What is a banjo tone ring? How many shoes and brackets do you need? How do different banjo heads affect the sound? Why do some banjo tuners stick out like guitar tuning machines while others don’t? I can’t answer all of these questions but I can summarize the variations you can find any banjo designs. The problem with making judgements about these types of questions is first that their answers are subjective and two experts can disagree. Second, many of them fall into the category of “… all things being equal … this is better …” where in reality, all things are rarely equal.
Why am I writing this anyway? Here’s how I ended up writing a blog post about banjo construction.
I bought a Silvertone 5-string banjo made by Harmony while I was in high school — that was many years ago (1960s). I never played the banjo in public. I was and am a guitar player. I can make sounds come out of many other instruments (mandolin, ukulele, harmonica and even banjo) but the only one I claim to be able to play is guitar. Because I so rarely played my banjo and because I have been thinking about downsizing for retirement, I gave my banjo to my son a while back. He had always been attracted to my banjo. Shortly after I gave my son the banjo Pete Seeger died.
Pete Seeger’s death caused me to regret that I never learned to play the “bum-ditty” style of banjo, also known as clawhammer or frailing or by several other terms which some think mean slightly different styles while others believe all those alternate names refer to the same style. In any case I’ve been trying to restrain my GAS 1 and resist the desire to purchase an old-time open-back style banjo.
My wife is OK with me purchasing a banjo — as long as I first sell at least two guitars. I am pretty sure once I got the basic clawhammer strum down I would lose interest and the new banjo would become a wall decoration as the old Silvertone was. Thus, if a gave in to my GAS and got a banjo, it would be best to buy the least expensive model I could. An Epiphone MB-100 is just under $200. It would be better still if I could find a used one. That’s what I should do. But of course I’ve been drooling over internet pictures of increasingly expensive open-back banjos. For example:
- The Goodtime banjo by Deering gets good reviews and is only about $400.
- But the Goodtime Americana has a 12” Renaissance head and includes an armrest for only $500. The 12” head gives a darker sound — which I like.
- Or the Goodtime Classic includes planetary style tuners, an armrest, a dark violin-like stain and railroad spikes (for the 5th string when using a capo) for only about $580.
This rationalization can easily get me to banjos priced for over $1000. The Gold Tone BC-350 seems nice (at just over $1000).
So far I haven’t sold any guitars. But I have been doing research which led me to discover a variety of details about the construction of banjos I previously didn’t know.
Guitars have a lot of pieces that are glued together to make the finished product but once the guitar is completed there are fewer pieces of hardware that can be removed and changed. Banjos, by contrast, are made up of many individual components including a lot of hardware. The components are bolted, screwed and clamped together but can just as easily be taken apart. Here’s the parts that make a banjo.
Traditional banjos switched from friction pegs to geared pegs at some point in their development. Most better banjos today have tuning pegs that look as if they could be straight through friction pegs, but they’re not. Instead they are geared tuners using planetary type gears and operate at a 4:1 ratio. That means four turns of the tuner on the rear produces one full rotation of the peg that holds the string. The other way to look at the gear ratio is one full turn of the rear knob produces a quarter turn of the string and peg.
My old Silvertone banjo had a friction peg for the fifth string. What a nuisance. New banjos now come with a geared fifth string peg as well. It allows for both more accurate tuning and less slippage. The left image below shows a pair of banjo tuners. The left peg is the fifth string peg (you can tell because the string peg is at a right angle to the knob). The set would include four pegs of style on the right with the planetary gear.
Below, left to right: geared 5th string peg, planetary geared banjo tuner, set of 4 guitar style banjo tuners with friction 5th string peg.
The set of banjo tuners on the right are inexpensive guitar type tuners with a friction peg for the fifth string. Lower cost banjos will use these instead of the planetary geared tuners. Guitar tuners typically have a 16:1 ratio which makes them accurate and hold their tuning well — but you will have to turn the knobs four times as much to reach a desired pitch. Overall, guitar type tuners are probably a reasonable compromise if you’re trying to save money.
Neck and neck attachment method
Banjo necks can be made from many materials as can the fingerboard. The shape of the head can be simple or fancier like the image shown here. Deering’s Goodtime banjo series had an unorthodox shape when they were first introduced. People liked the banjo but not the head. Deering now has a classical shaped headstock on their Goodtime banjos.
The manner in which the neck is attached to the body is important. The image here shows dual coordinator rods. These attache the neck to the rim and can be seen on open back banjos when looking at the head from the back. Old banjos used a dowel stick and many banjos still used a single rod to attach the banjo neck. But the dual rod arrangement allows the easy adjustment of the neck angle. Adjusting the truss rod in the neck allows the bow of the neck to be adjusted while the dual coordinator rods adjust the neck angle allowing the action to be set.
The nut width is another aspect of the neck, nut and bridge that affects playability. Many bluegrass banjos as well as inexpensive banjos have a nut width of less than 1 1/4 inches (typically 1 3/16 inches). My guess is bluegrass players like the strings closer together because they can play faster. A similar belief is common among guitarists who play fast — narrow is faster. But some clawhammer banjo players (like some fingerstyle guitarists) prefer a wider string spacing. The Gold Tone BR-350 designed with input from Bob Carlin has a 1 5/16 inch nut width and proportionally wider throughout. I think this would make it easier to hit the correct note when playing clawhammer style.
The scale length of banjos also varies quite a lot. The Pete Seeger Long Neck style banjo has a scale length of more than 32 inches 2. Most modern 5-string banjos have scale lengths of about 26.25 inches (plus or minus up to an 1/8″). However, some old time banjos are closer to a guitar scale length of 25.5 inches. Pony or travel banjos can be 22″ or less.
The wooden rim of the banjo is sometimes called the pot. Typically they are made from three layers of laminated, steam-bent wood. However, I’ve read some old-time builders instead make them out multiple pieces of solid wood with overlapping joints. The thickness and type of wood can affect tone. Also the diameter of the pot and head will affect tone.
There are a number of esoteric bridge designs for banjos but most will look something like the one shown here. They generally have three feet as shown. The tops can be capped in a variety of woods including ebony and rosewood but also maple and other species. The strings spacing should be proportional to the nut width. Some bridges are compensated to better allow for proper intonation of the instrument.
The banjo evolved from a simple African instrument where an animal skin (goat) was stretched over a gourd. One or more strings ran from the gourd to the end of stick in the end of the gourd. The modern banjo head requires many more parts in order to stretch and hold the head to the body. The other parts allow for adjusting the tension on the head and provide for different sounds – brighter or darker.
Old traditional banjos sometimes still use goat skin heads but most modern banjo heads are made from plastics such as mylar. The three heads above are left to right: goat skin, Remo WeatherKing Standard Banjo Head, and Remo Renaissance Banjo Head. The Renaissance head is often used for a more mellow old-time banjo sound.
Tone Ring, Brackets etc
You can’t generally see the tone ring from the front unless you have a translucent head. Not all banjos have tone rings. The banjo head sits on the tone ring if it has one. The tone ring defines the diameter of head that can vibrate. Tone rings can be made of steel, brass, aluminum or wood or the head can sit directly on the rim. There are a number of tone ring designs and each can affect the tone and brightness of the banjo.
The left image above is a Flat top design and the right image is an archtop design.
Here’s a list of some common names of different tone ring designs.
- White (or Whyte) Ladye (& White Ladye Electric)
- Flat head
- Bacon (Bacophone)
- None (Wood)
Tubaphone, Dobson and Whyte Ladye designs are all popular for old-time open back banjos. The basic maple Goodtime open-back banjos have no tone ring. The Flat head design is popular for bluegrass banjos.
A bunch of other parts work together to hold the head onto the rim or tone ring.
The tension hoop is on the outside and holds down the head.
The shoes attach to the rim and hold the brackets which pull down on the tension hoop. These aren’t needed with a resonator banjo where the brackets fit through a metal flange to which the resonator is attached.
The number of brackets can vary. My old Silvertone had 12 brackets. That must be a minimum though perhaps someone has made a banjo with only ten brackets. The Goodtime banjo has 16 brackets. Many better banjos have 24 brackets. Some banjos have as many as 30 brackets. Banjos with 18, and 28 brackets are also common. The more brackets the less tension each bracket has to manage to hold the head on, but I’m not sure how much different it really makes.
There are many styles of tailpieces but the function is fairly straight forward.
A wood resonator is essential for bluegrass playing. It serves to reflect the sound forward to make the banjo louder and brighter. Old time banjo has a mellower, softer and darker sound and doesn’t use a resonator. The metal flange goes between the pot and the resonator and is used for attaching the brackets and the resonator.
Capos and the fifth string
A five string banjo has a problem when you use a capo on one of the first four frets. The problem is the pitch of the fifth string isn’t raised because the 5th string doesn’t start until the 5th fret.
The solution to this problem that has been around for years is a somewhat complicated bit of hardware that gets permanently attached to the neck of your banjo to provide a capo for just the fifth string. It’s shown below on the left.
The right image below shows another solution which seems simpler. It doesn’t require any permanent modification to the banjo.
However a third solution is becoming more common. It requires a small modification to your instrument but isn’t very noticeable. Small holes are drilled just before the 7th and 9th frets of the 5th string (or any other positions you might capo to). The holes are drilled to fit railroad spikes that might be used on a model railroad. For example, if you need to capo the 2nd fret then you would slip the 5th string beneath the railroad spike that is just before the 7th fret. This holds the string down over the 7th fret thus increasing the pitch by two frets.