Whether you are looking to start playing a Bluegrass 5-String Banjo, Frailing or Clawhammer Old Time Banjo, Open Back Banjo, Irish Tenor Banjo or Plectrum Banjo, Eagle Music will help you to make the right choice.
Original article written by Steve Noon, founder of Eagle Music, 2004
There are three critical but simple decisions that you our valued customer should make when buying a banjo:-
Buy from a Specialist Company… that will set up the instrument correctly
Eagle Music is Europe’s unrivalled leading banjo specialist shop
Buy the Best Quality instrument… that is within your budget
Eagle Music carry Europe’s largest selection of world class banjo brands
Choose the Correct Banjo… for the kind of music that you want to play
Eagle Music’s specialist musician sales team will ensure this for you
The notes below will help you choose the banjo that is the right model for you.
Types of Banjo and the kind of Music that is Played on them
There are many ‘types’ of Banjo that have been designed to suit specific kinds of music, these banjos will in general have either four, five or six strings. However, there are crossovers where one particular ‘type’ of banjo can be suitable for more than one ‘kind’ of music. We shall try to keep explanations relatively simple and deal with each of them in the notes below.
An important point to note for beginners is that some banjos are what are called ‘OPEN BACK’ and some banjos have what is called a ‘RESONATOR’ fitted, this banjo is also called ‘CLOSED BACK’. The ‘OPEN BACK’ is a quieter gentle banjo because some of its sound when playing is absorbed by the players clothing.
Whereby the ‘Resonator’ when fitted, helps to push most of the sound forward. Both banjos normally have the same neck and are tuned the same which means that any kind of music can be played on either banjo. However, in the 5-string banjo world BLUEGRASS players like powerful banjos with resonators fitted and the old time FRAILING and CLAWHAMMER players like the more gentle sound of the open back banjo.
The 5-string banjo is the most popular and in relative terms the easiest to learn to play as in most cases it is tuned to a ‘G’ chord …so that means that you can ‘play music’ by just brushing across the strings, when the banjo is in tune, that is.
Some types of popular music that are played on the 5-string banjo are as follows:-
Bluegrass, Frailing, Clawhammer, Old Time, 5-string Folk style, Classical etc.
5-String banjo Bluegrass Music style
Bluegrass players choose a powerful banjo that has a resonator fitted. Many bluegrass players play in the style of the USA legend Earl Scruggs. In this style, a thumb pick and two finger picks are fitted to the picking hand which then plays ‘rolls’ alternatively about the strings in what is called the ‘three finger picking style’. With much practise dexterity, solid timing and vibrant attack is achieved in producing the Bluegrass Banjo sound that you hear in American music like Duelling Banjos from the popular film Deliverance.
5-String banjo Clawhammer Style – also closely related to Drop Thumb and Frailing styles
Open Back banjos are chosen by players for this style of ‘Old Time’ Banjo Music, and to facilitate easier fingering, a number of different tunings are chosen by the ‘Old Time’ players to pick out fiddle tunes. This style is also most suitable for singers and vocal accompaniment. Thumb picks are generally not used, but some players do use a pick like the Fred Kelly Freedom Pick’ or the Perfect Touch Clawhammer Pick instead of the back of the natural nail.
This style is very popular in folk and mountain music circles. The desired banjo sound is gentle and mellow, deep and ‘plunky’ and some modifications can be made to the design of the banjo to give these desired requirements.
On some banjos like the Vega Old Tyme wonder, the Prucha Old Time, the OME Juniper and Jubilee Models or Gold Tone White Ladye models a ‘frailing scoop’ (removal of some frets and part of the fingerboard at the bottom of the neck) can be found on the banjo to facilitate the thumb on the ‘Clawhammer’ hand as it comes down to rest on 5th string and then ‘pick’ the 5th string. In the same rhythmic movement, the back of the nail on the picking finger … normally the third or first finger on the picking hand picks the tune out on the other four strings. With practise the frailing / clawhammer rhythm can be learnt quite easily by most players.
5-String banjo folk style
This style is a combination of clawhammer and “up picking” and was popularized by Pete Seeger. Played without finger picks and usually mixing melody playing with chords. Very often a long neck banjo is used because it may be tuned lower to better suit vocal ranges. There are many variations of this style and may be played on an open back or resonator banjo.
The 4-string Tenor Banjo
Tenor banjos are nearly always played with a plectrum (pick) and can be played in the strumming style along with single picked scale runs. It is the typical banjo for New Orleans style jazz sound or Irish traditional music.
The 4-string Tenor Banjos Jazz and General Styles
The four string banjo has a shorter neck than a five string as the tuning is higher 4C 3G 2D 1A and is an excellent rhythm instrument for jazz bands. A resonator is typically used, since the banjo’s sound must be loud and piercing to compete with other instruments in the band. Single string melodies can be played but chord melodies are more traditional. Popular jazz tenor banjo tuning is 4C 3G 2D 1A.
The 4-string Irish Tenor Banjo
The Irish Tenor banjo is the same instrument as a jazz tenor banjo and can have a seventeen or a nineteen fret neck. The shorter neck allows a higher tuning so the songs are better suited to the keys of Irish music (G, D, A, E etc.). The style is played with a plectrum and often played with rapid single string melodies. The Irish tenor banjo can be fitted with or without a resonator, the sound desired is mellow but with attack. Popular Irish tenor banjo tuning is 4G 3D 2A 1E.
The Long Neck Banjo
As an absolute beginner looking at banjos, you might think that all 5-String banjo have a long neck! most do in fact have a 22 fret neck but, there is a specific banjo called ‘the Long Neck banjo that was designed by Pete Seeger in the 1960s. this banjo has an extra three frets making it a 25 fret neck and around a 32” scale length (nut to bridge). it is tuned normally to E Which gives the banjo a powerful low tone. The idea of Pete’s design was for accompanying his singing in the lower keys, a style that has been copied and sought after by many aspiring banjo players to this very day.
You can place a capo on the third fret of this banjo and play in open G as on a normal 5-string banjo. Check out the Deering Vega Tubaphone and Woodsongs range and the Gold Tone Long Neck available from Eagle Music shop.
The Plectrum Banjo
The neck on a plectrum banjo has 22 frets and a Deering model has a scale length of around 27” (which is slightly longer than a 5-String banjo).
Some plectrum style players will use a five string neck but eliminate the fifth string. A plectrum may be used in jazz styles, melody chord styles or for just playing chord accompaniment for vocals. It can be played with or without a resonator. Players usually use G tuning which is D G B D. However, it can be tuned C G B D or D G B E. The chords are easier to learn than on a Jazz tenor banjo.
These include the six string banjo like the Deering Phoenix, Gold Tone Banjitars etc., the Banjo Mandolin, Bass Banjo, Ukulele Banjo, even Dobro Banjo. Most use a banjo-style body but neck and tuning is the same as the names they simulate. They allow non-banjoists to achieve a banjo tone without learning a new instrument.
A travel banjo is a smaller version of a standard size banjo. Check out the Deering Goodtime 19 fret Parlour 5-strings and 17 fret Tenor Banjo models. Also the Gold Tone range of travel banjos.
Contact our Technical Department
If you have any questions about the above notes or about banjos in general or any other musical instrument, please contact our banjo technical department at Eagle Music shop on 01484 661460