I've been playing banjo since 1973. It's my first, and still my favorite instrument. I have learned a few
things about this unique instrument that I would like to pass on to you. This page is for my students, my
customers, and anybody who would like to know more about banjos. If that's you, welcome! If you want
to learn to know what kind of banjo to buy, You're in the right place. I will talk about the different banjo
types and construction techniques and how they affect sound. The history of the instrument as it applies
to the sound and playability and what you can expect from each type. After all, it's all about the music.
So, let's begin!
There are a few types of banjos. A banjo isn't just a banjo, you might say. There are four-stringed
banjos and five-stringed banjos. The four stringed banjos consist of two main types as do five string
banjos. First of the four stringed banjos I will mention is the plectrum banjo. It has 22 frets and is usually
played in Dixieland jazz and banjo bands. Plectrum is simply another name for the pick that you use to
play it with. It's just like a flat guitar pick, held between your fingers. The most famous plectrum banjo
player of all time was the late Eddie Peabody. My folks used to have an old record of his sitting
around, but I was the only one to ever play it. Eddie was sure impressive with his talent and WOW
could he strum fast! Running his fingers up in down the neck like he was sawing wood. The music is
played almost entirely with strummed chords. I remember "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" as a great one of
his. I don't play this instrument, but it's worth mentioning. It's a style that has not died off, but is not very
popular anymore. In the 1930s it was extremely popular in live theatre shows.
The other four stringed banjo type is the Tenor Banjo. This 19-fret instrument has four strings and is
also played similarly to the plectrum banjo but has a little different sound due to its shorter neck and
different tuning. It's another popular type from days gone by. Some play a fast-picked melody on single
strings similarly to how a mandolin player might play. You still see them in banjo bands and the sort,
but its day of real popularity between the 1890s and the 1930s has faded quite a bit. Other names are
the Irish banjo or Celtic banjo. Sorry, no picture, but imagine Eddie's banjo there with a shorter neck
and you've got it.
Banjo Types: Four string banjos
Five strng banjos: Open back
The most notable feature of any five string banjo is the fifth string that is shorter than the other
four. It begins at the fifth fret and its tuning peg sticks right out from the side of the neck. It's
very odd as stringed instruments go. By far the most popular type of banjo today is the five
string banjo. There are two main types of 5-string banjos and many construction types. In the
following pages I will try to explain them and give you an idea of what they sound like and why.
The oldest style five string is the open back. This type of banjo has a very mellow, plunky
sound and is somewhat muted by today's standards because of its open back design. Most
open back banjo players play in the old timey style which was popular before bluegrass music
existed. Popular in the days of the old covered wagons, America's pioneers were far more
likely to carry an open back banjo in the wagon than a fragile guitar. Banjos were found in
many country and prairie homes. Most of the old time music was sung and played with banjos
and fiddles. You can still hear a lot of this fascinating old music played today. Key names of
this type of music are folk, old timey, and old-time. Two names for a popular banjo playing
style are Clawhammer and Frailing. I grew up knowing Clawhammer as a type of banjo that
had no frets, but it is also the name of the playing style. Probably the most influential and well
known openback player is Pete Seeger. Now in his 80s, he still plays and sings folk music
entertaining young and old alike. He developed the long neck, or Seeger banjo which he tunes
a minor third lower than a traditional instrument..
Five strng banjos: Resonator/Bluegrass
The other main type of five stringed banjo is the resonator banjo, or bluegrass banjo.
Although clawhammer banjo playing is still quite popular and seemingly gaining in
popularity, it's the bluegrass banjo that has dominated since the 1940s. During the time
between the 1880s and the 1940s, five string banjo was found mainly on the front porches
of Appalachia and remote patches in the deep south. The five string was the original type
of banjo, as it preceded the plectrum and tenor banjos but it had faded mostly into
obscurity. The fifth string was a nuisance to many players who preferred a clean sound
without its droning note. The most prominent feature of this unique instrument was being
phased out and was rarely heard anymore.
That was until a whole new style of playing was created that brought bright, fast three-
finger picking to the five string. The man primarily responsible for this revolution in banjo
playing was Earl Scruggs. During his youth and later with the band Bill Monroe and the
Bluegrass Boys, and as a duo with Lester Flatt, Earl was heard by thousands at his shows
in person and on the radio. His playing style was so unique and powerful, the whole world
eventually took notice. His style came to be known simply as "Scruggs Style" and along
with melodic style, this is the type I play and teach. Thousands across the world are great
fans of bluegrass, and three finger banjo picking with strong followings in the U.S., Japan,
Great Britain, Australia and more.
To play this kind of music, Earl chose a Gibson resonator banjo, rarely called a closed back banjo. This name refers the the
resonator, or wooden cover over the back. It's fashioned much like a slightly curved wooden bowl. A gap all the way around the
outside of the banjo is created by another piece called the flange. Open backs do not have a flange or resonator. These
features project the sound forward and bounce it right into the listener's ear. Far brighter and louder than the open back banjo,
The resonator banjo really "pops". The most desirable banjos are known as "pre-war Gibsons", but actually were produced
from the 1930s into the early 50s. Once these instruments became rare, people would, and still do often convert an old Gibson
tenor banjo such as a TB-3, by replacing the neck with a five string neck. Many fine banjos are conversion banjos, some quite
valuable. An original Granada five string is more valuable, but any of these can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. That "pre-war
sound" is so often referred to, and banjo makers have sought to duplicate it ever since. Something mysterious must have been
going on in the old Gibson factory that nobody can quite put their finger on it seems, but get 2 banjo builders in the same room
and you will hear an endless debate as to whose modern instrument comes closest to that "pre war" sound, or even if there are
better banjos made today. It's often quite subjective, but I know a good banjo when I hear it..
Some songs you might have heard played by Earl Scruggs are: the theme from the Beverly
Hillbillies t.v. show, (The Ballad of Jed Clampett) or his most famous tune, Foggy Mountain
Breakdown, featured in the 1969 film Bonnie and Clyde. Dueling Banjos played by Eric
Weissberg for the movie Deliverance is a popular bluegrass banjo tune as well.
It is typically played in a "bluegrass" band, along with any combination of: guitar, mandolin,
fiddle, bass, and dobro (or resonator guitar) and singers. Other well known bluegrass banjo
players are names such as the late Don Reno, J.D. Crowe, Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Ron
Block (of Allison Krauss and Union Station) Dennis Caplinger, Bill Kieth, Eric Weissberg,
Sonny Osborne, comedian/ actor Steve Martin and others, most of whom have their own
styles, but who all play Scruggs Style as their musical foundation.
In the pages ahead I will explain the parts that make up the heart and soul of a banjo that is,
in large part, responsible for their unique sound. Many fine banjos are manufactured today.
Each instrument has its own personality. Some manufacturers have proudly sought to simply
produce a great banjo, and another unique quality without entering the prewar soud
Construction: Tone rings, and what they do
All cars have four wheels, a steering wheel, seats and so on. From there, you can vary it as much as you like. Banjos are similar
in this way. Already we have seen various types of banjos, but they all have a few things in common. First, the round body of the
instrument. Simply put, it's a drum with a neck on it. A very shallow drum, but it's got all the same parts as a drum.. the Pot, or
body is usually made of wood, to form the round rim. Over this, animal skins were first stretched, Modern Mylar is common
today. A hoop holds the head down over the rim and gives it tension, and typically the hoop is forced down to tension the head
with many hooks around the outside of the rim. These are the commonalities. Material variations like Plastics and aluminum
often form the body, or Pot of the instrument on lower priced instruments. The finest instruments use select hardwoods like
maple, mahogany and walnut, and fine acoustic metals like bronze and brass to form the tone ring and other parts.
Did I say tone ring? what's that? Aha! Remember what I said earlier about pre-war Gibson banjos?
In the early 20th century many construction methods were experimented with. The Gibson company began topping the wooden
rim of their banjos with heavy metal rims called tone rings. When installed on the rim, the tone ring became the bearing surface
for the head. In addition it adds a lot of mass to the pot assembly and re-shapes the acoustic chamber inside the instrument. A
quality tone ring design makes the instrument really "open up". It "hot rods" the banjo if you will. It projects more, it sustains more,
and sounds much more crisp than a banjo without one. The tone ring is the heart of the bluegrass banjo sound, and it is probaly
the most discussed, argued over, copied, expensive and mis- understood part of a bluegrass banjo.. And now, a little
more about the Tone Ring:
Gold Star GF-200 Bluegrass
Morgan Monroe Luxmore
The tone ring is a heavy brass or bronze ring of varying designs. It adds weight to a banjo, so you could say, In simple terms,
that the heavier banjo is a better banjo, but weight is not really what makes a good banjo. It's the overall quality of its
components, and the soundness of design and workmanship. Don't buy a banjo based solely on its weight, but keep in mind
that a lightweight banjo will have a lightweight sound.
By Dave Bloxham