The Basics of Banjo Construction, Materials and Configurations

For years, the banjo was one of the most stereotyped instruments in popular culture. You only needed to hear a couple of plunking strings to think “Deliverance.” But with artists from Bela Fleck to the Avett Brothers demonstrating its versatility, it’s has become newly fashionable across a range of genres.

Banjos come in a variety of constructions, materials, string configurations and tunings, and some are better suited than others for some genres and styles. If you’re thinking of hopping on the bandwagon, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Banjo Basics

The thing that makes a banjo a banjo is the body, or, more accurately the combination of a hollow rim covered with a membrane, or head. Technically, you could use “banjo” to describe any stringed instrument using this type of construction, which was brought to the Americas by Africans.

“The head mounts to the banjo’s wood rim with a metal tone ring, which is typically of brass, and is bolted on with a tension hoop,” says Jon Chappell, banjo player, editor of “Guitar for Dummies” and formerly Guitar magazine. “The instrument can be either open at the back or it can have a resonator.”

The key to any banjo’s individual sound is the head, which once was made of skin but now is more commonly constructed of synthetics similar to those used for drumheads.

“You can change the sound by changing the head,” adds Chris Beyer of Elderly Instruments. “On a resonator banjo, it’s typical to see a Mylar head with frosting for that bluegrass sound. With open back banjos, people often use different materials to try to tailor the sound.”

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Open Back vs. Resonator Banjos

Open Back Washburn B6

Open Back Washburn B6

Often described as “folk banjos,” open back instruments come in a variety of configurations, such as the five-string Washburn B6 and Eastman WL-1, the Recording King “Dirty 30s” four-string tenor banjo, and more exotic examples like the Calkins Fretless Gourd Banjo.

Resonator banjos have a wood back, which helps project the sound. These are the more popular option for bluegrass, but like their open-backed cousins can be played in any style. A variety of woods can be used for the resonator, but the most popular are maple — as in Deering’s Maple Blossom — and mahogany; the Epiphone MB-200 is one of many examples.

“I’ve also seen them made of walnut,” Beyer says. “The wood of the resonator makes a bit of a difference to the sound; the wood rim makes more of a difference. The neck wood also influences the sound. But the most important factors are the metal tone ring, the head, and the bridge.”

Recording King Dirty 30's Resonator

Recording King Dirty 30's Resonator

Epiphone MB-200

Epiphone MB-200 Resonator

String Theory

You’ll find many variations on the form, including six-stringed banjos (tuned like guitars), fretless models, baritones, “cello” banjos, and other hybrids. But the two categories that define the instrument are the four- and five-string models that emerged in the 19th century.

The choice between four or five strings comes down to musical style, Chappell explains. “If you play styles like Americana, roots, traditional country, old-timey, bluegrass, etc., check out five-string banjos,” he says. “Only four of the strings are typically fretted by the left hand. The fifth string remains unfretted, acting as a drone element in the arpeggio patterns played by the performer.”

On a five string, the typical tuning for bluegrass is G4 D3 G3 B3 D4, while G4 C3 G3 B3 D4 is popular in other folk traditions. Five-string banjos are usually played fingerstyle to take advantage of the drone string. Many Bluegrass players use metal finger picks in a three-finger technique named for the master, Earl Scruggs. Folk players use a technique called frailing, a down-picking style that’s also known as claw-hammer.

Fretboards can be made of maple, rosewood or ebony, with a scale generally in the neighborhood of 26 to 27 inches. Pete Seeger, a master of frailing, famously developed a long-necked banjo with 25 frets, which he tuned lower than standard.

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Four by Four

Four-string banjos are commonly found in two forms. Plectrum banjos — such as the open-backed Rover RB-20P and the Gold Tone CC — were a staple of early jazz. These are basically five-string standard banjos minus the short drone string. They typically have 22 frets with a fingerboard scale between 26 and 28 inches. The traditional tuning is C, G, B, D, though some people tune the four-strings guitar style: D, G, B, E, known as Chicago tuning.

Rover RB-20p Plectrum Banjo

Rover RB-20p Plectrum Banjo

Gretsch G9480 Tenor Banjo

Gretsch G9480 Tenor Banjo

The other popular four-string design is the tenor banjo, seen in examples like the Gretsch G9480 “Laydie Belle” and Gold Tone It-800. Tenors are used for Irish folk music but can also be heard in trad jazz. Shorter in scale, typically 19.5 to 21.5 inches, and with fewer frets than plectrum banjos, they’re typically tuned in fifths to C G D A.

Flat vs. Arched Top Banjos

While most banjos made today have a flat ring, the arched ring, which was popular during the 1920s and ’30s, is still in use.

“Like guitars, archtop banjos tend be louder and brighter than their flat top counterparts,” Chappell says. “I have an old Gibson Mastertone — one of the classic banjo designs — with an arched ring, and it really cuts through.”

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Playing Considerations

Like other fretted instruments, evaluating a banjo is about balancing tone and playability.

“Look for low action that’s consistent up and down the neck,” Chappell says. “Frets should be clean, with no sharp edges. Tuning should be stable; the machines should work smoothly and hold the pitch under the demands of a hard picking attack.”

Elderly Instrument’s Beyer stresses the importance of a good setup. “The bridge is just floating on the head, so the head needs to be tensioned correctly and the bridge needs to be mounted properly. Without that, a banjo can be pretty unplayable. Listen for volume, clarity, and sustain. Other tonal qualities are very personal and subjective.”

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About the Author:

Barry Cleveland
Barry Cleveland

Emile Menasche the former editor-in-chief of In Tune Monthly magazine and author of five books on music production. His composing credits include original music for the award-winning documentary “Silenced” and the Academy-award nominated documentary short “Incident in New Baghdad.”

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