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HOW MANY STRINGS SHOULD MY BANJO HAVE?

One of the most common questions I get regarding banjos is what is the difference between four, five & six string banjos? This is a very important question because the type of banjo that you play will be determined largely by the type or style of music that you want to play.

4-String Banjo

The 4-string banjo is called a Tenor Banjo and is generally used for dixieland music. It is played with a guitar pick. You can either play and strum chords as backup, or you can actually pick out the melody notes like what you would do on a guitar. There are several types of tenor banjos. True tenor banjos have 19 frets. The 17-fret tenor banjo is called an Irish Tenor banjo. You also might see small four string banjos. These are actually banjo ukuleles. They can be played just like a tenor banjo as well. The tuning on a tenor banjo can vary greatly. There are quite a few different tunings that are used. Some people tune the tenor banjo like a fiddle or mandolin (EADG), some tune it like a ukulele (GCEA), and then there are others that tune it like the first four strings of a guitar (EBGD). Due to the fret spacing, I think ukulele or guitar tuning is the easiest to play chords from.

5-String Banjo

The 5-string banjo with a resonator is the true bluegrass banjo. The 5-string banjo can also be used to play folk music or clawhammer (frailing). In this case, you want a banjo without a resonator. Bluegrass style banjo is played with a thumbpick and two metal fingerpicks. Clawhammer style banjo is played with the fingernails or special plastic picks that fit over the nails of the right-hand. Think of Earl Scruggs for bluegrass style and Grandpa Jones for clawhammer style.

6-String Banjo

The 6-string banjo is basically a guitar that is in the shape of a banjo. It is tuned like a guitar and played like a guitar. This would be ideal for someone who already knows how to play a guitar, but wants the tone quality of a banjo. The important thing to note here is that since it will be played like a guitar, it will only have the tone quality of the banjo, not the sound of HOW the banjo is played. In other words, a 5-string bluegrass banjo will be played with rolls. There are many fast notes that fall into specific patterns. These cannot be duplicated with a guitar pick.

HOW TO CHOOSE A BANJO

There are many things to think about when you decide you want to purchase your own banjo. How much money do you want to spend? How much money CAN you spend? Will you be successful? Is it worth a little extra money to buy something better in the beginning? Does it really make that much difference which "cheap" banjo you buy? Is there a difference in sound or playability? And it goes on and on... Hopefully, the following information will answer all your questions, and even cover some things you didn't know to ask! By the way, these guidelines are for those who wish to play bluegrass banjo. If you are wanting to play old time, frailing, clawhammer, etc., then these guidelines would be slightly different, due to the sound that you will be wanting to produce.

Basic Banjo Construction

Basic banjo construction is one of the most fundamental things you should know about before you purchase a banjo. This is the building block of sound, playability, and price. There are four basic "models" of construction (listed below), and the choice of having or not having a resonator.

* Wood Rim, No Tone Ring
* All Aluminum Construction
* Wood Rim, Small Tone Ring
* Heavy Wood Rim, Regular Size Tone Ring

Each of these constructions will produce a different sound and will result in a different price. The same is true of having or not having a resonator. To understand these choices, you will need to have a basic understanding of the parts of the banjo involved, where these parts are located, and how these parts affect the sound. The following diagram will illustrate this.

Wood Rim, No Tone Ring

This type of banjo will result in the least expensive price and also the least pleasing sound. In this construction, there is no tone ring, which is the main part of what causes a banjo to have a loud, crisp sound. The head of the banjo rests right on the wooden rim, and the tension hoop (as in all constructions) sits on top of and around the edge of the banjo head. The wooden rim in this type of construction is very thin; typically, maybe only 1/4" to 1/2" in total thickness. Even with the head tightened (which will help produce a more crisp sound, this banjo will not be very loud and will not produce a very crisp sound. It is the banjo that I would LEAST recommend, even to beginners.

All Aluminum Construction

This type of banjo will result in a much better tone and overall volume than the previous type (wood rim, no tone ring). The flange, rim, and tone ring are all combined into one part and are made of cast aluminum. This produces not only a sturdier construction, but also a louder and more crisp sound. If you are not able to afford a banjo with a tone ring, then I believe this is the construction you should look for.

Wood Rim, Small Tone Ring

This is the ideal starter banjo, in my opinion. It is only recently that this construction has been added to the lineup of beginning banjos. What makes it ideal is the small, brass tone ring. The rim of the banjo is still rather thin, but with the addition of a small, brass tone ring, these banjos produce a great sound for the money. This is a banjo that you will be happy with for a while, rather than wanting to trade in a month or two after your purchase. It is well worth $100 or so difference in price, if you can afford it.

Heavy Wood Rim, Regular Size Tone Ring

This is the type of banjo that is pictured in the diagram several paragraphs above. It is the heaviest of all banjos, and is the type of construction you would expect to find in intermediate and professional banjos. The heavy, wood rim supports a much larger, usually brass, tone ring. Brass is the metal of choice for tone rings. Some banjos will have an alloy tone ring, which is generally less desireable.

Resonator or Not?

The resonator of the banjo is the wooden "circle" that is on the back of the banjo. It rests against your stomach if you are standing and playing the banjo. The main purpose of the resonator is to "resonate" the sound forward. The flange gives the banjo something to attach the resonator to, and the flange has holes or spaces to allow the sound to "escape." If you do not have a resonator, your banjo will not be very loud. If you are worried about your practicing being too loud, I recommend purchasing a banjo mute, or clipping clothespins to the bridge of the banjo to soften its sound. That way, when you are ready to play with others, you will have a banjo loud enough to be heard without having to purchase another one.

Types of Tuning Pegs

There are two basic types of tuning pegs on the peghead of a banjo: Guitar-style, and planetary-style. The guitar style tuners stick out to the side of the peghead. The planetary style tuners stick out the back of the peghead.

The planetary pegs will not only be easier to tune, they will also make the banjo sound better. I know that sounds like an interesting bit of information, but I know this to be true as I have replaced the guitar style tuners with the planetary type tuners several times, and that always makes the banjo sound better. Since these tuners are not cheap when purchased separately, I recommend that you buy a banjo that already has these tuners.

More imporant than the type of tuning pegs on the peghead of the banjo is the type of 5th string tuning peg your banjo has. There are two types of 5th string tuners: geared and non-geared. For the 5th string tuner, you should absolutely purchase a banjo with a geared 5th string peg. The non-geared pegs are VERY difficult to adjust, especially for a beginner who is just learning to tune a banjo. It is easy to break a string, and the tension on the tuning pegs has to be adjusted frequently (by tightening a screw) to keep the tuning peg from slipping. So, how do you tell if the 5th string tuner is geared or not? Simply look to see if there is a separate "post" on the tuning peg itself. If there is, then the 5th string tuner is geared.

Should I be Concerned About the Overall Sound and Volume of my Beginning Banjo?

Yes. I would not recommend starting with a professional banjo unless you already have one or can get an incredibly good deal on one. Of course, you'll get a much better sound...!!! If you start off with something too cheap, it will sound cheap and nothing you do will sound good. You will not get much enjoyment out of a cheap sounding banjo. It will be harder to tune and keep in tune, and it will be harder to play. I recommend spending between $300-$400 for your first banjo. If you are unable to do this, then choose an all-aluminum construction banjo if at all possible. You will get the most for your money and should be able to purchase a banjo like this for between $200-$300 new -- less if you can find it used.

Do You Recommend or NOT Recommend Certain Brands?

I will not malign any brand here, but will say that there is not much difference between the different brands of beginning banjos other than the price. Once you have decided what TYPE of banjo you want, I would encourage you to find a source that is reputable for SETTING UP the banjo. A general music store will not have that knowledge. In fact, many of my students tell me that the local music stores won't even tighten a banjo head for them! This is the most basic part of banjo setup, and also the part that makes the MOST DIFFERENCE in the sound of a banjo. You should not have to pay or to search for someone to do this for you. A reputable banjo dealer will know how to do this, and will include this with your banjo purchase.

The other very important part of banjo setup is the string height. If the strings are far away from the fingerboard, the banjo will be very hard to fret (finger), and you will have trouble pressing the strings down to make the chords and notes sound good. In fact, high string action can even make the banjo strings sound out of tune when fingered. Again, this should be done as part of your purchase.

So, if you are simply looking for the cheapest price on the internet, be warned that you may end up with a banjo that is not playable without a lot of adjustment. You also may not be able to easily find someone to make those adjustments.

Where Can I Purchase a New Beginning Banjo?

There are many places you can purchase banjos, including music stores and on-line music stores. You can do a search for banjos on Google, or you can ask for recommendations from people who play banjo. You can visit our sponsoring website, Bluegrass Shack Productions, as well. The banjos listed there are professionally setup, guaranteed, and are priced very fairly.

I Still Have Questions!

If you still have questions that have not been answered here, or you need more information on purchasing a banjo, feel free to send an e-mail for some personal assistance!

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Copyright 2003 by Chris Talley Armstrong
URL: http://www.learnbluegrass.com/choosebanjo.html
Last updated: March 2, 2010
Contact information: learnbluegrass@aol.com