Picking the right banjo as a beginner can be a hard choice. You’ll need to understand the parts of the banjo as well as how the construction and amount of strings will influence the sound.
Parts of the Banjo
There are two main areas of the banjo that people notice; the head and the neck. Those main areas are made up of various components. The neck is where you’ll find the frets and fretboard, tuning pegs including the fifth string it’s a fifth string banjo, headstock, and the heel. The head is the drum part where you’ll find the tension hoop, brackets, pot, bridge and tailpiece. Some banjos will have an open back, so there’s a lack of a piece on the other side of the banjo. Others will have a resonator, which is a plate on the back of the banjo’s drum.
Number of Strings in the Banjo
Four-String and Music Style
The 4-string banjo has a short neck and comes in two types; tenor and plectrum. Tenor banjos don’t have the lower pitch of a singer or an instrument. It’s unsure where the name came from, but the tenor is normally used for Irish music, Jamaican Mento music, Moroccan, or Jazz. They’re tuned like violins and violas. This is the standard for the 4-string. The plectrum is tuned differently than the tenor, but can be used for Jazz, too.
Five-String and Music Style
This is the most common type of banjo. The standard has 22 frets with a scale length of 26 ¼ inches. It’s good for any kind of music from Jazz to folk to rock to classic to bluegrass or country. The fifth string of the banjo starts from the fifth fret, and is used as the drone string. It can be tuned to a higher pitch than the others.
Six-String and Music Style
The six-string banjo is tuned like a guitar. It’s an easier way for guitar players to make the transition to the sounds of a banjo without having to learn a new instrument. This is a great instrument for folk music.
Resonator versus Open Back
When you’re choosing your banjo, a resonator or an open-back style should be one of the considerations. The banjo with a resonator will project the sound of the banjo forward towards the audience. The open-back banjo doesn’t have the “bowl” or plate attached to the back, so it doesn’t have the same loud twang as the resonator banjo.
As far as the sound itself, most music genres will benefit from one type of banjo over the other. Bluegrass players like to have resonators on the back because it gives them a loud, bright sound that produces the twang that works for bluegrass. Folk music benefits from an open back, which produces a softer, more laid-back sound.
If you’re unsure what you’ll begin to play since you’re a beginner to the world of banjos, you might want to purchase one with a resonator. Many of them are removable, so you have some flexibility with a resonator banjo.
This video will give you an idea of the sounds that can be produced with each banjo with a familiar song, so you can see which one you might prefer for your play.
The beginner can get a banjo for under $1,000 that can actually keep them until they are experienced enough and ready for the next level. Some players learn on a banjo and keep that banjo for years. They may upgrade at some point, but it’s not always required. There are some sweet banjos that are well-constructed for around $1,000.
If you aren’t sure whether you’ll like the banjo, or you’re buying it for a child who has shown interest, there are banjo choices under $300 that might be a good fit. You’ll have to decide whether the interest is serious enough for a quality banjo that won’t have to be replaced for a long time.
Choosing the Banjo Material
Along with choosing the kind of music you would like to play, think about the sounds you would like the banjo to produce. While you can change the sound with a resonator by removing it, the wood can’t be changed later.
Each banjo will have wood for the neck, resonator, and fretboard. There are common woods that are used for banjo construction, and they have a definite impact on the sound of the banjo.
Mahogany: When this wood is used for the neck and resonator, you’re going to hear a warmer sound with less bright notes.
Maple: A maple neck and resonator will bring the opposite. There will be a brighter tone to the sounds coming from this kind of banjo.
Walnut: The medium brightness requires a walnut neck and resonator, which is just right. A little like Goldilocks.
Rosewood: A rosewood neck leads to a longer sustain, which is how long the strings will vibrate after being plucked.
Between the wood, the number of strings, resonator or open back, and the price, you have much to think about when it comes to your first banjo. If you’ve never played an instrument before, start with one that is beginner-friendly.