Musical instruments are usually extremely fickle, and the banjo uke is certainly no exception. Over the years I have discovered that the quality of sound that you can get from your banjo uke can be altered dramatically - for better or worse - by a number of things.
The tightness of the vellum is always a key factor in producing the sound, and most vellums are left far too slack. Test the tightness of the vellum by tapping it gently in the centre with either the nail of your forefinger, or with the tip of a small screwdriver. The sound that you want is a bright ‘tip’ ‘tip’ ‘tip’ sound, and not a dull ‘tup’ ‘tup’ ‘tup’ sound. Gently tighten the vellum until you think that it is tight enough. Do this slowly, it’s a tricky job, and tighten using opposite hooks each time. An over tightened vellum will make the instrument sound ‘tinny’ and ‘dead’, and it may well break during tightening! Also, before you start, check that there are no signs of rust around the flesh hoop or tiny splits or tears on the surface of the vellum. Either of these are usually best dealt with my taking the old vellum off and replacing it with a new one, and thoroughly cleaning the flesh hoop to remove all traces of rust. If possible, replace old, round section steel flesh hoops with ones made out of square section brass rod. Brass doesn’t rust, and the square section will grip the vellum extremely well and prevent the vellum ‘slipping’ around the flesh hoop and losing tension. Finally, over time experiment with different thickness of vellums. Small differences in thickness can make a big difference in sound.
Vellum tightness depends upon other important factors. The thickness of the hoop of your banjo uke is critical. Cheaper instruments tend to have thinner hoops, and when attempts are made to tighten the vellum, the increased tension on the hooks causes the side of the hoop to pull outwards, and this can lead to the hoop starting to split. Therefore many cheaper instruments with thin hoops are limited to the extent to which they can have their vellums tightened. The number of hooks is also important. The greater the number of hooks the more equally the pressure can be distributed around the hoop, and the more control you will have upon regulating the tension of your vellum. The minimum number of hooks should be eight in total. Ten is better, but twelve, fourteen, or sixteen, are ideal. More than sixteen hooks is unnecessary.
Strings are of vital importance. Whatever type you prefer, try out as many different brands as possible because they all sound different, and you will find that you prefer some a lot more than others. If the strings are old (more than two or three years), replace them. Old strings get ‘tired’ in response and in tone. Experiment until you find the strings that suit you and the instrument the most. A good test for nylon strings is the length of time that they take to settle down and no longer need adjusting. The rough rule is that the longer they take to settle down, the better tone they will give. Strings with little ‘stretch’ and which settle down quickly tend to be dull and toneless. Ironically, some of the most well known instrument manufacturers have produced the worst strings that I have ever used! Many old banjo ukes come with metal strings fitted. Take them off, throw them away, consign them to history, and never use them on a banjo uke. They sound lousy, wreck the frets, chew up the nut and the fingerboard, and shred the ends of your fingers!!!!
Bridges are also important. Measure the distance from the ‘nut’ to the twelfth fret, then measure the same distance from the twelfth fret onto the vellum and make a small pencil mark. This gives you the correct ‘scale length’ and marks the correct place to position the bridge. When set up, play an open string then play the same string at the twelfth fret and it should give you a note exactly one octave higher. I prefer a two footed ebony-tipped maple bridge, but there are many different types available. Experiment to find the style that suits you. Make certain that the feet of the bridge are smoothed absolutely flat. I use different grades of carbon paper to do this, and I place the carbon paper on a very hard, smooth, flat surface to file the feet down. Beware that as you file the feet of the bridge down to a lower height, the sound produced will change. Keep testing the bridge at regular intervals until it produces the right sound at the right height. And what is the right height? Well, that is always an individual preference, but as a rough guide, the bridge should be filed down so that where the strings first pass over the vellum after the last fret on the fingerboard, the strings should be about 3/16ths of an inch (4.5mm) above the vellum. Something around this height usually gives a great playing action.
However, this may throw up a problem. In my experience it is preferable for the line along the top of the fingerboard to be level with the top of the vellum where the neck joins the hoop, with the fingerboard angled slightly downwards towards the peghead. If you look across the line of the top of the vellum you should only just see the top of the last fret at the far side. The angled neck allows for an excellent playing action but also for a larger bridge to be used, which usually gives a richer, fuller sound. Unfortunately, many instruments were made with the necks too high, and altering the necks can be easy on some banjo ukes, and a nightmare on others. But try, because the difference it makes will be enormous.
Finally, clean your banjo uke out thoroughly inside and out, apply liberal amounts of wax polish and polish up profusely! Believe it or not, polishing your banjo uke will actually make it sound better. Polish up the frets and gently apply some linseed oil to the fingerboard, and you’re ready to go. The difference between what you had before and what you have now will be enormous. Store the banjo uke in a warm (not hot) place and periodically check the strings and the vellum tension.
Finally, remember the weather! I have found that banjo ukes usually sound at their best a few hours prior to rain arriving - probably something to do with increased moisture in the atmosphere. Now we can’t always have the weather of our own choosing, but just be aware that banjo ukes can sound as dull as dishwater one day, but fantastic the next, and it’s all to do with the weather.
I hope that these few ideas will help you to experiment with your own banjo uke to improve the sound that it produces and the ease with which it can be played.
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