Banjo Bridges by Bart

Myths, misconceptions

and personal thoughts

about Banjo Bridges

A number of things about banjo bridges seem to have been taken for granted and have become "truths" over the years. Here are some of my favourite ones:

Taller = Louder

  • This one's mostly for the five string crowd - if that was true then how come 3/4" tall bridges are no longer popular? Why not make them 1 inch tall? Most modern banjo manufacturers have settled on 5/8" tall bridges for good reasons: performance and playability for both four and five string banjos. Some four string banjos are still geared for 1/2" bridges while some five string banjos, and their players, have come to prefer 11/16 inch bridges. A lot of research and trial and error experiments by many bridge makers, including myself, have concluded that the facts simply do not agree: Taller = Louder simply is not true. The how's and why's are dealt with elsewhere on this website but basically, if you went up to an 11/16" from a 5/8" and found your volume increased your banjo wasn't tweaked to the max for that bridge.

Applying a finish spoils the sound/tone

  • Banjo bridges must not be finished with anything - no wax, no oil, no lacquer, no varnish, no whatever because according to the myth any finish will negatively affect the sound and/or tone. Well, so the saying goes anyway. Some claim that a finish will increase the bridge's weight - hmmm, how much extra weight might there be? I had a couple of bridges weighed on one of them super accurate scales at a pharmacy in September 2007. Same bridge before and after the oil finish (after having the oil had dried & cured for one day): identical weight on a scale as accurate as 0.01 or 1/100 of a gram. I don't mind admitting folks, I cannot produce bridges that are that close in weight from one bridge to the next due to the grain and the density of the wood never being the same and all. Expecting any bridge maker to adhere to 10 milligrams as a production/shop tolerance would simply not be realistic. Some even claim that there's no place in bluegrass for finished bridges. Hmmm, my name isn't Bill Monroe so let's just leave it at that. . .
  • A properly applied finish does not affect the sound and/or tone, whether good, bad, or indifferent. Maybe it's because Bridges by Bart are more special than even I had thought... I can appreciate it though that someone might want to skip the finishing step when making a bridge - it's smelly, sticky and no matter how careful you are, it always turns out to be a real messy job that takes a lot of extra time for the finish to dry and cure before you can package the bridge. Cosmetically though, you just can't beat the beautiful grain of an oil finished bridge.
  •  My opinion is based on facts, blindfold real live test and thousands of bridges I've produced over the years. Please don't let scientifically repeatable facts get sideswiped by guesses, "I think sos," "In my opinios" etc. If you're thinking "what about moisture content?" that also has nothing whatsoever to do with whether a banjo bridge is finished or not.
  • Some people claim that unfinished bridges are tradition and finished bridges are not. Here a few traditions that have been broken so far - banjos nowadays:

  • have more than two strings
  • usually are covered in 4 or more coats of plastic spray finish
  • have steel or nylon strings
  • do have tension hoops
  • do have plastic, mylar to be precise, heads
  • do not have friction tuners
  • often have inlaid necks
  • have frets
  • usually have resonators
  • usually have metal tone rings
  • often have all metal rims etc. etc so, sorry, the "tradition" argument doesn't hold water

Bridges can only be ebony topped maple

  • Mostly in the five string world - maple/ebony is the only combination for traditional bluegrass sound. Hmmm, then what's the hubbub about cherry, walnut, birch or cedar - they seem to be quite popular. Then of course, there's the sunken/submerged maple - marvelous wood to be sure but when you read about it having altered at a cellular level then, well, then it's no longer maple, is it. . . To some ears maple/ebony indeed is where it's at. No problem because personal taste is hugely important. You'd do your ears a favour by checking out some of the other woods because there are many species that offer superior performance that maple simply cannot match.
  • When I first started making bridges I used to send a loot bag to a LOT of people with a lot of different types of banjos, maybe you received one, with a bunch of unmarked bridges of different wood species and combinations of wood species. The deal was they would give me feedback and they'd get to keep the one they liked best and send the other ones back. One of them always was a maple/ebony and guess what, over the years NOBODY EVER KEPT THE MAPLE/EBONY - everyone, without fail or exception, always returned the maple ebony and kept one of the NOT EBONY bridges...

Bridges must have three feet

  • In the early days two footed bridges were very popular and, in the four string world, they still are. Early Gibsons used to have two footed bridges, 3/4" tall at that. This is something four string players have known about a long time: with two footed bridges there's more head vibration than with the usual three - something well worth considering...

All bridges sag in the middle

  • Yes, this actually is often true and more so for two footed than for three footed bridges. From a bridge maker's perspective this is a non-issue because all you need to do is to either radius the top or make the center leg a little taller. Taller by how much? Just measure the sag of a worn out bridge and voila, that's how much taller the center leg needs to be. Then why aren't banjo bridges made like that from the get go? Dunno, I can't speak for the other bridge makers but it's always been a standard feature for all the three footed bridges I make. I guess it comes down the the same thing as with the finishing myth: it takes longer and it's more work...
  • On the two footers there's a bit of sag on some of the ones I make, sometimes. Most of them out there that haven't shown any sign of sag even after several years of service - the operative word in hardwood is hard. On the other hand, I've always been quite up front about the fact that I consider bridges a consumable item - meaning that I don't expect them to last forever. They might chip, crack along the grain, snap, get crushed by the lid of your banjo case, or whatever. If a bridge lasts longer than one or two years - bonus. Guess what though, I've been making bridges for quite a goodly number of years by now and haven't had any failures reported to date.

Don't sound right? - you need a compensated bridge

  • For five stringers again - this one actually worries me. I hear it all too often and there's never really any mention of what string(s) need compensation and by how much. Some compensated bridges are notched, at a non-descript dimension, at the third string yet the most common complaints about intonation focus on the 2nd string. Some stagger all strings, some make the second string compensate in a negative direction. Sorry folks, "about-this-much" just don't cut it when addressing the intonation problems of your banjo eventhough it might have been OK for someone else's. The only way to address intonation problems is on a case by case basis. How? Check the Sweet Spot routine on one of the previous pages - it's good enough for several millions of guitar players and totally applicable to banjos but if you prefer to keep playing out of tune that's cool by me.

The second string is always out of tune

  • Another classic in the five string world: not so - all you need is a properly positioned bridge and/or a custom compensated bridge as in the myth above.

You must tune the 2nd string a little flat

  • Tuning your banjo out of tune on purpose? You better hope that the sound guy in the recording studio doesn't have "perfect pitch hearing..." Folks who tell you that simply have not kept up: I introduced custom compensated bridges back in 2001. These are "prescription" bridges that make your strings intonate properly up and down the neck so there's absolutely no reason for anyone to purposely tune their second string a little flat any more. Should someone disagree, tell them about this website to set them straight.

A bridge must weigh X.XX grams else it can't be any good

  • Some folks use weight as the one and only important feature of a banjo bridge and in doing have to make their bridges according to self-imposed limitations. Had I accepted those limitation then bridges like the Archie (only about half the weight of what's considered "proper,") Dark Star and several others would have never seen the light of day. "Clawhammer bridges must be heavier" is  another wonderful way to get stuck in in arbitrarily chosen pigeon-holing. Sorry folks, I don't feel I should have to adopt this kind of dogma and lower my standards by going along with tunnel vision thinking and designing like that. Bridge weight could be a specification but should never be considered a feature.

Bridges must "rest"

  • Huh...? That one took me by surprise when someone told me that. He went on to explain that he had four bridges that he rotated. Huh? He'd use one for three months and then the next for another three months so that each bridge could rest for one year. Read the "settle in" for the expalnation.

Bridges need to "settle-in"

  • This one crops up every now and then in discussions. Some folks think that when they buy a new bridge and install it on their banjo, that they shouldn't play it for one, or more, days before the bridge can do its job properly. Hmmm, the bridge is mounted on the banjo's head which a flexible surface - it immediatly assumes the proper curve(s) to accommodate the bridge's seating. Nothing in the universe changes, banjos included, when that happens. So what's the deal then because a banjo often actually will sound different then the day before with the old bridge? It's your hearing folks, your hearing is the item that needs to interpret your banjo's new sound and it takes a bit for that idea to sink in, that's all.

Personal Philosohpy

  • Too big a word really but my thoughts about designing and making bridges is pretty straight forward: shoot for the best sound, tone and playability and if that means turfing tradition and/or convention then so be it. Of course, I can make maple/ebony bridges so if that's what you really want/need, not a problem. I do however, much prefer to offer you something that'll let you exploit your banjo's capabilities to the fullest and allow you to bring out the best of your musical potential.
  • I received an email from someone recently (Aug, 2007) who mentioned they were real surprised and impressed that such a thin top bridge could have such a full sound. Yup, sure made me gloat as I take a lot of pride in the work I do. I don't consider my bridges thin although they are in fact thiner then many others. I design them for max performance and if they don't need to be thick then why make them thick - no excessive mass to absorb, or get in the way of, string vibration transmission. Lean and mean, kinda like racing cars compared to mini vans.

All in all, the whole point I'm trying to make is that it pays to be open minded when it comes to banjo bridges and certainly, to acknowledge that personal taste plays a huge role. Realize that often playability is more important a factor than sound/tone when it comes to shopping for a new bridge. Most of the things I pointed out here were aimed at the five string world because like it or not folks, four string players are miles ahead of us five stringers - they tend to look for sound and performance regardless of the way it's "packaged" instead of insisting on tradition.

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Copyright 2009 Bart Veerman
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