In “olden times” banjo heads were simply animal hide stretched over a gourd. But the industrial revolution eventually brought us plastics and other materials that allowed for more durable and resistant banjo heads. Thanks to these innovations, banjo heads can literally last a lifetime and never need to be changed. However, if your banjo head gets damaged, is showing wear, or you want a different look or tone, you may want to swap your banjo head out with a new one.
To change a banjo head, you’ll need to remove the armrest, strings, bridge, and tailpiece first. You’ll then loosen the J-hooks until the tension loop and banjo head can be removed from the rim. You would then place the new banjo head on the ring, along with the tension ring and then finger tighten the J-hooks. After replacing the tailpiece and armrest, you would restring the banjo and replace the bridge. Continue tensioning until reaching the right string height.
Changing a banjo head can be a very simple procedure. However, if your banjo has other issues, it can also be fraught with peril. You do not want to over tighten your banjo head. It can damage your banjo or give you an unappealing tone. If the banjo head is too loose, your string height may be too low and you will have a muddy tone as well.
Let’s go into a lot more depth below with step by step instructions, and which tools you’ll need for this project!
What you will need to remove your banjo head:
It is imperative that your T wrench fits the J hooks properly. The wrong size T-wrench will damage the head of the J hooks, leaving them sharp and jagged, potentially making your banjo uncomfortable to play. If you don’t have a banjo T-wrench you can use the appropriate sized box end wrench, however, a T-wrench is designed for the job and does not get blocked by the rim allowing for multiple turns without removing the wrench. I do not suggest using a crescent wrench or adjustable wrench as these are commonly referred to as “round off” wrenches because they are notorious for slipping and rounding off the edges of a nut.
If you’re looking for where to buy a new banjo head, Amazon has a few options including an 11-inch Fiberskyn banjo head for under $30.
Steps for removing your banjo head
(Every banjo model is a bit different and all steps may not apply):
- Place your banjo on a protective towel, mat or carpet.
- Remove the resonator (if applicable) by unscrewing the thumb screws.
- Mark the bass side of the bridge with a small piece of painter’s tape to make sure you reinstall it the correct direction.
- Measure the distance between the end of the fretboard and both the bass and treble sides of the bridge so that you can put the bridge back on the new banjo head in roughly the same position.
- Remove the tailpiece cover (if applicable), strings and bridge in that order.
- Remove the tailpiece nut. The tailpiece can now be removed.
- Remove the armrest thumb screw (if applicable). If you have a Vega style you will remove it when you loosen the J-hooks.
- Turn the banjo over so that you are looking at the back and begin loosening the J-hooks one at a time with the T-wrench by turning each J-hook nut one half of a turn. Begin by loosening the J-hook to the right of the neck heel, then loosen the J-hook directly across the rim from it. Then loosen the J-hook to the right of the first one and continue this pattern until the tension loop is loose.
- Once the tension loop is loose you can fully loosen each of the J-hooks in order until you can remove them from the tension loop.
- Lift the tension loop at the end of the fretboard first (the loop tends to pinch at the neck so lift here first) and work your way around the rim until the tension loop lifts freely.
- Remove your banjo head in the same manner as the tension loop.
Once the head has been removed give the rim a once over with a cleaner or damp cloth. You will likely never have the banjo head off again, so this is a good time to give your banjo a good cleaning.
How to install a new banjo head:
- Rotate the new banjo head so that the brand name is in line with the neck. This isn’t necessary, it just looks discordant if the logo is not properly feng shuied.
- Work the banjo head back and forth a bit to make sure it is properly seated and lined up.
- Place the tension loop over the new banjo head and work it back and forth to make sure it is fully seated.
- Place each of the J-hooks back over the tension ring and finger tighten the J-hook nut.
- If you have a Vega style armrest, place the two appropriate J-hooks into the armrest slots and finger tighten the nuts.
- Turn the banjo over so that you are looking at the back and begin tightening the J-hooks one at a time with the T-wrench by turning each J-hook nut one half a turn. Begin by tightening the J-hook to the right of the neck heel, then tighten the J-hook directly across the rim from it.
- As you begin to tighten with the T-wrench other J-hooks will loosen. Go around the rim and retighten each J-hook nut to finger tightness.
- With the T-wrench tighten the J-hook to the right of the first one and continue this pattern until the tension loop is secure.
- Repeat the above pattern turning the T-wrench a ½ turn on each J-hook until the banjo head becomes firm enough to resist a little hand pressure. It should not be loose, but you don’t want it too tight yet either.
We’re not quite done with the new banjo head install, but it is now time to replace the tailpiece and restring the banjo. Replace the bridge using your measurements from the Removing Your Banjo Head steps above).
How to tension a new banjo head:
- Tighten the strings and bring the banjo up to pitch
- Using a ruler, measure the distance from the top of the 12th fret to the bottom of the 4th string. Repeat and measure to the bottom of the 1st string. Ultimately, your goal is to have the string height exactly 1/8th (0.125”) of an inch above the 12th fret.
- Using the T-wrench, tighten each J-hook a ½ turn repeating the previously described pattern. Retune your banjo, then measure the string height. Repeat until the string height of the 4th and 1st strings is 1/8th (0.125”) of an inch above the 12th fret.
Be careful not to overtighten the banjo head. This can damage either the head, the rim, the hardware or some combination thereof. Be aware that your goal of exactly 1/8th of an inch string height may not be achievable if your neck angle is inappropriate. If the string height is over 1/8th (0.125”) of an inch before you begin tensioning the head the neck angle is too steep and needs to be adjusted. Conversely, if you aren’t able to achieve 1/8th (0.125”) of an inch string height without over tightening the banjo head, then your neck angle is not steep enough and needs to be adjusted.
Adjusting neck angle is a complex procedure that would be difficult to properly explain in a blog. There are just too many variables and reasons why the neck angle may be off. Unless you know exactly what you are doing, neck angle adjustments should only be done by a skilled luthier (guitar repair specialist).
Replacing your banjo head should be a straightforward procedure if you follow these step-by-step instructions. However, you may run into other issues where you may want to call in a professional. Chances are though, you’ll be strumming with a new head in no time. Make sure to check out our other posts on banjo maintenance and care for other musical instruments as well. Happy playing!