“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? Open-back or resonator? What's a neck scoop? With so many options for the banjo, which one should you choose? We're here to help with this brief guide to banjo types, the music they might play, and the features that differentiate them.
“I don’t think you’ll ever get enough picking.” - Earl Scruggs
This style of banjo playing is what most people think of when they hear the word banjo. It's a fast, rhythmic style popularized and invented by the one and only Earl Scruggs. The bluegrass banjo generally accompanies other instruments in a group, as well as carries much of the melody of the song. A bluegrass banjo always has 5 string.
Pictured: Deering Golden Era Banjo
In this context, this type of banjo needs to be louder and more present to compete with the mix of sounds it is playing with. The construction of the banjo is often heavier with more massive parts that add to the volume and sustain. A banjo constructed for playing bluegrass will always have a resonator. A resonator is a wooden back added to the banjo that reflects the sound forward. A resonator's first purpose is to make the banjo as loud as possible, but it also helps to color the tone of the banjo. It creates a fuller, rounder tone while keeping the instrument as loud as possible.
Pictured: Deering Eagle II Resonator Banjo
“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
“If you want to play old-time clawhammer like the old-timers, listen to them play.”
- Charles Faurot
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 its bluegrass counterpart. Banjos constructed for clawhammer or old-time playing always have 5 strings just like their bluegrass cousins.
Pictured: Deering Goodtime Americana Banjo
Clawhammer style is often played solo or lightly accompanied and therefore doesn't require the same level of volume and presence a bluegrass player would need. The banjo's construction is lighter and more basic to keep the sound mellow. It's common to see clawhammer players place a soft rag under the banjo head to dampen the sound even further.
“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
Pictured: Ome Wizard Banjo
4 String Banjos
"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
These days 4 string banjos are used almost exclusively for Irish music or occasionally in a Dixieland jazz band. Five string banjos and the types of music that are played on them have been vastly more popular since the 1940's when they overtook 4 string banjos in popularity.
Banjos Are Our Business
Want to learn more about banjos? Stop by the Denver Folklore Center or contact us for more information about these extraordinary instruments and start strumming today.