Someone on Banjo Hangout recently asked whether any of us out here in Banjo Land ever experience a day when we just can’t get the banjo to sound right.
I run into that every so often. I can’t coax a good sound out of any of my banjos. I’m pretty sure at such moments my banjos are having a similar thought: “This guy is being pretty rough and insensitive today. I wish he’d just put me back in that case.”
Humidity does it. Also, I find that sometimes I’ve played the think long enough over a period of weeks that the head has loosened. I try to check the snugness of the hardware at least once a week, but sometimes I let that go and on days such as the one you’ve described, that’s when I begin hearing the difference.
I change my strings once a year, unless they break before that. If they break before the year is up, I don't find it necessary to wait out the remaining time before string changing season arrives. Some of my friends are far more focused and can thus be much more systematic about putting on a new set once every six months or so. When I start hearing a difference, whether it’s time or not, I start thinking about changing those strings. But strings let you know, most of the time by turning into something leaden and hard to play – they begin feeling like barbed wire. Whatever the case, I’ll often change strings at points such as the one you’ve painted for us.
I find that come the summer months, for both my hide heads and my plastic heads, once the air conditioning is cranked up, my banjos sound different. I’m prepared to accept that many might think this insane, but my banjo sound different and play differently in summer with the aircon, and in winter with the heat.
I’m sure that each environment impacts the wood and metal in different ways that might contribute to this. But for me, and here’s the insane part, playing in air conditioned environments has more of an impact on the sound than a heated environment, and I tend to think the air is different. The sound travels differently.
I make no claims to having assessed this scientifically. And the only control I’ve introduced as an experiment intended to test this hypothesis is the impact on aircon on my two hounds who seem less inclined to leave the cooled air for a romp in the hot southern air. In that way, they behave like my banjos.
When I get to this point, I change the strings, tighten the hardware, clean the neck and fingerboard, and sometimes just walk away from the thing for a day or two, giving the instrument a well deserved rest. I have 4 instruments. Two A scales and two standard scales. Two are hung with nylon, and two with steel. I can switch between string types and instruments when I hit the wall. Sometimes that helps.
But I don’t worry too much about being slightly out of the zone, unless the hounds start cringing or running into other rooms.
And then, in such instances, I’ll check the battery in the tuner.