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Less obtrusive or intrusive than a 5th capo
A Banjo 5th String "Spike"
© Frank Ford, 7/4/98; Photos by FF, 7/2/98
They're these little L-shaped pins that hold the fifth string down at one or more frets higher up the neck, so you can capo the other four strings to play in higher keys without retuning. The most common position is at the seventh fret for the key of A. Usually a second spike at 9 or 10 will allow retuning to reach the other Bluegrass keys of B, Bb, and C.
Is a fifth string spike better than a fifth string capo? NO. It is a matter of personal choice. In particular, the Shubb Fifth String Capo works better than the spikes, and it will hold the strings down neatly at any fret. However, some players say it gets in the way of their thumb as they slide up the neck. Bluegrass players are more likely to use a fifth capo because they play in so many keys to accommodate the singer's range. Old time clawhammer players are more likely to insist on the spikes because they don't need to capo as many positions, and they dislike the look of a capo on a vintage style instrument.
These things really ARE spikes, H-O model railroad spikes, to be precise. It seems that the model railroaders like to nail down their tracks with teeny replicas of the real thing:
I'd call that teeny, wouldn't you?
Sometimes the short leg of the spike is a little longer than I'd like, so I clip it off:
And then round and smooth the clipped end so it won't catch on a finger.
Before installing these little fellows, it's really important to check out and fix up the fifth string nut, as follows.
More traditional banjos, like the Gibson at the top of the photo, have fifth nuts that must be lowered so that the string bears cleanly on the fifth fret:
Deering banjos, and others like the one in the lower half of the photo, have a railroad spike in place of the fifth nut and need no further attention.
If the string does not bear on the 5th fret, then it will play sharp up the neck, especially when slipped under your new spike.
First, I drill a small hole, about 3/8 inch behind the fret, right under the fifth string:
I find that a spike closer to the fret will hold very well, but is more likely to be out of tune, and is definitely more difficult to use.
It's necessary to experiment with each "batch" of new spikes I buy from the hobby shop because they're not consistent in diameter, so I can use the right drill for my pilot hole.
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