Sometimes a banjo needs to be completely taken apart to clean or repair it. Under most circumstances I highly recommend taking it to a professional luthier (guitar maker) because there are many parts to a banjo and they all need to be put back together at just the right angle, with just the right tension, or in exactly the right place for your banjo to continue to play as you expect it to.
Taking apart your banjo takes several steps beginning with removing the strings, bridge, tailpiece and armrest. Next, J-hooks need to be loosened in an alternating pattern and then the tensioning loop and banjo head can be removed. Coordinating rods can then be loosened and the neck from the rim. Finally, the J-hook screws can be removed.
Putting your banjo back together isn’t quite as simple as following these steps in reverse order as there are several other steps to make sure everything is in the right place and properly tensioned and angled.
Banjos are delicate instruments and if you do something wrong you’ll likely be taking it to a luthier anyway and you may be paying for additional repairs as well (like repairing a cracked rim because you over tightened the coordinator rod). However, if you feel confident in your skills and think you’re up to the challenge or you have an old banjo you want to practice taking apart and you’re comfortable with potentially screwing it up, read on.
What you will need to take apart your banjo
Note: every banjo model is a bit different and all steps may not apply. This blog applies to banjos with a single coordinating rod.
- A 2ft x 2ft towel, mat, or piece of carpet
- Container for parts
- Banjo head T-wrench
- Two open end wrenches that fit the hex nuts on the coordinating rod/rods
Make sure your T-wrench properly fits the J-hooks holding the tension loop. A T-wrench that is the wrong size will damage the J-hooks leaving them looking gnarly and jagged. Look to the inside of your banjo and select two open ended wrenches that properly fit the nuts on the coordinator rod (or rods, if applicable). 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. Older banjos may have a dowel with brackets instead of coordinator rods. Finally, choose a properly sized flat-head or Phillip’s head screwdriver to remove screws.
Steps for taking your banjo apart
Note: every banjo model is a bit different and all steps may not apply.
Step 1 – Hardware
- Place your banjo on a protective towel, mat or piece of carpet.
- Remove the resonator (if applicable) by unscrewing the thumb screws.
- Mark the bridge location on the banjo head with painter’s tape and mark the bass side of the bridge with a small piece of painter’s tape.
- Remove the tailpiece cover (if applicable), strings and bridge in order.
- Remove the tailpiece nut. The tailpiece can now be removed.
- Remove the armrest (if it’s a Vega style armrest it will come off with the J-hooks).
Step 2 – The banjo head
- Turn the banjo over and begin loosening the J-hooks with the T-wrench (why isn’t it called a J-wrench? Who knows these things?) by turning each one half 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. Now 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.
- Remove the tension loop and banjo head.
Step 3 – Coordinating rod or rods and neck
- Using the appropriate sized wrenches, loosen the coordinating rod or rods by turning the long hex nut.
- Once the tension is off the rod or rods remove any hex nuts holding the rods to the neck bolts and rim and remove the neck and rods/rods.
Step 4 – Remaining hardware
- Using a screwdriver, remove the screws holding the J-bolts to the rim.
- Remove tuning machines by removing the screws holding the housing to the headstock and by removing the nuts on the tuning machine posts.
As you can see this is a very involved process and one that you don’t want to enter into unless you are extremely confident in your skills. As always, taking things apart is always more simple than putting them back together. It is even more difficult and requires precise knowledge in banjo setups. A poorly set up banjo can be all but unplayable. It also requires tensioning the rim and banjo head which is where disastrous issues can occur.
Steps for putting your banjo back together
Step 1 – Tuning machines and J-hooks
- Reattach tuning machines to the headstock. Be careful to not overtighten the screws. They are very small and will easily strip.
- Reattach the J-hooks to the rim
Step 2 – Coordinating rod or rods and neck
- Place the neck bolt through the rim and snug the nut enough to hold the neck in place but not so tightly you can’t adjust the neck.
- Thread the long nut about 1/4 of the way into the neck bolt, thread the coordinating rod nut all the way onto the tailpiece end of the coordinating rod.
- From the inside of the rim, put the coordinating rod through the hole in the tailpiece side of the rim and thread the neck end of the coordinating rod about 1/4 of the way into the long nut.
- Thread and snug the tailpiece nut onto the end of the coordinating rod on the outside of the rim. Snug the coordinating rod nut to the inside of the rim. Tighten both coordinating rod nuts against the tailpiece end of the rim.
- Measure the rim from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock and from 3 o’clock to 9 o’clock. These measurements should be exactly the same. If they are not, adjust the long nut. Adjusting the long nut to lengthen the coordinating rod will expand the 12 – 6 measurement and at the same time will reduce the 3 – 9 measurement. The opposite will occur from shortening the coordinating rod.
Step 3 – The banjo head
- Replace the banjo head using the steps from this article on changing a banjo head. Do not tension the head yet.
Step 4 – The neck, again
- Align the neck so that the bottom of the fretboard is level with the top of the tension loop and tighten the neck nut to the rim. Use a wrench to prevent the long nut from turning while you tighten the neck nut. This can be adjusted up or down as necessary while tensioning the banjo head and adjusting the string height.
Step 5 – The tailpiece and bridge
- Reattach the tailpiece.
- Restring the banjo, but do not bring up to pitch.
- Replace the bridge ensuring the bass side is in the correct position and place it against the painter’s tape.
- Bring the banjo up to pitch.
Step 6 – Tension the banjo head
- Tension the banjo head following the steps from this article on changing a banjo head.
Be careful not to overtighten the coordinating rod/rods or the banjo head. This can damage the rim or head and/or affect your tone. If your neck angle is off, a string height of exactly 1/8th of an inch might not be obtainable. 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 can’t bring the banjo up to tune because the strings are touching the frets, the neck angle is too low and no amount of J-hook tightening will allow you to get a string height of 1/8th (0.125”) of an inch.
Working on your own banjo can be very rewarding and if you are good at it you can set your banjo up exactly to your liking. I recommend getting a cheap pawnshop banjo to practice taking it apart and getting acquainted with the finer points of banjo repair and set up before you venture into taking apart your prized instrument.
Look below for more articles on cleaning and maintaining your banjo.