Banjo Bridge Primer

An advertising claim from A. D. Grover in the 1920s proclaimed “A Banjo Is No Better Than Its Bridge!”  I believe it. 

Wurlitzer Banjo Bridges

Ever since steel wire strings began to be common on plectrum and five-string banjos, bridge design changed to accommodate the added tension and the strings cutting into the wood.  The three-legged ebony-top bridge emerged and has been the industry standard from about the mid-1920s to today.

When I started playing stroke style and “classic” banjo I did not have a lot of guidance on setup.  Nylon strings were still considered the subgenre of banjo subgenres.  I soon discovered why I kept being told that nylon/gut strings were “quiet.”

Dissatisfied with the volume and tone I was getting using a modern-pattern bridge, I tried to replicate what I saw advertised in old catalogs.  As the years went on I have been able to study many articles on banjo setup that were written in the era when gut strings were standard.  I have also studied and measured original late 19th and early 20th century banjo bridges.  The experience in playing and research has allowed me to recreate bridges that are authentic in size, tone, and volume.

 Historic bridges are different from the modern bridge.  For one thing, they are smaller—much smaller and thinner than the modern-pattern bridge.  It can be shocking the first time you see one in person.

Historic With Modern Banjo Bridge

The string spacing on historic bridges is narrower than what is commonly used today.  There was no such thing as a “Crowe spacing” (or even J .D. Crowe) when these patterns were designed.  I have not found a “standard” spacing on historic bridges as it seemed to vary from make to make.  The bridges I craft will be notched in the spacing of the original model that I copied. The widths are noted in the descriptions of each pattern.  Narrower spacing is easy to get used to and I find that it increases playing velocity.

Bacon Banjo Bridge 2

Notches are cut differently on historic bridges than on modern bridges.  The larger diameter and elasticity of nylon/gut requires a deeper notch as the strings can roll out of the notches.  In addition, the notches are cut at angles towards the third string.  This works to keep the strings in the notches under the most vigorous playing conditions.  Because of the way they are cut, the strings must always be removed from the notches before changing the bridge.  Tilting the bridge with strings in the notches will cause the wood to chip out and ruin the bridge.  As far as I know the bridges of my manufacture are the only currently available bridges with proper historically cut notches.

I do not use supernatural wood.  There is no mystery about the lumber I cut bridges from.  I use locally sourced New England Sugar Maple (also called “rock maple”).  I personally select the boards.  The bridges are hand-sanded to the final size.  While they are very consistent, they are still handmade and not machine perfect.  I do not weigh them.  I also do not build to the thousandth inch.  They are built true to size within reason.  At this time I am not taking custom orders.

Overly thick strings will require the notches to be enlarged.  I cut notches for LaBella no. 17s or equivalent (the Converse 65 model has larger notches for “minstrel” strings).  I personally use custom size strings that are period correct for the late 1870s to today.  Excessively thick strings could also damage the bridge from the strain and possibly crush them.  Unwound fourth strings, as sold in sets by Aquila, will need a lot of enlarging.  I do not recommend unwound fourths because of their weak tone.  I have listed the sizes of strings that the notches will fit in the descriptions of each bridge pattern.  If you are using thicker strings you can use welder tip cleaners to enlarge them.

Use some powdered violin rosin on the bottom of the feet to keep the bridge from moving around when playing.

Nothing lasts forever.  String notches will wear and chip out.  This is a normal wear.  

© Joel Hooks 2020