my ear to the sound of the Emerson Power Bridge 2. It had plenty of punch and bite and good bass. There was good contrast between the sound at the "X" and "Y" picking positions.

A second bridge was made of submerged maple with an ebony top. This had a rich tone, excellent treble and bass, and excellent volume. I felt that I got a bit more contrast between the "X" and "Y" picking positions using this bridge on this particular banjo.

The third is a "pegged top" old wood bridge with ebony top. The top of this bridge is held to the bottom with four pegs and a minimum of glue. Mike's reason for this design was to cut down on the amount of glue between the top and the bottom of the bridge. This bridge has a particularly rich sound with less ring than the others. The contrast between the "X" and "Y" positions is excellent. On my banjo, my vote goes to the pegged top old wood bridge.

You can find them at

Old Wood Bridges

Recently, divers began harvesting old growth logs from the bottom of various waterways the big logging companies had used to get the logs to the sawmills. These logs have lain on the floor of various lakes and rivers for, in many cases, over a century and a half. The wood from these logs has amazing tonal characteristics. They can "supercharge" your banjo at a relatively low cost, compared to the purchase of a vintage instrument. In all cases, these bridges seem to sound louder and snappier than a standard bridge made of modern maple; however, bridges made from wood from old bowling alleys can run a very close second. This old wood is definitely superior to recently cut maple.

Scott Zimmerman offers his Z bridges through various outlets.

If you want to build your own bridges, visit Richie Dotson's web site by clicking here.

For a preliminary review of some of Richie's bridges, which are very good bridges,click here!

I just got some sample bridges from Gary Sosebee. To learn about his bridges, click here. For a review and supplementary explanation about them, click here. Gary now has old wood bridges.

Silvio Ferretti has sent me some of his Scorpion bridges. These bridges are made of various different woods, with different tops, including purple top, snakewood, and ebony. Silvio's bridges are very well made and have a nice sound. A lot of professional banjo players are using these bridges.

The Sampson bridges are somewhat heavier than other bridges. If your banjo is really screechy, or you want a mellower sound, you might want to try one of his bridges.

A New Type of Bridge from Vince Mansfield

I get a lot of different bridges from different sources. Once in a while, one comes into my hands that I find intriguing. That is certainly the case with the new bridges that Vince Mansfield is making.

These bridges are made of osage orange (Maclura Pomifera), a wood native to America. Osage orange, also called, bois d'arc, is related to ebony. It is very hard. I have had some experience with this wood for use in other types of instruments. This wood has an unusual yellowish color that deepens with age. The bridge Vince sent me is topped with ebony. The sound is very much like one of the Sosebee "cotton mill" bridges. I'm going to play with this one some more. The price is $20.00, which is quite reasonable. It would look very neat on a banjo with a sunburst. You can contact Vince at

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