1 Zen and the Art of DIY Banjo Maintenance | The Billfold

Zen and the Art of DIY Banjo Maintenance

(With apologies to eHow)

“Step One: Turn the first string banjo peg (the string with the peg on the side of the neck) to loosen the string. Unwind it all the way, then slide the end out of the peg.”

Search Yelp: “music store Montreal.” Do extensive Googling to suss out exactly what a “light” banjo string is. Watch three or four YouTube walkthroughs of dadly-looking guys with nicer banjos than yours restringing them. Think about looking up French words for “banjo” and “string;” decide that it’s probably just “le banjo” and practice humming the song from “Deliverance” as a contingency plan. Vow to finally learn “The Fox,” because your grandmother bought you banjo lessons as a graduation present and she loves that song, or at least some stuff by Sufjan Stevens. Feel good.

“Step Two: Thread the string out through the tailpiece. Usually, the tailpiece will have a small hook that holds the end of the string and a bar that pushes it down towards the drum head. You will have to thread it under the bar and then pull is off the hook.”

Walk three miles to nearest music store open on a Sunday to save metro fare. Accidentally forget and ask for banjo strings in English. Purchase: one packet Martin brand nickel-wound light banjo strings ($7.99 CAD), one plastic string-winder doohickey that turns tuning pegs extra fast ($1.99 CAD).

Also purchase one bag organic apples ($4 CAD) from a farmstand because you pass it on the street. Also purchase one ham-and-cheese sandwich on herb ciabatta ($5.75 CAD) because you pass a great bakery on the street and because the lady offered to make you a fresh one since all they had left were hummus-and-vegetable with pesto and you are allergic to nuts.

Do not purchase 1979 Volkswagon Vanagon, complete with peace-sign decal, in glorious orange and yellow ($7,900 firm, ask for Caroline) even though you pass it on the street, because you might be eating an organic apple and about to pluck out some folk songs, but you’re not that crazy of a hippie. Also, you don’t have $7,900. 

“Step Three: Hook the loop at the end of a new string on the hook and thread the string up through the tailpiece and over the bridge. There should be a small slot in the bridge for each string. Make sure the string is in the groove of its own slot.”

Return home. Feel tired but confident. Lie banjo, face up, on desk, like a patient etherized upon a desk. Mentally compose pithy Facebook statuses about your competence at instrument maintenance (“Restrung my own banjo and there’s nothing I can’t do,” “How many banjos did you restring today,” etc.) Consider tweeting picture of your clawhammer-induced manicure (all fingernails painted as normal except for significant chippage of the right index; hardcore). Pat yourself on the figurative back for being such a plucky, thrifty, DIY upstart.

Detach middle G-string and toss it casually aside. Uncoil newer, lighter G-string from pouch. Have some difficulty getting it to stay on the thing at the end. Consult directions, remember thing at the end is called “tailpiece.” Take deep breath.

“Step Four: Thread the string through the tuning peg and pull it in fairly tightly. Bend the free end around the peg in a counterclockwise motion.”

Thread the string through the tuning peg and fail to pull it tightly. Yank harder. Get string kinked up and attempt to restraighten. Wind string around peg without success. Look at other, untouched tuning pegs and wonder how the hell they ended up so nice and flush. Attempt to use peg-turning doohickey; discover it does not even fucking fit on your stupid decorative tuning pegs.

Turn peg by hand. Pull string tighter until it’s kind-of-sort-of secured. Poke your finger with pointy end of string and draw blood.

“Step Five: Tighten the peg until you get a D note. The string should turn counterclockwise as it tightens.”

Tighten peg. Clip on electric tuner and plunk out an A. Tighten peg, plunk, repeat. Tighten peg more. Plunk. Tighten peg more.

Break string.


“Step Six: Repeat the above steps for the other four strings. The second string and third string should be tuned to B and G respectively, and wrapped counterclockwise around their pegs. The 4th and 5th string should be turned clockwise and tuned to D and G.”

Sob for a little bit even though you’re conscious of being fully ridiculous. Think about how far you walked. Think about the ten bucks you wasted. Think about how it will suck to have to go back and buy more strings if the same guys are working there. Think about how, if you were a character in an MFA workshop story, the unstrung banjo would be the central metaphor in the tale of your failed attempts to become an autonomous creative person.

Be glad you didn’t go to grad school.

Pause for breath and admire how your tears for once are legit rolling off of your face. Look at puddle of tears on banjo head, then look for anyone sympathetic and culturally savvy enough on GChat to appreciate a Taylor Swift joke in your time of crisis. Be reminded by your best friend Shannon that 1. ten dollars is not that much and 2. the guitar itself was not the reason Taylor Swift was crying, duh.

Shove away remaining four strings. Check savings account balance. Do not think about the wasted potential of those ten dollars.

Reattach old string incredibly carefully and do pretty okay. Play Sufjan Stevens and do pretty okay. Decide maybe your old strings weren’t that bad to begin with. Eat another apple.


Blair Thornburgh is an American girl living in Montreal. 


3 Comments / Post A Comment

rightclicksave (#2,662)

Yay for banjos and yay for clawhammer! And I definitely broke a couple the first time I strung my banjo (it definitely felt like a test of whether I was fit to play banjo). I didn’t find out until later, but most music shops will help you put on your strings, although walking six miles roundtrip with a metal/wooden hunk would be pretty unpleasant. Also, fishing line and chicken wire will both work in a pinch! Good luck to you on your banjo-playing adventures–after suffering through classical piano for years, it was kind of revelatory to find out that playing music can be fun, enjoyable, maybe even beautiful.
Uhh but I also spend a lot of time doing clawhammer arrangements of Ke$ha songs so maybe others would disagree about the last part.

(edited because I forgot a verb)

blair (#1,962)

@rightclicksave clawhammer (klawhammer?) ke$ha arrangements?! can you share?

City_Dater (#565)

I play guitar and the banjo is a total mystery to me (stringed drum?! What?!) but I think this worked out in your favor, if you bought lighter new strings for your instrument than it was wearing. Changing the string gauge on a guitar is best accomplished by a luthier who will do a set up on the instument with the new strings. Don’t know if banjos work the same way.

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