Cleaning your banjo isn’t nearly as fun as playing it but if you value the look and feel of a clean banjo it is an obvious necessity. The smell and feel of a clean fretboard and polished banjo makes it fun to play and it looks like your instrument is well-cared-for. There are also those who prefer the look of a “seasoned” banjo, and there certainly isn’t anything wrong with that, I just happen to be in the clean banjo camp.
Cleaning your banjo is as simple as cleaning any other stringed instrument and the procedure gets quicker and easier the more you do it. Mark your bridge location with painter’s tape then remove your old banjo strings by unwinding each one until you can easily remove the string from the tuning machine. Once the strings are off, use a clean dry cloth to remove all the dust, dander and debris that can be wiped off the banjo. Using naphtha or your preferred banjo cleaner, wet an approximately quarter sized section of the cloth and start wiping. Make sure you get the entire banjo body, neck, fretboard, and headstock. If your banjo head is skin or vellum, do not clean with a liquid cleaner. Simply use a pink wedge eraser to “erase” any dirt. Restring and you’re all done.
That’s the quick answer but let’s go into a lot more depth below and also cover how to take apart your banjo.
Step By Step Instructions to Clean Your Banjo
Every banjo that comes into my shop gets a once over with naphtha (pronounced naf-tha or nap-tha). Naphtha can be purchased at any construction or paint store and you can even get it in on Amazon. It is a solvent that breaks down the oils that our bodies secrete, allowing them to be wiped away with minimal effort. A quick WARNING: Naphtha is a petrochemical and is extremely flammable and it must be used in a well-ventilated area and away from open flame.
Naptha evaporates almost immediately so it will not harm wood or finish and won’t leave residue on your banjo (DO NOT use it on skin/vellum). You can also use a multipurpose cleaner and polish that is made specifically for cleaning stringed instruments such as your banjo. Kyser and Ernie Ball both make excellent instrument polishes.
What you will need to clean your banjo:
- Two clean, dry cloths
- One very soft, lint-free cloth or microfiber cloth
- Naphtha or other banjo cleaner
- Polish or paste wax
Steps for cleaning your banjo:
- Mark the bridge by putting a piece of painter’s tape both in front and behind the bridge and mark the bass side of the bridge with a small piece of tape.
- Remove the strings.
- Place one dry cloth securely over the opening of the can of naphtha or your preferred cleaner and then tip the can upside down and let a little bit of the cleaner soak into the cloth.
- With the wet area of the cloth, thoroughly wipe the entire banjo, moving to a clean area of cloth and rewetting as necessary.
- The areas where skin comes into contact with the banjo will likely need extra attention. Sebum (oils excreted from skin) tends to accumulate on the neck and the banjo head where the hand touches it frequently.
- Remove ONE piece of painter’s tape and clean underneath it.
- Place the bridge against the edge of the remaining piece of painter’s tape and replace the first piece of tape.
- Remove the second piece of painter’s tape and clean underneath it (there is no need to replace this piece of painter’s tape when done).
- Using a clean, dry cloth wipe the entire banjo down to get rid of any excess cleaner.
- Apply a small amount of paste wax (Renaissance is my go-to), auto polish (I like Mother’s or Maguiar’s) or banjo polish to the areas with a finish such as the headstock, neck (do not apply polish to the fretboard), and rim. You can find links for all of these on our guitar supplies page.
- Rub the polish in with a very soft, lint-free cloth, let it dry for a few seconds and then wipe it off to bring out a freshly polished, bright finish.
As always, maintaining a frequent cleaning routine helps prevent oils, skin, dander, sweat and other fluids from drying and building up on your banjo and reduces the need for heavier or more frequent cleaning. However, even with the most diligent routine there will come a time when you will need to really get in there with a good cleaner and then follow up with a polish on your banjo. I find that the best time to do this is when you change your strings as they already have to come off the instrument.
What banjo strings to buy
The right banjo strings really depend on the sound and feel that you’re looking for and every musician has different tastes. With that being said, light gauge strings will be easier to play and are what usually comes with a banjo when you purchase it new. The D’Addario Phosphor Bronze Light Banjo Strings provide a warm, balanced tone and comes with high reviews.
Medium gauge strings will have more tonal depth, will produce more volume, and are better for heavy picking. The Martin Nickel-wound Medium Banjo Strings and will produce a clear, bright tone that’s perfect for bluegrass while the D’Addario Phosphor Bronze Medium Banjo Strings will be your more balanced play.
How to restring a banjo
Now that your banjo is looking pretty and smelling oh so good, you’ll need to restring your banjo.
What you will need to restring your banjo:
- New set of your preferred banjo strings (see above)
- String winder (optional, but worth it)
- Wire cutters (Flush cut recommended)
If you aren’t a seasoned player who knows exactly what banjo strings you prefer, now is a good time to experiment with different banjo strings if you are inclined to try something new. Try banjo strings made from different materials (phosphor, nickel plated, etc.) and different gauges to help determine your preferences.
You don’t need to use a string winder, however, it will save you a bunch of time and strain on your wrist. A banjo tuner can have between a 12:1 and 18:1 ratio meaning it will need to be turned 12-18 times to make the post turn one time. Since the human wrist limits you to about a ½ turn, that means 24-36 turns for one revolution of the post. And, you want 3-6 wraps (depending on the gauge of the string) on each of the five strings. That’s an average of ~500-800 twists.
I also highly recommend using flush cut wire cutters to trim the strings. Smaller gauge banjo strings can be finer than an insulin needle and they will penetrate your skin (or your eye) as if it were meringue. Flush cut wire cutters will not leave anything to stab you.
Steps for restringing your banjo:
- Open the package of new strings and lay them out in order.
- Beginning with the high D string, remove the string or color indicator sticker if it has one. Use naphtha to remove any sticker residue left behind.
- Thread the non-loop end of the string through the tailpiece hole and hook the loop on the string hook.
- Keeping a finger firmly on the loop to keep it from falling off, insert the other end of the string into the string hole in the appropriate tuning post.
- To get the proper amount of winds, make a fist with one hand and set it pinky finger down at the fifth fret. Pull the guitar string through the tuning post until it rests lightly across your thumb and index finger. Bend the string 90 degrees upward where it exits the tuning post.
- Wrap the string one time over the excess string then wind the remainder below the excess string so as to pinch it between the winds, being careful not to cross the string over itself.
- Wind the string until it is just taught enough to make a tone and ensure that the string is in the appropriate nut slot. Do not overtighten as you will need to put the bridge back in place at the end.
- Repeat steps 3-8 in the following string order: 4th string, 2nd string, 3rd string, 5th string (if applicable). This more evenly disperses tension on the neck.
- Once all the strings are on the banjo, slide the bridge under the strings and up against your painter’s tape. Then remove the painter’s tape.
- Bring your banjo up to tune. As you do so, pull the strings up a couple inches at the 12th fret and wiggle them a bit to help them seat and stretch.
- Once tuned, snip the excess string off as flush as possible with the tuning post.
Some folks like the look of leaving the strings untrimmed, however, those strings are as thin and sharp as needles and will draw blood, or worse. As the Buddha once said, “It’s all fun and games until someone snags their cornea on a banjo string.” Or something like that.
How often should I replace my banjo strings?
There is no hard and fast rule for how often you should replace your banjo strings. If your banjo is no longer producing the tone you desire it is likely time to change them. A good rule of thumb for someone who plays 30-60 minutes per day is to change the strings 5-6 times per year. If you play more or less, just do some math and use that as your rule of thumb. At the end of the day, however, it should be based on tone. If you like how your banjo sounds, stick with the strings you’ve got. If you want it to be brighter, throw on a new set. Banjo strings are inexpensive so you can play around with them a little to find the right fit.
Sometimes a banjo needs to be completely taken apart to clean or repair it. If you're up for the challenge, this article walks through how to take a banjo apart and then back together again.
Changing a banjo head can be a very simple procedure. We'll go into depth with step by step instructions in this article on how to change it and which tools you'll need.