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Banjo Pickin 101 A Basic Breakdown Of Banjos

The banjo is such a happy instrument- you can’t play a sad song on the banjo – it always comes out so cheerful.” ― Steve Martin

Bluegrass or Clawhammer? Openback or Resonator? What’s a “neck scoop” for? This is our brief guide to types of banjos, the music they might play, and the features that differentiate them.

What Is…
Bluegrass Banjo?

“I don’t think you’ll ever get enough picking.” -Earl Scruggs

-Pictured: Deering Golden Era Banjo-

Bluegrass Banjo…

This style of banjo playing is what most people think of when they hear the word banjo. It is a fast and rhythmic style popularized (and invented for that matter) by the one and only Earl Scruggs. It generally accompanies other instruments in a group as well as carries much of the melody of the song. In this context, a bluegrass banjo needs to be louder and more present to compete with the mix of sounds it is playing with. The construction of the banjo will often be heavier with more massive parts that add to the volume and sustain, and will feature a resonator cap that reflects the sound outward towards the audience.

What Is A Resonator For?

“With the popularity of dance bands in the “Roaring Twenties” more volume was needed and the banjo started being played with a flat pick, which required removing the 5th drone string. This gave birth to the 4-string Tenor and Plectrum banjo which also required using a resonator for increased volume. For the next thirty years, most banjos were made with 4-strings and a resonator. -OME Banjos”

Resonator Banjo at the Denver Folklore Center
-Pictured: Deering Eagle II Resonator Banjo-

What Is…
Clawhammer Banjo?

“If you want to play old-time clawhammer like the old-timers, listen to them play.” —Charles Faurot

-Pictured: Deering Goodtime Americana Banjo-

Clawhammer Banjo…

The word clawhammer refers to the shape and technique of the right hand in this old time style of playing. The fingernail and the thumb strum in a boom-chucka pattern that is generally slower and more melodic than the bluegrass counterpart. This style is often played solo or only lightly accompanied and therefore doesn’t require the same amount of volume and presence that a bluegrass player would need. The construction is in turn lighter and more basic to keep the sound more mellow. It is not uncommon to see clawhammer players using a soft rag under the head to dampen the sound even further.

What Is A Scooped Neck?

“Most OME Open-back banjos now have a fingerboard S-scoop to facilitate frailing and clawhammer playing styles. This allows the player to “stroke” or “frail” the banjo further up the neck thus obtaining a mellower, old-time banjo sound. -OME Banjos”

Ome Scooped Neck Banjo
-Pictured: Ome Wizard Banjo-