Once upon a time banjo tuning pegs consisted of wooden dowels stuck in holes. How spoiled we have become! Modern tuners come in a variety of styles, some of which are quite complex. A far cry from the tuner of yore. In this review, we will go over Friction vs Geared tuners, quality levels, and prices. Let’s get started!
Friction pegs come in to styles. These differ quite a bit, though both are equally difficult to use on a banjo.
Coming back to friction tuning pegs. The first versions were much like a violin tuning peg. A tapered dowel was inserted into a matching hole that was also tapered. When the peg and hole match perfectly, there is good solid contact and the peg stays in place. Of course, this changes over time and you eventually have pegs that slip. Pegs can be lubed, to be smoother, or abrasives added to make them stay in place. The later is a temporary fix.
These simple pegs were made out of all sorts of materials, with favorites being wood and bone. For wood, ebony is ideal, though several substitutes are great equivalents. Bone has its tradeoffs. It is hard and durable, but on the downside, it can be slick and fail to grip, resulting in string slippage.
There is one last piece to the puzzle here. This type of friction peg was in common use before steel strings. Instruments made with this style peg are typically from the era of gut strings. Gut strings tune under much lower tension. This type of peg may not have the ability to hold teal strings at full pitch.
If your banjo has these and you need a new set, it is not as simple as buying them and sticking them on. They need to be custom cut to the hole and have the matching taper. The only way to do this is to ream the holes and taper the pegs to match. This is a simple process with the correct tools. Not so easy without. This is not something that many fretted instrument shops can help you with, but you are in luck, a violin shop deals with this every day and has the correct peg shaper and reamer. This service can get costly, so check in on prices first. It may be just as cheap to buy the tools and fit them yourself.
Somewhere near 1900 came the invention of Champion pegs. These are also friction pegs, but use a mechanical clamping action to stay in place. There is a screw in the bottom that works as a tension adjustment. These do not work any better than properly fit tapered pegs, but there are a whole lot easier to deal with that poorly fit tapers pegs.
In addition to the problem with peg slippage, both of these styles of Banjo friction pegs are a 1:1 ratio. With no gears, it can be more difficult to fine to the pitch.
Despite a few shortcomings, these are still popular after more than a century. These make great replacements for old banjos.
Planetary tuners provide even tension while turning smoothly. Most high-end banjos have this style of tuning machine. A planetary tuner is usually a 4:1 ratio, meaning every four rotations of the button creates one rotation of the peg. This allows for some level of precision, while retaining the ability to retune quickly. This is important, since it is common to change your banjo’s tuning on the fly. Not something that a player typically does with other instruments.
Banjo Planetary tuners are fairly complex parts. Nowhere is it more important to be sure of quality. Low grade planetary tuners will slip and cause more trouble than they are worth.
The last reason for the popularity of this style banjo tuner is cosmetics. These more closely resemble traditional friction pegs.
Guitar style tuners have a worm-gear and buttons that stick out from the sides of the headstock. Functionally, these are an excellent choice for banjos. Most guitar tuners have a 14:1 ratio, making fine tuning a breeze. This does make changing keys much more time consuming. The fact of the matter is, most players are not retuning anyway, so it probably doesn’t matter. Purely for the sake of getting in tune, this type of tuners have some real benefits for banjo.
A worm gear tuner, can’t spin loose. Even the cheapest set of gears banjo tuners will hold a tune. They may be sloppy, or hard to turn, but they can not spin loose based on the design. Another benefit I cost. These are in widespread use and inexpensive for a good quality set.
Why wouldn’t all banjo players use guitar-style tuners? It comes back to tradition. Although there are exceptions, this type of tuner is associated with lower quality banjos. There is some truth behind this, as these present a large cost savings, yet still function well. Not so with cheap planetary tuners, which are prone to slipping.
And there there is that gear ratio. If you do retune between songs, the high ratio takes significantly longer.
There is our basic run down on banjo tuning pegs. A small but extremely important part of your banjo!
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