The banjo has quite of a bit of complicated mechanics at play in the instrument. From tone rings to rims, and resonators to flanges, choosing the right banjo for your needs can be a bit overwhelming.
Thankfully, with the information in this article, you should have all the tools that you need to make an informed decision.
- Banjo Terminology
- Types of Banjos
- Banjo Tunings
- Which Type of Banjo Right For Me? And How Much Should I Spend?
- Top Banjos
Resonator: On a banjo, a resonator is the bowl-like piece of wood on the back. Its function is to direct the volume of the banjo outward, instead of letting it bleed out the back.
Flange: On more expensive banjos, you notice how there’s a piece of metal with holes in it circling the outer edge of the banjo? Well, that’s called a flange. The flange has two purposes in modern banjo construction. The first is to attach the banjo to the resonator. The second is a bit more complicated, with some saying that it acts like a sound hole on an acoustic guitar and helps tune the frequency response, and others saying that it simply isolates the other components from being negatively affected by the resonator.
Head: The head is the part of the banjo that the bridge sets on, and is generally made of either mylar or hide.
Rim: On a banjo, the rim is the circular piece of wood underneath the tone ring.
Tone Ring: Arguably the deciding factor as to the tone of your banjo, the tone ring is a piece of metal (generally brass or pot metal) that wraps around the banjo rim.
Pot: The “pot” of a banjo is the head, rim, tone ring, and flange assembled together.
Open Back Banjo: This simply means that the banjo lacks a resonator.
Types of Banjos
As a banjo player, you’re most likely going to end up choosing between either a clawhammer banjo, or a resonator banjo. However, there are also a few interesting version of the instrument which I’m going to mention in the third section.
Clawhammer banjo playing is a style that uses a percussive strike from either the index or middle finger to sound the strings, as opposed to using finger picks. Generally, clawhammer players use a banjo without a flange or a resonator.
Generally, clawhammer banjo playing is a bit softer and “plunkier” than Scruggs (the playing used in Bluegrass). It’s not that you can’t use a resonator banjo for clawhammer, it just won’t sound like a typical clawhammer tone.
When a banjo describes itself as being a “resonator banjo”, it simply means that it has a resonator. This type of banjo is typically used for bluegrass, and sports that signature “twang” that you generally hear in the genre.
Novelties and Oddities
You know what mandolins, ukuleles, and bass guitars all have in common? Well quite a bit actually! But aside from that, they all have banjo equivalents! That’s right, you can purchase banjos that are tuned like a mandolin or ukulele. You can also purchase large scale banjos that you can play like a bass guitar.
There’s also tenor and plectrum banjos, both of which are pretty unique instruments in their own right as well. A tenor banjo, like a mandolin, is generally tuned in fifths. Also, the tenor banjo is generally used for Celtic music.
A plectrum banjo on the other hand, is a four string banjo that’s played with a pick. Before the fall of big band music sometime during (or after depending on who you ask) WWII, the plectrum banjo was actually a staple instrument in swing and jazz bands.
You know what the difference between tuning a banjo and a nightmare is? A nightmare ends! All kidding aside, banjo tuning is a bit more complicated than you’d think. There’s dozens of tunings, all of which have their unique pros and cons.
Scruggs Style Tuning
So when most of you think of the banjo, odds are you’re picturing Scruggs style playing. Scruggs playing is generally used as an accompaniment to Bluegrass music.
Nine times out of ten, a Scruggs style player is going to be using standard open G banjo tuning. Generally this tuning is written out as: gDGBD. The lowercase g is the fifth string (the shortest string, located at the top of the fretboard when the banjo is in playing position), the first D is the fourth string, and so on.
I can only speak from my own experience, but I’ve never had to use a different tuning to play any Bluegrass standard. If you need to play a song in the key of A or D, you can simply capo the banjo on the second fret. This holds true for B or E, or any other major key.
However, minor keys can be a bit trickier. I have a pretty large repotoire of banjo tunes under my belt, and almost everything in a major key is an open G banjo tuning. Songs like Cheyenne (which switches between Bb and G minor) can be played in an open G tuning as well by capoing your banjo on the third fret and playing in the E minor position (which puts you in the key of G minor, as well as giving you easy access to lick in Bb), while some will require you to switch to another tuning.
Thankfully, these instances are pretty rare. If you’re a beginner Scruggs player, you’re not going to have to worry about anything besides open G for your first couple of years as a banjo player.
If you’re a clawhammer player on the other hand, tuning your banjo is going to be a bit more complicated. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the style, clawhammer is a type of banjo playing that uses percussive striking of a string with either the index or middle finger. This style is also commonly referred to as frailing.
Also, banjo tunings are treated a bit differently in the old time music world. Both clawhammer and old time (or two finger style as it’s sometimes known) musicians can easily employ several different tunings throughout a show.
The reason for this is that Scruggs style is only around 70-80 years old, and the majority of songs in the tuning use open G. However, clawhammer and other old time styles date back to ancient Africa. The instrument followed slaves when they were brought to America, and became the folk instrument of choice for several decades.
And considering that it was a folk instrument, there really wasn’t really much consistency in how it was tuned or played until it was adopted by minstrel musicians in the 1830’s. The original tuning to see widespread use was actually an open D variant with the strings tuned to: dGDF#A.
Rather than list every tuning used for clawhammer, I’m just going to list the three most commonly used ones. The majority of clawhammer tunes can be played in one of these three tunings.
Open G- gDGBD
Though it’s also used for Scruggs style, there’s a pretty large catalog of clawhammer banjo tunes available in open G. Generally, these songs are going to be in a major key. Also, most beginner clawhammer banjo songs will be in this tuning.
Double C- gCGCD
Double C banjo tuning is generally used for fiddle tunes, like Angelina Baker (or Angeline The Baker, depending on who you ask) and Whiskey Before Breakfast. What’s great about this tuning is that you can capo on the second fret and have easy access to all of the chords in the key of D major.
The downside to this tuning is that it’s generally not a very versatile tuning when played in the clawhammer style. With open G you can play in the key of C and G, as well as having access to some great modal and minor tonalities. With double C tuning you’re a bit more limited.
G Modal- gDGCD
G modal tuning is generally used for older Appalachian songs, like Shady Grove or Little Sadie. When used in reference to a banjo tuning, modal simply means that the strings won’t produce either a major or minor chord without being fretted.
Personally, I like this tuning a lot. Modal tunings have that great eerie tonality that you just don’t hear on most records, and they can make your song sound pretty haunting if used they’re used correctly.
Old Time Tunings
As a genre, old time banjo playing is a bit hard to describe. The reason for this is that there were several styles of banjo playing that are neither clawhammer nor Scruggs, and they all get lumped together. The genre includes everything from the highly rhythmic playing of Dock Boggs, to more melodic styles that share a lot of common ground with ragtime acoustic guitar finger picking.
Generally, old time banjo players tuned the banjo to fit their vocal register as well as the song they were playing, which led to hundreds of different tunings being widely used. A good example of this type of playing would be the song Country Blues, which was written by Dock Boggs and covered by everyone from Doc Watson to the Avett Brothers. Because there’s so many different old time banjo tunings, I’m only going to list the three most commonly used examples.
Double C- gCGCD
Just like clawhammer playing, Double C is used primarily for fiddle tunes when you’re playing in the old time style. However, because styles that utilize finger picking (like old time and Scruggs) offer you a lot more options in regards to how you can approach the melody, this tuning has a lot more utility in this style.
G Modal- gDGCD
Because of how varied banjo tunings were in the pre-Scruggsian era, a lot of modern recreations of old time banjo tunes are transcribed into G modal. The reason for this is that you not only have easy access to both major and minor tonalities, but the more Appalachian-esque modal intervals as well.
Misc. Tuning: f#DGAD
Among the staggering amount of tunings that Dock Boggs used, f#DGAD seems to be one of the most recorded examples. This tuning is a bit like modal D, but with the fifth string tuned to f# it can have a pretty haunting tonality. A good example of this tuning would be Dock Boggs’s version of Pretty Polly.
Which Type of Banjo Right For Me? And How Much Should I Spend?
So assuming you want to play a five string banjo and not one of the novelty instruments from above, the decision between a clawhammer banjo or a resonator banjo is pretty simple. Look up examples of both clawhammer and Bluegrass banjo playing, and decide which one you like best.
However, if you can’t decide one way or the other, get a resonator banjo. Why? Well, you can play clawhammer on a resonator banjo if you want to and you’ll sound fine (case in point, Steve Martin), but playing Scruggs style banjo on an open back banjo won’t work as well. For one, you’re not going to be loud enough to play with other people should you decide to do that. And for two, odds are you’re not going to get a very usable tone.
As for how much you should spend, well that’s a bit trickier. You see, I started on an old Aria banjo from the 70s that was made out of aluminum, and I had a wonderful time learning. However, once I got a real banjo I was blown away by just how much better I sounded.
A good banjo is an incredible piece of workmanship. And unfortunately, the price of most banjos reflects that.
As a general rule of thumb, I would honestly say that you don’t start getting into gig worthy resonator banjos until around the $600- $700 range. That’s not to say that sub-$600 banjos will sound awful, but they won’t be up to the level they need to be in order to be a solid gigging instrument. Generally, if you plan on gigging you’ll want an instrument with a good brass tone ring, a flange, a maple or mahogany rim, and a maple or mahogany resonator.
However, as a beginner banjo player you’re going to sound awful anyway, whether you’re learning on a $10000 vintage Gibson Mastertone or a $150 Asian import. So I can’t say I would recommend dropping a lot of cash on a banjo until you’re sure you want to pursue the instrument.
And as far as clawhammer banjos go, $500 to $600 is a pretty good range for a decent gigging instrument. Clawhammer banjos are a bit cheaper because they don’t need a resonator or a flange, so you don’t need to spend quite as much for a decent instrument.
So for this piece I’m going to recommend two different banjos per quality tier, with one clawhammer banjo and one resonator banjo per section. And the high-end tier is relative of course; top of the line pieces can easily run $5000 to $6000.
If you’re on the hunt for a well built banjo yet affordable resonator banjo, the Epiphone MB-200 might be right up your alley. The MB-200 features a mahogany body, a US Remo head, and a rosewood fretboard.
By all accounts, though the MB-200 is intended as a beginner’s instrument, for what it is it has a remarkably good tone.
A subsidiary of Saga Music, Rover has proven themselves to be one of the best manufacturers of budget instruments on the market today. As far as budget banjos go, the Rover RB-20 is a great option for a dependable open back that won’t break the bank. Featuring a geared tuners, a deluxe Vega style armrest, and a mahogany neck, the RB-20 is more than capable of being a companion on your journey to becoming a great banjo player.
Though the company may not have the largest presence, Recording King has established themselves as the company to watch since the brand was resurrected in 2007 by Johnson Guitars. One of the company’s latest forays, the Recording King RK-R30-BGM is one of the premier recreations of vintage Gibson banjos available today. Sporting a Master Tone style Bell Brass Cast Tone Ring, a maple resonator, and a 3-ply maple rim, the RK-R30-BGM is more than capable of following you wherever your music will lead.
If you want a banjo with a classic tone that won’t break the bank, look no further than the Gold Tone CB-100. Sporting a maple neck and a genuine bone nut, a rosewood fingerboard, and a no-knot tailpiece, the CB-100 open back is one of the best options around for the aspiring clawhammer banjo player on a budget.
High End Banjos
Since the company’s inception, Deering has proven time and time again that they’re able to consistently turn out a great product at a very fair price. No exception to this trend, the Deering Sierra sports all of the features that make a great banjo. From the Deering ’06 Bell Bronze tone ring to the solid mahogany neck and resonator, the Sierra is more than capable of delivering the perfect banjo tone.
If you’re looking for a great open back banjo, the Vega Senator is one of the best options around. Sporting a traditional Vega brass tone ring, Planetary tuners, and a Renaissance head, the Senator features all the tone of older instruments with the playability and modern appointment of more recent models.
Like any other instrument, choosing the right banjo for your needs can be more than a bit overwhelming. But hopefully with everything that you’ve learned here, you’ll have all the information that you need to make an informed decision.